The Concept of Family in the Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha-verse

March 11th, 2012

At the beginning of Volume 4 of Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha Vivid and the end of Mahou Senki Lyrical Nanoha Force, it’s hard to avoid the obvious – group shots of all the characters smiling happily, not in portrait fashion, but as if we, the readers, are allowed to see them in a candid, relaxed moment. And it’s hard to miss the subtext here – these people, people who were our enemy for reasons that were beyond their control – are now our friends, our family.

It’s not uncommon to see this absorption of enemy to friend, especially in shounen series where it has long been known as the Dragonball Phenomenon. Enemies that have been beaten by the hero become allies – it’s easy enough to recognize this pattern in One Piece, Yu Yu Hakusho and other Shounen Jump titles – it’s not too hard to see it in Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura, as well.  Because the hero/ine’s motives are pure, when the enemy is released from their bondage, of course they will become an ally.

But, as I read these two manga serially, I couldn’t help but notice that the Nanoha-verse takes this another step. These former enemies don’t just become friends – they become family. In fact, the concept of an alternative family structure is embedded deeply in Nanoha, far more deeply than just about any manga/anime mythos than I can think of.

It seems a bit ironic to start from the beginning and remember that in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Nanoha and her best friends on Earth all have traditional families, with two parents, siblings, pets. In the first series, Nanoha frees Fate from her ties to her manipulative and insane mother. This act of beating the hell out of the bad guys is affectionately known to fans of the series as “Befriending.” ^_^ At the end of that series, it’s pretty obvious that Fate and Nanoha consider themselves closely bound by friendship  – and many of us see their relationship as more. This is borne out in the second series, Nanoha As, where they now live together. Fate, freed now to create her life on her own, is adopted by a powerful and high-ranking member of the Time-Space Administration Bureau (TSAB). This gives her both status and protection when she is released from jail. More importantly, it gives her a family to turn to, something she has never had before. With Nanoha as her partner, Fate is now ready to live a fulfilling life with purpose, family and community.

In a parallel alternative family, Hayate is surrounded by loving, yet wholly unreal, avatars. Signum, Shahal and Vita make a great family for Hayate, but the four are also enthralled to an evil entity. Together Fate and Nanoha “Befriend” Hayate and her alternative family, freeing them from evil influence – allowing Hayate’s Knights to manifest fully as real humans and bringing them all into Fate and Nanoha’s “family.”

In StrikerS, we skip forward a few years. Fate and Nanoha are clearly partners both in life and work. Additionally, Fate has adopted two wards of her own – Caro and Erio, both of whom have experienced ostracization much like her own past. The kindness shown to her by Admiral Harlaown is now passed on and doubled. Added to this extended family are trainees Subaru and Teana, each of whom is taken under the wing on of one of the main characters. Proteges are naturally, “family” – the Japanese characters for “deshi” (pupil, protege) are 弟子, “younger brother” and “child.” Proteges are all but adopted children (and even today in Japan, some are actually adopted into the family.)

Complicating matters in StrikerS, it turns out that there are a host of enemies enslaved to an evil mind. When it becomes known that these enemies – the Numbers, as they are referred to by fans – are related to Subaru by genetic material, there is no question that they will be, as far as possible, “Befriended.” And so they are, as several of the Numbers are integrated into the Takamachi/Testarossa-Harlaown family. More critically, Nanoha adopts Vivio, and so now has a child of her own. She and Fate raise Vivio as their daughter, presenting the image of a happy nuclear family to the world.

This brings us to Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha Vivid, and its expanded cast. The Numbers now live with Subaru and her sister Ginga or have become part of the Church, as the now suddenly huge Nakajima family. Nove, particularly, functions as Vivio’s big sister/mentor, training her in martial skills and the use of her Device. When Nanoha and Fate decide to send out invitations to a offsite training session, it becomes instantly apparent exactly how *large* this family has become. Hayate and her Knights, Caro, Erio, Letitia and her “mother” all join Fate, Nanoha, the remaining Numbers, Subaru, Teana, Alf and Zafira, Vivio, her friends Rio and Corona and…and here’s where it all sort of settles into place and you get that “ahah” moment – a character that *Vivio* “Befriended”, yet another reborn ancient king, like Vivio herself – Einhart Stratos. Along with family/friends from the TSAB.

But wait, we’re not done, because while Vivio strives to increase her combat and magical skills in Vivid, Fate and Nanoha are facing down a new enemy in Force. While the crew of the Huckbein are the “bad guys,” the tools they are using are a young man named Toma, the girl he rescues, Lily, and a traveling companion they meet, Isis. The three of them are drawn into a battle that they did not desire, for power they do not want. Once again, as the story draws to a close, we see Fate and Nanoha, Subaru and Teana, the TSAB members closest to them (including Hayate’s Knights) gathered around Toma, Lily and Isis. Clearly, they too have been drawn into this family circle.

