Following on from last week’s look at big-budget free-to-play city pop magical girls eroge Magicami DX, I’ve been spending a bit more time with the game.
At the time of writing, I’m over halfway through the current main story content (on the game’s Normal difficulty), so it’s that side of things I’d like to talk about today — with particular regard to how the 18+ version of the game handles things.
With that in mind, there will likely be mild spoilers ahead, along with NSFW images and graphic descriptions and depictions of sexual violence. You have been warned!
The magical girl genre as a whole has been adapting and evolving a great deal over the years. As we explored back when we looked at Gust’s excellent Blue Reflection, the genre has been around in one form or another since the 1950s, and has always been a subset of popular media that, either deliberately or indirectly, tends to challenge societal conventions while keeping its core messages accessible to a young (and often predominantly female) audience.
Osamu Tezuka’s 1953 manga Princess Knight (aka Ribon no Kishi), for example, is a series regarded as the progenitor of the modern magical girl genre. This explored the concepts of gender identity and expression, and the subversion of societal expectations with regard to gender norms. And while this subject matter may have been seen as somewhat challenging to the more traditional side of 1950s Japan, it kept things understandable and entertaining to its audience through its European-style fairy tale presentation.
Writing for Nippon.com in 2015, Akiko Sugawa conjectured that magical girl manga and anime resonated with youngsters because it represented a relatable, rather mundane fantasy: the ability to explore the world of being an “adult”, and all the responsibilities that comes with, but on a temporary basis. When the crisis of the week had been resolved, the magical girls would transform back into their normal selves and, I don’t know, go and get crêpes, probably.
Something interesting happened in the early 2010s, though: Puella Magi Madoka Magica was released, and brought with it an interesting fusion of the candy-coloured, high-energy positivity of magical girl shows with some dark, violent, emotional psychological horror. Commentators described it as a “deconstruction” and “subversion” of the conventions of the magical girl genre, it remains a highly regarded work to this day — and has spawned numerous imitators.
The fusion of the dark and the horrifying with the colourful is nothing new, mind. If you look back to the late ’80s and early ’90s, numerous anime series from that time featured a bright, “cartoony” aesthetic coupled with horrifying imagery. As anime was just starting to become understood and recognised in the West at this point, many of these shows were held up as prime examples of how the medium was unashamedly “animation for adults”, with some still being regarded as horrific masterpieces to this day.
One of the ways that dark, 18-rated anime from this period stood out was its level of violence. And we’re not just talking blood and gore here — though there was plenty of that, too. We’re also talking sexual violence; something that Western media often shies away from depicting, even to this day, but which Japanese media seemed to embrace wholeheartedly at the time, and still does. Director of formative, classic sexual horror anime Urotsukidōji: Legend of the Overfiend, Hideki Takayama, is often quoted as saying that “there is nothing that arouses a stronger response in human beings than either sex or violence; a mixture of the two is very powerful indeed” — though actually tracking down the original source of this quote has always proven to be a bit of a challenge.
One part of this that it’s worth contemplating is the fact that there is often — though not always — a fantastic angle to depictions of sexual assault in Japanese popular media. The concept of “tentacle rape” by otherworldly, uncanny entities is, in fact, so common in Japanese popular culture that it is the subject of frequent parody; you’ll find references to it in the most unexpected places at times, without shame and without judgement.
And it’s been around for a long time, too; the original idea is most commonly attributed to an illustration called The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by an artist called Hokusai from an 1814 novel, though tentacle erotica in its current, more modern form is regarded to have been popularised throughout the ’80s and ’90s by manga artist Toshio Maeda and his work such as the original manga version of the aforementioned Urotsukidōji.
Interestingly, despite Maeda fully embracing his position as “Tentacle Master” over the years — he supposedly wishes that phrase to be his epitaph — the manga version of Urotsukidōji was somewhat tamer than Takayama’s notoriously brutal anime adaptation. After appreciating the dark majesty of his work’s animated reimagining, however, Maeda started to explore tentacles in greater detail in his own work. And there were eminently practical reasons for doing so.
