After a strange dream, nine-year-old Nanoha Takamachi (voiced by Yukari Tamura), rescues a talking ferret that turns out to be Yuuno (Kaori Mizuhashi), a boy mage from another planet who enlists her help to prevent evil entities called Jewel Seeds from rampaging across our world. Yuuno entrusts Nanoha with a mighty talisman called Raising Heart that transforms her into a flying, wand-wielding magical heroine. Over ensuing adventures, Nanoha’s rapid mastery of her newfound superpowers surprises even Yuuno, as she blasts tentacled alien horrors into oblivion. Things change however, when Nanoha meets a rival magical girl named Fate (Nana Mizuki) and her busty, fox-eared sidekick Arf (Natsuko Kuwatani) who are also hunting Jewel Seeds for their own arcane reasons.
Magical girls come and go, but the basic ingredients remain the same. A cute but klutzy schoolgirl with low self-esteem discovers she has a special destiny and, via a magical makeover, transforms into a short-skirted superheroine. Aided by a cuddly magical animal sidekick, or sometimes a cute but non-threatening boy (in this instance, both) she sets out to save the world. Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is the feature film incarnation of a huge multimedia franchise and ticks all the boxes in magical girl lore. Nude transformation sequence? Check. Frilly pastel-shaded outfit with matching magic wand? Check. Soft-spoken rival whose steely exterior masks her vulnerability? Check. As an example of the magical girl formula at its most polished, this is attractively designed and will undoubtedly delight its target audience of adolescent girls but arrives in the wake of the amazing Puella Magi Madoka Magica (2011) which rewrote the rules of the genre.
While there is much about Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha that is cloyingly familiar, lacking the quirky charm of past classics like Cardcaptor Sakura: The Movie (1999) and Gigi and the Fountain of Youth (1985), seasoned anime fans should persevere through the clichéd first fifty minutes after which the plot throws some intriguing curveballs and introduces fresh elements. Among these, the novelty that Nanoha’s talking talisman Raising Heart speaks solely in English. As voiced by Donna Burke, with Kevin J. England performing Fate’s magical device known as Bardiche, Raising Heart sounds a lot like a videogame tutorial as it schools Nanoha on how to hone her powers. This concept extends not only to the rousing visuals where flying schoolgirls speed past Tokyo skyscrapers, zapping each other with lasers or battling giant robots and alien blobs, but also to the debatable subtext that implies videogames teach wisdom and tactics that can be applied to real life.
As a sprawling two hour movie compiled from episodes of the television series, the compressed story is occasionally hard to get a handle on, with subplots and characters (notably Nanoha’s four older siblings) dumped by the wayside. Like Creamy Mami (1983), this has a science fiction premise instead of the usual fantasy one and gradually reveals a vast cosmic conflict lurking beyond the earthbound battle between rival magical girls. Things grow more ambitious and complex after Chrono Harlaown (Mikako Takahashi), a young boy claiming to be an officer with the Dimension Administration Bureau, brings Nanoha and Yuuno aboard a spaceship. Here, his mother, kindly Captain Lindy (Aya Hisakawa) enlists them in their battle against the real architect of all this evil-doing, Fate’s mad scientist mother, Precia Testarossa (Rei Igarishi).
Surprisingly, given Nanoha’s name appears in the title, the bulk of the drama actually centres on Fate’s psychologically twisted relationship with her abusive mother who, far from a one-dimensional monster, proves a tragic villainess in the finest Marvel Comics tradition. Nanoha is more or less a bystander throughout the climax, which seems a mistake, although her gentle determination to forge a friendship with Fate rather than simply take her out, forms the heart of the story. Given the original Japanese title was Nanoha the Movie 1st Project, it should come as no surprise that a sequel soon followed.