⚠️ MASSIVE MAGICAL GIRL LYRICAL NANOHA SPOILERS IN THIS WHOLE PIECE ⚠️
⚠️ THIS ARTICLE DEALS WITH ISSUES OF ABUSE ⚠️
The third season of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is where a lot of fans drop the otherwise worthwhile series. That season is officially known as Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS, or just StrikerS for short. For the longest time, I considered Nanoha to be finished and complete by the end of the second season (known officially as "A's"), because everyone I'd talked to said it had serious pacing problems. However, with the release of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha ViVid, the fourth season, and Vivid Strike!, a new spinoff series, I felt like I was missing out on one of my favourite stories, so I decided to take the plunge and do it.
What I'd been told was roughly accurate. It wasn't entirely bad, but it definitely represents a sheer narrative cliff where it changes genres yet again and introduces and ensemble cast seemingly out of nowhere. The pacing is also really, really rough and it made me want to skip the series entirely and read a Cliff Notes version somewhere at points.
In this blog post, I will ruthlessly field-strip the series and show where it fucked up.
Too Many God Damned Characters
In Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's, you're introduced to the following primary characters:
Nanoha, Fate, Hayate, Signum, Vita, Shamal, Prescia
And the following supporting characters:
Chrono, Yuuno, Arf, Zafira, Lindy, Alisa, Suzuka, Alia, Lotte, Gil, Reinforce
The first seven run the show, while the remainder support the protagonists in their actions. Pretty tight ship, right?
Well, here's StrikerS list of primary characters you're supposed to care about:
Nanoha, Fate, Hayate, Signum, Vita, Vivio, Subaru, Tiana, Erio, Caro, Agito, Ginga, Lutecia, Jail, Regius, Zest, and The Numbers (Uno, Due, Tre, Quattro, Cinque, Sein, Sette, Otto, Nove, Dieci, Wendi, Deed)
And supporting characters (yes, there's more):
Rein, Griffith, Genya, Shamal, Zafira, Schach, Verossa, Vice, Carim... and so on, and so forth...
(StrikerS Fact: about a quarter to a third of the characters I just listed are named after popular Japanese cars. Makes you wonder if they were staring out into a parking lot when they designed the characters.)
Now, you might think it wouldn't be so bad, considering they've got 26 episodes to work with. I mean, they doubled the cast between MGLN and MLGN A's, and didn't lose any quality in the process - many consider it superior to the first series. But that's where the second problem comes in.
Hard-Turn Genre Shift - But Only Sorta
The thing with Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha and A's was that they were character dramas. The technology and politics were there to facilitate the character conflict and make it more intense and meaningful. Everything was meant to accentuate the inner conflict the characters were feeling - particularly Nanoha, Fate, Hayate, Signum, and Vita, but also Lindy and Shamal. The high technology could have been replaced with medieval horseback jousting and traditional wizardry and it would've worked just as well.
StrikerS takes all that and tacks on an ensemble political space-opera onto it. Internal power struggles within the Time-Space Administration Bureau, the Army, the Church, the High Council, and all the other military and political factions take the stage quite a bit throughout the series.
All these politics cause serious problems, because the show still ultimately wants to be about emotions and character motivations, but now has to awkwardly split its time between fleshing out the inner lives of a quadrupled-in-size cast, with the political drama of its new ensemble space-opera facade. Now, I'm not saying it can't be done, and other series have managed to pull this off (Battlestar Galactica (2003), Game of Thrones), but there's a catch: they have much, much more screen time to do it (44-60 minute episodes vs 24 minute episodes), and they often build these things up over multiple seasons. StrikerS doesn't have any of those luxuries, and near the end you're left with over a dozen character arcs that are given maybe ten to fifteen minutes of total screen time to conclude each, while also having to wrap up all of its political loose ends at the same time. There's no time to soak it all in or really care about what's happening at all.
In comparison to other anime with magical themes, Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood managed to merge character drama, political intrigue, action, and elements of cosmic horror together rather well, but FMAB had twice the runtime of StrikerS, and as far as I remember, also had a smaller primary cast.
StrikerS Fact: it also takes a really weird turn near the end where it nearly goes full Evangelion with a triad of literal brains-in-jars barking orders at the antagonists from behind monolithic obelisk screens, an unmistakable and nearly direct reference to SEELE and the Magi.
