Despite being one of the most popular magical girl series of all time in Japan, Ojamajo Doremi is an anime with little to no presence in the West whatsoever. Airing from 1999 to 2002, the series was made to be the successor to Sailor Moon and shared many of the same staff, yet it couldn’t be more different in terms of both subject matter and tone. Ojamajo Doremi is quite unlike what most Western fans associate with the term ‘magical girl’: there is no team of super-women saving the world from evil, no monster-of-the-week formula, and no overarching theme of fighting for justice. In fact, Ojamajo Doremi has practically no fighting in it at all.
Now, this may seem strange to some readers who have dabbled in the mahou shoujo mainstream. Sailor Moon, Pretty Cure, and even Card Captor Sakura all follow a fairly strict episodic formula that begins with the introduction of an adversary that is likely wreaking some sort of havoc, leads into a confrontation by the main cast accompanied by a transformation sequence, climaxes in a battle between the two, and resolves with the heroes victorious and the status quo reinstated. While not every episode may follow this recipe to the letter and there are frequently twists made on it, especially considering the resolution, this is indeed the tradition of most series in the genre post-Sailor Moon. Even recent titles such as Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Magical Lyrical Girl Nanoha are deeply rooted here. However, this was not always the go-to formula for magical girl series in Japan.
Back in the 80’s the genre was dominated by the likes of Magical Princess Minky Momo, Studio Pierrot’s Magical Angel Creamy Mami and Magical Idol Pastel Yumi. Instead of featuring justice-loving girls fighting the forces of darkness these shows used relatively normal and even mundane plotlines. When Sailor Moon redefined the standard at which magical girl series were made by incorporating elements from Super Sentai and Cutie Honey, an entire subgenre of traditional, subdued magical girl shows was left to relative obscurity outside of Japan. Unfortunately, the same is true for Ojamajo Doremi, which is more in line with the storytelling philosophies of these older works, yet it also manages to be so much more.
So what is it about, anyways?
Ojamajo Doremi focuses on a clumsy elementary school girl named Harukaze Doremi who happens upon a witch known as Majo Rika on her way home. Doremi accidentally turns Majo Rika into a frog during their encounter, the result of a curse that has been placed on all of witch-kind, and becomes unintentionally recruited into becoming the witch’s apprentice. She is forced to take a number of exams to test her magical skills in the hopes that she can eventually be accepted as a witch and return Majo Rika to her original form. Along the way Doremi is joined by her reserved childhood friend, Hazuki Fujiwara, an Osakan transfer student, Senoo Aiko, a famous pop idol, Segawa Onpu, and a pastry chief from New York named Asuka Momoko. They all work together in a store owned and managed by Majo Rika, attend the same school, and visit the witch world to grow their magic.
I understand that description may seem rather unconvincing to some readers. That’s because the plot, while being a driving force for much of the show’s progression, isn’t really the strength of Ojamajo Doremi. The reason it’s so highly regarded in its home country (and the reason I’m writing this article attempting to convince others to watch it in the first place), is because it is extremely effective at building a believable community through an abundance of excellent character-focused episodes and compelling, overarching themes. If Sailor Moon is about overcoming evil by trusting that the power good will prevail, Ojamajo Doremi is about overcoming insecurities and growing as a community through the power of interpersonal relationships.
This sentiment isn’t only conveyed through the bonds of the main characters, but also with the extended cast, including the members of their class, their teachers, and their families, though it is best exemplified by Doremi herself. She’s a character with an unending wealth of kindness, and I don’t mean that in some unrealistically pure and selfless kind of way that’s so common in anime. She has her fair share of personal insecurities, she’s often distracted by her own selfish desires, and she can be quite dense, yet she always cares deeply for other people and wants them to be happy. Even if she sometimes helps people out just for the chance to have her favorite steak dinner, she lays her heart out when it matters, resulting in one of the most endearing characters I’ve ever encountered in fiction.
In a way, Doremi is quite similar to the show she’s named after. Undeniably optimistic, often goofy, but occasionally profoundly serious. Indeed, Ojamajo Doremi tackles some very serious subject matter: divorce, racism, the death of a loved one, stuff you certainly wouldn’t expect in an early-2000s anime aimed at young girls, but the way these topics are handled is what’s truly surprising. Whereas plenty of anime targeted at older audiences deal with edgier material, Ojamajo Doremi does so in a way that’s rather unique. Take for example Aiko’s main subplot concerning her divorced mother and father. Whereas most series would likely construe this as a hateful event, perhaps by using dark, silhouetted flashbacks to show the irreversible trauma it brought about, Ojamajo Doremi is much more down-to-earth in its approach. Yes, the family is broken, and yes, it has affected Aiko adversely, but the show paints her parents as reasonable, empathetic characters who could not stay together due to understandable and completely normal circumstances. The way this subplot is pursued is one of the greatest treats Ojamajo Doremi has to offer, but you’ll have to watch to find out. The series never represents its conflicts in a distasteful way, managing to handle its themes with more maturity than practically any anime I can think of.
