The idea of girls gaining magical powers is a fairly popular subgenre of anime, but until now I’ve never really dipped my toes into those waters. The superhero genre isn’t really my thing, but I was pleasantly surprised with Matoi the Sacred Slayer. It’s certainly very different to the Western idea of superpowers. For a start, it’s far more spiritual.
Matoi is a shrine maiden and her best friend Yuma is related to the chief priest at the shrine and has strong ambitions to become an “exorcist girl”. When Yuma attempts a ritual one day, it is Matoi, not Yuma who attains Divine Possession. That means that she gains the power to fight and banish evil spirits, and that power comes from a sort of physical alliance with a god, who follows her around whether she likes it or not. Although this is spiritual, it’s not as religious as it sounds, as the gods in Matoi the Sacred Slayer are simply beings from higher dimensions. Matoi, and other girls who have achieved Divine Possession, are able to move back and forth between those higher dimensions.
A lot of humour springs from this setup. Matoi never asked for superpowers, and just wants a normal life, so she doesn’t exactly welcome a god following her around all the time. Divine Possession also involves a physical change of appearance, vaporising her clothes in the process and giving her an outfit that is part of the possession (don’t think too hard about that), so when the process is reversed, after one of the many battles this series treats us to, the outfit dissolves and leaves Matoi naked. This is rarely gratuitous and often very funny, especially when Matoi is in public and begging people not to take pictures. Of course, in the days of everyone having cameras on their phones, Matoi quickly becomes an unwilling internet sensation. It’s bad enough being famous for being a superhero, which she never wanted, but she certainly doesn’t want to be famous for being a streaker. And her clothes keep getting destroyed and it costs a lot to keep buying new outfits.
That’s all amusing, but not as funny as Matoi’s best friend Yuma. She is a gloriously funny girl who always wanted everything Matoi has. Eventually she gets it too, and there is a lovely backstory about how and why her natural abilities were suppressed. When she finally achieves her own Divine Possession, Yuma tries to take over the series, even usurping the opening title sequence. Yes, she’s a fourth wall breaker, and she’s fabulous. She illustrates something about drama that I’ve always had a strong belief in: it never needs to be immersive. Every so often she busts right through the fourth wall with a comment about viewers or what happened in episode two or whatever, and it never once robs the series of its power to sell the moments of jeopardy and drama.
But this is a series that seamlessly transitions between comedy and drama. For obvious reasons the balance is more towards comedy at the start of the series and drama at the end, with an epic finale, and along the way some important issues are tackled. These are nearly always related to family in some way. Matoi’s mother also achieved Divine Possession and disappeared years ago into the highest dimension, in order to save the world. The series gradually examines the relationship between Matoi and her father, who have struggled to figure out how their two-person family works. They have become distant, but are still over-protective of each other, understandably, and have to learn to trust in each other’s abilities, while rediscovering a father/daughter relationship. It’s unusual to see a parent/child relationship at the heart of an anime series, and it makes for a refreshing and worthwhile change.
Making up the trio of super girls is Clarus, who works for a secret organisation and whose powers come from a different source. I found her a watchable, solid character, but she never has quite the impact of Matoi or Yuma and I don’t expect her to stick in the memory for very long in comparison.
This is a 12 episode series and unusually is a completely original piece of work, not based on manga, light novels or games. Perhaps for that reason it feels well-paced and satisfyingly complete. There is an OVA episode which was also included on my DVD set. It takes place after the end of the series, and is a funny little parody of Ghostbusters. It’s disposable, but a nice little bonus.
Despite featuring all three girls naked in the opening titles, this came across as a surprisingly wholesome series. Partly that’s because of the doll-like anatomy used by the animators, but more importantly I think it’s the scarcity of male characters that makes the difference, so there’s no male main character protagonist we are asked to identify with while the girls are lewded. So I would probably stop short of even describing anything that happens here as fanservice. The nudity is nearly always comedy-based and tasteful, but maybe that’s a topic for a different article.
Most importantly, this series has a powerful message for us, and it’s not just about family. What Matoi wants more than anything is to live a normal life, and ultimately the series ends up championing that rather than just glorifying superpowers. It makes a humdrum domestic existence feel like a goal worth fighting for, and a blessing to be grateful for. I think that’s what makes Matoi and Yuma such memorable characters. They want completely different things from life, and both are shown to be valid. Superpowers are fun, but there’s nothing wrong with being normal either. There are many different paths to happiness. RP