Hey there, fellow magical girl fans, I hope you’re having a magi-nice time! Today, let’s talk about the fourth installment of Asari Endou’s and maruino’s cult classic, Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers, the heights it doesn’t quite reach compared to its predecessors and the neat it achieves regardless.
Prism Cherry is, by all means, an ordinary girl and suffers from the fact – average in looks, academics and athletics, she seeks something that isn’t this yet is unable to find it – even after becoming a magical girl, she can’t help but realize she is just about as bog-standard as it gets. As she has long since given up on reaching for the stars and settled with a life of defective mediocrity, she encounters four princess-themed fellow magical girls who are unlike anything she’s ever seen: Living in a facility, they need to take magical medicine to stay transformed and follow a strict ruleset. Against all expectations, Prism Cherry makes friends for a lifetime with these new comrades by her side; and so, for the first time in her life, Prism Cherry has found a place she truly belongs to.
Meanwhile, the same can’t be said for ex-prison guard Filru. As the massive restructuring of the Magical Kingdom is coming to an end, she is facing a crisis that not only magical girls are all too familar with: She has lost her job. Not sure what to do with her life from now on, she sets out on a journey as she receives a mysterious mail to ‘capture the artificial magical girls’. Looking for a stable occupation and a place where she can simply be needed, she doesn’t have much of a reason to refuse. After all, anything is better than having no purpose in life.
Meanwhile, series protagonist Snow White is desperately searching for any living traces of her good but presumed dead friend Ripple. As she is about to run out of clues, she, too, amongst many others, receives the same mail as Filru with a note attached that the person she is looking for might just be at the destination.
As these three magical girls in search are now on the lookout for what they can’t live without, a huge confrontation of ideals is about to happen – but will they actually find what they so desperately seek?
Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers is, in a way or two, the story about people in search and what matters most to them in life. Yet Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers could also arguably be dubbed “The Return Of Snow White”. Since really, when was the last time we actually got to engage with Snow White? She wasn’t around in Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Limited, Episodes hardly counts and she barely had any screentime in Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Restart where she certainly didn’t actively engage towards the reader in any way, shape or form. So despite her small appearances, this is the first time we really get to see Snow White again after she left us in volume 01.
As such, it’s smart (albeit not always entertaining) to make us follow Snow White’s endeavors not from her perspective but Fal’s – as Fal is trying to make sense of her, so are we. Fal is new to Snow White and in a way, so are we; this really isn’t the girl from volume 01 anymore, is she? Fal feels relatable on his quest to figure out how Snow White ticks and what drives her because we also want to know. We see through his eyes just like we see through our own. We have essentially become estranged to the protagonist by this point. As such, Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers is the very personal tale of both us and Snow White.
It’s a smart premise to work with for sure. I can see why Asari Endou did the things he did. I just don’t think the execution can quite keep up as this is an ambitious undertaking on some surprisingly shaky legs.
The way Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers humanizes Snow White on her brutal journey that has made her discard most of her humanity and joy in this world ever since its beginning is by introducing a childhood friend to the story and making her a catalyst of sorts in terms of character progression. Human Snow White is now explicitly connected to Magical Girl Snow White, something that should not be the case. These two sides of a coin now coming together and unleashing unforeseen results is a recipe for a fascinating character journey that… never really develops?
I’m willing to swallow the “Coincidentally, both Snow White and this new, previously never mentioned before character are childhood friends and magical girls on opposing ends” premise. It’s technically plausible albeit a bit amateurish. The far bigger issue here is that their entire connection lies in the past, is told, not shown through merely being briefly mentioned and they only really interact with each other twice during the story and maybe exchange about five lines each, with both interactions largely boiling down to “Wait, it’s you? I wasn’t expecting that!”
This is a major issue that sadly weaves itself through the character writing throughout the entire book. The aforementioned artifical magical girls/elemental princesses are on the big end of receiving the screentime in Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers as well as a select few others. Then there’s the rest. The big underdeveloped rest. Some of these characters feel like second-class citizens compared to the elemental sisters.
But even the elemental princesses who do receive backstories and explanations on how they tick never have these elements implemented all too well into the ongoing story. The setpieces are there but they don’t ever move. So much of Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers just feels incomplete. The friendship of the elemental sisters is brought up as a leitmotiv – Inferno revisits a treehouse from olden days, thinking back of her childhood friends, among which was Snow White; and Quake, for instance, is antisocial yet fills her sketchbooks with drawings of her friends and they ask her to show them so she decides to draw new sketches of her friends yet none of these elements come to a cycle. You don’t return to the treehouse or sketches, both of them remaining as potentially strong symbolic elements completely cut off loosely.
