Yuki Yuna is a Hero is an entertaining magical girl series that uses genre tropes to address political ideas, existential themes, and metaphysical concepts. [NOTE: Review contains major spoilers]
- Official synopsis (from the Pony Canyon USA website): Yuna Yuki is an ordinary second-year middle school student. She gets up in the morning, gets ready for school, goes to classes, participates in club activities, and has fun with her friends. But there is one extraordinary thing about Yuki—she belongs to the “Brave Hero Club.” What does the Brave Hero Club do? Who is the mysterious being called “Vertex?” Yuki Yuna and her friends’ story takes place in Year 300, Era of the Gods.
- Number of episodes: 12
- Original air dates: 16 October 2014–25 December 2014
- Directed by: Seiji Kishi
- Written by: Makoto Uezu
- Animation production by: Studio Gokumi
- Main voice cast: Haruka Terui (Yuna Yuki), Suzuko Mimori (Mimori Togo), Yumi Uchiyama (Fu Inubozaki), Tomoyo Kurosawa (Itsuki Inubozaki), Juri Nagatsuma (Karin Miyoshi), Kana Hanazawa (Sonoko Nogi)
- Main voice cast, English-language dub: Xanthe Huynh (Yuna Yuki), Erika Harlacher (Mimori Togo), Erica Mendez (Fu Inubozaki), Brianna Knickerbocker (Itsuki Inubozaki), Sarah Anne Williams (Karin Miyoshi), Christine Marie Cabanos (Sonoko Nogi)
- Licensed in North America by: Pony Canyon USA
- Available for viewing with Japanese and English language tracks on: Netflix (select territories), Crunchyroll (select territories), Blu-Ray/DVD
- Viewed on: Netflix (Canada)
The mahou shoujo or “magical girl” genre has been undergoing something of a resurgence in the West. A generation of American and European comics creators and animators who grew up watching anime and reading manga featuring Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon and CLAMP’s Cardcaptor Sakura are now interpreting the genre through various cultural filters, resulting in works such as LoliRock (France), Zodiac Starforce (USA), Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir (France), Winx Club (Italy), Bee & PuppyCat (USA), and the comics reboot of Jem and the Holograms (USA). Japan’s magical girl is well on the way to becoming a global character design staple, just as the American superhero became one in the previous century.
And while there is no shortage of media that serve to simply reiterate the standard magical girl tropes in different cultural contexts, the genre has been codified long enough that entertainment parodying, subverting, and deconstructing its identifying elements have entered the mainstream. Trigger’s Kill la Kill, for instance, takes the genre to an absurdist and hyper-stylized extreme, while shows such as Bones’ Star Driver and Studio Deen’s Is This a Zombie? have a lot of fun with gender role reversals. Additionally, there are also shows like Shaft’s Puella Magi Madoka Magica, which use the genre as a vehicle to explore social and philosophical themes to a further (and grimmer) extent than their peers.
Studio Gokumi’s Yuki Yuna is a Hero falls in this latter category, although it isn’t readily apparent during the series’ first half. Indeed, the first six episodes come off like an abbreviated version of a typical first season magical girl story arc: the protagonists are introduced in short order (each expectedly conforming to a number of established character stereotypes prevalent in action-oriented magical girl media), as are the stakes involved. Set 300 years after a devastating plague has decimated the world’s population, Yuki Yuna and her fellow members of the Sanshu Middle School’s Hero Club have been granted superhuman abilities by the Taisha (a covert organization that works on behalf of the divine Shinju-sama) in order to serve as the first and last line of defense against invading extradimensional creatures known as the Vertex.
It is after the Hero Club seemingly defeats the Vertex in episode six, however, that the show’s deeper conflict is revealed. As it turns out, their powers come at a terrible cost: each use of their most powerful superpowered technique comes with a corresponding disability when they revert back to their normal, non-superpowered form. Yuki Yuna loses her sense of taste. Hero Club president Fu Inubozaki loses sight in one eye. Fu’s younger sister Itsuki loses her voice. The wheelchair-bound Mimori Togo goes deaf in one ear. Karin Miyoshi doesn’t suffer any disability, but only because she is skilled enough of a fighter that she has yet to use her most powerful attacks in battle in order to defeat the Vertex. An encounter with a former Hero confirms their worst fears: The disabilities are permanent, and each subsequent use of their ultimate superpowered techniques will result in further disabilities, limb paralysis, and even memory loss.
Fu Inubozaki, who recruited the girls to the Hero Club, is wracked with guilt, even though she, like her teammates, was never informed beforehand by the Taisha of the side-effects of their powers. The situation is an effective, if somewhat transparent, metaphor for the price paid by those who serve in defense of a nation and calls into question the ethics of how idealistic youths are recruited or conscripted by government agencies into the military whilst giving them incomplete or biased information about the harsh reality of military service.
Further investigation by the Hero Club reveals that their service to the Taisha and the Shinju-sama is premised on a noble lie, perpetuated to keep the remnants of human society from falling apart. They also learn that they are caught in a cycle of battle against the perpetually regenerating Vertex that has been going on for three centuries. It is at this point that Yuki Yuna is a Hero extends its thematic remit to the metaphysical, as it becomes a commentary on the Buddhist concepts of samsara (the endless cycle of death and rebirth) and dukkha (the fundamental, inescapable pain and sorrow that is intrinsic to life).
The realization of the true nature of their reality divides the Hero Club and sets up the series’ final battle, with one member becoming convinced that destroying the world is the only way to liberate it from what is ultimately a pain-filled, meaningless existence while the others try to keep her from making this happen.
Yuki Yuna is a Hero isn’t particularly unique in anime in its attempt to tackle concepts from existential thought, Buddhism, and Eastern philosophy. Where it excels, however, is in its humanistic answer to the existential questions posed by samsara and dukkha. The show avoids the conventional (and vague) solution of enlightenment as the sole means of escape from existential angst and suffering and instead offers that friendship, family, and community can give meaning and purpose to life, no matter how short and difficult it may be.