There Is No Real Antagonist Until Episode 11
I'm serious about this one, too. I think there's a short, 20-second scene at the end of Episode 5 of an then-unnamed mad scientist (later identified as Jail Scag-... Scagalet-... ugh, I just call him Jail Tortellini at this point) belting out a maniacal laugh, but we're largely left with random squads of autonomous robots and a mysterious little girl (later identified as Lutecia) waving her hands around for a few minutes mysteriously without explanation or statements of intent. That's the extent of the antagonist's involvement until Episode 11.
It seems like they were trying to go for something similar to Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex, with a slow-burn plot where the principle antagonist isn't revealed immediately, but rather becomes a mystery built upon with hints, clues, and misdirections, making you wonder who's really pulling the strings. That in itself is a fine narrative style to work towards, but StrikerS doesn't build up the mystery that way at all.
There's another problem with the antagonists, too. When the true antagonists are finally introduced, we find out that there's not one, not two, but three separate antagonistic factions, comprising of a total of 18 different characters. 13 for the first (Jail and the Numbers), 2 for the second (Regius and Auris), 3 for the third (Lutecia, Zest, and Agito - technically in Jail's group, but they act for their own interests and on their own).
Who are these god damned people?
Eighteen. And those are only the characters that really do anything. It's closer to 20-25 if you include the random bit-parts, too.
At that point, they have about 20 minutes per episode (this excludes OP/ED and narrated teaser intro), times 15 episodes (since the antagonists only really matter by Episode 11), to flesh out 18 different characters and their motivations, while also having the 12 principle protagonists have something to do. That's 29 characters that have to share time on screen, in addition to the fact that a large portion of it is dedicated to politics and technicalities. But that's not even the worst of it.
The Antagonists Are So Outclassed It Isn't Funny
The antagonists are so non-existent at first that the protagonists are more of a threat to themselves than anyone else. The show goes to great pains to show Subaru and Tiana being their own worst enemies, putting 110% into every little operation and nearly injuring each other with powerful overdriven spells that they can't properly control. This culminates with having Nanoha hold Subaru down as she shoots Tiana in the face with a powerful (albeit non-lethal) spell to teach her a lesson about pushing herself too hard against a more powerful opponent and leaving herself open to counter attacks. After that, Signum punches Tiana square in the jaw without warning for insubordination against Nanoha. It's later explained that Nanoha has a hard time with people trying to "be a hero," as she became gravely injured at age 12, and was thought she would never walk again, let alone be a mage. Nanoha's ability to belt out ungodly amounts of magical power made her lose sight of the details and unable to be aware of her surroundings, leading to her downfall.
Nanoha is, of course, a soft-hearted hypocrite, and the second a crying little girl gets involved, she ignores all of her own "don't be a hero" lessons and goes full Beast Mode on whoever looks at her precious small daughter funny. But I digress.
To this end, there's also the introduction of Limiters, a piece of magic-software that prevents Nanoha, Fate, and especially Hayate - who specifically becomes known as being "SS-rank", the highest rank of any mage seen for hundreds of years - from using too much power. They're apparently operated by people who work at The Church, and the three of them have to ask permission to be able to fight at varying levels their full potential along a gradient of power levels. This further sets the tone that the protagonists are simply too powerful for their own good, and that at their full potential, they would have absolutely no contest against anyone.
This has two side-effects: one, it makes all the other new characters introduced (Subaru, Tiana, et al) have no real role in the final plot arc because the heavy lifting inevitably has to be done by the heaviest hitters. Fate, Nanoha, Hayate, and Vita are the ones doing all the real work at the epicentre of the action (not that I'm complaining about that specifically!) because they're the most qualified to do so, while the new rookie characters they showed in the endless mock battles and training exercises are relegated to cleanup duties and their own relatively-minuscule character arcs elsewhere, which in itself causes distractions from what should be the Act 3 Climax. It's a mismatch of narrative power, and almost feels like two separate series' were smashed together at mach speed at some points. Two, and perhaps most damningly, it diminishes the accomplishments of the new rookie characters by knowing they have "I Win" Buttons at their disposal at all times.