Part of what allows Ojamajo Doremi to be so effective is how it builds its characters and themes over the course of a long period of time. This is where I get to its length, which is likely the most off-putting aspect to those who are interested in seeing it. The show is split into four major seasons:
- Ojamajo Doremi
- Ojamajo Doremi #
- Motto! Ojamajo Doremi
- Ojamajo Doremi Dokkan!
Each of these is about 50 episodes in length, and there is also a supplemental 13 episode side story OVA that was released afterwords, Ojamajo Doremi Naisho, that takes place between Motto and Dokkan. This totals to 214 episodes, making it the longest running magical girl series ever to have a single, continuous plot.
Yes, that is absurdly long, especially if you’re an anime fan used to watching most bite-sized currently airing series, but there’s good reason for it. Ojamajo Doremi’s length allows it to do so much more than it would be able to otherwise, and it’s what really solidifies it as a masterpiece. I mentioned before that that the series has an excellent sense of community, and the primary reason this is true is because it shows us the lives of practically an entire elementary school class, and later multiple classes, as they grow up over the course of four years. Through four separate seasons (and an OVA) we are shown the aspirations and insecurities of dozens of elementary schoolers, each of whom are a node in a giant web of interconnected relationships. As the show goes on we get to understand these characters on a much deeper level by personally seeing them develop. We watch as some struggle to cope with changing homerooms, learn to be empathetic towards their fellow classmates, and slowly become more like adults as the series goes on.
It must have been a wonder watching the show as it aired in Japan as a kid, being able to actually live through these children week by week, celebrating with each of the Christmas specials, enjoying the seasonal test of courage episodes, and buying the toys to cast pretend spells at recess. Perhaps that’s part of why the show was such an overwhelming success there, and why it still enjoys a dedicated fan following.
Unfortunately, its popularity did not translate to the States. The series was licensed by 4Kids Entertainment and aired on 4Kids TV in 2005 as Magical DoReMi. It was heavily edited to remove any content deemed unsuitable for a young audience and never gained much traction, resulting in only the first season being localized. It’s easy to blame this on the censorship, but it’s doubtful a show like this would catch on here anyways. Its style of slow-burn development has never been popular in the West, especially when it comes to long-running TV series. That said, I know there are thousands of anime fans who want exactly what this series has to offer. Some might not even realize they want it, or perhaps would be interested based alone on the pedigrees of those who worked on it. After all, Ojamajo Doremi is an effort of many of Toei Animation’s most talented staff. Even if you’ve never heard of it, you may be familiar with some of them.
Takuya Igarashi is the primary director of the Ojamajo Doremi franchise. After being the series director for the final season of Sailor Moon, Igarashi was chosen to be co-director of the first season of Doremi with Junichi Sato, and he continued to direct every subsequent season. Being one of the most prominent inheritors of Ikuhara school visual direction his style is reflectively distinctive and full of memorable, dynamic layouts, but what makes him really stand out in Doremi is how he uses expressions. This series can be considered the root of Igarashi style comedy, which is defined by exaggerated faces and lots of fast, close cuts, something which can be seen in his works at Studio Bones such as Ouran High School Host Club, Soul Eater, Star Driver, and most recently, Bungou Stray Dogs.
Considering his position, Igarashi also holds the privilege of being the director of many of the most integral episodes of the series. This often times includes the first or last episode of a particular season, but also some key developmental scenes that allow him to show a stunningly emotional side of his work that doesn’t quite come through in his more recent shows.
Junichi Sato is one of the most prestigious staffers to come out of Toei. Best known for being the director of the first season of Sailor Moon, Princess Tutu, and the Aria series, Sato’s name is well regarded by both fans and industry veterans alike. In Doremi’s production Sato initially acted as co-director with Igarashi on the very first season. He later left the series in Igarashi’s hands to pursue other projects, but still worked as an episode director on the second season and OVA.
Sato’s style is characterized by an excellent control of atmosphere and poignant storytelling. His visual tends to evoke a more whimsical feeling than those of his contemporaries, but he’s always sure to balance it out with plenty of comedic relief as well. While he wasn’t one of the most active of directors on the series, as evidenced by his complete absence in the later two seasons, his contributions helped shape the show, direct its growth, and develop younger staff.
Clearly the most idiosyncratic director on Ojamajo Doremi, Shigeyasu Yamauchi’s direction can be described as “divisive”. While the other directors on this list are most notable for their emotion, grace, or humor, Yamauchi is startlingly complex in how he presents his ideas, and this can be both a blessing and a curse. When it works out for him, you get episodes that are some of the best of what this medium has to offer, such as his work on Naisho 4, where he displays masterful control of the central character’s visual identity while simultaneously conveying a sense of identity loss that stems from working in the idol industry. However, when he drops the ball there can be lackluster consequences. The Yamauchi directed Motto! Ojamajo Doremi: Kaeru Ishi no Himitsu is a short film which is honestly a mess that attempts to fit a much grander narrative than necessary into a 30 minute run time, a fine example of how Yamauchi’s ambitions can sometimes be taken too far.
