Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha: Reflection
It’s been over five years since the last theatrical Nanoha feature, but the series finally returns to the big screen with Magical Girl Nanoha Reflection. Instead of retelling the tv series like the previous two films, Reflection is the first of a two movie series featuring an original story. Though that isn’t entirely accurate: Reflection heavily borrows characters and story elements from the 2011 PSP game Gears of Destiny, which first introduced the film’s principal antagonists. This film canonizes these characters into the official Nanoha continuity, which is sure to appease fans wanting them to appear outside the video games. Really, appeasement is this film’s raison d’etre; to satisfy fans by showing their favorite characters do awesome things.
Since Nanoha, Fate, Hayate and the rest of the original cast took a back seat in the most recent tv series Nanoha ViVid and ViVid Strike, Reflection is the first time the original cast has been in action in quite some time. The film reintroduces its characters as if reuniting with old friends. It takes time to feature practically every notable character in its runtime, even narratively inconsequential characters like Nanoha’s elementary school friends and their parents. The beginning of the film even includes scenes of Nanoha and Fate having a practice fight and hanging out with their friends at an amusement park before the plot really begins. These scenes aren’t necessary towards the central story points, but they allow for enjoying vicariously hanging out with them, reminding why these characters are great before getting into the action. Reflection has a slower start than the previous Nanoha features, but that’s compensated by the quality of the character interactions and inclusion of pretty much everybody you’d possibly want to see again.
While its fun spending time with these characters again, Reflection ironically doesn’t provide much for them to reflect on. Few characters, the main trio included, have personal arcs that enable meaningful development that lingers by the end of this feature. Nanoha’s motivation is a pretty standard resolve to mete justice and rescue someone in need, which isn’t much different from her goals in the previous two films, and is certainly much less compelling compared to her struggle to connect with Fate in the first film. Despite Hayate’s Tome of the Night Sky being the film’s MacGuffin, her overall motivations don’t feel any more personal than Nanoha’s. Though she makes a big fuss about the Tome being precious to her, she doesn’t really lose anything when it’s stolen, and rather than being heartbroken she’s simply resolute to retrieve it. There’s no real sense of desperation or personal stakes that push the characters during the story; they’re simply heroes doing heroic things for the sake of justice.
Once again, the bulk of the film’s character development rests upon Fate’s shoulders. In A’s Fate was able to make peace with the fantasy family she longed for but couldn’t have, finally being able to put her past behind her. Reflection finds her fully embracing her life with her adoptive mother Lindy, putting her complex about her abusive birth mother to rest and becoming comfortable calling Lindy her “mother” instead. Fate’s arc in this film is not as emotionally potent as in previous installments, but it’s still resonant and heartfelt enough to feel like a meaningful progression of her character. The parallels the film draws between Fate and the main antagonist Kirie also calls attention to how far she’s grown since the first film, now being in a position to want to rescue someone motivated by the same self-sacrificing obligations she once held. This helps makes Fate’s moments in the film the most compelling, even giving weight to comedic asides like the cast musing about how Kirie and Amita reach out to her specifically because of her compassion and kindness.
Ultimately, Reflection is more focused on giving its cast cool moments rather than delivering emotional growth. This isn’t necessarily unwelcome, as its attention isn’t concentrated on the main trio. Pretty much every member of the major secondary cast including the Wolkenritter, Arf, Yuno, and even Lindy are actively involved in the story and each has at least one really awesome fight or heroic moment during the film. Though it sometimes feels like the film invents new antagonists to give everyone a fight, each character feels necessary and consequential to the cause. While a lot of their material could be considered fluff, their inclusion is regardless appreciable and entertaining. The most questionable decisions regarding supporting characters are simply leaving certain changes to the status quo unexplained. Personally, my biggest quibbles are why Arf looks like a pre-teen when she formerly had the body of a young adult, and inversely, why Chrono suddenly looks like an adult when he previously looked no older than pre-teen Nanoha. The changes to these characters’ appearances are never addressed but they were so jarring that several people in my theater were audibly surprised and confused when Chrono first shows up on screen. It’s not that big an issue since it doesn’t detract from the story, but it still created some unnecessary confusion that was distracting when they were on-screen.
