Let's take stock of what I knew about this series going in.
"Cardcaptor Sakura for lolicons"
"Magical Girl anime with actual property damage involved and spells loaded as cartridges"
"seinen sci-fi superheroes masquerading as a shoujo Magical Girl show"
"Magical Girls vs. space battleships! Enough said."
basic plot: third-grader Takamachi Nanoha searches for the Jewel Seeds, artifacts from another dimension(s)
there's a good bad girl, Fate Testarossa, and Nanoha/Fate slash is very common, implying the source material may be slashy
I'd seen the names Hayate, Reinforce, Wolkenritter, Vita and Linker Core, not knowing any context. In retrospect, I know I had seen many more names but forgotten them.
I'd seen descriptions of the various manga, and what stuck in my memory was "What relation is Vivio to Nanoha?"
What really grabbed me was knowing about StrikerS, the idea of showing Magical Girls grown up and training a new generation. Sadly, not something I'd expect in a real shoujo.
Now, did it deliver what I hoped? I knew that much of what I'd heard wasn't from the first season, so see my forthcoming reviews of the sequels to get the full story.
When Nanoha is granted her powers, Yuuno tells her the long incantation/password. I think two things. 1: Wow, I didn't realize it was going to parody Cardcaptor Sakura this directly. 2: I hope she doesn't have to repeat this ritual every time. This show knows what the audience wants, though. Starting with her second transformation, Nanoha is able to cut the magic words. Here the show is consciously ridiculing and discarding Magical Girl conventions... somewhat. We still get to see the stock-footage transformation sequence until halfway through the series. Incidentally, after that point, when we see her transform from the outside, it's very quick in comparison. Later scenes in As pretty much confirm my realization that the transformation sequence is only in Nanoha's mind. I don't know enough Magical Girl series to know if that's the convention.
Early in the series, when the first episode still colors my vision cherry-blossom pink, it becomes clear that Nanoha is meant to be more awesome and cool than Sakura by virtue of being more powerful (a dangerous thing for a writer to think). Sakura's flying was rather... well, "girly", often riding her staff side-saddle. She could only use one power at a time, so she couldn't attack while flying. Nanoha flies with energy wings that grow from her feet. In the title sequence, when she flies, she is no witch on a broomstick. She flies like a superhero. When she does a big loop, it captures the ancient dream of flight in a way Sakura didn't (until she rewrote the cards...) It's only because of this context that the most familiar of powers is able to seem cool again, even liberating.
To continue the convention-breaking, Nanoha and Fate don't call their attacks. Their devices do so for them. This reinforces the idea that magic is just sufficiently advanced technology. However, in the second half, this is undone. Called-attack conventions creep in, and Fate uses incantations that invoke deities.
Okay, it's official. "Divine Buster" is (distant) second to "Genocide Sunshine" as an awesome-stupid-awesome attack name. This isn't the biggest attack, though. That one has a name and appearance that have me thinking "disco".
And oh, so much moe! Can anyone be as pure and good as Nanoha? Or so I thought, until the next season topped her...
Despite that, the saccharine ending theme doesn't fit. It's here that the show best masquerades as genuine shoujo.
The episode previews are one of the places it does so worst. Several spend their limited time on fanservice shots that aren't necessarily representative of the coming episode.
The last episode: sappy, soppy and slashy.
Eventually, I decided to compare the dub. It was painful immediately. Nanoha's voice is the worst among a set of uniformly exaggeratedly high, tinny kids' voices. My review score will apply only to the sub.
This is probably one of the most underrated series out there; it's a real hidden gem. Most might bypass it because it looks like a magical girl series. But no matter who you are, take time to watch all three seasons of this; you won't be disappointed. It's been said that Nanoha(the character) is one part Sakura (from Card Captor Sakura), one part Goku (from Dragon Ball), and one part Gundam. Seriously, the producer is a big Super Robot Wars fan, and the color scheme of Nanoha's magical girl outfit is a direct shout-out to a gundam. Her Goku reference comes because she tosses out magical energy blasts as if they were going out of style.
