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Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Stories of the Top 80 Anime: Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha

So far we've covered a romance, a fantasy adventure, and a scifi mecha action series. So you can guess what the next genre will be, right? #4 is a magical girl series, #5 a mystery thriller, and #6 a slice-of-life. All six of the top six series of anime are in completely different genres than each other. This is one thing I love about anime, its vast diversity and ability to tell any type of story.

4. Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha. Nanoha is the greatest magical girl series of all time. It combines the fun part of ordinary girls becoming extraordinary, dressing up, using powerful magic spells, pursuing magic items, and having strong friendships, but adds in its own adult layer and realistic detail that makes it one of the best stories ever told. Lyrical Nanoha starts when magical artifacts, superscience called 'lost relics,' fall to Earth. Yuuno Scrya recruits Takamichi Nanoha to help collect the lost relics before they do unintentional damage to the people of Earth, while Fate Testerossa is sent by her mother, Prescia Testerossa, to collect them for herself, as fuel for a powerful magical spell she wishes to cast. Even though their conflict is inevitable, because there's no way around the problem of scarcity of resources, Nanoha keeps trying to reach out to Fate, talking to her and asking her why she's fighting. When Fate recklessly takes on too many lost relics at once, Nanoha even jumps to her aid and fights side by side with her until the danger is passed, at which point they become competitors again. Nanoha even asks Fate if they can be friends.

Throughout the first season, Fate has had more expertise and power than her rival, Nanoha, who just started to use magic. But by the end of the series, Nanoha beats Fate with a new move she's just invented, Starlight Breaker. In Nanoha, no one fights to kill, they're simply too civilized to go that far. Their magic is also of a non-lethal variety, having actually banned projectile type weapons like grenades and bullets as too destructive. When Prescia Testerossa realizes Fate is no longer strong enough to achieve her dream, she abandons her as useless and reviles her with the news that she has always hated her daughter, then begins to cast her spell anyway even without enough lost relics to properly complete it. This threatens to tear the dimensional fabric of the universe, so Nanoha rushes out to stop Fate's mother. Prescia has a vast army of machines protecting her, and it's heavy going, until Fate appears, bedraggled from her loss to Nanoha, shocked over the rejection of her mother, but still ready to fight, this time to protect the one girl who has ever shown any love for her, her rival Nanoha. The two together carve their way to Prescia, where Fate tells her mother that she still loves her, even if Prescia hated Fate, and asks to be accepted back. Prescia sneers and casts her dimensional transfer spell anyway, which fizzles and sends her off to places unknown. Completely cut off from her past, Fate attempts to find a new life with Nanoha, by becoming her friend.

"How do you become someone's friend?" Fate asks Nanoha, because she's always been alone. "It's easy." Nanoha responds encouragingly. "Just call out their name."

Fate tries it out, "Nanoha." And Nanoha responds, "Yes?" And then Fate says it again, "Nanoha." And Nanoha says, "Yes." "Nanoha." "Yes." "Nanoha." "Yes." Until both girls are crying and hugging. So begins their magical life together.

The series picks up shortly thereafter, in Nanoha A's. Fate is returning from trial in space, where she's been judged innocent and all the blame laid at Prescia's feet. Nanoha hopes to finally be able to attend middle school with her friend and lead an ordinary life. But it isn't to be, because a new enemy appears out of nowhere, full of inexplicable anger, a short young girl with a hammer that has a 'cartridge' system of added magical energy, superior to Nanoha's staff. Nanoha keeps asking her why she's being attacked, ending with a frustrated cry of "If you don't tell me, how am I supposed to know?" An epic line that could be used between all groups who refuse to talk out their differences. But her attacker is just as passionate, determined, and even stronger than Nanoha, and ultimately defeats her, breaking Nanoha's staff and barrier jacket and leaving her helpless. At this time Fate appears to save her, but then new allies of the hammer girl also come to save her, and the fight becomes an awesome grand melee.

Eventually, despite Nanoha's beaten-up-wobbliness, she manages to fire off a Starlight Breaker and her group retreats to space, where they try to find out the identity of their new enemies, and their weapons get a needed upgrade to include the cartridge system. This is where we learn the story of the other side, from their point of view, and discover there are no bad guys in Nanoha A's.

Hayate is a handicapped girl who has amazing magical power, such that she's attracted the notice of the Book of Darkness, which has four Cloud Knight guardians, immortal magical beings, Signum (Sword) Vita (hammer) Shamal (rings) and Zafira (a dog). The cloud knights are used to being used like tools to fight and give their master power or riches or whatever the master lusts after. But Hayate isn't like that. She asks if they would live with her, dresses them in ordinary clothes, cooks for them, and tells them not to cause any trouble. She doesn't wish anything for herself, even though she's handicapped. The cloud knights fall in love with their master, the most gentle, kind-hearted person they've ever met, only to find that the Book of Darkness is feeding off of her and will slowly kill her in just a few months at this rate. This is when they go on a desperate quest to gather magic from other creatures and people (like Nanoha) to feed the beast that is the Book of Darkness, so it will no longer eat their master, Hayate, who they can't afford to lose. But knowing Hayate would be saddened if they killed anyone for her sake, they pledge to fight within bounds, and always spare their defeated opponents even in the midst of their magic harvesting operations.

