Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, as the title suggests, is a show about your average girl fighting evil with newly acquired magical powers. The opening of every single episode also reminds us, in case we forget. Still, there are a few things that make Nanoha stand out in the genre.
For starters, Nanoha is only nine. Usually the heroines in these shows are high school-ish. Because she is so young, her reactions when first gaining her powers and confronting enemies are more engaging and realistic, since younger kids tend to scare more easily than older teens.
Second, unlike some magical girl shows, which are more concerned with killing first and asking questions later, Lyrical Nanoha is all about the power of friendship. Specifically, the main character, Nanoha, wants to become friends with her adversary, a taciturn and melancholic girl named Fate. Both are after numerous powerful Jewel Seeds (and both for different reasons), but Nanoha senses good in Fate and is determined to win her over.
That turns out to be a wise decision, as Fate’s really not the true villain; it’s Fate’s evil mother, Precia, who regularly beats her and manipulates her into doing her bidding. The reason for this abuse is revealed later in the series, but seeing as how Fate is in one of those relationships where she constantly tries to please the other person but fails to meet their ridiculous expectations, it takes someone like Nanoha to make her realize that there are those out there who truly love her, and aren’t just using her for ill ends.
If there’s one theme central to Nanoha, it’s loneliness. Every central character suffers from this somehow, and this aspect drives each character’s actions in some fashion. Nanoha was frequently alone as a young child, and because of this she can sense the same kind of unhappiness in Fate. One of Nanoha’s friends, Alisa, feels lonely and angry when Nanoha won’t share what’s been preoccupying her thoughts lately (which is Fate, of course). Fate’s partner, a human/animal named Arf, experiences loneliness and hopelessness when she desperately tries to convince Fate to stop helping her wicked mother, only to have her pleas fall on deaf ears. And, of course, in the most obvious case, Fate herself feels alone due to a traumatic incident involving her mother later in the series that I won’t give away.
However, be warned that its first few episodes are incredibly unremarkable. Before Fate is introduced, there are little more than “monster of the week” formulas, with some forgettable monsters to fight. This part of the show also has the usual magical girl clichés: Transformation sequences (which I didn’t feel terribly comfortable watching, being that this is a nine-year-old, after all), a talking animal mascot (who is actually a human boy in ferret form) who tells Nanoha how to use her powers, and the rather old hat plot itself, about collecting enough [insert mystical, powerful item here].
The slice-of-life aspect of the show doesn’t fare much better, since Nanoha gets along with her friends and family just fine, and there’s next to no conflict in those scenes. You feel like you may need to see a dentist after those “everyone is happy” moments. But luckily, by the time Fate is introduced and Nanoha becomes curious to discover why she’s sad, the show gets more interesting. So give it a few episodes, and it improves.
The animation won’t knock your socks off, but it’s acceptable for anime TV standards. I would deduct a couple points for repeated footage during the transformation sequences (typical of this genre), though luckily these aren’t present in every episode. The designs are cute, though if you abhor “moe”, you may want to look elsewhere. As for the music, the dramatic orchestral tunes fit the tone of the series, but they weren’t particularly memorable. And I hit the skip button as fast as I could every time the end credits began; it was way too sugary for my taste.
The dub is mostly good. Christina Vee does a fine job as the young Nanoha; luckily she doesn’t sound too old to play a nine-year-old. Jennifer Alyx as Fate gives a more understated performance, because most of her dialog is near monotone, but her emotion comes through later in the series. And Lauren Landa does double duty as both Arf and a character introduced later called Chrono. She makes both roles sound quite different, which is good. I thought some of the deliveries were flat, but those mostly came from minor characters so it’s not a huge quibble.
Special features on the set are essentially absent, unless you count clean openings/endings and trailers as special features. Which I really don’t, as they’re standard on anime DVDs and I never watch the clean intros/outros. Annoyingly, as with The Familiar of Zero, this is another title which doesn’t seem to have English credits anywhere on the DVD. Without them, it’s difficult to know who played a certain character, as many of them are newcomers to the VA world. Being that this title was finished just before Geneon went under, it’s understandable that things were rushed, but it’s still frustrating.
On the plus side, the art box is nice. It’s sturdy, and features Fate and Arf on one side and Nanoha on the other. The individual DVD covers are colorful and showcase many of the characters as well.
While not an exceptional series (due to its average beginning), Nanoha has more going for it than some magical girl series, due to its emphasis on inner turmoil rather than flashy spells and sword slinging (though for the action fans, it has some of that, too). It also gains points for having a slimy villain that you want to see get comeuppance. And you pacifists at heart are sure to love the series, as the main character would rather just talk and be friends than blast them to oblivion.