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This month’s Cover Game is a Gust title I’ve been intrigued about ever since it was first announced: Blue Reflection.
Featuring a combination of Mel Kishida’s wonderfully soft-edged artwork translated beautifully into 3D polygonal graphics, a highly stylised soundtrack by Hayato Asano and an intriguing story about empathy and emotion, I always knew this was going to be an experience that was right up my alley.
So let’s begin our exploration with an overview of what the game is all about, and a look back at the “magical girl” genre that inspired it.
Blue Reflection represented the culmination of a project Gust dubbed its “Beautiful Girls Festival”, a collection of three games loosely tied around the idea of having… well, beautiful girls in them. One might argue that this is just Gust doing what Gust does anyway, but the company deemed it a significant enough undertaking to put together a website specifically for the project, so make of that what you will. Ultimately the Beautiful Girls Festival gave us Atelier Firis, the second in the Mysterious subseries; Nights of Azure 2, sequel to everyone’s favourite lesbian vampire demon hack-and-slash; and, of course, Blue Reflection.
In Blue Reflection, you take on the role of Hinako, who is fifteen years old and sad. Hinako used to be a ballet dancer, but a knee injury cut her budding career short and made it look likely that she would never dance again. Understandably upset at her return to “normality” from a life she loved, we join her as she attempts to reintegrate with mainstream education, make new friends and survive that ever-turbulent, defining period of one’s life: high school.
Of course, Hinako’s high school life turns out to not quite be as normal as you might expect. Long story short: she’s a magical girl. Specifically, she’s a Reflector, someone with the power to enter a mysterious other world known as “The Common” and battle demons using the emotional energy known as Ether. Reflectors, she is told by the mysterious Yuzu and Lime, who seemingly appear from nowhere and sit either side of her in class, are responsible for ensuring emotional “Fragments” are not damaged or destroyed by the demons that inhabit the various Zones of The Common, and moreover their ultimate goal is to fend off the large and rather unpleasant monsters known as the Sephirot, who seem to desire nothing more than to break into the “real” world and make a real mess.
We’ll discuss more about both the gameplay mechanics and the narrative in due course, but suffice to say for now that the game involves an interesting combination of helping Hinako go about her daily life in school, and performing her duties as a Reflector, both in The Common and in the real world when a Sephirot comes a-knockin’. It’s a rather melancholy, slow-paced game that is specifically designed as to be something that will appeal to young women, with its core thematic concepts being interaction between girls, personal growth, sharing experiences and empathy.
All of these things are commonly seen throughout the “magical girl” (or mahou shoujo, if you prefer) genre of Japanese popular media. Interestingly, this is a genre that is somewhat underexploited in video games — particularly those that come West — so Blue Reflection immediately stands out in this regard, though there’s also an argument to be made that popular game series like Senran Kagura and Hyperdimension Neptunia have elements of the genre, too. With that in mind, let’s consider the magical girl genre, where it’s come from, how it’s evolved over time — and where Blue Reflection fits in with all this.
British journalist Paul Gravett, writing in his 2004 encyclopaedia Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics, noted that he believed Osamu Tezaku’s 1950s manga series Princess Knight (also known as Knight of Ribbons or Ribon no Kishi) to be the “prototype” of the magical girl genre, and it’s not difficult to see why.
Princess Knight (as we shall refer to it for now) tells the story of a young princess named Sapphire who is forced to pretend to be a male heir to the throne to prevent an evil duke from succeeding her father. Through a peculiar series of circumstances and the apparent intervention of an angel-in-training called Tink, Sapphire was born with two hearts: the blue heart of a boy and the pink heart of a girl. Tink was tasked with retrieving her “spare” heart, but the combination of his rather fragile mortal form, Sapphire’s unwillingness to give it up and her apparent need for it to vanquish the evil of the realm, ends up acting as a sidekick to her adventures, usually in her masked “Phantom Knight” incarnation.
We can already see a lot of the common tropes for modern magical girl works in place here — the underpowered, seemingly pathetic sidekick that is actually a powerful entity and/or responsible for the protagonist having her powers in the first place; the divide between the protagonist’s “normal” existence and her “heroic” persona (though she doesn’t magically “transform” so much as puts on a costume); and the surprisingly dark themes beneath the somewhat “girly” exterior.
Princess Knight is credited with not only acting as the prototype for the magical girl genre, but also with being a significant step forward for the whole medium of shoujo manga aimed at girls. Previously, Tezuka and other creators had tended to use such works as either simple gag comics or a means of teaching young women about the “correct” way to behave in Japanese society. With Princess Knight, however, Tezuka made use of a more explicit narrative structure and “cinematic” techniques to create something a lot more story-heavy than typically seen in the medium. Not only that, it represented a step forward in representation; the nature of the narrative required Sapphire to be presented in a rather androgynous manner, and this, in turn, has influenced creators over the years to be rather more “fluid” in terms of how they present gender and sexuality, particularly with regard to female characters.
