Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha: Fateful Philosophy


So Berkles has been making me flashback to my days of studying Philosophy at school. And, at the same time, I’ve been watching Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha, partly because it has a good reputation, partly because it has ‘lyrical’ in its title and partly because one can’t watch mecha all of the time. (Entry contains spoilers.)

Except, it seems, one can watch mecha all of the time. For Nanoha has mecha, both in the broad Japanese sense of the term and in the limited English sense. Bardiche and Raging Heart have blasted their way into my mental list of ‘Great Moments in Mechanical Design’, venting steam and reconfiguring themselves like staves are the new Variable Fighters. Then there were the allusions to Gundam – an Argama-esque ship, the style of the action and even a hint of a Char in the blonde antagonist with perfect personal integrity.

Much to my surprise, those weren’t the only things I liked about the show: the action in general rocked like The Who live, and the story was well-executed. I would have liked the show to have had a bigger budget, but I hear good things from friends about the sequels.

[This has also prompted me to come up with another of those ideas for new anime. Along with Spice and Woolf, I now want to see The 08th M(ahou) S(houjo) Team, a grim and gritty story about a squad of moe-moe nine-year-old girls caught up in a war much larger than themselves. At the end the heroine loses a limb, but finds love with a kawaii shota mage from the other side. Goro Taniguchi: pick up the phone and give us a call – my people can talk to your people. Let’s stick this idea to a church-door and see if anyone reforms.¹]

A Baoa Qu
The space fortress A Baoa Qu is the Duchy of Zeon’s last line of defence.

Anyhow, philosophy. Philosophy and what I’m going to call, in my high-falutin’ way, ‘the Narrative Arts’ have an uneasy relationship. Stories, told well, are emotive and powerful. People pay attention to them. This makes storytelling a great way to raise some fairly serious questions. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, has sex and violence aplenty, but what it’s essentially about is mortality. (Which is why it’s aged so well. Try calling that irrelevant.)

Unfortunately, and very frustratingly for philosophers, stories are really, really bad at actually properly answering the questions they raise without slipping into allegory or fable. This is partly because stories are – probably for the same reasons that make them so emotive – often very reductive: ‘The personal is handsome and potent. The system has a beard.‘ This is (I think) why philosophers are prone to drawing examples from the Narrative Arts for illustrative purposes; if stories were a proper medium for logical discussion, they wouldn’t have to do this. They’d just become novelists. Consider for a moment how many stories you can think of which aren’t overt allegories or fables yet still manage to raise a ‘deep’ question and then provide a logically coherent answer.

This is what makes Fate Testarossa so interesting. She’s obviously an interesting character, but she acts as a thought experment too. Philosophy teachers have a massive armoury of these things they can select from when they want to make you think, and Fate reminds me of the kind that are designed to make you wonder where personal identity resides.

The rush of the moment, the flow of experience which we’re constantly filtering, is uncapturable. If you try to hold a particular moment, it’s gone into your memory. Memory’s a terribly fragile thing: we forget things, people are capable of unknowingly falsifying their own memories, and suggestions from others can alter memory too. Plus it seems to be in some worrying way connected to our faculty of imagination. Unfortunately, if it’s past experience that shapes us, then in some sense it’s this tenuously-held past experience that is us.


One of the questions commonly posed is ‘What if the universe and everything in it, including your memories, were created three seconds ago?’ (Or three years ago. By this genki girl who’s obsessed with the paranormal . . .) Are the memories valid? Since we wouldn’t be able to tell if this was the case, is the question itself at all valuable? Fate poses another problem about memory. Precia lost her real daughter, Alicia, and cloned her to produce Fate. Precia put Alicia’s memories into Fate’s head. Is Fate Alicia? So far, so normal: Nanoha‘s raised an interesting brain-teaser. This is what stories do.

What Nanoha does next is unusual. It proposes (as I read it) a particular stance on this problem. As far as Precia was concerned, Fate didn’t work: she didn’t function as a proper replacement for Alicia. But – here’s the clever part – this wasn’t because Fate was a bad copy. As might be expected from someone given a name different from the one she remembers, it seems that Fate diverged from the Alicia norm: she was a better daughter, less selfish and more devoted.

But the problem lay not with Fate but with Precia’s approach, as epitomised by the use of a different name. Fate wasn’t different to Alicia at her creation, but Precia knew that Fate was a creation. Hence the different name (Fate is named after one of Precia’s research projects) and Precia’s harping on about her daughter’s artificiality in the eleventh episode. Right down to the name, Precia is unable to accept her cloned daughter as her real daughter because she knows it’s/she’s a replacement (this being anime, she has the real daughter in a jar as a constant reminder).