A comparable series would be Young Justice, where in the second season, the "S-rank" heavy hitters (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman et al) are forced to leave Earth for a period of time, and can only return if the Young Justice League succeeds in one of their largest missions. There's no-one to bail them out, and they have to work through it on their own. The series does have narrative and character problems of its own, but it was very effective in forcing the relatively-rookie characters into having to solve problems on their own terms without relying on the more experienced characters.
This is further exemplified with Nanoha's involvement in the final plot arc. There's this one scene that I legitimately love, despite acknowledging its problems, where Nanoha is trying to save a suped-up Vivio from hurting herself and others with her newfound superpowers (wow, there's that theme again) while simultaneously running a Wide Area Search Program on her device to find one of the antagonists, Quattro, who's hiding somewhere in the The Cradle (an ancient spaceship) they're all fighting on. Quattro is shown in many scenes as being the most menacing of The Numbers, and the one clearly running the operation, Jail Tortellini's maniacal laugh be damned. While Jail did perform illegal experiments and was otherwise involved in unsavoury things, Quattro is often the one actively depicted as being an outright torturer and the primary enforcer of Jail's schemes. Once Nanoha's program finds Quattro on the other end of the ship, she turns 90 degrees to face a random wall point-blank, loads up one of her most powerful spells, and fires a clean shot through the entire ship and at least 50 bulkheads from bow to stern and nails Quattro right in the face. And thus, the most menacing, emotionally and physically abusive antagonist in the whole of StrikerS goes down in a single hit from hundreds of meters away without warning. Nanoha doesn't even get into the same room as Quattro, and they don't talk to each other all. That's the antagonist's plot-arc climax.
If I can fangirl here for a bit: watching Nanoha ruthlessly ice Quattro like that was awesome as heck and definitely brought out that "Who Would Win: Goku or Vegeta?" little kid in me, but as a 28 year old writer, it unfortunately and completely wrecks any sort of narrative power the antagonists had. Combine this with a scene where Fate is captured by Jail but then frees herself with a simple pep talk and costume change, and you're left with no real threat to speak of. The antagonists are explicitly shown as having next to no real chance of facing off against the "S-rank mages" of Nanoha, Fate, and Hayate. The only real risk involves Vivio and Nanoha, where Nanoha has to find a way to save Vivio without hurting her too much - again, the protagonists are portrayed as simply too powerful.
Furthermore, Nanoha is forced to use a spell that's explicitly and repeatedly explained as being exceptionally hard on her body (known as Starlight Breaker using Blaster Mode - Level 3), which ostensibly has consequences for Nanoha's long-term health, but we're given no indication that she suffers any real consequences from it. In MGLN ViVid, she's shown as being perfectly healthy and powerful just like before.
If you're going to state something has consequences, it better damn well have visible consequences, and not the kind of "Consequences" you find in a Telltale visual novel.
It Assumes You've Taken In A Lot Of The Optional Expanded Universe Content
I like to think that TV series' or movies should stand on their own, even when a comic or previous series exists. People complain about obvious origin stories for characters such as Batman or Superman (yes, we all know the Wayne's got killed and Bruce fell into a cave; yes, we all know Superman was sent to Earth as an orphan from Krypton), but for some more obscure superheroes, origin stories are a good idea because they let you know where they came from without having to wade through literal decades of character legacy. I had no idea who Ant-Man or Hank Pym were before the titular movie. Now I do! Fantastic! Now I can enjoy his inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe a bit more.
StrikerS assumes you've taken in a lot of additional content prior to watching it. It assumes you've played an obscure Playstation Portable game (games? Though as far as I know, only Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha A's Portable: The Gears of Destiny is canon), read some supplemental manga, and listened to audio dramas (known as Sound Stages), none of which have been officially translated or brought over to the West. That additional content may have made StrikerS more enjoyable, but going in blind I was broadsided by a bunch of characters I'd never heard of being treated as if they'd always been there: in particular, the Church and a few of the additional military agents that Nanoha, Fate, and Hayate seem to be great friends with.