This is a larger issue with the entire characterization of the princesses. There are good backstories to be found in Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers but they don’t matter: Inferno’s leg injury made for splendid characterization at first yet stopped factoring into her character writing quickly as she turned out to be yet another hot-blooded character akin to the likes of Captain Grace and Marika yet with none of the unique appeal. Meanwhile, Deluge used to be a school bully and has grown estranged to the concept of friendship but that too is completely dropped. As a result, these characters are more interesting to read about in their backstories and how they fumbled themselves into the story of Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers than in what they actually end up contributing in present tense. Engaging elements that are fundamental parts to a character’s identity that, in Restart or Limited, would have tied into the ongoing events and have had an arc of sorts like Pechka’s cooking or Wedin’s sense of justice ended as mere footnotes akin to something on a character background profile sheet.
For some reason, maruino’s ending illustration delivered more on giving the pathos and tragedy these characters face a proper backbone and sendoff than the light novel itself did. What is a friendship story with the ties between these people dangling loosely around?
This brings us to the rest of the characters of which several fare quite well but some scrape around at a bottom of the barrel tier in terms of this franchise. MahoIku should, under no circumstances, have anything like “filler characters” but Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers very much just did. Some characters receive background information that looks like it might lead to something and then they just die. Others are integrated as blank sheets and left in that state. At this point, I couldn’t help but realize that 16 characters for one volume might be a bit too much unless you manage to do memorable, interesting things with them. With Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers however, the format feels self-serving rather than helpful to the story and characters. This is not to say that cutting the amount of characters would be the best choice of options rather than a re-allocation of screentime or a second volume however. Regardless, in its final state, MahoIku Jokers underdelivers on the character front.
The pacing of Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers leaves some things to be desired as well. As far as I’m concerned, either you start the killing soon or you integrate massive, convincing characterization. Doing neither just serves no point. I can start caring about characters with hardly the biggest characterization through the elements of death and danger. If you spend so much of your time establishing… something, yet not the characters without bringing the paranoia of who might die in what way into the story, MahoIku doesn’t really work.
There are also far too many passages where characters draw obvious conclusions the audience has already drawn or is aware of. I don’t need several paragraphs on artificial magicals girls from every involved party when the baseline boils down to “Weird… these magical girls are not like us magical girls… we don’t really know much here, do we?” Yeah, that’s the premise of the book. We don’t need that from Filru, Inferno, Deluge, Snow White, Prism Cherry and who knows who else.
This point of some of the content wasting the reader’s time in Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers brings me to two more issues: One is the premise of conflict through misunderstanding. This was what primarily weighed Limited’s first half down for me and it’s ever so present here. I don’t like half-heartedly constructed conflicts that only exist to pad out the volume through integrating battles that serve no purpose other than a quick demonstration of characters’ abilities when you could have as well used that time just as wisely to actually build up said characters.
The second issue is that Asari Endou also needs to stop the mindgames with character identities. Look, every single time an important character’s identity is left in limbo, I start to question why that is the case because usually that means that we know this character yet aren’t supposed to know. From thereon, all I really need to do is figure out which of the characters from previous installments it is and you know, the thing about MahoIku is that there’s not too many options to pick from. Geez, I sure do wonder who Magical Girl X might be! Maybe it’s Cherna Mouse! Or Pechka’s little brother! You never know!
Sometimes, you know, it’s okay for a wild card character to be just that – a wild card. A foreign element you can’t really tie into the equation. It makes things a lot more interesting.
So overall, I have some major issues with Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers. But don’t get me wrong, it’s still a good book. And of course, you have ups and downs with arcs, that’s a given. Not everything can replicate the sheer level of quality of Restart. But the fact that this in large parts doesn’t understand the strengths of its franchise to me is just deeply worrisome.
But enough with the negativity! Let’s talk some about the positives! Of which there are plenty!
First of all, the franchise strengths are still there. Granted, characters and deaths have taken a hit in quality but compared to other media out there, you can still get totally obsessed over your lovable magical girls. At least I know I am! My favorite character is Stanczyka as she’s the best example of someone oozing so much personality through her mere presence. But never let it be said that I wouldn’t wanna take the adorable, super cute and fluffy wuffy wuffy Shufflin home with me! Or Marika, even though she’d break my nose and smash my rip cage. She’s a good definition of a hateably likable problem child, really.
Asari Endou also keeps things fresh and once again offers a new take on the franchise. Unmarked was a magical girl-themed battle royale story. Restart was a mystery meets MMO quest. Limited an action thriller with criticism on systematic failure and elaborations on what it means to be a magical girl. Jokers is a surival horror story combined with a character study. Granted, the base premise of magical girls fighting and dying stays the same but the way this concept is approached from different angles is quite stunning.
