Lights, Sparkles, Action!: An Introduction to Magical-Girl Transformations

magical-girl transformation
It would be no exaggeration to say that the transformation sequence is one of the staple features of just about any magical-girl show out there. Indeed, thanks to classics like Sailor Moon, transformation sequences have become so rife within anime that even parodies of the trope have become commonplace. But what specifically does a transformation sequence signify, and what makes it such an integral part of magical-girl titles?

First up, let’s set the scene. Hark, an evil alien/brainwashed citizen/generic bad guy approaches! This is a fantasy show, so they no doubt have a variety of nefarious magical powers up their sleeve and would like nothing better than to wreak havoc on the heroine’s turf. As someone who stands for peace and justice, the magical-girl cannot possibly allow this to happen – but she is but an ordinary schoolgirl herself, and can do nothing without accessing her own magical abilities first. It’s transformation time!

magical-girl transformation sequence
She reaches for her handy pendant/brooch/pen/whatever and invokes some key phrase or other. Possibly this was taught to her earlier by a guide in cute animal form, or maybe she instinctively knows it because shut up she just does, but either way, she’s activated the crucial transformation sequence. Said sequence typically includes some or all of the following: a long, sparkly light show in which time is apparently suspended; being lifted into the air and spun gracefully around; being miraculously stripped of whatever everyday clothing she has previously worn; and becoming clothed in some kind of new, colour-coordinated outfit formed out of ribbons of magical energy. Time and gravity then reassert themselves, allowing our heroine to strike her signature pose and righteously vow to defeat her foe.

In a nutshell, this type of transformation is about discarding a mundane, civilian identity to take on an empowered, magical one. It takes place in a kind of sacred space, where time is virtually non-existent and the magical-girl is able to harness her true, inner powers (love, courage, friendship, etc.) and give them physical manifestation. The most well-known of these sequences no doubt take place in Sailor Moon (1992-97 and currently airing as a remake), but a variety of similar transformations are apparent in nearly every magical-girl anime title, including prototype Cutey Honey (1973-74), the Pretty Sammy parody series (1995-97), the ever-popular Pretty Cure (2004-present), and relative newcomers Genei wo Kakeru Taiyou and Fate/kaleid liner Prisma Illya (both 2013).

So complete are these transformations that to ordinary people, the magical-girl wielding her powers is apparently nearly always unrecognizable as the girl as she appears in everyday life, despite the fact that she usually wears no mask or any other conventional disguise. To the viewers, she simply gets a new outfit and accessories, but to everyone in the anime universe, her magical energy literally transforms her into a different person. (Once in a while there are exceptions to this rule as in Cardcaptor Sakura, whose titular character doesn’t really have a transformation sequence herself but instead transforms her magical key into a wand with which to access her powers.)

In purely practical terms, transformation sequences are also responsible for eating up episode time and saving money. Stock footage can be reused over and over again, and as soon as things get stale, the heroine can always simply gain a new and improved power, which calls for a whole different transformation sequence – likely along with a costume redesign to boot. Moreover, since it’s usually implied that the transformation sequence is basically instantaneous, it can be easily skipped over should an episode have plenty of other content to get through, or else stretched to its limit so that every magical character present undergoes the full rigmarole. Transformations can therefore take up anywhere from a couple of seconds of airtime to several minutes if there just so happens to be a whole team of magical-girls at the ready and some space that needs to be filled.

magical-girl transformation sequence
In those titles aimed primarily at a young female audience, the nudity during these transformation sequences tends to be emblematic of purity; it signifies the heroine becoming worthy of her powers, who must enter a magical, purified state to be able to properly wield them. In most of these cases, nudity is shown mainly in silhouette form and is likely not intended to be perceived as especially sexual in nature.

However, titles that are interested in deconstructing or subverting genre-normative stereotypes, such as Revolutionary Girl Utena, have transformation sequences with more sexually loaded connotations, and those aimed predominantly towards male audiences or which outright satirize magical-girl conventions are likely to be far more explicit. Compare, for example, a transformation sequence from Sailor Moon or Tokyo Mew Mew with one from Puni Puni Poemy or Kill la Kill. The former are fairly innocent affairs that have little or no interest in titillation – they’re targeted chiefly to pre-adolescent girls. The latter two are comedies aimed at older males, both of which consciously lampoon the magical-girl genre.

These days, it’s also not unusual to see magical-girl transformations parodied not only via gratuitous amounts of cleavage, but also through gender-bending. The likes of Dragon Ball Z is a good example of the male answer to magical-girl shows, with plenty of muscle flexing and subsequent clothes ripping, accompanied by heavy grunting and even an inexplicable change of hair and eye colour, but there are also several titles that are more or less exactly what a generic magical-girl show might look like if the main character(s) were teenage guys instead of girls. Star Driver, for example, is a mecha show with a male protagonist who gets a very magical-girl-esque transformation sequence nearly every episode, while Binan Koukou Chikyuu Bouei-bu Love! is essentially a whole magical-girl title in itself, whose cast just so happens to be made up of mostly effeminate high school boys.

