Do you need a transformation sequence to be considered a magical girl show? No. Is it one of the most instantly recognizable parts of the genre? Absolutely.
The transformations have become interwoven into the fabric of the magical girl genre and have caused genre fans to spend hours on YouTube looking up compilation videos of sequences of transformations from decades past, specific series titles, and more. Even non-fans can recognize the iconic sequences. Throw in some glitter, ribbons and posing and you've got a dozen or so people saying "Just like Sailor Moon!".
The entrancing nature of the whole affair can sometimes make you forget the five minute time chunk the transformation eats up.
Transformations have become so popular it's made it's way into non-Magical Girl shows like DC Super Hero Girls on Netflix or Cartoon Network's Craig of the Creek.
How did this glee inducing genre staple start? Where did it come from? And why can a good transformation make or break a series for genre fans?
Let's roll on back to the 60s and find out.
Sparkle Cadet from Craig of the Creek
Transformations have existed within the Mahou shoujo genre since it's inception the two founders of the genre: Sally the Witch (1966 anime air date) and Himitsu no Akko-chan (1962 manga publishing date) both feature transformations. Though Sally's was not a core component of the show Akko-chan's entire premise featured around a magic mirror that transforms her, she was the first magical girl to use transformations on a weekly basis.
Sally's was the first transformation sequence to be animated, and because of the tools of the time the whole thing was very simple. Wave of her hand, flash of her sparkles, and presto! She was changed into a new set of clothes. Sally didn't use her transformation to gain a new person, just change her outfit.
Sally the Witch (1966)
Sally also didn't have another classic component of Magical Girl transformations that we recognize today - the Henshin Item. Using an item to aid in the transformation has become a key component of the transformation itself. She was also missing the transformation phrase.
While none of these are mandatory to be considered a transformation or even a magical girl it's these components that have become to recognizable they have been built into the tropes that fuel the genre and parodies of it.
Akko-chan had all three! She was the first Magical Girl to have anything resembling a modern day transformation and she was in the minority for a while. Shows like Hana no Ko Lunlun (1979) had an item and transformation phrase, but it was just so LunLun could change outfits. Chappy the Witch (1972) had a magic item, but transformations weren't a key component of the show. This was the case for a lot of these shows, they had one or two elements but not all three.
Himitsu no Akko-chan (1969)
Adding to the Recipe
One of the only other girls to have a transformation, an item, phrase, and an alter ego before the 80s is gogo boot wearing, Go Nagai created Cutie Honey (1973). A show that seemed to pretty heavily inspire Naoko Takeuchi- creator of Sailor Moon- as she would have grown up with it.
Cutie Honey also did something different. She was one of the first female shounen anime heroes with her own featured title. In order to help her appeal to men they not only gave her a bustier figure than other magical girls at the time, but they gave her a risque transformation sequence.
Honey Kisaragi's clothes would explode off and reform whenever she activated her Honey Flash leaving the audiences with brief glimpses of her naked silhouette. This titillating transformation appealed to male viewership and set the tone moving forward.
Cutie Honey (1973)
Where before transformation's just changed girls from one outfit to the next transformations began including additional transitional scenes, one of which being the iconic nude silhouette sequence.
It seems like such a small addition but the idea of the nearly nude transformation had become a key component in the genre to the point that 2014's Kill la Kill had a whole commentary on nudity. Arguments could be made for one reason or another but the fact that Kill la Kill is a magical girl show adds credence to the idea that we wouldn't be having this conversation is naked-ness wasn't an oddly inherent part of the transformation sequence.
But with all that said, the Honey Flash was still just a Flash. We really didn't start to see hints of a longer transformation until 1982 with Minky Momo.
Minky Momo is the first magical girl show where we start to see something that looks like a modern day stock footage transformation. It's the first time we get to see inside the process, the magical girl's point of view. It's not like the Honey Flash or Creamy Mami's transformation. We had a magical item, a phrase, an alter ego, near-nude, and dances and poses on a sparkly background. All the ingredients to a modern day transformation have come together in a Captain Planet like sequence in Minky Momo.
Minky Momo (1982)
And a little dash of...
Throughout the 80s we start seeing other girls transformations close to Momo's with Magical Emi (1985) being the closest. But like before we always seemed to be missing a component. Pastel Yumi (1986) didn't actually transform, like Sakura she summoned her power. Creamy Mami (1983) more closely resembled the girl's in the previous era.
But we had a game changer in 1992 with Sailor Moon who made the Minky Momo method a standard.
Naoko Takeuchi and Toei took it a step further. It's long been theorized that the studio saw a huge money saver on their hands. By using the same stock transformations of the girls transforming into the same outfits every episode you were able to decrease the amount of overall animation needed, something both Minky Momo and Magical Emi had done previously.
After Sailor Moon all transformations became a lot more uniformed in terms of the components used, we had all the ingredients: the transformation item, the transformation phrase, the nude silhouette, and the extended stock footage sequence. Add in the specific flavour flourishes including unique song/sound cues for the transformation and you have yourself an iconic scene in your show!
Sailor Moon (1992)
Enjoy the feast!
There's plenty of shows that break the Sailor Moon shaped mold and even more that have evolved beyond it. In recent years there's been steps for shoujo (media marketed to younger girls) shows to move away from the nude silhouette. The powerhouse that is Precure started adding sparkly garments in 2010 with Heartcatch Precure. Meanwhile seinen (media for young adult men) shows have embraced more of the Cutie Honey mood and ditched the body sparkles almost entirely. They're more likely to show the girls in either their underwear or a purely flesh-toned silhouette. - like in 2015's Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha ViVid.
What dictates the direction of a transformation depends on the mood of the show and what's appealing to the audience - basically are they horny for sparkles or for the girls?
Nonetheless, the transformation sequence is embedded within pop culture as a whole and has become and thriving part of the fan culture for the genre. As a participant in the culture I speak as both witness to and experiencer of the hype surrounding the newest introduction of a magical girl and her transformation sequence. There's as much excitement for a new transformation as there is for the character themselves.
There is a special sort of joy in my heart when watching a new sequence, or going back and watching a favourite one. The Henshin has become an iconic piece of genre recognition and it all started with a wave of a hand and a few sparkles.
Healin Good Precure (2020)