Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z, Pokemon, not a whole lot really connects those three series, except for one thing: each anime series had a tremendously awful dubbing experience on US soil. Rising above that, each series managed to garner a following stateside that rivaled their popularities in their home nation of Japan. Unfortunately, this is not a common tale for anime in the US, especially anime in the 90’s and early 2000’s. Today it is time to share a tale of one such hidden gem, an anime that was just barely given a chance to succeed in the US and was not able to rise above the misfortune of poor dubbing: Ojamajo Doremi.
Ojamajo (a portmanteau of the Japanese words ojama, or clumsy/troublesome, and Majo, or witch) Doremi originally ran in on TV Asahi in Japan from 1999 to 2003 completing four seasons as well as straight-to-dvd season 3.5. At the time of its completion, by episode Ojamajo Doremi was the longest running magical girl series of all time. In 2005 the series got its chance in the US, dubbed as “Magical Doremi” by 4Kids entertainment (strange, I just felt a disturbance in the force, as though a thousand otaku cried out in pain and were suddenly silenced) and aired as part of the 4KidsTV programming block Saturday mornings on Fox. The dub didn’t complete the first season before poor ratings and general disinterest brought it off of the air, never again to see daylight. The toy series, largely unsold, gradually fell into clearance bins at toy stores across America. Over the years the series fell into relative obscurity. Let’s fix that.
Ojamajo Doremi centers around the daily adventures of Doremi Harukaze and her friends after they become witch apprentices. Directed by Junichi Sato (Sailor Moon, Sailor Moon R, Keroro Gunsou, HeartCatch Precure) the series was originally only intended to run for one season, but the overwhelming response from fans of all ages brought it back to the air. The first season can be watched without continuing with the rest of the series, as it has a cleanly wrapped ending.
Fitting in with the magical girl archetype, Doremi and friends have magical powers that were bestowed upon them primarily by Majo Rika, a witch that Doremi discovers, and who takes her on as an apprentice. However, what sets Ojamajo Doremi apart from similar series is the overall scope of the characters’ adventures. In popular series like Sailor Moon or Pretty Cure the characters ultimately face the destruction of the world, and most commonly rescue the whole of humanity. Instead of hinging on the fantastic quality of magical powers, Doremi focuses on the interests and intents of a group of elementary school girls. In this way the show is also largely able to avoid the oversexualization that other magical girl shows commonly fall into, while also addressing problems and situations that are never really explored during shows that have a focus on alien attack.
The series also heavily stresses the consequences of magic, that nothing can be achieved without a cost. In the first episode, Doremi, who has spent years obsessing over witches and studying how to identify one, realizes that the proprietor of Makihatayama Rika’s Maho-Do is in fact a witch (big surprises all around) and confronts her about it. This is the first large consequence of magic that we are shown, if a witch or witch apprentice is identified by a human, they will become a Maho-gaeru, a magical frog, and the only way to return to their original state is to train the human to become a fully-fledged witch. They become a full witch when they earn a crystal ball, the primary witching tool. With their training complete, the human should be powerful enough to return the magical frog to their witch form. This sets the series up to show that Doremi will not become a celebrity, she will not have video games or manga based on her as is shown in other magical girl series like Sailor Moon. She must operate only in the shadows without ever being noticed.
The second consequence of magic is the introduction of a financial cost to magic. Each spell used by a witch costs a physical bead that is stored in their poron, or magical wand, and each bead costs genuine money. Magic cannot be cast infinitely. Magic is not permanent, and this is illustrated when Doremi tries to manifest a steak but it disappears before she can eat it. As her powers grow stronger, Doremi will be able to make her spells last longer, but magic is shown to never have true permanence throughout the series.
The third consequence that is shown in the first episode is that all magic comes with a reverse cost. For example, there is forbidden magic such as the healing of wounds. If magic is used to heal a wound, the caster of the magic would take on the wound themselves. Doremi watches one of her classmates, who has a crush on the same soccer-playing, Igarashi, heal a shin wound that he receives on the soccer field using a magical charm that she had bought at Maho-do. While she is able to heal Igarashi’s wound, she takes on the wound herself. Despite this, she is happy that she was able to help Igarashi finish the game and win for their school. Doremi muses that perhaps she would not have done the same thing, had she been in her classmate’s position, and determines that maybe she didn’t like Igarashi as much as she had previously thought. The ability to learn lessons is strongly shown in the show throughout the entire series, not only lessons that are ephemeral and temporary, forgotten by the next episode, but lessons that carry through the series and are remembered by the characters and the viewer.