And trust me when I say that this one has quite the survival horror appeal to it. Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers, even by franchise standards, has some of the most stomach-turning and downright depressing content in it. You will feel bad, that much is for sure.
Meanwhile, the antagonists leave a very strong impression albeit for different reasons compared to previous installments so once again, Asari Endou keeps things fresh. Likewise, he understands how to portray an intense, twisty battle where being outnumbered actually feels threatening and hopelessness and despair creep into the reader, something that’s usually hardly the case with big numbers as a main threat in anime and manga. At its best, Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers is a brutal, gripping onslaught.
Thematically speaking, even though Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers does not have the sociopolitical/ethical overtones of Limited, it’s an incredibly strong read and it does play with some rather interesting concepts. It can’t keep up with its predecessors but it still has some nice things to say.
Snow White’s inability to act in Unmarked has led her to learn the very valuable lesson that you must act before it’s too late as Ripple remarks at the end of the Unmarked light novel or as Snow White goes to say at the end of the anime: Small acts of kindness won’t change anything. Yet she has thrown herself into a world of death and terror and keeps discarding herself in the process. Is self-sacrifice really the option to take here? Time will only tell.
Maybe Snow White can fix this world. But to do that, first she must fix herself. And she can’t do that.
Also, while I am not quite fond of their characterization, the artificial magical girls make a very stunning thematic contrast to the regular magical girls: Inferno has become estranged to her own environment as a result of her injury forbidding her from living the life she always wanted, Quake has antisocial tendencies as she has never had much of a youth, Deluge lacks empathy and looks at close relationships with a sense of mystery and Tempest feels that she looks too young and unremarkable to get where she wants. As they become magical girls and a group of friends, all these issues are fixed and they can find some meaning in their lives: Inferno finds out she can run again, Quake sees herself relive the adolescence she’s never had, Deluge finds herself within a group of friends for the first time in her life and Tempest can now reach for the stars instead of just dream of them.
This wish-granting transformative process in Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers is the complete opposite to MahoIku’s usual character writing wherein the characters’ issues and flaws are drawn to the forefront as they become magical girls and the magical girl part doesn’t bring forth change. Ruler used to be a capable elitist with a problematic personality who was done wrong to; she stayed that way. Calamity Mary was an abusive mother and became a mass murderer as a magical girl. Ripple transforms from an antisocial girl with trust issues to someone more open and kind-hearted not through becoming a magical girl but because she met Top Speed. Becoming a magical girl doesn’t change these people; there’s nothing quite that magical about it.
Compared to the realistic outcome of becoming a magical girl working for the Magical Kingdom, the artifical magical girls’ lives are “pure” in a sense. It’s obviously no coincidence either that they share color traits and form a unit as you see it happen with traditional magical girl groups from anime and, left to their own devices, they begin to interpret their magical girl lives as what you would expect them to be based on the kids stories on TV, turning into something very different from how the Magical Kingdom envisions it. They are by all means living the traditional magical girl life, far away from all the cynicism and bureaucratic clusterfuck of the Magical Kingdom.
“Artificial magical girls” sounds inherently wrong; however, by looking at how they live their lives, aren’t they essentially the right ones? The ones who “get” magical girls?
The theme of friendship also plays into this. Friendship is the thing that makes you yourself and complete. To all of these girls, becoming a magical girl enrichens and changes their lifes, cures their wounds and introduces them to a world of wonders where they can be who they truly are contrary to their everyday lifes. It gives them a home, a place where they can stay at and be at ease. It’s a transformative process as it should be according to stereotypical magical girl fiction. And that is something Snow White and the others couldn’t be farther from.
Whereas the Filrus and Snow Whites of this world are still looking for what they are in need of, the artificial magical girls and Prism Cherry have already found it. That is a very damning statement about the Magical Kingdom and its magical girls not living their lives correctly. Are any of these girls working for it really happy? Even though this is a story that doesn’t bring up the Magical Kingdom a lot and doesn’t criticize it directly, it’s a scathing damnation of it.
The best part of Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku Jokers is subtly hidden however: It’s a small substory of how, even though you might consider yourself to be completely average and unremarkable by common standards, you might just be the missing link in a group of friends you wouldn’t think you fit into or turn out to be another person’s shining star. It’s no coincidence that one of the chapters is titled “The Miracle Of Meeting You”. Because even if you see little redeeming qualities in yourself, you might just make another person’s life whole.
And isn’t that just the nicest thing?
Final Verdict: Good.