Anime Observations: Nanoha ViVid and ViVid Strike!
Welcome to Anime Observations, a new column on JiH where I take an anime series I've watched and point out a theme or idea that might (or might not) have passed you by on first viewing, and expound on it. Or if you haven't seen the series, hopefully by reading this you'll take an interest in it and give the show a try. I tend to pick less popular series, and I'm always happy when a show I liked a lot gains new fans. For our first installment, we'll be looking at the magical girl series Nanoha ViVid and it's sister spin-off, ViVid Strike!
Most magical girl fans either already have or will eventually run across the Nanoha franchise. Though it's barely a decade old, it's noteworthy for both its unique approach of being a magical girl series aimed at men (more on that later) and just how huge it is: Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha currently spans no less than five anime series, soon to be three films, and several manga and sound stages--all of which are canon to the main storyline. It starts out telling the story of a "normal" nine year old girl, Nanoha Takamachi, as she makes friends in a Defeat Means Friendship world, gradually seeing her grow from a Magical Girl into a Magical Woman, with the series eventually becoming the tales of her (and her wife's) daughter, Vivio Takamachi in the fourth installment of the franchise, Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha Vivid.
Nanoha ViVid as well as its sequel/spin-off, ViVid Strike! are unique in the anime world for being two series that are the most core type of battle shonen: both series are essentially tournament anime, series where characters are introduced for the sole purpose of facing one another down in one on one matches, to determine an ultimate winner. These are a not-so-guilty pleasure for me, as both a fan of fight scene choreography (both animated and live-action) and someone who believes the structure of a tournament allows for a variety of interesting mini-stories to be told over the course of a series. Still, tournament series themselves aren't particularly unique in anime...but Vivid and Strike both stand out for their choice of participants: in both series, the only participants are young women.
This is where we get to the idea of magical girls aimed at a male audience--the Nanoha series has several of the tropes of magical girls such as the fanciful transformations and dresses, but in both Vivio's series and Nanoha's there's a large focus on action and the detailed weapons of the characters, both things that would typically appeal to men. And while there's some unfortunate fanservice present in the form of the series' transformation scenes--the rest of the series is played quite straight: fantastical techniques, flashbacks to reveal characters' backstories mid-battle, and the determination to succeed against impossible odds. If not for the fanservice the series would be nothing short of progressive, if not revolutionary for how effortlessly it allows women to not only participate in something typically thought of as masculine, but excel and find joy in growing consistently better at it. But equally interesting to me is that both series take the opportunity to do something with the genre that isn't often seen: showing how characters cope with defeat, rather than victory.
Most tournament anime follow a similar throughline in terms of fights and their progression: the scrappy underdog battles against the superior elite, struggling against all odds and pulling out a victory through determination and desire not to disappoint themselves or their friends and family. It's a familiar story, but perhaps one a tad TOO well worn--as even fans of the genre often find themselves rolling their eyes at the improbable victories. With ViVid and ViVid Strike however, this is entirely different--as seen in two key fights over the course of the two series' combined twenty four episodes. But Nanoha ViVid starts conditioning its viewers not to get used to these well-worn tropes almost from the very beginning.
The very first match of Nanoha's DSAA Under 19 Intermiddle tournament introduces us to two new characters--delinquent-type Harry Tribeca and studious student body president Els Tasmin. Harry is larger, more physically fit, and her skills and abilities are overall more suited to the DSAA tournament, which allows all types of fighters but focuses primarily on close-quarters combat, while Els is more of a combatant that focuses on tricks like binding her opponent with magic and utilizing weapons. Still, years of watching tournament anime would condition one to believe Els would be the victor: she's the underdog, it's a grudge-based rematch, and outside of obvious exceptions typically larger, "dangerous-looking" opponents are some of the first to get tossed out. And yet, Harry wins this qualifying round with little trouble and Els is knocked out of the tournament. The "elite" fighter wins, the underdog is ejected from the main storyline.