Nanoha starts out seemingly like standard magical girl fare. Girl finds a wounded magical animal, and gets her powers from it. She spends the first couple of episodes sealing Jewel Seeds, which go out of control and create monsters. Then she meets Fate, a rival magical girl also trying to collect the Jewel Seeds, and things start to change. In fact, right around episode 7, you get two plot twists that hit you out of nowhere, and really let you know you're starting to watching something different. Although if you were watching carefully, you can see hints of them coming.
It's hard to talk about the story without spoiling those plot twists, so I'll just say that you won't be dissappointed. It's often been said that Nanoha is really a Gundam shonen story, but with magical girls. I'd have to agree with that.
In a word: Beautiful. Besides 4 transformation scenes that happen in the first 5 episodes, Nanoha doesn't make use of any real stock animation scenes. There are a couple others, but they are so minor that it doesn't really matter. Everything else is rendered individually. While most magical girl battles consist of stock animation footage as girls toss their attacks back and forth, Nanoha and Fate are much different. They may call out some of their attacks(or their intelligent devices do), but they are busy ducking and weaving through the air while they do it.
Some of the music may take a bit to grow on you, but most of it matches and enhances the moods perfectly. In most anime, I don't notice the sound or background music much, but here it really stands out. One of my favorite tracks happens during the tenth episode, as Nanoha fires off one of her famous Divine Busters.
As mentioned above, the characters are the real draw to this, especially once Fate is introduced, and you see her situation. Even side characters get a bit of depth to them, although the main story is between Nanoha and Fate, with a bit less towards Yuuno. And some people claim that Raging Heart and Bardiche are main characters in their own right. You'll have to watch to see for yourself (especially during A's, the second season).
One major notable difference, is that Nanoha isn't a whiny crybaby like most magical girls. She doesn't get real conflicted when facing tough circumstances. On the contrary, she's glad she got her powers, and is ever willing to step up and do what needs to be done. Yuuno, her ferret friend, attempts to tell her once that it might be too dangerous, and he'll collect the jewel seeds on his own. She stops him the middle of that speech, and tells him "I'm sorry, I can't let you do that. If it's within my power to help someone, I'll do it." And if she has to beat someone down to get her point across, she'll do it.
The one minor draw, is sometimes it's hard to believe this emotional maturity is coming from a nine-year-old girl. But I have to admit, such an attitude is a refreshing change of pace from most magical girls who whine and cry, wishing they could be normal, getting afraid of each new dangerous situation, andwanting someone else to save them.
Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is really a prelude to the series. The first season here starts out almost like a standard magical girl series, but halfway through, it takes you on a wild offshoot that feels more like a shonen series, but with more emotion and heart. It's when you go on to watch the second and third seasons, that you really see what makes Nanoha different.
Watch it, and you'll begin to wonder too, why this is easily the most missed and hidden gem of the anime world.
Notice: Consider this a review of all four seasons.
Nanoha is a mahou shojo that messed with the archetypical formula in an attempt to not bore the viewers with another Sailor Moon rehash. Although that partially did the trick, in the longrun it fell victim of its inability to evolve properly or make good use of its duration.
Seasons 1 to 3 are animated by studio Seven Arcs which is famous for making colorful ecchi comedies. Season 4 is animated by A-1 Pictures, which is notorious for making good looking shows that feel lifeless in directing.
Season 1 is directed by the all-famous Shimbo Akiyuki, who turned Shaft, the studio he usually works for, into a colossus. His style to combine the cute with the artsy and the symbolical is very interesting. This particual work is by far amongst his tamed ones. Seasons 2 and 3 are directed by Kusakawa Keizou, who has made lots of ecchi shows. This is why there was more ecchi and less artsy overtones in them. Season 4 is directed by Itou Yuuki. This was his first major job and did a very lukewarm job with it.
The anime is based on an erotic game, and this is why it is full of lolicon fan service.