If you're an English fan of Nanoha, the only things translated that you can legally purchase are the television shows up until StrikerS and the first series of manga. You can stream MGLN ViVid and Vivid Strike!, but as of yet there aren't Blu-rays with English subtitles as far as I'm aware. Everything else is a fan-translation. You can buy the Japanese audio drama Sound Stages (which are of course canon) but to properly follow along, as a non-native speaker, you'll need fan-translations. This is more of an indictment against the western licensers of the series than anything (LOOKIN' AT YOU, AMAZON), but it does show just how little StrikerS stands on its own. And this is a personal gripe, but it's difficult for me to get into an audio drama when I have to read a separate translated script while listening along, or watch it semi-legally fan-subtitled on YouTube. It ceases to be an "audio drama" if I have to read stuff.
Too Many God Damned Plot Arcs
In the last six episodes, they try, and in my opinion, largely fail, to tie up the following plot and character arcs. These are just off the top of my head and not necessarily listed by plot importance.
Erio, Caro, and Lutecia - Caro trying to "befriend" Lutecia as Quattro tries to torture Lutecia into having a to-the-death fight with Caro and Erio.
Signum, Agito, Zest, and Regius - Their whole Warrior Code/Bushido-zombie thing.
Quint, Zest, Genya, and Regius - Flashback plot arc that takes place in the past. Somewhat related to the one with Signum/Zest but it's far enough detached that it felt separate to me.
Subaru and Ginga - Subaru having to save her brainwashed sister Ginga by going into Beast Mode and punching her repeatedly. Actually one of the better plot arcs, believe it or not.
Tiana and a few of The Numbers - Tiana is pinned down in a random abandoned building for a while, completely removed from the main action. She's saved by a supporting character.
Fate and Jail - Jail goes all Darth Vader on Fate with the "I am your father" line when she's up against the ropes. Fate looks like she's on the verge of having a breakdown before Erio and Caro give her a pep-talk. She shrugs the whole thing off with a costume change and captures Jail without much fanfare.
The Numbers - Many of them decide a life of crime is bullshit shortly before the climax, but not before Jail impregnates them all with copies of himself which then necessitates the TSAB performing mandatory abortions on all of the Numbers I mean what the FUCK was this all about, jesus christ. It tries to contribute to the general theme of Nanoha that motherhood can be all sorts of fucked up, but it takes it way too far and becomes completely meaningless.
Hayate and Regius - You find out Regius was working by-proxy with Jail to develop Forbidden Technology. In the meantime, Regius keeps trying to take down Hayate and Section Six over a personal grudge, and gets himself killed by an assassin (Due) in the process.
The High Council - The three brains-in-jars are randomly killed off by an assassin (Due, again) without much fanfare, despite ostensibly being the masterminds behind the whole plot climax, including Jail, The Numbers, Regius, etc.
Vivio, Nanoha, and The Church - This would later be expanded upon in MGLN ViVid, but at the time they dropped some pretty heavy stuff about Vivio's origins and just sorta let it drift by the end of the season. It wouldn't start being answered for another three to four years until the MGLN ViVid manga came out, and only animated in 2015, a full eight years after StrikerS. You're also expected to listen to the Sound Stage X which is set between MGLN StrikerS and MGLN ViVid to get more backstory on Vivio. (And despite a run-time of only two hours, it introduces yet more new characters you're expected to know by ViVid.)
Verossa and Schach - They go on this wild-goose chase and kill a bunch of robots. I don't remember much about it other than them catching one of the random Numbers.
Vita and Hayate vs The Cradle - Vita goes on a suicide mission to destroy the engines of the ancient spaceship, known as The Cradle. She's saved by Hayate and nothing of permanent consequence happens to Vita as far as we're presented, aside from a "you're slowly turning into a mortal human" side-plot, which of course gets forgotten as Vita takes a blade half her size through the back which goes through her whole body and comes out through her chest. It's more consequences-that-aren't, much like with Nanoha.
Don't worry, she walks it off like a champ.
Six episodes for all this to wrap up. That's a bit much for me.
Some of you who know me well will probably insist that the only reason I don't care about a majority of these plot arcs is that they don't have much to do with with adorable lesbian subtextual romance utilizing laser cannons from outer space. Well, OK, sorta, you've got me there, but I have been known to enjoy a good ensemble space opera in my time where gay romance isn't the primary appeal. The problem is that there simply isn't enough time for everything to go down smoothly. The writers of StrikerS needed to start at Episode 1 or 2 with this stuff, but even then I wonder if it would've been enough time to cover everything.