In fact, so pervasive has the transformation sequence become over the years that even non-Japanese works sometimes feature them. Disney’s The Little Mermaid was one of the first American animated movies to involve a transformation sequence that’s markedly similar to that of an anime version of the same, and was followed up by the more tongue-in-cheek magical transformation scenes of Fiona in Shrek and Vanellope in Wreck-It Ralph. American TV shows have likewise gotten in on the action, such as when Invader Zim’s GIR begins his transformation sequence, only to pause midway and step into his dog costume before zipping it up and walking away offscreen.

For both good and for ill, anime is a form of entertainment which is very much reliant on traditional codes and conventions to in order to convey narrative or lend symbolic significance – many of which are specific to certain genres. While there are certainly magical-girl titles which don’t rely as heavily on transformation sequences to carry the show along, they’ve become such fixtures of the genre that it’s all but impossible to imagine a magical-girl show that’s utterly devoid of them. However, as they’ve been developed, subverted, and parodied over time, it can at least be said that some transformation sequences have taken on a life of their own, and that they will always be appreciated by those with a penchant for pretty girl warriors with hearts of gold.

Question of the post: Are there any magical-girl transformation sequences that have really stuck out to you or that you count as favourites?

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15 thoughts on “Lights, Sparkles, Action!: An Introduction to Magical-Girl Transformations

  1. I can’t forget a transformation scene in Fairy Tail where the dozen or so bad guys are delighted to watch. “Wow, it’s like her clothes are coming off!” That’s the first time I’d seen the transformation scene mocked for the obvious thing.

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  2. Transformation sequences remind me of the Power Rangers shows I watched as a kid. Watching the rangers transform or seeing all the zords come together to form the megazord was always thrilling. Funnily enough, a crappy Power-Rangers knockoff actually hit the nail on the head by zapping the zords while they were doing their “appearance” sequence, thus destroying them and the good guys were like, “…uh, what now?”
    There was also a mech/harem (don’t ask) anime called Asura Crying where the main character would always take a full minute summoning his robot thingy. Every time, I was like “He’s just standing still while his robot comes out of the ground. If someone so much as backhands him, he’s done for.”

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    • I’m not surprised, given that the American Mighty Morphin Power Rangers borrowed much of its footage from, and was heavily influenced by, Toei’s early 90s super sentai series Kyouyu Sentai Zyuranger. While a completely different genre, I think there are some definite parallels between super sentai tokusatsu shows and magical-girl anime.

      Ahh, I’ve heard of Asura Cryin’, although I’ve never seen any of it myself. I think it’s probably one of those shows that I’m content just to skip…

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      • As a guy who’s seen Asura Cryin’…yeah, you can skip it. It’s one of those anime where every single villain starts out as the cocky, laughing guy who’s all-powerful until the next one and then he’s suddenly your friend and ally. Is there some cultural thing to anime shows making every villain a good guy or is it just a thing?

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        • Just a thing, I guess. It happens a lot in anime, but then, it happens plenty in non-Japanese cartoons and other forms of media too. Pretty sure “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” is an American idiom, after all.

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    • Oh, that’s pretty cool – I only ever watched a tiny bit of Magic Knights Rayearth, so I didn’t know they only went through the single transformation sequence.

      Yeah, the trope is pretty widely known now thanks to the likes of Sailor Moon and DBZ. Though I admit, I always found it funnier and way more obvious in the latter, because while the transformation sequences in Sailor Moon tend to focus always or primarily on the actual transformation, DBZ often shows all the reactions of the people watching said transformation, so the audience has to be aware that time isn’t being weirdly suspended there.

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      • They get UPGRADES throughout the series (once they earn them by passing tests of character), but remain the Magic Knights throughout their stays in Cephiro (Ok, S2 gets a little more complicated but that’s basically what happens).

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  3. Great article! You mentioned some things that wouldn’t have occurred to me, both in the practical and symbolic aspects. I was also interested that you mentioned the male equivalent. And now I’m imagining a show set from the perspective of the agency responsible for the transformation, the costume or robot suit or whatever…

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  4. Given the popularity of the magical girl transformation, I’ve always wondered where it originated from. Did the person who dreamt it up ever know it would become such an established animation trope?

    Mentioning magical boys , do you think future animes will ever play magical boy transformations completely straight like Star Driver’s? Or will it just be a rarity amongst the many straight-up parodies of it and magical girls in general as in Cute Defense Club?

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    • Who knows. It’s generally understood that Cutey Honey was the prototype magical-girl title, but I have no idea whether Go Nagai (or whoever else worked on it) knew whether the transformation sequence would become such a staple of the genre.

      I think that because transformation sequences are just so well known now, it’ll be rare for magical-boy transformation sequences to be played completely straight, if they ever have been at all. Star Driver was at times a serious anime, sure, but I don’t think even that played the trope without a certain sense of tongue-in-cheek there.

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  5. The flagship of the non-anime magical transformations fleet: Winx Club. Every episode contains several minutes of transformation, and the girls themselves get so many new powers and costumes that you simply cannot keep up after a point. I quit when the girls’ transformations and signature attacks started to take so long I was reflexively wincing and waiting for a witch or demon to swat them down like flies while they took their time twirling/posing.

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