For some context, Mahō Shōjo Tokushusen Asuka (Magical Girl Taskforce Asuka) is a Japanese seinen (New Adult+) manga series which combines the magical girl and military drama genres to create a more "realistic" take on the "teen girls fight inter-dimensional monsters" type of story. The manga is drawn by Seigo Tokiya and penned by Makoto Fukami.
Outside of Asuka, Seigo Tokiya is best known for his contributions to the Tales of the Abyss anthology collection. Fukami-sensei is best known for his script work on the 2012 anime original series, Psycho-Pass (eps 1-11, 13-22), but he has other production credits as well. In addition to determining the overall plot of the adaptation of his work, Fukami-sensei wrote the scripts for episodes 7, 8, 10, and 12. Other writing staff includes Kotaro Shimoyama (ep 5), Naoya Tamura (ep 10), Norimitsu Kaihō (eps 1-3, 9, 11), and Ukyō Kodachi (eps 4, 6).
This is Shimoyama-san's first credit as far as I can tell. Tamura-san serves as a military consult for the manga, so him writing the episode with the most military jargon makes sense. Kaihō-sensei has a fair number of credits but is best known as the writer of School-Live! a post-zombie survival series from 2012. The most surprising credit, however, is Kodachi-sensei who is the writer of Boruto, the sequel series to Naruto--a fact I will come back to eventually.
The director for the adaptation was industry veteran Hideyo Yamamoto, who also did storyboards for all but episode 8--which was done jointly by Ryota Miyazawa and Tomoyuki Kurokawa.
Why do I mention all that? Well, partially because an anime is a hugely collaborative process and hundreds more people's effort went into making these twelve episodes, but it was also to point out that not one of the people who made decisions about the adaptation were women and most of the staff was older than thirty. Two things which no doubt contribute to my angst towards some of the narrative decisions made in the course of the series--but I will get to those in a bit.
First, I want to say that I find the overall premise of Asuka ambitious and potentially cathartic. Having a narrative focus on a survivor of a war and her struggle to reintegrate is something that I feel can speak to this generation's scars in the same way that Godzilla spoke to the post-fallout generation. Further, writing Asuka as reluctant to engage with the war once more, after having lost everything, is a feeling that a lot of people can, to some extent, empathize with.
Speaking of reintegration, something which I thought was going to be an issue that never came up is Asuka's age and appearance. Like, sure, anime heroines are almost always drawn older than they are (unless the show is super moe)--and that is an issue all it's own, but Asuka being a veritable Amazon bombshell really sticks out to me for some reason. By all accounts, Asuka and the rest of the Magical Five should be adults.
At the opening of the narrative, the war with the Disas (think stuffed toys of varying sizes with teeth, claws, and murderous intent) ended three years ago--and had been going for who knows how long before that--and yet, we meet Asuka as a high school transfer student in an indeterminate grade. She also looks the same then as she did at the end of the war. Both the manga and the anime agree on this point, too, so it is not just a matter of saving time by using the same character references.
Which begs the question, what was she doing for the last three years if not finishing high school? Did she go back to middle school looking like an adult? I mean, elsewhere in the world, Mia, Tamara, and Kurumi are each working as agents of their respective countries' military--and we find out later that Pei Pei has become a mercenary in Thailand. So, then, why place Asuka in a high school and not a college or the working world?
Like, the show subverts so many other magical girl tropes, but I feel that it clings to this one with no reason to. Even if she ended up falling behind in school or dropping out because of the war, the least the Japanese government could do for their biological magical weapon is give her a high school degree, right? Especially after what happens to her parents...
I spoke with a few others to get their ideas on this. One of my followers believed it was totally possible for Asuka to be a high school senior if the war ended in the summer before her freshman year, but that begs the question of how long she was a magical girl before the war's end.