The implication is that if someone else had cloned Alicia, inserted Alicia (I)’s memories into Alicia (II) and then replaced Alicia (I) with (II), there would be no problem. Ignorance would be bliss. The dramatic effects on Fate’s own personality of Precia’s inability to accept her suggest a startling conclusion: while character might perhaps reside in your memories, your identity resides in your relationships with others and their attitudes towards you. (For further evidence, I’d turn to Fate’s psychological recovery in the twelfth episode: she examines her relationships with everyone around her.)

What’s a cute little RX-77 like you doing in a show like this?

They tell me that Japan is a more collective/communal society, less affected by the post-Enlightenment, post-Reformation focus on the individual which I’m used to (I’d say ‘we’re used to’, but I’m aware that you, dear reader, might not be a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant). If this is the case, one could draw a cheap causal link here, although I’m not going to because I’m not an anthropologist or an expert on Nippon.

What I will do is qualify this entry. Unlike most stories, Nanoha proposes an approach to at least one of the brain-teasers it poses. What it doesn’t do, however, is propose it in a clear and logical fashion; to do that, it would have to be a (non-fiction) text, not an anime series. In fact, the problem/solution structure has to be teased out by the viewer – once again, this underlines the importance of what the viewer can bring to table – or perhaps even forced onto the show by the viewer. Is what I have done in this entry really very different from the standard philosopher’s raid on storytelling for a good illustration? (Apart from the fact that a proper philosopher would put it better, with syllogisms and so forth.) We’re handling entertainment first and foremost here and, sad to say, you can only go so far by thinking hard about the stories you enjoy when you’re having fun.

(And finally, my apologies to any readers who actually know their philosophical stuff. It’s been some time since I stopped formally studying the subject, so at best this is probably the work of a well-intentioned amateur. I’m pretty sure of my ground on the ‘stories usually raise questions but don’t answer them’ front, mind you.)


1. Because ‘Let’s run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes’ is so last century.

Any Other Business

Given that I dislike duplicating what you can easily find elsewhere, and writing stuff that’s devoid of intellectual content, I didn’t want to devote a whole entry to this. But since we should all Do Our Bit . . .

If you run an anime blog and you haven’t heard yet, some awards are being organised. If I understand the system correctly, anime bloggers can nominate the blogs which they think are the cream of the community. (Maybe if I get enough nominations, I’ll marathon True Tears and Clannad.)

Joking aside, this could be a nice little project so if you’re elegible to nominate, go and support it (note ‘it’ not ‘me’). Hopefully this won’t go the way of SaiGAR.

[EDIT: Turns out I had my post slug entered into the password field. (!) I have rectified this; here’s hoping it didn’t mess up anyone’s RSS readers.]

23 responses to “Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha: Fateful Philosophy

  1. : I now want to see The 08th M(aho) S(hojo) Team, a grim and gritty story about a squad of moe-moe nine-year-old girls caught up in a war much larger than themselves.

    Try Figure 17

  2. If you can get this much out of Nanoha then you should really watch A’s soon. Hayate and her posse pose a whole slew of identity questions, along with the usual anime staple “even if you’re born evil you don’t have to be evil.” Don’t even touch StrikerS, though. Only redeeming factor there is a Gaogaigar reference in the form of moe Subaru.

    And out of curiosity, have you ever seen the mecha show Tekkaman Blade? The whole last third of the series is heavily focused on memory, with the main character destroying his brain with each fight. Some interesting stuff about memory vs. emotions there. There’s also fighting powersuits, orbital lasers, and giant insects with tentacles, so it’s all good.

  3. Heh, funnily enough this “identify is bound up in other people” subject is exactly what I just finished up studying in social sciences a couple months ago. I don’t know about “amateur” though.

    If I were you I would, however, be wary of two things. One is assuming people make the same judgements about their own culture as yours. Ostensibly Japanese culture is more community-orientated (or at least family-orientated) than Western culture, but except when comparing Western culture to Oriental culture, I don’t think we see a lot of commentary in our own literature about how individualistic our society is: we kind of take it for granted. If I did see it I wouldn’t want to assume the author really meant it as commentary so much as just portraying life in [medium.]

    I forgot the other thing, maybe I’ll post it later.

  4. Hopefully this won’t go the way of SaiGAR.

    We will be trying hard to make sure it does not. Thanks for the heads up ^^

  5. A nice look into Fate-chan’s identity crisis. If you combine this with Nanoha extending her hand of friendship, you get the interesting dynamic of Nanoha giving life to Fate by recognizing her personhood. Thinking about it that way, this makes the Nanoha-Fate relationship quite impactful.