While he might be the most divisive director to have contributed to this show, he’s unarguably one of the most fascinating for the remarkable lyricism, visual storytelling and theatrical techniques used in his episodes. Many years after his work on Ojamajo Doremi Yamauchi went on to direct Casshern Sins and has contributed to a number of series at Toei and beyond, including Mawaru Penguindrum, Shinsekai Yori, and Ashita no Nadja.
Joining production during the Motto season, Tatsuya Nagamine was just a regular episode director without much experience at the time, yet he continued to direct someone of the most memorable episodes in the show, episodes which take full advantage of the colorful personalities of the main cast to provide hilarious comedy and endearing character interactions. His style of direction is filled with imagination, featuring frequent style shifts and visual storytelling that well convey the spirit of the material.
For Nagamine and many other minor episode directors working on this series, Ojamajo Doremi was a place to grow talent and move up in the industry. After his contributions to the series Nagamine went on to direct HeartCatch PreCure, one of the most popular entries in the enormously successful PreCure franchise. He continues to work at Toei to this day, occasionally contributing to various other PreCure series.
Incredibly popular in both Japan and around the world as the director of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars, Wolf Children, and his latest, The Boy and the Beast, Mamoru Hosoda’s reputation as the “next Miyazaki” has been discussed to an excessive length since his rise to fame. While many fondly remember his early works on Digimon, very few acknowledge what are possibly the greatest manifestations of his talent: the two episodes he directed of Ojamajo Doremi. Towards the end of Doremi’s production Hosoda was invited to direct some of the final episodes of the last season, episodes 40 and 49 of Dokkan. The former is a beautiful distillation of his style into a single, half-hour standalone episode that seems to be the root for his later work in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, while the latter is an cathartic expression of the powerful bonds that have grown between the main cast. His light, refined compositions and somber tone allow him to weave layers of subtly into each scene. Both episodes are masterpieces in their own right, and Dokkan 40 can be watched on its own, so if you have even a passing interest in Hosoda’s work I would highly suggest trying it out.
While directors are incredibly important to an anime’s production, you cannot discuss Doremi without mentioning Yoshihiko Umakoshi. He had a huge effect on the series, working as character designer, animation director, and key animator throughout. While he had worked on other series such as Neighborhood Stories for some time before Ojamajo Doremi, this is where his style really came into fruition. The change can be seen by simply comparing the design sheets between seasons, noticing how each subsequent redesign becomes notably more exaggerated and expressive to better reflect the show’s tone. Much of Doremi’s cartoony nature can be attributed to these foundational concept designs.
His animation work is also unsurpassed within the context of the series. Generally the go-to animation director for the most important episodes, Umakoshi’s cuts only grow more lively as time went on. Because of his work in Doremi Umakoshi was able to develop as an artist, define a unique and personal visual style, and go on to work as a character designer and animator for many prestigious anime including HeartCatch Precure, Casshern Sins, Mushishi, Saint Seiya Omega, and currently My Hero Academia.
Yuki Yukie & Kunio Tsujita
Art Director Yuki Yukie and Color Designer Kunio Tsujita are often overlooked in productions they are a part of, but their role is incredibly important, especially in a series like Ojamajo Doremi. A large part of the whimsical atmosphere found throughout the series can be attributed to their beautifully realized pastel-colored world. One need only look over the beautiful set pieces they have designed, especially those found in the magical relm, to feel a sense of wonder and amazement. Prior to Doremi both had worked together on Shigeyasu Yamauchi’s Boys over Flowers and continued to work under him on Casshern Sins. Immediately following the end of Ojamajo Doremi‘s original airing they continued their roles on the next series aired in its timeslot, Ashita no Nadja.
It’s a real shame that such a large proportion of English-speaking anime communities are unaware of Ojamajo Doremi‘s existence despite it being one of the most heartfelt anime series of all time. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to change that, no matter how many articles are written or tweets circulated, until there’s an official release overseas. It would be a dream come true for a company like Discotek Media or Right Stuf to pick the series up for a modern release, but doubtful considering the lack of demand for modern releases of older mahou shoujo series, and that’s not even mentioning Ojamajo Doremi‘s length. With no legal or convenient way to watch, it’s no wonder so few people have seen it, but a recent Japanese rerelease of the first season on Bluray has filled me with hope that may one day change.
For me, Ojamajo Doremi is not only the best magical girl show of all time, but also one of the most affecting anime I have ever been lucky enough to view. No other piece of media has ever made me laugh so hard or cry so deeply. If anything I’ve said has interested to you, even if you are not normally a fan of magical girl anime, I strongly encourage giving the series a try. If you just take it at your own pace I guarantee you will find something truly special.