“At that time pre-Urotsukidōji, it was illegal to create a sensual scene in bed,” said Maeda, looking back on his work in conversation with the Sake-Drenched Postcards column from bigempire.com in 2003. “I thought I should do something to avoid drawing such a normal sensual scene. So I just created a creature. His tentacle is not a penis as a pretext. I could say, as an excuse, this is not a penis; this is just a part of the creature. You know, the creatures, they don’t have a gender. A creature is a creature. So it is not obscene – not illegal.”
So where does Magicami DX fit in with all this? Well, simply put, by blending everything we’ve just talked about — with a healthy dose of the modern moe aesthetic to tie it all together. We’ve got brightly coloured, huge-eyed, cute girls with strong personalities and a penchant for doing cute things. We’ve got a dark and ambitious narrative that contemplates subject matter such as determinism and nihilism through fantastic elements such as time travel and parallel worlds. And we have some highly sexualised body horror that wouldn’t be out of place in one of Maeda’s works from his heyday.
Magicami DX is a game that isn’t shy about doing some seriously horrible things to its main characters. This usually comes at significant story moments from about a third of the way through the main narrative as it exists at the time of writing, and typically involves the girls facing a seemingly hopeless situation — culminating in one of them ending up raped by a demon and, subsequently, transformed into an abomination. (As you might expect, the all-ages version leaves the “rape” bit out; for those whose stomach is easily turned, the overall narrative doesn’t suffer for this, though there’s a definite emotional impact to the explicitly sexual scenes.)
One interesting thing about this is that it does so with the player likely having full knowledge that the conventions of character-collecting free-to-play gacha games mean that it is narratively impossible for anything permanent to happen to any of the main cast. This is a uniquely “video game” consideration that is particularly pertinent to this sector — when you’re talking about a game in which it’s entirely possible (though, I hasten to add, absolutely not necessary) for a player to invest significant amounts of their real-world money into a character’s development, you’re damn sure they’re never going to accept something permanent happening to them. And so it doesn’t, via means we’ve already mentioned in passing.
Strangely, that doesn’t diminish the impact of these terrible things when they do happen. Even safe in the knowledge that, in the end, everything is going to be all right, it’s still painful, upsetting and horrifying to see such terrible things happen to these characters. You build up such a close connection with them over the course of the game’s visual novel sequences that it’s impossible not to feel something when you see them suffering. On a personal level, it’s the sight of seeing a “friend” in agony. On a more macro scale, it’s the sight of something pure and perfect being defiled, even destroyed.
In this sense, the combination of dark, horrifying, extreme imagery with bright, candy-coloured moe character designs is enormously effective. It’s a clear juxtaposition; when you first meet these characters, it’s easy to feel like nothing bad will ever happen to them, since they’re all perfect hair, broad smiles, expressive eyes and exaggerated anime-style characterisation. When those bad things do happen, it’s all the more impactful, even if you knew they were coming; it’s such a contrast from what has come before that you can’t help but feel something, whether that’s revulsion, fear, horror… or dark, morbid fascination, and an accompanying sense of deep discomfort.
Crass? Emotionally manipulative? Blunt? Exploitative? You could probably argue for all of those things. But this sort of hard divide between “bright” and “dark” is an established trope precisely because it’s so effective. You might know that something bad is going to happen — but when? How? And to whom? And the colourful, optimistic cheeriness that is inevitably just moments prior to the soul-crushingly bad things happening just makes it all the more uneasy the more times you experience this.
Magicami DX nails this side of things with confidence. It makes for a compelling, fascinating narrative to explore. And that in turn, keeps you playing in the long term as you’re eager to see what happens next — and how these characters you’ll come to love will escape the darkness that seems to be closing in on them.
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