In conclusion, more than any other story I have ever encountered, the Nanoha-verse is the story of creating one’s family for one’s self. This is a theme that strongly resonates with LGBTQ folks, as so many feel alienated from the communties they are born into. Like Caro and Erio, those communities simply may have no place for them, or are frightened of them. Like Subaru, the Numbers, Vivio and Einhart, they may feel as if they simply never belong, not because of what they have done, but simply because of who they are. The idea of gathering one’s family as one moves through life is something that is far less uncommon now than it was in the past, and to many of us who have existence on the fringes of society, it’s a dream that holds a lot of power.

In Vivid, Fate and Nanoha are presented, not as powerful mages, but as Vivio’s mothers. As children, we tend to not see our parents as individuals with their own lives, but as extensions of our lives. In Vivid, we see Fate and Nanoha less in their uniforms and barrier jackets and more in aprons, as they cook and clean for the family. In this way, Fate and Nanoha are not portrayed as lovers, but as loving, supportive parents to their daughter. It’s a take that adds a level of complexity and stability to their relationship. Again – it’s the idea of family that is pre-eminent.

The girl with a typical family and the girl with none. They gather around them friends, family, enemies and allies to make what is arguably the largest family unit in all of manga and anime.

Note: If anyone has a link to a picture of the entire family unit, please let me know. I’d love to add one here.

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10 Responses

  1. DezoPenguin says:

    Okay, I’ll take the invitation to correct you: Among the Numbers, only Cinque, Nove, Dieci, and Wendi are adopted into the Nakajima family. Sein, Otto, and Deed are all with the Church. The remaining one from the 5-12 set, Sette, is still in prison. (Also, Erio’s name does not have an “l” on the end, and you missed poor Zafira completely in your list of the Wolkenritter.)

    That aside, this is a great article. One of the most fun things about Nanoha is watching the characters find the good in everyone and forge new bonds between each other. (Indeed, if you look back at the franchise’s “Triangle Heart” roots, it goes even farther, when you consider that Nanoha’s own family is a blended one, with Kyouya the son of Shiro and his first wife, Nanoha the daughter of Shiro and his second wife Momoko, and Miyuki is a cousin, the daughter of Shiro’s sister.) The idea that family is something that people make for themselves out of love instead of being forced upon them by ties of blood is deeply rooted in the series and equally deeply appealing.

  2. lorena says:

    Wow, it really is difficult to find such a beautiful analysis about MSLN’s universe – especially in portuguese (my native language) sites. I mean, Vivid has a awesome art, but I don’t like the story. Force hasn’t interested me either.
    And then I found your blog months ago, but never commented. However, after this post, I must compliment you, Erica. Nice job. Actually I only care about Nanofate (♥) and Vivio (and sometimes about Hayate-chan and her knights), but I’ve never thought that way. Congratulations indeed :)

  3. lorena – Thank you for the comment and for reading the blog. ^_^

  4. Loren Rex says:

    This article is great. Let me remind you that there is another missing person. The equivalent of Vivio
    exists in the Hayate’s family: is Miura Rinaldi, a student of the Vita and Zafira. So all the family are larger.
    I agree with this tipe of family as more full of love.
    Sorry for mistakes.

  5. Richard says:

    Small thing, einhalt is not a clone. Also nanohas family as a child is mostly nuclear. Her dad remarried and had her. Her older sister is a cousin hence her age being nearly the same as her brother. The plot there is the same as triangle hearts.

  6. @DezoPenguin – thanks for the correction.

    Zafira is listed with Alf later.

  7. TheShinySword says:

    Wow, that makes a lot of sense. I wrote MGLN fanfiction for years but I never really got why I liked the franchise so much but this is totally it. I love the alternate family aspect. Excellent analysis.

  8. redfish says:

    Nice analysis. Though I haven’t seen any Nanoha besides one movie, I’ve lately been plowing through Sailor Moon and I think the idea is certainly present there, but presented in a somewhat different form.

    If the point of Nanoha is the construction of a family as an object in itself (this based on just your posting), Sailor Moon seems to focus more explicitly on deconstructing various assumptions about “the family”.

    For example in R, the Ayakashi sisters are initially presented as a “family”, but are constantly backstabbing each other. After being freed from the influence of Rubeus, they start living together happily on Earth as a “real family”. Similarly, Chibiusa initially enters the Tsukino family using hypnosis, but appears to be henceforth accepted as a “natural” member of the family. In both cases, the (nowadays widely assumed) primacy of the biological construction of family is brought out and negated, to be replaced with the idea that the significance or nature of a family is in fact its social coherence.

  9. Toni D says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your examination of the Nanoha-verse in this fashion. To be honest, I did choke up a little because I could relate to them in some way. Growing up, I was never very close to my siblings and my other close family members…I was “different” and that feeling only grew worse the older I got. So it was with no small amount of hope that, once I left home, I could create my own family; one that I could choose vs having those decisions made for me. I know that this is just a manga/anime but I felt quite envious of them. Thank you for the article!

  10. Tomoyo says:

    Not once in these past five years of dabbling in the Nanoha-verse have I ever come to the conclusion that the family-building aspect was the reason why I loved this series so much. I truly thank you for finally pinpointing a concept that has eluded me for so long. It’s such a simple concept, but I guess the series develops these familial relationships in such a natural way that it doesn’t hit viewers over the head with the obviousness of it. Brilliant.

    Again, thank you for the beautiful article.

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