PRODUCTION VALUES: S1: 7/10, S2&S3: 6/10, S4: 4/10
Nanoha’s setting is a three-in-one, blending the modern world with the magic of the past and the technology of the future. The contemporary Japan areas are very typical and have nothing interesting about them. The magic devices and the space-time spaceships on the other hand were an interesting combination. It had a variety and style which for the time it came out, had set it apart from all others of its kind. It doesn’t look special today, because the ideas were reused a lot in following titles.
Almost all characters are drawn to look like cute little girls, with funky uniforms and magic gizmos that create all sorts of energy attacks. Their designs are quite generic and not really memorable. In fact, the thing you will most likely remember is how the camera is often going for a wormview perspective, so their panties will show, and there will be lots of scenes where the girls are naked or having leasbian tendencies. Nothing explicit today, but it was considered very bold when it first came out, and helped in the formation of a big fandom consisting mostly of horny otakus.
The battle scenes are exciting compared to the average of their kind, filling the screen with all sorts of shapes and colors and patterns to the point you will be in trouble if you are photo-epileptic. Their choreography is not that good though; to the most part they are simplistic exchanges of energy beams. There are also many obvious budget problems, resulting to stiff characters, scrolling panels, and reused footage like the transformation and attack clips.
There is also a gradual degradation in quality with each new season. The artsy overtones of the first one are gone in seasons 2 and 3 because Shimbo was not directing it anymore, while the fourth one was given a very low budget which results to look very run down and dull.
STORY SECTION: S1: 5/10, S2: 7/10, S3: 3/10, S4: 3/10
The story begins in a typical fashion; cute good-hearted girl Nanoha finds Yuuno magic critter and gets powers in order to find something or stop someone. Along the way the story gets more complicating with the addition of an organization that protects the various dimensions from cosmic threats. It sounded very interesting as it blended magic with technology. The concept was utiliezed well though, and the pacing was very messy.
The first season was at first to find scattered spheres from an advanced civilization, and up until the first half it was plain boring. Nanoha and her friends had nothing of interest to fill the slice-of-life moments and the battles were short and simplistic. It is only when her rival Fate is introduced in the story that something good starts to happen. Suddenly she is taken aboard her fuzzy mascot’s spaceship, where she meets lots of officials and villains. It became a lot more enjoyable this way, even if the twist wasn’t enough to save the overall story from still resorting to the usual magical girl tropes. It still came down to befriending the enemy rather than fighting him with wits. The villains also seem to be overpowered, so why were they even waiting all this time to storm in and had their way if the good guys had no defenses against them? The finale is sweet if you like the power of friendship (and lesbianism), but otherwise very anti-climactic action-wise.
The second season is about finding an evil book that if it fully charges up, will create lots of trouble. This season is enjoyable to the most part because it has far more interesting characters, far better action scenes, far more interesting rivals and objectives. It is otherwise still full of silly moments, with the power of friendship (and lesbianism) being again all that matters in the end. One wonders why the hell they need all these cool weapons to fight, if all it takes is to just hug the enemy and cry (and then have lesbian sex).
The third season is a bloody mess. Since nobody in this series ever dies, new characters are constantly introduced and the older ones are still present. As a result you have a huge cast that needed a lot of fleshing out or at least many episodes dedicated to each one of them. Something which didn’t happen, because most of it was wasted on a very slow paced military operation, with lots of pointless action and uninteresting villains. The idea of showing what happens when a magical girl grows up and forms its own organization was cool, but the presentation was just too dull to care about.
The fourth season lowers the standards even further, by not even having a dangerous threat going on. It is just a mostly harmless school tournament of magic. And the protagonist is not even Nanoha anymore but rather her daughter (which was apparently created with the power of lesbianism, since she is married to Fate). There is absolutely nothing to look forward to here.
