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)