Editor’s Note: The following contains Lycoris Recoil spoilers.Prodigies with incredible skills and physical prowess are staples of most action genres and anime is no exception. Tales of kids training to become elite warriors, working for militaristic organizations are about as numerous as stars in the sky. So when Lycoris Recoil dropped in summer of 2022 it was in a bit of an uphill battle. The show follows Takina (Shion Wakayama), a girl who was ousted from the Lycoris organization that raised her and trained her to fight, and Chisato (Chika Anzai), a Lycoris who left of her own volition. At the start it seems like a run of the mill action anime about highly trained girls trained to kill but as the show unravels we see how the show challenges the conventions we’ve come to see so many times in these types of stories.
Lycoris Recoil Subtly Evolves Magical Girl Anime
Lycoris Recoil is not trying to deconstruct girl’s action anime the way that Madoka Magica did with magical girl anime, instead it’s a more subtle evolution. It takes the conventions of the genre and thoughtfully molds them into something more modern and thoughtful. The Lycoris organization took young orphan girls and raised them specifically to be killers and offered them no alternative paths. They are consigned to the roles they were given through a sense of debt to the organization that raised them. This is, all things considered, not an unusual setup and organizations designed to turn kids into warriors are present in any number of action anime like Kill La Kill, but Lycoris makes a point of interrogating these systems and their flaws. Once Takina is out of the Lycoris she starts to see what life can be. She enjoys new foods, goes to the aquarium, tries cute clothes for the first time in her life, and learns there are ways to help people that don’t necessitate hurting others. Through Takina we come to understand how brainwashed the Lycoris are. We’re able to understand that, though we’re used to these unquestioned militaristic forces in our action anime, that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy of interrogation. Lycoris Recoil simply points out what is obvious in this case: these organizations rely on the exploitation of their members to function.
The unchallenged organizations are pretty common across a variety of different genres of anime but even in terms of female led action shows, Lycoris Recoil is setting itself apart in other subtle ways. The teen girls in these types of shows are often sensationalized or sexualised. Acting like adults in both their emotional intelligence and their more revealing costuming but Lycoris resists this urge to treat its teen characters like adults. Both Chisato and Takina wear practical uniforms and even in training sequences where they wear less clothing the attention is never drawn to cleavage and the viewers aren’t subtly encouraged to ogle. There’s a whole episode wherein a panty shot (a staple of these kinds of anime, unfortunately) is creatively blocked and ends with the reveal that even if the shot hadn’t been blocked, Takina was wearing guys boxers for comfort and flexibility anyway. Subtle jabs like these reassert the girls as characters with their own agency rather than pawns to be fawned over by a leering audience.
Takina’s unquestioned dedication to the Lycoris organization is not rewarded. She’s kicked out for her efforts with little chance to get back in and this is devastating because, like in most stories that follow an organization of skilled warriors, she defines her value through how she performs at her assigned task. It is only by escaping these rigid, cruel structures she’s been subjected to her entire life that Takina is finally able to start to live for herself.
Childishness as a Vehicle for Empathy
The girls are also allowed to be childish in ways that are often dismissed. Takina making a fool of herself for Chisato’s sake by acting like a fish is a huge character moment for her, showing her emotional growth and growing ability to reach out empathetically to those around her rather than the strict logical thinking she’d been trained to adhere to. Chisato is similarly a subversion, the most badass character in a show is often someone unrivaled in their kills but Chisato is non-lethal. She’s succeeded entirely in spite of the system she was raised to adhere to, and she’s the best there is because of it. It dovetails perfectly into the commentary on the Lycoris organization itself, proving that their philosophy is at the very least flawed if not entirely corrupt. The show even changes up the typical rivalry dynamic you’d expect between the by-the-book Takina and the free spirit Chisato. They seem like the types to butt heads and while they do initially, they quickly outpace that tired dynamic and become motivators to each other to think and live freely with Chisato in particular helping to show Takina how much more there is to the world than being a Lycoris. Perhaps in another story it would be about Takina and Chisato battling it out for the role as the best Lycoris, but instead they’re both learning that there’s simply so much more to the world than being the best.
Lycoris Recoil Subverts Genre Conventions
Lycoris is not a revolution but rather a subtle upset. It takes conventions of the genre and subverts them in small ways, repositions the pieces in ways we haven’t seen before, and allows us to take in a familiar setting with fresh eyes. Mika (Kousuke Sakaki) is a wonderful example of this. The kindly mentor with a dark past is almost cliché at this point but by making minor tweaks to the formula, Mika is able to be someone entirely new. Mika is Chisato’s mentor, a black man who wears a yukata and runs a cute café. His existence as a non-stereotypical black man in an anime is already subversive in many ways as, while anime has made many strides, it’s still exceedingly rare to see characters like him, especially with such a complex internal life. He was initially supposed to take care of Chisato for his ex-lover, the villain of the series but over time came to resent the role he’d been given now knowing Chisato to be the wonderful person she is. He’s a deeply flawed character who’s redeemed through his empathy, and we come to see him in a more complex light because of this.
A Unique Take on the Human Toll of Violence
The value for human life shown by the show and its characters is also unique. The spectacle of action can often get in the way of remembering that violence has a human toll in the story but Chisato as our hero upsets that immediately. She’s completely capable of killing people and would likely be an unstoppable force if she did so but she resolutely refuses to kill. To make your primary badass non-lethal by personal conviction is certainly a change and adds immediate depth to her character as we try to understand what caused her to think this way. And that value for human life is not something she’s criticized for, at least not by the narrative. Takina is initially dismissive of Chisato’s way of doing things but once she sees that this choice is not due to a lack of skill it helps to open her eyes to new ways of dealing with things. By seeing Chisato succeed in spite of her choice not to kill, Takina is able to let go of some of her biases and come to understand that lethal force is not always necessary the way she was trained to believe.
Lycoris Recoil is a girl’s action anime for the modern age. It shows that subtle changes can make a huge impact on the story being told and the conventions of the genre that have long been in need of some updates. It’s a show that is very much concerned with the impact people can have on each other and how relationships can change people for the better. And perhaps that is what sets Lycoris Recoil apart the most, the thing that ties all these changes together, an emphasis on impact over action. The show doesn’t want to just show us cool girls doing cool action, it wants us to interrogate why they do what they do and the systems in place that got them where they are in the first place. We’re encouraged to see these characters as people first and Lycoris second. And in doing so we’re able to see this as a story of people learning to save each other as a different means of fighting.