    Demian: I don’t think A’s is as impressionable with this idea of identity. Yes, there are more dynamics which make up the identity problem in A’s but by having that many, I don’t believe it stands out as much as the original. I find A’s more memorable because of its solid plot pacing, its mixture of shojo and shonen elements and the greater friendship aspect.

  6. “Only redeeming factor there is a Gaogaigar reference in the form of moe Subaru.”

    My friend I think you’re forgetting the classic bouncer pose scene from the second last episode, so unintentionally hilarious.

    Seven Arcs sucks if the 4th season of Nanoha doesn’t get a high budget, they must be making a shit load of cash off StrikerS since it’s averaging 20k dvds sold per volume.

    Nanoha = 5k avg
    A’s = 10k avg (yay higher budget)
    StrikerS = 20k avg (slightly higher budget than A’s with double the amount of episodes!)

  7. @ Author: Ooh, thanks for mentioning that. I’ll give Figure 17 a whirl.

    @ Demian: I watched the first episode of A’s last night. The presence of a red, 3xfaster maho shojo wielding a giant, rocket-powered, cartridge-ejecting hammer pretty much ruined me for coherent or logical thought, but I did enjoy it. Also, Tekkaman Blade sounds pretty interesting and brain damage as a price for fighting could be a pretty awesome plot device. [I swear, with these recommendations sometimes the comments on an entry can be more educational than the process of writing the actual main body of text . . .]

    @ Shiri: I take your point that assuming knowledge of someone else’s perspective is something to be wary of. As you can probably tell from the qualifications I layered my ‘Japan is communal’ remark with, I’m really not an expert on social sciences. [A lot of English universities, my own included, have very focused and clearly separated subjects, so I know a lot about books but nothing about any other subject, even in the Humanities.]

    In the literary sphere, there’s a popular theory that a big shift towards glorifying the individual – rational and alone – began in early-modern Europe and continued in the Industrial Revolution. This is supposed to be reflected in the growth of more individualisti literature – Ian Watt famously called this the ‘Rise of the Novel’. I don’t know if that’s accurate: I don’t like the form of the novel very much, so I try to avoid reading them.

  8. @ Impz: It’s comforting to know that it’s being handled by a group of people who are used to running blogs and so forth, at least.

    @ koneko-chan: Good point! I hadn’t considered that, but the way that Nanoha is basically trying to beat it into Fate’s head that she wants to be her friend is very significant. And Nanoha’s thing in the final episode that friendship is about recognising the other person by using their name. And I suppose we could look at Fate’s relationship with Arf and contrast it with Precia’s relationship with Fate – Precia and Fate are both dealing with a person that they created, but Fate is Precia’s tool while Arf is Fate’s friend.

    @ westlo: There might be a 4th season? That sounds good. Though I wouldn’t put it past the studio to plough their profits into beer money rather than hiring lots of skilled animators.

  9. I think StrikerS is worth watching, if only to see what happens when an attempt to try and become more than what people are used to doesn’t work out too well. I enjoyed it a lot more than the first two seasons, though I’m in the minority in this case.

    Though if you keep teasing out these things to make me think more, I could change that. :P

  10. “Hopefully this doesn’t go the way of Saigar”

    I’m staying out of these animeblog awards for just that reason. Saigar left a bitter taste in my mouth and I have a feeling it’s just going to turn into a popularity contest and everyone will support their sister blogs, people from their own country, people who support and write about shows they like etc. Plus if /a gets any word of it you can kiss a serious procession goodbye.

    I’m afraid I don’t share Impz optimism on this one, though I hope it works. If it does and there is another one next year then I might participate.

    Regarding the article proper, Nanoha taught me one thing, and that’s that lolis are as dangerous as any Super Robot out there. If there is indeed an anime character food chain then I think it goes:

    Supreme Being
    Seemingly Withered Looking Old Man
    Female Teenager
    Middle Aged Female
    Middle Aged Male
    Male Teenager
    Patrick Corlosawar

  11. “Plus if /a gets any word of it you can kiss a serious procession goodbye.”

    Meh. The only people voting on blogs are the bloggers themselves, so I’d like to think that the influence from outside sources other than other blogs are minimized. :P

  12. Leuconoe I would honestly be shocked if a 4th season of Nanoha isn’t made sometime this decade. Every sequel series so far in the franchise has managed to double the avg dvd sales per volume of the previous series. StrikerS alone has outsold the previous two series so I’m pretty sure it’s a matter of when and not if in regards to a 4th season.

  13. @animanachronism: I study at the OU, actually, so I don’t have a library to go to to begin with. On the other hand, if I get bored with work I can put it off till later and get back to rewatching Planetes.

