Because the best place for a magically super powered teenager is on the front lines.
What’s the Story?
After being invaded by killer cuddly monsters from another dimension (not the strangest invasion I’ve ever seen in anime it has to be said), young women from across the globe were given magical powers in an effort to fight back. Eventually the war ended, but not everyone survived and for those that did choices had to be made. Despite the war being won, the world was far from at peace, gangs and criminals are on the rise, some of them using weapons left over from those invading monsters. Some of the magical girls have joined up with the military of their home countries in an effort to fight against these criminals, but for Asuka, all she wants is to get back to a normal life, if she can even remember what that is anymore. Yet when her friends’ lives are put on the line, will Asuka return to the fight?
I have a problem with this anime. No, scratch that, I have several hundred problems with this anime, but it’s brought to mind a particular question that I’ve had to wrestle with from time to time. Can one good thing save an anime? Usually it crops up with a mediocre series where there’s a character or storyline that I really love, but I’m not too interested in the rest, so I have to decide if I’m willing to go back to the series just for that one thing. This time though, that dilemma is dialled up to eleven. You see I love Asuka and her journey through the series, but the more I think about it, the more I hate everything else in this series. It baffles me slightly that Asuka and her trauma are dealt with so effectively by the series and yet this is the same series that is constantly cramming in intrusive fanservice, gore and more torture than I have ever had the misfortune to watch.
Let’s talk about Asuka and the core concept of this series first (because if I keep thinking about the other stuff I’m going to explode and I think I’ll save that for later). Honestly both are, without doubt, brilliant. There are so many series where we have teenage protagonists going through hell as they battle inter-dimensional aliens or parasitic clothes or whatever, but what happens after the world is saved and the end credits have rolled? Do they just go back to their ordinary lives? Is it even that easy? And I realise that stories like this have been done before, but it’s a good idea and with the rise of Dark Magical Girl genre over the past several years, it’s a story that works incredibly well.
Asuka herself is an incredibly likeable and sympathetic main character. You want her to have a normal life again and you want her to find happiness, but you can also see all the signs that she is well and truly traumatised by what she’s been through and its not going to be that easy. It’s the little things that this series does so well, the way Asuka will instantly jump into a fighting stance when she hears a loud bang or how she keeps herself in shape because that’s what she’s used to now, always being ready for the next battle. I just want to wrap her in a hug and take her to a therapist so she can process and deal with everything she’s experienced properly. It gives the series an interesting struggle as we know at some point Asuka is going to be pulled back into the fighting, because narratively we need to get some action in somehow and Asuka can hardly standby while innocent people are put in danger. Yet at the same time we know that this is just going to lead to more pain and anguish for our dear magical girl.
Now to flip over to a magical girl I’m less enamoured with, mostly because I’m f***ing terrified of her (and you know my feelings are strong for something when I start swearing, even if I am putting the asterisks in), let’s talk about Kurumi. Don’t get me wrong, what Kurumi has been through (even before the invasion of the cuddly monsters) is horrendous and it clearly broke her. She has my utmost sympathy for what she’s been through and I hope she gets the help she so desperately needs, but if she walks into the same room as me I’m emigrating to another country there and then. Kurumi is messed up with a capital M. She needs psychiatric help immediately, she should not be put on the front lines of a battle with sadistic criminals and monsters and she definitely shouldn’t be put in charge of torturing the bad guys after they’ve been defeated! Honestly the tone of this show is so messed up when it plays up Kurumi’s violent and obsessive tendencies I have no clue whether it’s trying to be ironic or if it’s genuinely trying to get a laugh (I hope to god it’s being ironic because the other option is too terrifying to contemplate). They realise they’re making the world’s most powerful serial killer here right? The minute Asuka tells Kurumi that she doesn’t think of her that way, Kurumi is going to snap and murder us all!
Let’s stay on the torture for a minute here (because that’s fun for me to think about). My biggest problem with this series is how exploitative it feels. One minute it’s shoving the girl’s butts into your faces, the next we’ve got a girl having her skin burnt off while strapped to a table. Tone, people, tone, it’s a thing, try to keep it consistent! It’s not as if torture scenes or fanservice are impossible to get right either (though with me you’re always going to have a hard sell with the former and the later it depends on how its done, but get it wrong and you’re on thin ice), but if they’re done right they can be really effective. The torture scenes in particular could really put across the horror of what Asuka is stepping back into, but they happen so often, and the cheap animation doesn’t really help. I always feel more icky than horrified. What this show needed more than anything was a really good director that could take those scenes and ramp up the horror, while also framing them in such a way that I don’t feel I need to scrub my eyeballs after watching an episode.
All in all Magical Girl Spec Op Asuka is, well, I can’t call it anything other than terrible. The excessive and exploitative use of torture and sexualising its characters is enough to make me want to track down all the copies of this series across the Internet and erase them permanently. It’s not a fun watch for me, the only saving grace is Asuka and her journey as she tries to overcome her trauma. That was enough to pull me through twelve episodes, but I’m never going to watch this series again (or if I do I’m skipping straight to the scenes of Asuka and mentally erasing everything else). If you think you can stomach all the other stuff though then maybe give this a try, but I can’t recommend it in good conscience.
Chris Joynson, aka the Infallible Fish, is a writer, blogger and lover of animation living in Sheffield. The blog updates every Friday.