The Good Parts
OK, so there were some good parts to this series. The highlights in my eyes are as follows:
Fate, Nanoha, and Vivio (aka The Takamachi Family) - Those cute family moments where Nanoha and Fate adopt Vivio together is one of the most precious things I have ever seen in any anime. Vivio calling both Fate and Nanoha "mama" makes me squeal like a fangirl and even made someone I was watching StrikerS with cry. There's one scene where Nanoha has to get up and get to work early, and Vivio is hiding in bed with her because she was lonely. She rolls the sleeping Vivio over into Fate's arms so she's not cold or lonely anymore. Fate gently holds Vivio, and Nanoha smiles. It was so pure and good, and they feel like a real family even that early on.
Also, good on the writers and producers for intentionally not having any sort of male love-interest for either of them whatsoever, and not Burying The Gays, either. By MGLN ViVid, Fate and Nanoha are still raising Vivio and living together, and now that the series is focusing more on Vivio and Einhart, Fate and Nanoha have apparently gotten their de-facto Happy Ending where they'll be together forever. Vivio also ends up taking a serious shining to Einhart, a character introduced in ViVid - who may or may not be a bit genderqueer herself, being the direct reincarnation of a male prince complete with his (their?) memories - and there's official art depicting them as a couple, too. If you put the pieces together, this means that Fate and Nanoha are queer parents, one that has experience with life-threatening injuries and disability, the other with two abusive parents (Prescia and Jail) and experience with systemic violence, raising a queer child that they jointly adopted and saved from a bunch of government-sanctioned abusers, who herself loves someone with an atypical gender identity or experience. And they turn out OK; they don't die or get separated by destiny or any of that crap. They pick up the pieces of their lives and psyches and come together to make it work.
I can't think of a single piece of media that has something like that, let alone a major franchise like Nanoha. Yes, it's saccharine and idyllic for people to heal from their problems so cleanly over time, but god damn, we need some of that, you know? The issues still affect them day-to-day, but they've made peace with most of it and moved on with their lives. It's awe-inspiring to me, and why I love this series in the first place. And it all begins with StrikerS.
The producers have made it so screamingly implicit with official wedding-themed art and the voice actresses for Nanoha and Fate jointly saying "I ship it" that the fact the pair of them never lock eyes and explicitly say "I love you" doesn't bother me as much. The love is so real and undeniable that they don't need to say it, especially if it would cause problems for the series or studio due to bigotry.
Subaru and Tiana - they were obviously given more care and consideration to their design over Erio, Caro, and many of the other new characters. They have a nice dynamic of Soft Butch and Femme Tomboy going on which is cool and their friendship is the highlight of the first 11 episodes for me. They're given enough time on-screen to be people you can care about, and their chemistry together works well. They're also orphans who get adopted like Vivio, giving the series yet another example of adoptive parenthood which is super awesome. (Their adoptive dad seems like a pretty cool guy, honestly.)
Erio, Caro, and Fate - Fate not only legally adopts Vivio, but she's also the legal caretaker of Erio and Caro. Despite them not getting much character development aside from a couple of flashbacks, their interactions with Fate are adorable and again, exemplify adoptive motherhood. There's a lot of that in Nanoha.
Midchildean Society - As much as I've criticized the genre-shift, seeing Midchildean politics up-close for the first time was interesting. You begin to realize that Midchilda as a society is fairly messed up, favouring its police and military above all else, engaging in a constant arms-race with itself by reviving ancient weapons and forbidden technologies and giving them to random beat-cops, all in the name of "protection" and "innovation." What was explained as dangerous forbidden technology in MGLN A's is now apparently standard-issue for any TSAB member who asks, with everyone getting a taste of that ancient Belkan mojo. Construction contractors build entire neighbourhoods that then go unmaintained and uninhabited, much like you see in some places in China (which is further exposed upon in the first movie). Philanthropy and religious charity seem to be the only real forms of Social Assistance that exist on Midchilda, which is again expanded upon in MGLN ViVid and Vivid Strike! - orphans are expected to either get adopted by a rich family, or go to work as young as 11 years old. The government apparently provides very little resources for orphanages to so much as feed their residents.