My wife had a more reasonable theory, that Asuka had withdrawn from public life long enough for her peers to have moved on before trying to restart her life. Which was also why she had not opted to go to college just yet. She also pointed out that Asuka had all but cut ties with the Japanese military after the war, her only contact being her legal guardian, so she might have rejected any help from them.
There is, of course, the easy take that some factions within otaku culture fetishize High School girls, and the story leans into that gaze to the extent that I felt incredulous at least once an episode--especially after episode four. However, I ultimately think this is also a blind spot of the creative team and a symptom of anime as a whole.
Looking in from the outside, life in Japan is hard for women. Society as a whole is patriarchal and there is no shortage of scandals involving sexism, like how at least one medical university was deducting points off the top of tests from women.
So it stands to reason that a team of all male creatives in a society that devalues women with no self-awareness could have virtually no idea what women did to socialize after high school. Those few years were likely their last consistent touch point with women who were not relatives, housewives shopping, or the girlfriends of their colleagues.
This is all further exacerbated by how high school has become the default setting for an anime set in contemporary times, as has "coming of age" as for a narrative arc. The thing is, Asuka and crew have already come of age. They have seen fields of death at the hands of the Disas, have endured countless injuries, and killed other-sentient albeit hostile beings, watched their friends and allies die gruesome deaths. So while returning Asuka to High School is perhaps symbolic of trying to reclaim her stolen innocence and youth, to me, there are few other overt symbols to back this up as anything but relying on trends to fill in for having no idea about young adult women.
The reality being that magical girls are effectively bulletproof meant they could be used as precision weapons to deal with terrorism. That mindset is definitely a product of the 21st century and one that could use a further exploration--especially as a counter-narrative to the way the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed over the 20th century.
That is not to say the concept of children with access to powers doing violence that would leave even the most hardened shaken is not new in anime/manga. It has been a theme ever since Amuro Ray stepped into the cockpit of the RX-78 in Gundam. However, I cannot recall many series where the effects of PTSD are explored in a meaningful way--beyond, like, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Trigun, and Fullmetal Alchemist.
Usually, characters in anime/manga with mental and emotional scars either get over them in a heroic way, or they end up sidelined/dead. Their struggle to cope without a visible end is almost never the focus of a narrative. It is a state of affairs which is no doubt rooted in Japanese society's very negative and narrow view of mental illness. Considering that the post-war Japanese government had been sterilizing those diagnosed as mentally ill until 1996 it is easy to see how the stigma would be internalized by popular media.
As such, having PTSD as a core element of Asuka's narrative is, to me, kind of a big deal. Within minutes of starting, we are made aware of what the world must be like for Asuka. While walking, she sees a mascot handing out balloons and the scene flashes to that same mascot pulling the arms off of the children around it. Soon after, we see what awaits her when she sleeps (in very sexy lingerie without a blanket or sheets) as we witness the Disas return Asuka's kidnapped parents as dismembered parts.
So it makes sense that when confronted with a situation where transforming into her alter ego could save her new friend from a terrorist shooting spree, she finds herself hesitating as the voices of her fallen comrades echo around her. Transforming into Rapture is painful for Asuka but she does so because no one else is going to save the day.
The first fight of the show sets the tone for the rest. Asuka's transformation is brief, underscoring a lack of wonder in opposition to the typical Mahō Shōjo story. Further, the enemies are not fanciful otherworldly creatures, but men with guns and Rapture's weapon is not some magic wand with a heart on it or something equally fantastic. No, she uses a knife--a knife which can cut through both of a man's legs with no resistance.
In addition to the knife, Asuka is, a mentioned earlier, effectively bulletproof. Being a magical girl gives her a shield reminiscent of the AT field from Eva, and, like the AT field, conventional weapons are no match for it. The hail of bullets she intercepts is deflected back to the people attacking her. In short order, the attack is thwarted and Asuka's friend Sayoko is saved, but, unlike in a show where a win means everything is okay, there is tangible damage to other characters.
