Grenade launchers, submachine guns, and laser swords are not the typical arsenal of magical girls, but, then again, Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online doesn’t bother much with convention. Without a single sailor scout uniform in sight, the spinoff series’ female characters get bloodied and dismembered in nearly every episode. Yet, for all its gruesome glory, the first, 12-episode season of SAOA: GGO, which wrapped earlier this summer on Crunchyroll, managed to become one of the most compelling, modern takes on the “magical girl” genre.
[This post contains spoilers for the first season of Gun Gale Online]
What makes a magical girl anime? Many entries have similar themes, like bumbling sidekicks, glittering transformation sequences and protagonists who defeat their adversaries with the greatest power of all: talking things out. Most commonly, though, mahou shoujo (literally “magical girl” in Japanese) series feature multidimensional women suddenly bestowed with extraordinary abilities, often leading to newfound responsibilities and challenges they must overcome to grow into young ladies. It’s like puberty, if puberty had a theme song and sparkles.
Nearly every magical girl anime can trace its lineage back to a single show: Bewitched. A Japanese dub of the 1960s sitcom inspired the creation of both the first magical girl manga, Himitsu no Akko-chan, and an anime, Mahotsukai Sally, later that decade. While their plots might be considered simple compared to modern examples, they pioneered a newfound focus on catering Japanese media to young girls.
Many of the early examples of mahou shoujo focused on coming-of-age tales and solving mundane problems with newfound powers, almost exclusively starring one of two tropes: a young, adorable witch or a young, adorable pop idol. It wouldn’t be until the ‘90s, with the release of the cult classic Sailor Moon, that the newly revitalized genre would adopt the evil-vanquishing and world-saving themes common in popular boy-focused franchises like Power Rangers. American audiences fell in love with Sailor Moon’s adventures, too.
This female quintet fighting evil by moonlight and winning love by daylight quickly become an international obsession, laying the groundwork for even more expectation-subverting spins on mahou shoujo. Some, like Cardcaptor Sakura, combined the more traditional stories of young girls with this new threat of magical foes. Other entries would fold in entirely new genres. Magic Knights Rayearth borrowed heavily from fantasy and roleplaying game elements, Puella Magi Madoka Magica proved magical girls could explore darker themes, even dipping into meta commentary. Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online brought ... guns.
Adapted from a best-selling light novel series, Gun Gale Online takes place several years after the events of the original Sword Art Online, where thousands of players found themselves stuck in the eponymous MMORPG, fighting for the sake of their real lives in virtual reality. In the world of the show, people cooled on the whole “virtual reality” thing following after the fiasco, though there’s a resurgence in gaming with the advent of new technology.
It’s in this atmosphere that protagonist Karen Kohiruimaki first takes up VR as a hobby. Self-conscious about her height, she finds the only game that will let her have a diminutive avatar is Gun Gale Online. In a short time, she develops an aptitude for gameplay, and dumping all her skill points into speed stats gives her an edge over her opponents. She’s quickly crowned “the pink devil” for her deadly skill in the game’s first Squad Jam, a battle-royale-style competition.
SAO: GGO weaves several common mahou shoujo themes into its unlikely narrative. Instead of a dazzling, stereotypical transformation sequence, Karen’s metamorphosis emphasizes the disparity between the two sides of her life, her in-game avatar acting as a projection of a “better self” in the virtual reality world. In real life, she may feel awkward, lanky and out of place, but in the game, she’s the minuscule, pink-clad Llenn, a pinnacle of magical-girl, ultra-femme aesthetics. The newfound cuteness renders her no less capable than a sailor-scout uniform would. Other women characters also adopt avatars that embody their desired attributes, like the school-age rhythm athletics club, who all opt for hulking, muscular avatars in a hilarious twist.
Llenn even possesses a magic totem, a common trope among magical girls. But instead of a Sealing Wand or Moon Stick, Llenn storms into battles armed with an FN P90 submachine-gun, which she calls “P-chan” because she’s adorable. P-chan even talks to her on several occasions, offering encouragement and ultimately saving her from taking a bullet.
The viability of girl-on-girl teamwork popularized by the quintets of Sailor Moon and later series like Tokyo Mew Mew also plays a key role in SAO: GGO, acting as the major plot-driver throughout the series. While the first Squad Jam sees Llenn paired solely with a male teammate, the game’s second battle royale has her playing alongside her real-world best friend, Miya Shinoharah.
Playing under the name Fukaziroh, her dual-wielding grenade launchers make the perfect complement to Llenn’s speedy, up-close combat. At first, Llenn squirrels away valuable time debating tactics in her head and ignoring her friend, until a careless step into an enemy trap injures Fukaziroh and the two are forced to regroup under fire. With an enemy team threatening them, the two realize that only through combining their opposing styles of fighting can they hope to survive and eventually fight Llenn’s online friend Pitohui, the only reason they chose to participate in the first place.
Fukaziroh isn’t the only ally Llenn convinces to join her side. After defeating the aforementioned school girls in the game’s first Squad Jam, Llenn crosses paths with them in the second competition while pushing towards Pitohui’s location, and they vow to assist her. Unlike typical mahou shoujo, this show of support sees no mercy from the enemy, and Llenn’s new in-game friends are sniped, combusted, tortured, and ultimately killed by their adversaries.
“Talking things out” is not an option in Gun Gale Online, and the final battle between Llenn and Pitohui is anything but glorious, descending into a vicious grudge match that Llenn only wins by the skin of her teeth, literally, using them to tear into Pitohui’s jugular as gushing blood stains them both.
The end of a friendship? Not in the least. In what is arguably the most compelling display of female solidarity I’ve ever seen, the series ends on a moment of the two VR warriors palling around in-game as if nothing’s changed. It’s “girl power” at its finest, given the modern twist so many other magical girl animes lack, their roots steeped in tradition.
With its transformations, focus on teamwork, and well-rounded female characters, unbeholden both to society’s conception of femininity and their violent avatars alike, Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online upholds core tenants of mahou shoujo while breaking new ground. The series posits, through gunplay action, that media featuring strong women doesn’t have to be beholden to a particular theme or look, that this entertainment should be as varied as the women watching it. And ultimately, it challenges the genre at large, planting its stake in the ground and asking: Where can it go next?
All 12 episodes of Sword Art Online Alternative: Gun Gale Online are now streaming on Crunchyroll and Hulu.
Alyse Stanley is a Virginia-based games journalist with bylines at Usgamer and Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Occasionally she pretends to know about anime and horror games, but most of the time she’s just making bad puns on Twitter at @pithyalyse.