The close of ViVid's first season sees Vivio's rival Einhart Stratos go up against one of Vivio's best friends, Corona Timil. Over the series' twelve episodes, Einhart has never shown herself as anything less than overwhelmingly powerful--defeating nearly everyone who challenges her, up to and including the main character, without ever really pushing herself that hard. By comparison, Corona is the least physically-inclined character in the series--her special ability is summoning golems to fight for her, and even mid-battle there's a flashback of her path into martial arts. She didn't start out doing it because she loved it like Vivio, or because it runs in her family like their friend Rio, or even because she wants to protect anyone like Einhart--she did it because her friends were doing it. And once she started, it became the primary tie she had with the rest of them, and out of a desire not to disappoint or embarrass the rest of her team she tries to excel like the rest.
From the first season, Corona experiences the most growth in terms of her technique--she learns not only to summon full golems, but summon parts of golems and use them to augment her lacking physical ability, and even how to "program" herself and somehow control her own body remotely, mimicking the abilities of her more physically fit friends/fellow martial artists Vivio and Rio in order to give Einhart the closest fight she's seen thus far--going so far as to keep going even when her bones are broken and her body is incapable of moving without magical manipulation. ...But eventually, the inevitable happens and Corona is beaten. And it's here that the series' solidifies my observation.
In the aftermath of this major fight, Corona finds herself in the infirmary for first aid, while Einhart is left to think about her future matches. Depressed about the outcome, she talks with her coach Nove Nakajima about how she hadn't realized that in becoming strong, she was destroying other people's dreams, which leads to this exchange, where Nove explains the burden of being the winner...and what happens when you face defeat:
Einhart: "I wanted the power to protect the things I love. That's the purpose of my Hegemon Style. I don't want to become strong to crush other people's dreams. It's Not just Corona...it's also everyone who I beat in the qualifiers. I might've really hurt them too."
Nove: "Of course you did. There are happy winners and sad losers. That's how competition works. People gather together to prove their own strength, compete, and test their passion against one another. They train in hopes of winning, but sometimes they can't. Even when they give it everything they've got. It's always sad to lose like that. But y'know...the fighting from your ancestor's era was different. When you lose your match, you don't have to worry about losing anything else. You may lose, but you can get back up. You can add the pain of defeat to your own strength. That's what everyone's here for--that's the world you've stepped into."
When characters achieve victory in matches, that's usually the end of it. There's maybe a bit of celebration, but things usually immediately go to the next match or the next plot point--there's rarely ever as much focus on what the losers in these tournaments have to face, they never talk about what defeat means, or how you carry on in the face of it. Corona handles her loss with impressive composure--and if anything has her resolve to continue training steeled. Still, not everyone can deal with loss so well.
My last example is within Nanoha ViVid's sister spin-off series, Vivid Strike! Keeping the tournament theme but using a new main character and antagonist, Strike follows the story of a pair of orphans, Fuuka Reventon and Rinne Berlinetta. The two of them are an odd couple--Fuuka's more of a rowdy girl who ends up fighting all the time while Rinne is the shy, quiet sort--but the different paths life takes them down leads to Fuuka becoming a hardworking, nice girl while Rinne becomes a cold-hearted championship martial artist after a particularly traumatic bullying incident. Despite featuring the entire primary cast of Nanoha Vivid, they are placed as side characters, and the story is set up for a showdown between Fuuka and Rinne--but before it can happen, Rinne ends up in a match against Vivio, the main character of the previous series.
Before (and during) their fight, several defeat flags are raised high for Vivio: a former main character facing the primary adversary for the new main character of a new series, after having won previously and the show having established that Rinne has improved substantially. The series even brings up Rinne's hard past compared to Vivio's "easy" life. All of these things in another series would've resulted in a devastating defeat for her, but in this universe? Vivio dominates most of the match, and despite a rough patch near the end--ends up pulling off a second victory, this time through knockout.
However, unlike Corona, Rinne was a character who had built her life and self-worth on the idea that strength will protect her and her loved ones from all danger--and that strength needed to be dominating. Overwhelming. Perfect. Losing twice to the same opponent, the second time on a pure knockout, leaves her mentally shattered.
The question then becomes where this character goes. Strength has been her everything--it's been what carried her through life after enduring terrible bullying that even caused her to miss her grandfather passing. But the entire time she's used this as the basis to keep moving forward, it's been with the caveat that the strength has to be absolute--now that it's been proven that it isn't, what's she have left? Another series would've let that be the end of her story, but with Vivid characters grow more from defeat than victory--its through defeat they gain new friends, and learn valuable lessons that make them stronger in the future.