In the next episode, Asuka and her friends are walking when a bang makes Sayoko drop to the sidewalk and start hyperventilating. Asuka coaches her through the panic attack and it is obvious this leaves an impression on Sayoko--a plot-line that is only partially explored in the anime, but, again, we will get to that later. Later in episode two, Asuka is made aware of a Disas attack that her old comrade-in-arms, "War Nurse" Kurumi, is attempting to handle. Torn between not getting involved and ensuring her friend survives, Asuka transforms again to save the day.
We cut to Kurumi who seems to be holding her own against a building-sized Disas, but is eventually overwhelmed and saved by Rapture. This reunion kicks off another plot thread that honestly made me a bit squeamish as it progressed. Over the next couple episodes, we find out Kurumi grew up being bullied--more like tortured--by her peers until Asuka blasted into her life and recruited her to be a magical girl. From then on, Kurumi develops an affection-turned obsession towards Asuka which gets played for laughs but feels really creepy.
Like, there is at least one moment of innocent-seeming "oh? we're doing stuff together? I'm not sure I can handle that uwu" every episode, and it almost always veers into a territory that makes it very apparent that Kurumi is less infatuated with the real Asuka and more this fantasy ideal--especially since Asuka seems utterly oblivious to her friend's attraction.
In the same vein, Kurumi is jealous of Sayoko--to the point of caricature. The not-even-romance between Asuka and her new friend drives Kurumi up the wall, bringing out the same kind of gross ownership mindset that is endemic in "waifu" culture. This isn't even touching on Kurumi's twisted love of torture-sex as a means of interrogation. And I mean that--Kurumi is 100% getting off on torturing the magically powered people M-Squad take prisoner.
Like, in Asuka's first official mission back with the government in episode seven, they face off with Nazani, a young pyromantic witch--the girl has to be no more than twelve--and defeat her by cutting off her arm, leaving her weeping in a ball on the ground. In the manga, they eventually go into her backstory more, revealing she was sold into service to the mafia by her mother and implying that her life has been hell since--you might notice a theme.
Anyway, back at base, Kurumi reattaches the girl's arm and then ties her, pretty much naked, to a trapezoidal restraint that that is definitely a sex toy. Kurumi follows this up by injecting Nazani with a magically-fortified drug that ups her sensitivity to touch a hundred-fold before spanking her until she orgasms.
Yes. You read that right.
Turns out, being tortured your whole life and then having the power to do that to others when also obsessed with someone--"This is all for Asuka's sake, so she never has to dirty her hands"--makes a person one helluva sadist.
The fact that Kurumi has been doing this since very early in her career as a magical girl is mentioned once and dropped just as fast. Who directed her to do this the first time? The government? Francine, the original leader of the magical girls? Did she just roll up her sleeves and do it completely of her own initiative?
That Kurumi can magically heal any injury she inflicts is then brought up as if that assuages her treatment of another human. However, she utterly destroys that attempt at justifying her behavior at once by implying she is willing to damage someone to the edge of death over and over.
Not going to lie, I would have checked out of the series there if not for the simultaneous introduction of another illegal magical girl, "Whiplash" Chisato. A former karate champion, she is wheelchair-bound after losing her leg when she is half-sandwiched between an out of control car and a wall. This incident also kills her mother, who never gets a name, sending her father into a depressive spiral that renders him a drunk, abusive asshole with absolutely no redeeming qualities.
I mean, fuck, Chisato's arc starts with her father trying to whore her out to the yakuza--who refuse since she is only fifteen--after which, he beats her within an inch of her life. Chisato is rescued at that moment by Geiss, a hulking behemoth in magical armor who kills her father. We, the viewers, met Geiss in the last episode, so we know he works for the ostensibly evil magical girl organization, the Babel Brigade.
He offers to give Chisato a prosthetic leg and to make her a magical girl so she can retake her life. Chisato accepts and in between Kurumi's torture scenes and Asuka at the beach with her friends, we watch her fall to darkness. Without hesitation, she kills the people who were drunk and driving the car that nearly killed her.