In the following decade, we saw what is commonly regarded as the first “real” magical girl manga in the form of Himitsu no Akko-chan by Fujio Akatsuka. In this work, the titular heroine Akko-chan is a somewhat prideful, arrogant young girl who is fascinated by mirrors. After breaking a particularly beloved mirror, she buries it in the garden rather than throwing it out in the trash, and is subsequently rewarded by a spirit that was touched she would treat the mirror with such reverence. Presented with a magical mirror, she is taught a number of enchantments that allow her to transform into different things.
Himitsu no Akko-chan was perhaps less “adventurous” than some modern magical girl manga and anime we could name today, but the common themes of empathy and understanding are very much intact. In one particularly memorable episode, Akko-chan, hoping to understand a deaf and mute child better, wishes for herself to be deaf and mute so she can understand what they are going through first-hand. What she didn’t count on was the fact that as a result of this, she wouldn’t be able to enunciate the incantations necessary to change herself back, and was only returned to normal once the magical mirror was satisfied she had learned a rather painful lesson from the entire incident.
Later in the 1960s, we saw what is today recognised as the first magical girl anime as well as arguably the first shoujo anime: Sally the Witch, aka Mahoutsukai Sarii. Supposedly inspired by the Japanese dub of the popular American TV series Bewitched, Sally the Witch follows the titular heroine as she accidentally teleports herself from her home magical kingdom to the Earth, and immediately finds herself compelled to use her magical abilities to fend off some miscreants harassing the schoolgirls Yoshiko and Sumire.
Sally the Witch is a little different from what we recognise today as the standard magical girl formula in that the heroine is not someone who needs to “transform” in order to use her abilities. Rather, Sally is simply… a magical girl, full stop. Much like how Samantha Stephens in Bewitched often preferred to hide her powers, so too does Sally attempt to go about life as a “normal” human girl as much as possible, particularly as she strikes up a friendship with the girls she saved during the opening of the series; indeed, it’s not until the conclusion of the overall narrative that she truly reveals her capabilities to her friends.
There are some obvious connections between Sally the Witch and Blue Reflection, particularly when it comes to the matter of a supernaturally powered heroine developing bonds with inherently “normal” people — and perhaps revealing the truth of her existence to them. Part of Blue Reflection’s narrative, as we’ll explore more in due course, involves protagonist Hinako developing her relationships to such a degree that her friends accept the more unbelievable aspects of her existence and are able to support her in her battles against the Sephirot.
Moving into the 70s, we saw the genre start to pick up speed with series like the relatively obscure Mahoutsukai Chappy (Chappy the Witch) and the somewhat more well-known and influential Majokko Megu-chan, the latter of which was responsible for the genre becoming known for a while as majokko (little witch) rather than the more common mahou shoujo (magical girl) we tend to use today.
Majokko Megu-chan introduces some more commonly recognisable tropes, such as the main protagonist of a magical girl series being “flawed” in some way, often through clumsiness, airheadedness or social awkwardness, and typically being able to compensate for such flaws through their magical abilities. Such series are today regarded as a good example of narratives that depict “rites of passage” through adolescence, and Majokko Megu-chan is a particularly good example of this — throughout the course of the story as a whole, the titular heroine learns a lot about human emotions she has never experienced before, including negative ones such as loneliness and grief.
Once again, the connections to Blue Reflection are quite obvious. While Hinako isn’t presented as being clumsy in a slapstick, comedy manner as in Majokko Megu-chan (or indeed later popular works such as Sailor Moon), she’s definitely “flawed” from the outset thanks to her knee injury, and this outright prevents her from doing certain things in the narrative; by contrast, in her Reflector form, she is able to move completely freely, and rediscovering the joy of this is what spurs her on to try and make the best of her life. Not only that, but a significant proportion of the game is about developing empathy and understanding for others, whether they are feeling euphoric joy about something or sinking into a seething pit of rage.
The magical girl genre continued to evolve and change throughout the 1980s, with influential works from this period including the delightfully named Magical Princess Minky Momo and the equally wonderful Creamy Mami, the Magic Angel.
Writing for Nippon.com in 2015, Yokohama National University’s Akiko Sugawa suggests that the magical girl anime from this period were something of a response to the growing women’s liberation movement in Japan, as well as the passing of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act in 1985. Sugawa’s reasoning for this is the fact that the heroines of both series are able to transform into “adult” versions of themselves.
“Young girls often fantasize about being glamorous women in the adult world,” she notes, “but being permanently trapped in adulthood would be scary. In the mahou shoujo anime of the 1980s, magic offers the heroines a means of self-expression and self-affirmation by allowing them to experience adulthood temporarily.”
The idea of transformation has become an important part of the modern magical girl genre, though it’s not always as drastic as a young child becoming an adult. In Blue Reflection, Hinako is the one who undergoes the most dramatic transformation between her normal and Reflector forms: in contrast to her companions Yuzu and Lime, who simply get new outfits, Hinako’s hair changes colour and she develops heterochromia, for starters; she also becomes a little more mature-looking in terms of her figure, and even her skin tone is a little less pale. While she’s still recognisably a teenage girl, she’s absolutely enjoying a temporary escape from “reality” while in this form — both in terms of her appearance and the ability to forget about her injury for a while.