    Anyway, you might be right about glorifying the individual, but doesn’t it still feel like we take that for granted these days? Everyone is used to the individual and individual being liberty being important – in America even more so than in England (at least in my experience.) No one really comments on it so much as it ends up as a “theme” primarily because that’s how the authors see life.

  14. @ TheBigN: From what little I’ve read, StrikerS does sound like an interesting concept, even if the general opinion is low.

    @ Kaioshin_Sama: Well yes, it probably is a popularity contest and an opportunity for blog-nepotism. But it’s a fun way to throw links around, a good exercise in mass blogsturbation if nothing else.

    Lolitas are truly deadly. I guess they’re top of the list of things you can’t kill on screen without bumping your anime into OVA territory.

    @ TheBigN (again): I’m not sure I understand the process, but it sounded like there might be a round of voting after the nominations? Or I might have that wrong.

    @ Westlo: Well, thank goodness for anime fans in Japan who can get hold of Nanoha legally, then.

    @ Shiri: You’re right that because we live in it, we don’t notice it (in the same way that some of the most perceptive things I’ve heard said about my country have come from foreigners) – a case of not seeing the wood for the trees. Until I started reading medieval and Classical literature, I didn’t see how keen on individuals a lot of novels are.

  15. There will be a round of voting after the nominations and will be anonymous and secure. Only bloggers will vote. The process is still kept under wraps for privacy issues.

    @Kaioshin_sama: I really do not wish that anyone i s left out from this. If everyone is like “this is going to be like SaiGar”, then no one will ever bother to do anything no more. ^^ That said, it will take a HELL lot for me to go down, and you can rest assured that I will persuade every single doubter here and persist until I get you to nominate and vote.

    By nominating your own choice, you help to promote sites that should be appreciated more. That, in itself, should be more than enough credit as we are gathering enough visitors to help the small blogs promote, yet give credit to the good blogs out there.

    In addition, i doubt anyone at /a have an anime blog or is able to write well enough to maintain an anime blog. There are rather strict criteria =/ You should stop worrying and start registering. If you are keen to discuss more, pop me an email at that @ animeblogger . net. I will be glad to discuss more ^_^

  16. so i’ve read through this before but not replied until late one night i was googling berkles and this popped up.

    so thank you for allowing me to make you flashback to your philosophy days

    also i didn’t read all of the entry. I haven’t seen MSLN and so some of it was lost on me, but neat post

    also i liked what you said about philosophers having an armoury of things to make you think

  17. Thank you! I recommend MSLN to you if you ever feel like watching something distinctly odd.

    And yeah, I think one of the best resources my philosophy teachers had is the long, long list of thought experiments, allegories, intuition pumps &c that previous philosophers have come up with (or borrowed from elsewhere). We used to spend whole lessons arguing about Chinese Rooms, Orgasmatrons and so forth.

  18. I do think StrikerS had (and still has) a setting full of potential: A transdimensional Starfleet staffed by Technomages AND muggles keeping the ultragalactic peace by means of pink beams of friendly demolition.

    A true alliance of technology and magic (Clarke’s law is reversible), each completing and reinforcing (and Agito-ing?) each other.

    (It’s one beef I had with Harry Potter, how little modern technology was exploited by local mages. And also why Kiritsugu in Fate/Zero is so awesome.)

  19. I ought to get round to watching StrikerS. As you say, the magitech premise – how would you put it, ‘any sufficiently comprehensible magic is indistinguishable from technology’? – is definitely interesting (and, I suspect, great material for a pen & paper RPG). Every time I consider starting the first episode, though, I remember all the bad things I’ve heard about it.

  20. The pacing starts very slow (almost slice-of-life), the cast and plot are too large and ambitious for its own good, but it can be a good average show if you approach it in full cognisance and acceptance of its shortcomings.

    But it does suffer in comparison to its prequels.

    I think part of the backlash was due to the fact most of us fans wanted more of the same AWESOME (A’s) but the writers wanted to try something different, complex and deeper. I at least respect that choice.

    That said, there are some great moments in StrikerS.

  21. Hmm. I’ll keep what you say in mind, and approach the show with low expectations, then. I can see the disappointment of not receiving more of the same AWESOMEness.

  22. Wasn’t this one of the major themes of Eva, the connection between one’s own identity and how one is seen by others?

  23. Possibly. I only watched Eva once, a long time ago, and I prefer to think about simpler stories. If I recall rightly, all the merging into Tang that happened at the end ties into that? It wouldn’t surprise me.

    This reminds me of one of the essays I wrote recently, which argued, in part, that when a character in some medieval genres meets a report of his or her reputation, it’s kind of like introspection is for a character in a modern novel. I don’t know how plausible that sounds, though.


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