What's a Magical Girl without the magic?
Cutie Honey? Vividred Operation?
Yes! But also Saint Tail.
The definition I use to define the shows I watch and talk about stipulates that advanced technology is perfectly at home in magical girl shows- so long as the tech used is so far out of the realm of reality it mimics magic. Meaning shows like Cutie Honey and Miracle Shoujo Limit-chan are secure in their rolls as magical girls. But what happens when a magical girl doesn't have any actual magic?
One, two, three!
Saint Tail - or as the full title calls her Mysterious Thief Saint Tail- is a magical girl manga and show from the 90s. It got a brief resurrection in the early 2000s with western audiences when TokyoPop localized the manga, but because of incoherent dubbing and localization cuts in the Korean, Italian, and English versions it never really had the same hold as other shoujo series in the early 00s had- shows like Tokyo Mew Mew or Ojamajo Doremi.
English especially got the short end of the stick, with all references to God removed it took out a lot of the context. Saint Tail's entire shtick was that she was a thief for God and a lot of key scenes included the character Seira Mimori who spends half the series in a nun's habit (as pictured above). Only the first 15 episodes were properly dubbed in English and the remaining 28 were released with subs only.
This allowed the series to languish and like many magical girls of that era never really got a handle on western audiences. We were all way too focused on Sailor Moon to accept much else anyways.
Saint Tail was the first animated "Magical Thief" in the Magical Girl genre, predating Kamikaze Kaitou Jeanne by about 3 years. Both girls stole in the name a god and had a close friend/class mate (who happened to be the child of a police detective) trying to catch them, but that's where their similarities ended.
See while both girls stole for God only one of them had God's direct help in the form of an angel side kick, dope transformation, and awesome demon sealing powers, and the other was Saint Tail.
It's Show Time!
So where did Saint Tail's "magic" come from?
Her parents of course!
No, she wasn't born with amazing powers like in Tokimeki Tonight,
Meimi Haneoka is the main character of our series who transforms into the titular Saint Tail. Meimi's father, Genichiro, is a renowned stage magician who is always developing new contraptions and ideas for sleight of hand and general illusionary tricks. Meimi's mother, Eimi, was a former thief herself known as Fallen Angel. She has since retired but it's heavily implied that Meimi's acrobatics and general thieving skills come from her.
Put those two together along with Meimi's best friend Seira Mimori giving her insider information on what needed stealing and possible ways to do it and you get the illusion of magic without any actual magic.
Saint Tails magic is very grounded in reality, it's all tricks! There's no fabled princess destiny or reincarnation or gift from some magical beings, it's all just hard work and ingenuity.
She's the Magical Girl version of Batman. While all her genre sisters are out here shooting love lasers she's rigging up a balloon escape plans and flash bombs. You gotta give her respect there.
gif created by @morphinelab on tumblr
The Last Bow
Saint Tail's show and manga wound up taking a lot of influenced from her 80s and early 90s Magical Girl predecessors. Even if she, herself, did not have magic she got a lot of the trappings of a magical girl: an iconic outfit, a merchandisable item, an alter ego, a cute mascot, a even a transformation phrase and sequence.
Even though there was no magic the scene served as a visual transition to illustrate to the audience that Meimi was taking on her alter ego. It's more akin to Wonder Woman's spin change sequence in the 1970s television show or that one off joke sequence from Punchline.
Saint Tail is one of the few pieces of magical girl media that would be left out of the genre based on the base definition of a girl that can use magic but is saved with genre tropes.
When it comes to the idea that anyone can be a Magical Girl Saint Tail really took it to heart. Magic or not: be brave, do good, f*ck the police.