No discussion of magical girls would be complete without mentioning Sailor Moon, of course, and indeed this is still the show many people primarily associate with the genre as a whole. In fact, the whole decade of the 1990s is important to consider, not just from a Japanese perspective, but across the whole world.
The ’90s were the era of “Girl Power” — an age of young women all over the world standing up and proudly declaring themselves to be independent, powerful and more than capable of taking care of themselves. The various formats of creative media were an important part of the rise of “Girl Power” as a whole; while you may level accusations of being completely “manufactured” at both Western phenomena such as the Spice Girls or Japan’s Sailor Moon (the latter of which was described by Clemson University’s Kumiko Saito as “twenty-five-minute advertisements for toy merchandise”), there’s no denying the influence they had and the importance to the overall character of the decade as a whole.
Sailor Moon was interesting in that it depicted young girls and women having power and capability without having to sacrifice their femininity; in fact, in most cases, the cast’s transformation sequences serve to actively play up their more feminine aspects. “In a major paradigm shift,” explains Akiko Sugawa, “Sailor Moon represented power using standard attributes of youthful feminine beauty and sexuality, negating the traditional dichotomy between cuteness and strength.” In other words, Sailor Moon’s heroines were both cute and more than capable of kicking your ass into next week.
Sugawa also brings up an interesting note about Sailor Moon, and how it marked the beginning of an important distinction between Japanese magical girls and Western female superheroes.
“Sailor Moon also highlights some of the softer emotions and impulses traditionally associated with femininity,” she continues. “Most notably, it focuses on the maturation of a heterosexual love relationship between Usagi and Chiba Mamoru and features maternal, nurturing behavior toward the young juvenile characters Chibiusa and Chibichibi Moon.
“An attribute virtually nonexistent in Western witches or female superheroes is the maternal or nurturing behavior that has become such a common feature of mahou shoujo anime since the advent of Sailor Moon,” she explains. “While powerful, Japan’s magical girl warriors also preserve attributes associated with traditional gender roles—including cuteness and maternal affection—that make them less threatening to men.”
These ideas of combining heroic badassery with the more traditionally “feminine” traits of being nurturing, cute and maternal can all be seen in Blue Reflection, too. While its character designs are considerably less stylised than in many other anime-inspired games — including those by Gust and illustrated by Mel Kishida — there’s still a distinctive sense of cute appeal to the main cast of characters, with each having an immediately recognisable silhouette, voice and personality to them. But this doesn’t make them meek, demure young women by any means; quite the opposite in many cases, in fact, particularly when it comes to individuals such as Sarasa and Kei, who are both rather assertive in their own ways.
Hinako is positioned as the main “maternal” figure in the story, being the one who “resonates” with the emotional fragments and comes to understand the feelings of who they belong to. But Yuzu and Lime, despite their youthful appearance, are also depicted as taking care of Hinako — explaining things to her when she is confused, lending an ear when she is upset or anxious or simply acting as a comforting presence.
The final aspect of the magical girl genre we’ll talk about today is the modern trend for subverting expectations somewhat, often eschewing the romanticised view of shoujo material in favour of exploring darker or stranger themes. Perhaps the most well-known examples of this are 1996’s Revolutionary Girl Utena, which was heavy on symbolism, abstract concepts and a rather “dream-like” feeling; 2011’s Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which combined the conventions of the magical girl genre with elements of psychological thrillers and horror, and 2013 Fate spinoff Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya, which transplanted a number of already well-established characters into a completely different type of story.
It’s popular for modern takes on superhero media to have an element of “grimdark” about them, but Japan approaches this in a somewhat different manner to the West. In contrast with the attempts at gritty realism we see in modern Western superhero movies, modern Japanese magical girl works such as the aforementioned often tend to incorporate unexpected themes more gradually and subtly.
Blue Reflection is, once again, no exception to this. Were you to come to it completely blind without even seeing the packaging or key art, the game initially presents itself as a rather melancholy, contemplative affair about a young girl coming to terms with a difficult time in her life. The magical girl elements themselves subvert this expectation immediately, but it goes further than that; rather than fighting off a tangible “evil” (Sephirot aside), you’re attempting to empathise with abstract concepts in order to progress; indeed, for much of the game, continuing the story is dependent on you deepening your bonds with your friends and peers sufficiently.
I’d hesitate to describe the game as outright “dark” in tone, at least in its opening hours, but it’s definitely rather more muted than what you might typically expect when someone says “magical girl” to you. That aspect of it gives it a very distinctive look, sound and feel to it — and gives a strong sense that rather than attempting to ape an existing work in the genre, it has a strong identity of its own that blends elements from all through the history of magical girls.
I wasn’t wrong to be intrigued by it, in other words; while that somewhat muted tone may not be to everyone’s taste, I’ve found it thoroughly compelling so far — and there’s lots to explore from both narrative and mechanical perspectives.
We’ll save that for another day, though!
More about Blue Reflection
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