Elementary school was a happy time. It was a period where I knew and liked just about everyone in my classes, something that would not remain true as I moved beyond primary education. I experienced so many things that I simply haven’t been able to in the time since. The straightforward joy of running around under the hot sun, sweat dripping down my neck as I desperately tried to avoid whoever was “it” in our daily games of freeze tag. The cooler, air-conditioned fun of spending recess indoors, playing Pokemon Crystal through an online emulator because my teacher was nice enough to let me, though we weren’t allowed to play Runescape. Sneaking into an unoccupied house so that we could play our gameboys for longer than our parents would allow us on a nice spring day. Life back then didn’t feel as it does now. Politics existed, I could certainly feel the effects of racism, but there was an intangible sense of connection between my peers that hasn’t existed since, fading as the hegemony of capitalism became more noticeable and routine to my growing mind.
Most notably, classes back then had a different air to them; friend groups existed, but the intense cliques of middle school had not yet developed, and while bigotry had reared its ugly head at this stage, the social stratification so characteristic of the world we live in did not seem omnipresent yet. Even those who disliked one another knew who everyone else was. I’m not going to say this is how everyone felt, but by middle school, I only knew all my peers by name, by high school, I couldn’t even boast that, and now, in college, I can hardly remember the name or face of a single person who I share a single course with. I might not have interacted with everyone every day, but at the very least, I had spent some time with any given person throughout the year. There was a sense of community to school, one I haven’t perceived in a long time.
Ojamajo Doremi does many things right, but capturing this feeling of social connection in elementary school may be the element that most makes it stand out. Unlike its elder sister Sailor Moon or its younger one, Precure, this Toei magical girl series is intensely focused on creating a believable cast to populate its leads’ daily life. Introducing characters of the week is the norm for long-running shows of this sort and Doremi does an excellent job at preventing this from feeling like superfluous material meant to bridge the gap between story-relevant episodes. Forgoing a monster-of-the-week format, the series is free from the pattern that, while certainly fun in magical warrior shows, tends to feel more limiting than liberating by the end of most year-long runs. Here, the only requirement is that magic be used in some way, allowing for a more diverse set of scenarios that aren’t forced to stuff fights into places they don’t fit.
This is paired with a heavy focus on the main girls’ class. In its 51 episode run, over a third of episodes are focused specifically on various classmates and school staff. Episodic entries that flesh out side characters are always an effective format to make use of in series like this, allowing them to tackle all sorts of emotional problems that the plot and protagonists would never touch on. Take the girl who lies in order to get attention from her classmates, with the show ultimately demonstrating that she’s a shy girl who enjoys writing fiction and is just a bit lacking in self-confidence, while also very possibly having a crush on Aiko. Similarly, look at the episode where the class’s resident rich bully is shown to be just about as insecure as you would expect, helping her to connect with another girl in her class who also has father issues. These episodes are all great, and the show delivers upon them perfectly, which isn’t unexpected given that it’s got some of Toei’s best directors on it, including Junichi Sato and Takuya Igarashi, reunited two years after Sailor Moon.
However, what makes it really work is that these aren’t just one-off episodes. These members of the class return, usually in the background but occasionally interceding into a given episode’s plot. Doremi may not talk with, say, Marina all that often, but she’s there, and this is a key part of the show’s appeal. The series is very focused on how magic shouldn’t be used as a crutch but instead as a tool that can assist you in improving your communities and helping people wherever possible. As the test-administrators say on the eve of their final exam, “helping the people is the most important part of being a true witch.” Rather than simply state a moral like this with no elaboration, expecting it to resonate due to the obvious importance of being a nice person, the series takes time to build up who “the people” are. It would be hard not to see some of your own friends or classmates in certain characters so the moral resonates stronger than it might in a less deft series.
This focus on the side cast is made more important when we look at the main characters. Much of what characterizes the so-called Ojamajo comes from their interactions with others; Doremi is a classic pink clutz who’s quick to make friends with anyone who isn’t a bully, Aiko is a comedy-oriented tomboy who’s always ready to stand up for others, and Hadzuki is perhaps the purest cinnamon roll this side of Steven Universe, willing to help anyone out though not as naive as you might expect. The other two witches are similar, with Pop being a genius at gathering people around her while still maintaining a childish vulnerability, contrasted to Onpu’s more backhanded approach to life, using her idol veneer to hide her manipulative nature which itself covers her more altruistic traits. These are character bios that work on their own, certainly, but when these girls spend over 20 episodes interacting with various members of their class, not even including the similar moments interspersed through more plot-focused episodes, these traits cease being just another set of attributes on a character sheet, just one way of marketing towards database consumption, and show signs of making up an actual personality as such.
Watching Doremi, I found myself longing for the days of elementary school, before my secondary sex characteristics began showing themselves, forcing me to show myself far less often. Back when my knowledge of politics was a vague awareness that yes, we were still at war in the Middle East, and there was a recession. Frankly, a time when it was easy to make friends with everyone, where I didn’t have comments calling me expletives every day that would get me demonetized if I were to repeat them here.
It can’t be said that any of us had magic in our childhoods like the girls in Doremi do. But, in all shows of this type, we have to question, what is magic, ultimately? In my view, it’s something meant to connect people, a tool designed to recreate the social fabric which capital, in its centuries of increasing dominance, has utterly stripped away. In that, it may serve as a bit of a false panacea to the harms of our time, but what’s wrong with dreaming a little bit? Childhood, at least in developed countries, is a time where this social fabric still feels present, if just that little bit, where capitalism, while obviously hegemonic, has not come to totally occupy our mental processes. Remembering a time in our lives before we fully felt the effects of capitalist realism is quite hard, almost impossible, and none of us make it to adulthood, or even to adolescence, without accepting on some level that capitalism is simply how the world works, and structuring our lives around that. It only makes sense to add a supernatural air in portraying that prelapsarian state, as the magic here is ironically a necessary part of making the experience feel genuine instead of cloying. Doremi isn’t the only show that’s taken this approach — its siblings do the same thing, if for different ends — but it’s a rare breed in perfectly capturing the feeling of being a child, with all the joy, sorrow, and hopeful naivety that comes with. It’s not a time I’d like to go back to, but it’s a time I miss.
Next time we’re going to be watching a real classic, one of the first idol anime and an early example of real robots, so check back in a month for the next $5 patron video on Super Dimension Fortress Macross!
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One thought on “A Magical Escape from Crushing Capitalist Adulthood – Ojamajo Doremi”
I do substitute teaching for elementary school and I see everything you mentioned here.