In the span of just episode eight, she becomes utterly infatuated with Giess in a way that feels true to someone who no longer has a sense of what a healthy relationship feels like. In the process, we get some tragic backstory for Geiss which is supposed to humanize him, but really just makes him even more of a Darth Vader ripoff.
Coming back to how fucked up Kurumi is, one of the series' codas is her torturing Chisato while expounding about how valuable magical girls are. She is accompanied in this scene by Nazani, who is half-naked, leashed, and on her hands and knees. She is panting and barking like she is a dog and jumps whenever Kurumi yells at her underscoring just how much torture War Nurse has inflicted on her.
Nazani rationalizes this state of affairs with the statement that survival in any form is preferable to death and it just... ugh. The normalization of abuse in that mindset is appalling. Considering that magical girls are the new symbol of military power, it evokes the systemic oppression of imperialism.
Nazani and Chisato are then "recruited" into M-Squad, and part of that is them being equipped with necklaces that will inject them with a deadly poison that Kurumi created if they even "think" about betrayal. They are literally shanghaied under penalty of death.
But, jumping back to the beginning of the series, Kurumi transfers into Asuka's class--another feat of logistics which leaves me scratching my head. Did Kurumi also avoid going back to school? Did she or the Japanese government falsify documents to ensure she and Asuka were always together?
As this is happening, Asuka's other friend, Nozumi, is kidnapped because she is the daughter of some defense minister. The experience of being tortured by two Russian magicians and the illegal magical girl "Pick Scissors" Abby is portrayed in graphic detail, including Abby cutting off her arm when Asuka and Kurumi arrive--another theme if you missed that. The whole experience leaves Nozumi screaming in terror at just the sight of Rapture and War Nurse and Kurumi has to erase Nozumi's short term memory.
Which begs the question, how many other people has Kurumi done this to? She is confident that the magically bolstered serum will work exactly as it needs to. She has no doubts--or qualms--about performing the procedure either. I think that was the first time I suspected that Kurumi might be, well, warped from her trauma. Like, being the medic and watching four of your friends die in ways that you could not have hoped to heal has to wreck you--especially when your magic has been able to repair everything else. Out of everyone, Kurumi probably suffered the most--so it makes sense in a way that she is utterly fucked as a person, but that fact eclipses everything else in the narrative. Asuka seems downright well-adjusted in comparison.
So it is then, that the core thesis of the narrative could be summed up as damaged people with power can do awful things--for good or evil, but those who can overcome that can do anything. I just wish it felt like the show believed in that more. Asuka's story in and of itself is overall hopeful, but the elements around it just... drag it down. I'm not even talking about the rampant sexualization of girls of indeterminate age or the hyper-violence and consistent dismemberment. No, I'm talking about how much the narrative revels in making its characters miserable. It never feels like overcoming the emotional pitfalls move anyone's character forward.
Like, we find out that Chisato's whole arc was set up by the Babel Brigade. They chose her, murdered her mother, set her up to be open to the idea of being a magical girl. They did all of this just so they would have another weapon for the season's climax. None of the decisions she made mattered, it was all scripted. The people she murdered were innocent since Giess was responsible for their car going out of control. In the end, she was just a distraction. The Brigade never expected her to survive, much less succeed. All of that and then she gets fucking tortured and forced to be a weapon for "the good guys"--and for what? What purpose did that even serve?
Better to be alive like this rather than dead? Fuck that. You know who did this plot better by miles and miles? Elfen Leid. A show from nearly twenty years ago now. The tragic magical girl trope has evolved since then. Madoka Magica, Yuki Yuna is a Hero, and Mahou Shoujo Site each explores the fucked up reality that is being a magical girl--so why did this property ostensibly for adults not manage to do something original in the end?
I'm just rambling now, so I'll wrap up. If you liked this kind of analysis and salt and want to see more posts like it, send me an ask on curious cat or @ me on twitter. You can also join my discord server to chat with me!