Eventually the book of darkness gains so much magic it fully activates, creating a new 'cloud knight' by name of Reinforce, which is always a destructive girl who tends to rampage across a world and then vanish, only to reappear a few years later as the Book of Darkness, starting the cycle over again. At this point everyone is arrayed against it, the Cloud Knights, Fate, Nanoha, and Chrono from the Time Space Bureau, and by everyone using their strongest move, they finally bring the mutant book monster down.

In StrikerS the story continues, this time with Nanoha and Fate grown ups, working in the Time Space Administration Bureau. Nanoha trains others how to fight with magic, while Fate is a special agent who goes around fighting with magic on a regular basis. Hayate, also working for the Time Space Bureau, recruits them into an all powerful unit that will include new recruits, Fate, Nanoha, Hayate and the Cloud Knights. This force is organized to defeat a looming evil super-power that prophecy says is approaching. The series then takes its careful time developing the characters of its new recruits, and showing them slowly grow in strength under Nanoha's careful tutelage. There is so much joy in just watching these recruits grow that there's no need for any 'actual combat' or conflict for them to enter. The training is enough. The bonding between Erio and Caro, Subaru and Teana, Teana and Nanoha are enough. Encounters with the enemy grow, however, when Vivio, a bio-engineered parentless girl, escapes the clutches of the big bad guy, Jail Scaglietti, who needed her for his own plans, and ends up with Nanoha, who adopts her because she has nowhere else to go. In the next battle, which ends up being a total loss for the StrikerS team, Jail's army of combat cyborgs and bio-enhanced soldiers manages to take back Vivio and the lost relics they wanted to complete their almighty battleship, which they then activate.

There's a heart-rending scene where Nanoha is talking to Fate, now as two mothers instead of as two young girls, with new worries and feelings in their heart. "When I think of her as scared or crying right now, I don't know what to do." And Nanoha starts crying too, with the pain of not being able to help her daughter who's out there, hurting, somewhere.

The StrikerS team regroups, because Jail Scaglietti, like all enemies, is too civilized to kill his opponents, if it's possible to defeat them without killing. They invade his new floating battleship and the final battle commences. Vita is charged with disabling its engine, while Nanoha goes to rescue Vivio at the helm. Vita has a hard time of it, though, fighting through endless robot guards, stabbed through the heart by a stealthy robot with an invisibility cloak (good thing she's an immortal cloud knight and not a human), and facing an impenetrable barrier that protects the engine. In her bloody, tired to the bones state, she drags her hammer along the floor, asking it if it can still fight. Even though Grahf Eisen is just as beat up as her, it reports that it's fine, that it's 100%, and can perform any task she gives it. Taking heart from her hammer, she goes full bore one more time, hitting the barrier with all she has, breaking Grahf Eisen to pieces. The barrier still holds, and Vita collapses in despair and misery. This is when Hayate appears, catching her and telling her to look again.

"A barrier so tough Vita of the Cloud Knights cannot break? Such a thing doesn't exist." And sure enough, a small crack started spreading across the whole barrier, until the whole thing shattered and the engine was stopped. Hayate is always looking after her charges, and Vita is always the most determined, brave, and self-sacrificing warrior to ever live. Watching the two of them together always makes you want to cry.

Meanwhile, Nanoha defeats her own, mind-controlled daughter, in as gentle a way as she can, while taking out two other combat cyborgs simultaneously, in a tour de force that we have now gotten used to when it comes to Nanoha, the truly unparalleled hero. And Teana, her brightest pupil, defeats three combat cyborgs of her own that had her trapped in a building and were sure they could defeat a lone gunner. The story ends with a few of the ringleaders in jail, but most in rehabilitation centers, soon ready to rejoin society, and the entire StrikerS crew moving on to achieve their dreams. Subaru's dream was to become a first responder, using her magic to save people from fires or shipwrecks or the like, just as Nanoha had saved her from a fire when she was a child. In the last episode, we get to see Subaru saying the exact same line to a frightened child that she was told by Nanoha in the first episode:

"You've done well to come so far. How admirable. But you're safe now. I'll save you." The love and gratitude that comes pouring out of Subaru in this emulation of her mentor, and how it changed her life, and now it's changed the life of this young stranger, makes your heart swell with how wonderful helping others with magic can be.

The entire series, Nanoha, Nanoha A's, and Nanoha StrikerS, covers a range of situations, from childhood to adolescence to motherhood. Almost every character, good guy or bad guy, is in fact a moral paragon and a delight to behold. Their relationships are so warm between one another, the battles are sophisticated and consistent, the art style gorgeous, the music fitting, and the story just all comes together. There isn't a single episode that's a drag or falls behind. The entire storyline is so tight and directed that you're just left wishing for more. Since there's already two sequels to StrikerS in manga form, hopefully someday there Will be more. Nanoha easily deserves the rank of #4. The frightening thing is it may deserve the rank of #1.

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