Ah, the Magical Girl anime – a staple almost as old as anime itself. Following in the prestigious footsteps of Sailor Moon, Cardcaptors, Madoka, and Sally the Witch (among others), Fate/Kaleid Liner Prisma Illya stars Illyasviel von Einsbern and Miyu Edelfelt as Magical Girls tasked with tracking down powerful magical artifacts known as ‘class cards’ which are threatening the stability of the world.
For those familiar with the Fate universe, the class cards are based off the classes of the Heroic Spirits summoned during the grail wars in previous Fate series such as Zero, which I previously reviewed, and Stay Night. Many characters from previous shows make appearances, although often not quite in the same capacity. But, don’t worry, it is altered enough that you won’t feel lost if you have little experience with previous Fate series.
The characters, as mentioned above, are primarily variants of characters seen in other parts of the Fate continuum. Illya, herself, is seen briefly in Zero and has a larger role in Stay Night for example. Even though they are characters who have been seen before, in some capacity, the personalities and designs are distinct enough that this spinoff doesn’t skimp on the character development. The first arc is only 10 episodes long, but you get a good understanding of the personalities of all six of the main characters – it even ventures into some strange territory to give you this understanding in a few episodes. You’ll know what I mean when you get there…
While they do a relatively good job, especially considering how short the season is, at developing the characters… they do a notably bad job at building history or establishing background. You get the brief bit at the start where you explore two the main characters – Rin and Luvia – establishing the reason they’re being sent to where the show takes place… but beyond that it’s mostly character driven with very little story.
One of the standard components every magical girl anime has is the character’s advisor. This character is usually the one who gave them their powers in the first place, frequently having either a secretive and dubious nature. Prisma Illya is no different, with Sapphire and Ruby – two sentient magical wands – filling this role. What is really fun is that Ruby makes no qualms about being deceitful or manipulative… that isn’t to say she’s evil or anything, but she’s certainly not lawful good and it’s refreshing to see them be open about their scheming from the start.
The common expectation set by most magical girl anime is that the heroines will have some special power and they’ll use it to defeat monsters. Sailor Moon’s Tiara/Scepter, Sakura’s wand, etc. And they use it, but for the most part any action is relatively shallow and usually very one-sided. Either they win without trouble, or they lose without even fighting back and then magically unlock a new power, ally, or trick that they use to win without trouble. Not so much in Prisma Illya. The protagonists here actually have to fight… and the fighting is dynamic and engaging. In stead of problems being overcome by the convenient inclusion of some new power, they actually have to overcome the enemy strategically – most of the time. And the rare occasions where that isn’t the case still have an explanation within the show.
But most interesting is that, given the world it takes place in, magic is not exclusive to our magical girls. Two of the main characters, the previous bearers of Ruby and Sapphire, are actually magicians in their own right. One of the most incredible parts of the show is a brief scene where these two become magical girls again and you get to see what a magical girl in this world can be once they have mastered their powers.
Probably the most uniquely memorable aspect of this show are its visuals. And I’m not talking character models, although those are pretty good… but the effects and animations are amazing. They spared no detail in making the magic in this show look incredible. The magical effects are more than just one-off effects repeated every episode. Since Prisma Illya takes place in a world that already has magic, you get some pretty fantastic effects and a fair variety thereof. The combat animations, especially once they get past the ‘throwing magic at each other’ phase is detailed and intricate in a way I’ve never seen from the genre, and even surpass a lot of anime in more typical combat-oriented genres. A few of the fight scenes in this show are absolute marvels to behold.
I also particularly enjoyed the corrupt Heroic Spirits. They’re really interesting to look at just on their own, so even if you don’t have the exposure to the previous Fate shows you’re in for a treat. If you do have that experience, though… you’ll be in for a real treat seeing the way the various Heroic Spirits are represented when corrupt.
When watching Prisma Illya, we were impressed by the way the show overcomes the common stereotypes and tropes in Magical Girl anime. Beyond even just the ones mentioned above, the show even acknowledge and took humour at some of the unspoken things. Things like the ‘censored nudity’ that most of these shows feature… typically they’ll make no note of it, occasionally you’ll see a brief mention of surprise at the costume by the heroine. Illya gets angry at Ruby and makes a snarky comment about being outside in the nude when it first happens and is very shy and embarrassed about the transformation for the first few times, even going and hiding in a bathroom to get transformed at one point.
I think this is the most well-made Magical Girl show I’ve seen. It does a great job of overcoming the genres general weaknesses, while also capitalizing on its strengths and it takes it into a new direction that I think has been neglected. It’s not perfect, and we’ll see how they can manage to keep it going, but the first arc has set a great base without feeling incomplete.