CHARACTER SECTION: S1: 6/10, S2: 7/10, S3: 3/10, S4: 3/10
The cast is pretty much stock material; archetypes you encounter in all mahou shojo. The first season did a good job with what it had, focusing only on the two main girls and the mascot sidekick. The second season adds a dozen secondary characters and offers variety despite none of them being special for any reason. The third season overdid it by introduced even more characters without developing or colorizing any of them. Not only that but by now Nanoha is an adult working in a military organization, making the whole thing very bizarre. And then the fourth season moves away even further from how it began as, by being a simple school tournament about Nanoha’s daughter, while she is just background decoration. Yeah, nothing left to care about anymore.
At the same time, the fan service never left; it was there all the time showing the girls in various forms of undress. That didn’t add context to them; it took away their dignity. Watching Nanoha’s and Fate’s adult boobs bouncing like that all the time while talking to little girls in their underwear is plain creepy.
Lyrical Nanoha is a prime example of how a series doesn’t age well. Although it had its share of loyal fans, it was progressively getting worse in production values and character appeal. It moved away from what was making it feel good at first. Its combination of magic meets technology with loli fan service no longer feel special because they were copied in later shows. There was also a huge hiatus between the third and fourth seasons, which made most of the fans to either move to something else in the meantime. It’s no longer the super hyped series people were making it seem to be back in 2004 and is now closer to yet another example of how no amount of pretty colors and loli underwear can make a series better than what it is.
Madoka Magica (it took many ideas from Lyrical Nanoha)
A Certain Magical Index (a famous example of magic meets technology)
Fate Kaleid (a recent famous loli fan service show)
Note: As of the writing of this review, I have only watched part of the second season. The rest of the series will have minimal impact on this review, in other words, this review addresses the first season only.
I must admit, I love both Card Captor Sakura and Star Trek, so I would probably be one of the more biased reviewers of this series. On the other hand, having watched all of CCS and Star Trek: TOS, I am also aware of Lyrical Nanoha's lack of originality in terms of plot and themes. However, despite this derivativeness, one must give credit to the writers where it is due. Combining the elements of two very unlike series is no easy feat, and results in a fairly unique product in of itself.
The story begins like any magical girl story. 1. A fateful encounter. 2. A contract whereupon magical powers are bestowed. 3. A mission to capture dangerous magical artifacts and/or defeat specialized creatures attempting to take over/destroy the world. Where have I seen this before? While initially, the show sets up to be a typical monster of the week anime, the pacing of the thirteen episode series quickly accelerates, and the monster of the week element is dropped in favor of breathtaking one-on-one battles and a sci-fi plot twist.
Overall, the story is told very well. The pacing ensures that the viewer is not bored at any point in the series. The plot twists add a nice touch, but besides the relatively unexpected genre shift, they are somewhat predictable to anyone with the genre savviness of a 13 year old. However, the high score is a result of the solid entertainment value, even for a person outside the intended target audience (like me).
The animation doesn't contain anything that will break any barriers or blow the viewer away, but it is certainly not an eyesore. It fits the expectations of a small, up and coming animation studio. The lack of detail prevents the animation from receiving a higher grade, but its lack of repetition propels it above average. After the first few episodes, the over-the-top-anime-transformation-sequences largely stopped, which was a relief for sore eyes.
Once again, nothing particularly memorable. The OP and ED were sufficient, perhaps slightly above average. The battle music intensified the scenes but was largely unmemorable. Once again, this was expected from a relatively new studio.
The voice acting was well done. The characters were cast realistically, and Nana Mizuki's performance in particular was excellent. There were several scenes that called for emotional voices, and the voice actors largely nailed them.
The high grade comes from the fact that the characters were either lovable, or loved to hate. The attachment that I developed towards the main cast is not something that can be put into words. Short series that aren't slice of life tend to have underdeveloped characters, but here that is not the case.
The supporting cast, on the other hand, does not seem to serve much of a purpose in this anime. The friends are generic, and the family is unrealistically uninvolved in Nanoha's life. This does not so much detract from the quality of the anime, but is simply a result of the short run of the first season.
If you're a fan of the magical girl genre, Lyrical Nanoha is a must watch. If you like a sci-fi anime with a dash of another genre, this anime is a solid pickup. Even if you aren't particularly interested in either of these genres, there is a good chance that you'll like this anime.