The weightlessness of the protagonists’ character arcs wouldn’t be as disappointing if the antagonists were more compelling to compensate. Nanoha’s greatest strength has always been in crafting really emotionally driven, sympathetic antagonists who are motivated by their desires to protect what they love as opposed to destroying or conquering for the sake of power like more generic villains in the magical girl genre. Kirie fits into this trend as a young girl who just wants to save her planet and father from dying. She’s readily willing to use violence, force, and dirty tactics to fulfill her mission, but isn’t above asking for peaceful cooperation, genuinely pleading with Fate to overlook her actions in a particularly funny scene. Yet Kirie’s characterization feels oddly detached from her goals despite her personal stakes. This is attributable to the context of her situation and the time spent developing it. Previous films established its antagonists well before delivering their backstories, making learning about what motivates them feel like a revelation that changes your perception of their actions earlier on in the film. Reflection begins by showing us everything we need to know about Kirie before moving on with the story. Despite her love for her parents and homeworld being what motivates her, not enough time is spent building those relationships to truly get across how much they mean to her. Because our understanding of Kirie never changes and she herself doesn’t develop as a character during the film, she feels flatter despite being driven by similar motivations as previous antagonists.
Additionally, Kirie lacks two important qualities that make Nanoha’s best antagonists so unique and endearing: guilt and desperation. Both Precia and the Wolkenritter were responsible and felt guilty for the situations they’d put their loved ones in, and they had no other option but to commit terrible crimes in hopes of saving them. By contrast, Kirie isn’t responsible for her family’s plight, and her father can be saved by getting treatment which her family has already arranged for. When prodded, she acknowledges she has an inferiority complex and is resentful of her older sister for being more capable than her, and that going off on her own is as much about proving she should be taken seriously as it is saving her father. Where previous villains came across as self-sacrificing, Kirie just comes across as selfish, acting out of petty frustration rather than desperate necessity. While this admittedly distinguishes her from previous antagonists, it also means she’s less empathetic, and never receives those truly heartbreaking moments that the previous antagonists received that linger in memory long after the film is over. The closest Kirie gets to having such a moment is when Iris betrays her and cruelly mocks her naivety, but it’s hard to really feel sorry for her when Iris honestly isn’t wrong in her assessment of her foolishness.
Kirie’s motivations are at least more fully realized than those of the supporting antagonists. Her accomplice Iris ultimately turns out to be the real big bad, but while the film gives her scraps of motivation, it never truly divulges the full context of her revenge scheme. The resurrected demons, Dearche, Stern, and Levi, never feel like they have much at stake in the conflict. It feels like they’re only in the film because they are fan-favorites from the games and could provide fodder for the main trio to fight in the climax of the film. Of the three, Levi is the most entertaining thanks to her easily excitable and carefree personality, making a good foil for Fate and creating unique stakes for their fight that makes it one of the most memorable in the film. Reflection’s villains aren’t uninteresting or even unentertaining, but overall they fall short of the fully realized and more three-dimensional foes of the previous installments.
It might seem odd that this review of Reflection is so critical in spite of the relatively high score I’ve given it. There’s simply more to say about Reflection’s flaws than there is in exulting its strengths. Despite its foibles, Reflection still succeeds at being entertaining in the same ways most of Nanoha does. It’s just fun to watch these really cool and lovable characters engaging in the intensely over-the-top tech-heavy battles that set this franchise uniquely apart from other magical girl series. The film features two long sections of fight sequences that together comprise most of its overall runtime, moving from one battle to the next without pause. There’s nothing complex about characters smashing up large trunks, slicing buildings in half, getting punched in the face, or blowing up robots, but it’s utterly satisfying to witness. This film delivers on the scale and spectacle of its fights and where the villains disappoint in depth they make up for in having fun fighting styles that keep the battles interesting and intense. Seven Arc’s animation can be choppy and there’s some messy character art here and there, but the storyboarding is always solid and frequently dynamic, so most faults in the production can easily be forgiven. If the fights are your favorite part of Nanoha, then this might be your favorite of the films yet, since it features some of the most memorable battles in the series so far, particularly those against Kirie, Stern, and Levi.
Reflection is briskly paced, making the film’s stopping point a frustrating surprise. Frustrating because it doesn’t resolve the central conflict, instead cutting to black right as a new battle’s beginning, and also because the film was so entertaining I would’ve kept watching for even longer than its already impressive two-hour runtime. While it’s a popcorn action flick in most respects, it’s hard not to enjoy watching these girls mess each other up with energy blasts and laser swords in sprawling urban environments with heavy rock music underscoring the action. Narratively it’s easily the weakest of the three films, but in terms of visceral entertainment, it ranks just as good if not better. The film ends with so much hype and intrigue that what’ll be a relatively short wait for its sequel still feels agonizing, which is precisely the kind of emotion I want a film series to instill in me between installments. Reflection might not be as introspective as its title implies but it’s certainly a hell of a lot of fun, and in that respect, it’s definitely reflective of the franchise itself.