It’s a misconception that Puella Magi Madoka Magica was the first genre-defying horror magical girl series. There were multiple magical girl stories delving into darker elements created years beforehand. Red Garden, Shamanic Princess, Sailor Nothing, and Revolutionary Girl Utena, to name a few. Madoka Magica simply made the dark magical girl story popular. Similar to how Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and The Death of Superman changed superhero comics.
Created in 2004 by animation group, gímik, Uta∽Kata was a 12-episode anime series which on the surface appeared to be a simple magical girl story. Uta∽Kata never received an English dub but was officially distributed to the U.S. by Sentai Filmworks and Section23 Films in 2010. A special thirteenth episode was added to the DVD collection, and a condensed manga adaption was also released in Japan.
When translated, the title can means “Poem Fragments,” “Song Fragments,” or when written differently “Bubbles.” The bubble motif is evident in the show’s opening and ending sequence, as well as the final two episodes. The band Savage Genius provided both of the theme songs.
Similar to Red Garden, Uta∽Kata is a very unconventional magical girl story. Unlike Red Garden, it features more typical genre trappings. Uta∽Kata had transformation sequences, flashy costumes, and a magic charm. It also featured queer relationships, primarily between Ichika and Manatsu as well as Ichika’s male tutors Sei and Kai., Uta∽Kata was a magical girl series that seemed cute on the surface but delved into psychological horror.
The anime fell under the radar of many viewers. Those who did watch complained about its pacing or the amount of panty shots. Had Uta∽Kata gained more recognition, it might’ve changed the magical girl genre.
Uta∽Kata focused on 14-year-old Ichika Tachibana, who makes the acquaintance of a green-haired girl named Manatsu. Manatsu emerges from an old mirror and asks Ichika to help her complete her “summer homework.” This “homework” involves Ichika being blessed with the power of elemental spirits called “Djinn.”
The situations where Ichika uses these powers varies from mundane to life-threatening, like finding a watch or locating a missing classmate. Each power grants Ichika a new costume and lets her view the world through the eyes of the Djinn.
It steadily becomes clear something sinister is afoot. Throughout all of this, Ichika is watched from afar by a mysterious woman named Saya. Manatsu, who initially seems happy-go-lucky and carefree, secretly apologizes to Ichika for lying to her from the start. This won’t be a happy story.
The more Ichika uses the Djinn, the more she dislikes herself. She lies more easily to those around her and the stress leads to an eating disorder. It’s not long before Ichika uses the Djinn for selfish reasons. Soon the transformations happen without Ichika’s conscious consent and her eyes turn red.
Uta∽Kata is an existential horror story about the ugliness of the world, those around us, and ourselves. It eschews the violence and gore of later horror magical girl stories, focusing on a more subdued, psychological tale.
When we’re first introduced to her, Ichika is gently teased by her friends for being a straight-laced, goodie goodie type. She does what she’s told and she tries to follow the rules. However, Ichika is shown to be self-conscious about how others see her which sometimes manifests as obsessive-compulsive tendencies. While her initial bouts with the Djinn appear fun and mesmerizing, they slowly turn terrifying. Ichika’s mind is worn down throughout the series, and she even contemplates suicide in the tenth episode.
By the second half of the series, Ichika is using the Djinn to consciously and unconsciously hurt people in moments of anger. In the seventh episode, Ichika uses the Wind Djinn to almost push Saya into the path of a moving car. The eighth episode has Ichika almost kill a woman with flower petals. In episodes nine and eleven, Ichika accidentally causes a power outage and a tsunami. They’re undone before anyone is hurt, but it’s still nightmarish to consider the damage Ichika might have caused.
During the eighth episode, the transformations start happening against Ichika’s will. Like a representation of intrusive thoughts, Ichika is practically possessed by anger in these moments. It’s hard to imagine a person could be killed by flower petals. However, the person in question happens to be deathly allergic to flowers. We see the woman’s joy turn to pain as she convulses in agony before Ichika regains control of herself.
In the seventh episode, there’s a brief moment where Ichika appears positively inhuman while blaming Manatsu for her situation. The way Ichika moves in the darkness with her piercing red eyes is the most frightening Ichika’s been in the whole series. It perfectly represents her fears about becoming something monstrous, and she’s horrified at even the notion of wanting to hurt Manatsu.
The twelfth episode brings everything home when Ichika is finally told the reason for her suffering. Ichika is “a child of the trials,” one who isn’t too ignorant of or too soiled by the world. Ichika’s ordeals were based on the seven virtues and vices of the world. They’ve showed Ichika the best and worst of the world, those around her, and herself.
Saya, the woman who watched Ichika all this time, is the final Djinn representing the mirror. She wants Ichika to choose which deserves destruction. It’s either the ugly world Ichika lives in, or the ugly person Ichika has become. It’s important to note Saya’s not asking which should be saved, but which should die.
The existential horror of Uta~Kata manifests as a misanthropic, rigid view of the world and humanity. Saya’s willing to execute either a young child or the world itself if not given a proper answer.
Whereas other darker magical girl stories focus on a supposedly flawless and pure heroine clinging to the belief of inherent goodness, Ichika instead accepts herself and the world are not perfect. And that’s okay.
You can’t judge the world or anyone by a single instance. It is Ichika’s accepting of her flaws and the flaws of those around her that leads to her choice of not choosing, because everything’s constantly changing. Just because there are things she doesn’t like about herself, it doesn’t mean Ichika is a bad person. It is rare that a magical girl story would allow its heroine to admit she dislikes people without demonizing her.
Saya’s not swayed, trying to execute Ichika but shown the human capacity for sacrifice. Ichika’s tutor Sei, a previous trial victim, tries to sacrifice himself to protect Ichika. Like Ichika stating she won’t choose, she allows Saya’s scythe to pierce her heart as a form of sacrifice. Ichika’s not accepting death, she’s protecting someone.
Ichika is saved when Manatsu sacrifices her life instead. Manatsu gives Ichika her life back and reverts to her previous form as a mirror shard. Before she disappears, Manatsu and Ichika are able to kiss as an expression of romantic love.
Uta∽Kata‘s ending is ultimately bittersweet. Saya refuses to accept Ichika’s answer, and will test another child for her unseen master. Manatsu’s gone and she can’t be together with Ichika. However, Ichika continues to grow as a person with a better understanding of the world around her.
Uta∽Kata’s a magical girl story willing to give us a flawed heroine who can accept she IS flawed. It’s a slow burn horror story where the horror comes from whether or not we as people are willing to accept the things we don’t like about ourselves and the world around us. And it’s a coming-of-age story where becoming an adult doesn’t equal becoming a bad person.
It’s immature and harmful to assume people and the world are irredeemable based on an instance.
We all have the power to change.