Midchildean society apparently has enough technological power to bend time and space to their will, and create vast armadas of warships and military installations with the press of a button, and to construct entire cities that nobody lives in, but not enough money or will to feed literal orphans. It's a bit of dissonance to see them treat supervillains with the utmost care and attempt to give them rehabilitation so they can reenter society without long-term imprisonment, while letting their own children starve. It's messed up, and intriguing, since until this series, Midchildean society had been largely portrayed as "empathic post-scarcity military" a la Starfleet from Star Trek - but apparently they never eliminated money or poverty, despite their high-minded ideals. The TSAB seems to be the only branch of the military with any kind of conscience, but their influence on domestic affairs seems to be next to nil, so they do their best simply to make sure things don't get even worse or descend into war. The show grows up a bit, just like the characters, and that's fine by me, in and of itself.
Put simply, Midchilda is a society with the most advanced military in existence, constantly locked into an internal arms race with itself where random citizens and cops alike are able to access increasingly devasating weapons of mass destruction, where the technology and advancement of infrastructure is opulent but is seemingly fine with letting orphans go homeless and starve to death, providing next to no social assistance for anyone as it'd interfere with aforementioned military's budget. Does that sound familiar to you?
What If StrikerS Was Good - I Mean Really Good
Here's my theorycraft on how to save the most plot and characters possible while still making narrative and thematic elements coherent and cohesive.
First off, StrikerS needed to cut the character count by a third, and move some of the other characters into a separate series. Second, the series would need to be split into two parts, 13 episodes each.
The first series would focus on Subaru and Tiana, while Fate, Hayate, and Nanoha were off on an important mission somewhere else, like I mentioned above with my Young Justice reference. This one would encapsulate the TSAB vs Army plot, where Regius tries to overthrow the TSAB while its heaviest hitters are away on a mission or otherwise indisposed. This would make the trials and efforts of Section Six meaningful by having their fights be the the climax of the show without more experienced characters around to bail them out. Signum and Zest could also still have their plotline running in the background as a B-plot. In this series, Regius would be deposed from his position by the end of it, but not necessarily killed. This would be a more classic Stand Alone Complex storyline, which I personally feel would've benefited both the story and the characters. Vivio could even be introduced in the midst of all this, but not directly utilized as a character until the second new series I talk about below. Ginga's brainwashing arc could also still happen, but done by Regius's forces as a way to bring heat on Section Six rather than Jail directly screwing with things. But where did Regius get the tech to brainwash Combat Cyborgs? How mysterious! A set-up for a future mystery, perhaps?!
The second series would be the major plot arc of StrikerS, where Fate, Nanoha, Hayate and the Wolkenritter find Vivio, and discover that Regius's plot from the first series mentioned above was part of a deeper conspiracy involving Jail and The Numbers (of which there would only be 5-6, not 12 - and yes, I get this fucks with future continuity in ViVid because some of The Numbers become recurring support characters, sue me). It would then focus on busting into The Cradle and focusing more time on its connections to ancient Belka, giving further backstory to Vivio and helping set up things for characters like Ixy and Einhart in ViVid. The rest of Section Six could show up and help near the end, but they'd be supporting characters without taking centre-stage. Lutecia and Erio/Caro's (or maybe only Caro's) confrontation could also be included as a B-plot, but this time, taking place on The Cradle with everything and everyone else.
Some other characters wouldn't make it into the show. I'm not sure which ones specifically (possibly Erio), but it'd have to be a bunch of them.
StrikerS feels like a tax you have to pay to get from one side of the franchise to the other. You can stop at MGLN A's and have yourself a good time - I know I did - but to progress beyond that, you need to watch StrikerS, since it introduces so many important characters and concepts necessary to properly enjoy MGLN ViVid and Vivid Strike!, but with so many problems it can feel like a chore, especially if you're not into the whole Expanded-Universe-Is-Actually-Mandatory-Canon thing.
I still encourage you to go through it if you like Nanoha, but I highly suggest finding the time to one-shot marathon the whole thing all at once if you can over a day or two. You're likely to give up if you let any time pass between episodes.