With the rules of the universe carefully laid out, the series is able to continue into the second episode where Doremi will be able to recruit other witch apprentices. By the next few episodes, Majo Rika has three apprentices: Doremi, her best friend Hadzuki, and an exchange student from Osaka named Aiko. The three girls must complete a variety of tests laid out by the Witch Queen and her proctors in order to prove that they are advancing through their trials and studies to become witches. These tests and challenges are most frequently completed in the Witch World, which can be accessed through a special door in the Maho-Do. Later in the first season the girls meet another apprentice to a different witch, Onpu, who is also an idol (a term used in Japan to describe models, singers, actresses, or combinations thereof).
Harukaze Doremi is an elementary schooler in the fictional town of Misora. She often calls herself the “Unluckiest Bishoujo,” or “pretty girl,” an obvious reference to the magical girl series Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon. She has a younger sister, Pop, who is believed by everyone in their lives to be more mature and responsible than Doremi and often bosses her around. Her parents are constantly arguing and fighting over small things around the house, though great lengths are taken during the series to show that each parent loves both Doremi and Pop. While it is never suggested that her parents are on the verge of a divorce, it’s possible their habit of bickering was included to make Doremi relatable to children who may be in the middle of a divorce or similar situation.
Fujiwara Hadzuki has been Doremi’s best friend for a number of years, and at the start of the first season they are in the same elementary school class. Hadzuki comes from an affluent family, and her father is often away on business. She spends a great deal of time with the family’s maid/nanny, an elderly Japanese woman, and learns a lot of her life values from this nanny. She is generally polite and quiet mannered, bringing contrast to Doremi’s boisterousness.
Senoo Aiko transfers to Misora Elementary School early during the first season, and when she seems to begin to discover that Doremi and Hadzuki are witch apprentices, she is quickly brought on as an additional apprentice to prevent them from becoming Majo Gaeru. Aiko lives with a single father, she does not know her mother very well, although there is a touching episode later in the series where she uses magic to travel and see her mother, who she believes has started a new family already. Aiko is a tomboy and speaks with an Osakaben (a dialect native to the Osaka area. In many dubbed versions of anime featuring Osakaben this dialect is translated and cast to sound like a southern accent from the United States).
Segawa Onpu is the same age as the three apprentices, and transfers to Misora Elementary midway through the first season. Popular throughout Japan as an actress and singer, Onpu often misses school because she has to be at work. In becomes clear that Onpu has been using manipulative and forbidden magic to further her career as an Idol, protected by a special charm bracelet that was given to her by her mentor. It also becomes clear that she is going to great lengths to please her mother, who is trying to fulfill her own celebrity dreams by being the mother of an idol.
We are given four apprentices who each fit into different archetypes. They can be summarized as the Clumsy One, the Bookworm, the Tomboy, and the Pretty One, following established magical girl and shoujo anime stereotypes. Their personalities and lives, however, go much deeper than such simple phraseology. Each character has been carefully written to be relatable to many children in Japan, so that each child can feel as though they have some sort of representation in a cartoon series.
During the latter half of the first season, Doremi’s younger sister Pop is also able to become a witch apprentice. It is often show that because of the juxtaposition of her generally calm demeanor and Doremi’s clumsy and loud one, that she has been treated as the mature sister despite being several years younger than Doremi. Pop often feels that this has forced her to grow up sooner than she would have liked to.
Following this there will be significant plot and character spoilers for the rest of the series, if you are sold on the series, good news! It has been fansubbed by Doremi Fansubs and is also available in raw Japanese from official retailers like Amazon.co.jp! Doremi is a series that takes a great deal of time to explore problems and possibilities that affect a wide array of viewers, making it one of the most popular Magical Girl anime in Japan. If you would like to know more about some of the problems faced by the characters, and if you do not mind spoilers, please continue.
