Magical Girl Raising Project (Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku)

Content warning: descriptions of graphic violence to women, young women, pregnant women, children; queer tragedy; homophobia; transphobia.

Well, well, if it isn’t a blatant Puella Magi Madoka rip-off.

In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. Madoka was huge. There was always going to be a parade of copycats, the way there are parades of copycats of everything else (sometimes produced really fast; see Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress shamelessly pasting bits from Attack on Titan) and ‘magical girls, but dark‘ is almost its own subgenre. You can do interesting things with that, or… you can produce Magical Girl Raising Project. 

Off the bat the show doesn’t bother to hide that it’s ‘paying homage’ to Madoka: the protagonist Koyuki (Snow White) is a dimmer, less interesting version of Kaname Madoka. Ripple and Hardgore Alice share bits and pieces from Akemi Homura, visually and in personality. Fav is the cute mascot that tries its hardest to mime the incubators (yes, down to the voice actor). The transformation sequences are out of the original Sailor Moon anime. Some of the magical girls, Sister Nana and Weiss Winterprison, are probably expies from Trinity Blood. On it goes. Where it very rapidly fails is that this is a show that tries too hard and crams in way too much of everything—the opening theme runs us through the sixteen (sixteen!) magical girls, making sure we know nearly all of them are scantily clad (as we discover later, one of the girls is literally seven). If you were uncomfortable with Tomoe Mami’s design, Magical Girl Raising Project takes that tastelessness and turns it all the way up to eleven, with such delights as Calamity Mary’s bikini gunslinger look or Ripple’s barely-covered ‘sexy ninja’ outfit. It’s pretty grim and you know exactly who they’re appealing to by sticking boobs on girls that look, at best, pubescent. The entire tasteless parade inspires nothing so much as the desire to drive rusty spikes into one’s eyes.

What I was hoping for was that there would be something beyond the (frankly immense) cockroach in the soup that is the fanservice, and at first it looks like there’d be something. Where Puella Magi relegated its lesbian relationships to subtext, and at most played one of them up as a descent of unrequited love to a borderline Psycho Lesbian trope, Magical Girl Raising puts it front and center: Sister Nana and Weiss Winterprison are a lesbian couple in real life who lives together, and Koyuki’s relationship with her fellow magical girl and childhood crush La Pucelle is obviously romantic. La Pucelle is also a rarity in being a trans magical girl, which I don’t think I have seen since… Sailors Starlight in the original anime (who were, depending on your take, either trans or non-binary in their civilian forms). That some of these characters would be killed off wasn’t going to be a surprise but, I figured, with next to everybody being a lesbian some would surely survive. I expect this because I often underestimate the tastelessness of media creators, and I forget that cishet creators—or male creators writing a cast that’s primarily or all queer women—are not only vultures, they are predictable ones.

To what little credit one can grant Magical Girl Raising Project, the cast of sixteen—which should be entirely too many to cram into twelve episodes—is each given just enough interiority to be distinct, though we often learn something heart-wrenching about them just as they’re about to die, in the most rote and emotionally manipulative way imaginable. And that is still fine, until I see the exact manner with which they get killed off.

La Pucelle, in real life, is a child named Souta; if you are familiar with Japanese names, you’ll realize that is a boy’s name. She has to ask Koyuki to not call her that name several times in the show, and each time Koyuki slips up, she becomes visibly upset. We discover through the show that the magical girl’s form is an idealized version of herself, usually customized in-game, so much so that many of them look nothing like what they do in real life. For La Pucelle this has a particular significance. (Yes, some reviewers insist La Pucelle simply ‘cross-dresses’. I’ll go with trans viewers.)

That La Pucelle is stripped of her magical-girl form and wakes up long enough to realize she’s back in her ‘civilian form’ just before she dies (of oncoming highway traffic) seems almost calculatedly nasty. We are told, though fortunately not shown, that she’s so mangled by said highway traffic her family needs a closed-casket funeral.

(Did I mention that Ripple, the girl in a sexy ninja outfit she doesn’t even like, has been molested by boys her own age? And that the man her mother married tried to rape her? She beats the living daylight out of them, if that’s any consolation.)

The rest of the deaths follow a similar, calculatedly nasty line: Winterprison is brutally murdered, so her wife Nana tries to overdose and then hangs herself (probably with the symbolic scarf she gave Winterprison); Top Speed is pregnant and has spent the entire show looking forward to having her child, so she dies clutching her stomach. The seven-year-old girl gets repeatedly stabbed until she’s dead (while in her civilian, little-child form). It’s all very exploitative, so much so that it becomes one-note. Rote, hackneyed, and tasteless.

Puella Magi is sometimes called misogynistic owing to its spectacle of girls breaking and dying in despair, but that’s an interpretation I fundamentally disagree with. Puella Magi is, to me, a show about society failing girls, who try to escape it by transforming into witches until Madoka breaks that cycle by overturning the system that forces this fate. Madoka’s decision is a deification of the magical girl ideal: she is hope, salvation, the unfailing belief that it’ll all turn out okay. Even when it doesn’t turn out okay, Homura course-corrects the universe to more absolutely get rid of the incubators. Madoka and Homura are strongly written, you can believe in them, the narrative world they inhabit respects them.

Magical Girl Raising Project doesn’t grasp any of these: it’s a relentless, monotonous explosion of gore and trauma, contrived at the sadistic whims of one magical girl. It’s not about an uncaring, indifferent system—embodied by the Incubators, who profess to literally have no emotion—but this particular sadist and her mascot pet, also a sadist. The final antagonist turns out to be a seven-year-old child who is a ruthless mass murderer because… er. There’s guff concerning the (unexplained in the show) ‘Land of Magic’ scouting for talent by recruiting magical girls, but it’s not all that interesting, and again lacks the sheer disregard that the Incubators have for all of humankind who insist that the loss of a few magical girls is acceptable to benefit the sentient species of the universe.

While Madoka makes a conscious choice in the end, her slapdash copycat Koyuki stumbles blindly through the show, surviving only by luck and others’ sacrifices. She is not interesting; she doesn’t make decisions; she is more like the typical magical girl protagonist—lifeless ditzes all—than anyone else on the show, and while this is played up as a good thing other characters admire her for, in practice it doesn’t work that well because Koyuki’s naivety doesn’t count for much and there’s no feat of empathy for her to accomplish. Incredibly, the show wants us to believe that at the end Koyuki retains some of her optimism and continues to fight injustice as a magical girl (after partnering up with the other survivor, Ripple), sprinkling on again that poor Puella Magi imitation without actual regard for cohesion or why Madoka becoming an embodiment of salvation works.

There’s a certain catharsis to be had in media that indulges full-on in the crapsack world concept, but Magical Girl Raising Project tries to have it both ways while being simply rote and crassly exploitative, respecting neither its own material, its characters, or its audience. There just isn’t enough redeeming grace here to recommend it.