As season one comes to a close, Onpu realizes the error of her ways and strives to become a fully-fledged witch along with Doremi and the others. However during their final challenge they are discovered by their schoolmates, and the rumor spreads so fast through the town that by the time the girls are returning to the Maho-Do from the Witch World after their commencement ceremony, everyone is waiting for them and the girls are discovered for what they have become. There are a few heartbreaking moments, something that has always stood out is that when the door from the Witch World opens and the girls see their friends and family, Doremi cries out “Mom,” Aiko cries out “Dad,” while Hadzuki calls out “Baaya,” the name of her families maid/nanny. This illustrates very quickly the closest parental figures for each apprentice, and adds a special nuance to the sadness of the episode. In the end Onpu decides that she has no choice but to use forbidden magic one last time and erase everyone’s memories that they had ever seen the witches. However when her charm bracelet breaks, Onpu is forced into a hundred-year sleep to atone for her crimes, meaning that when she awakes every human she ever knew or loved will be dead. The Witch Queen offers the girls an option: if they combine their powers they might have enough power to rouse Onpu from her sleep, though the process could break their newly earned crystal balls. Adding to the cost, the Queen also tells them that whether they succeed or not, they forfeit their right to be witches. After carefully considering the task and the consequences of it, the girls decide to revive Onpu. With Pop’s help as well they are able to bring Onpu back to life, and with heavy hearts the five girls return to the Maho-Do to say goodbye forever to Majo Rika, who will go live in a special Majo-Gaeru village in the Witch World. Originally this was meant to be the final ending to the series, though popularity caused the writers to write further seasons and continue producing the show. This ending, while sad, showed an important lesson: that in the end the most important and valuable things in our lives are our friends and loved ones. That while the five girls had shared an incredible experience, they would be able to continue living normal human lives, happy in the knowledge that their personal sacrifice had saved a dear friend from a terrible fate.
During the third season, Asuka Momoko is introduced. Momoko is a transfer student to Misora Elementary. While Momoko was born in Japan, she has been living in New York since she was very young. Because of this she has forgotten how to speak Japanese, and can only speak English. This is not an uncommon experience in Japan for many children who are moved to the United States when their parents transfer for work, but moved back when that work ends. Momoko was also already a witch apprentice under a witch named Majo Monroe in New York, however Majo Monroe had passed away just after Momoko passed her final challenges. Over the course of the third season, Momoko works along with the other apprentices at the Maho-Do and learns Japanese through them.
While many of their exploits are often fairly innocent in nature, such as helping classmates confess to their crushes, the apprentices often also find themselves solving much more difficult problems. During season 3.5, Doremi befriends a leukemia patient at the Misora hospital who, like Doremi in the first season, aspires to be witch. Over the course of their friendship, Doremi begins to feel that she could possibly help Nozomi to achieve her wish, and along with the rest of the apprentices, asks the witch queen. However everything doesn’t work exactly as Doremi had planned when Nozomi’s condition takes a turn for the worse. In the end Doremi and Nozomi’s mother are able to comfort each other, knowing that Nozomi, who loved to see her friends happy and strove above all else to keep her fellow patients in the hospital happy, would not want to see them crying on this day. To help cheer Nozomi’s mother on Doremi has a snowball fight with her, something that Nozomi had promised to do with her mother on the day before she was hospitalized for her illness.
Doremi is a series that is not afraid to branch out, to try new stories and ideas. There were two half-length films that were shown as double features along with other similar-length anime films in theatres, one for Sharp, or season two, and one for Motto, or season three. The Ojamajo Doremi Motto Movie: Secret of the Frog Stone is a bit of an emotional roller coaster for being only forty minutes long. The story begins with all of the apprentices traveling with Doremi’s parents to her grandparents house in the country. Doremi’s grandparents live at the base of a mountain and are very steeped in traditional Japanese culture. Her grandfather makes lacquer using traditional methods, and using his lacquered masks for a local tradition when they retell a legend associated with the mountain. The legend tells that a young woman committed suicide because her lover had been killed, and when the two bodies were found there was a strange looking frog weeping over them. A statue has been erected of the frog, and Doremi and crew seek out the statue and immediately recognize it as a Majo-Gaeru. They determine that the frog must have been the young woman’s mother, and decide to participate in the local festival in order to appease the heartbroken spirits of the star-crossed lovers. During the same movie we learn about the strained relationship between Aiko and her maternal grandfather, who had disowned his daughter when she initially married Aiko’s father.
Ojamajo Doremi was really a groundbreaking program, and one that was not given a fair shot to US Audiences. The series has continued to be popular in Japan, inspiring an ongoing series of Light Novels that are still being released even today. While there is no official outlet to watch the show in the US, there is a group that spent years tirelessly fan subbing the entire series called Doremi-Fansubs. However if you find that the series is to your liking, consider buying the anime series or light novels from official outlets, in this way we can show Toei that the series is still popular, even in the United States.
All in all, it impossible to ignore the fact that Ojamajo Doremi really is a HIDDEN GEM OF GEEKDOM-DOM-DOM-DOM-DOM (voice echoes on in the distance.)