Even all of the so-called “dark” magical girl shows like Madoka never really touch on one of the stranger fundamentals of the magical girl shtick:
Magical girls are effectively child soldiers.
All sorts of super hero/action things involve kids with powers who fight bad guys and the like. Most of them usually end up going by principles similar to Spider-Man’s, where great power requires great responsibility. Narratively and emotionally speaking, the kids have some sort of obligation to use their abilities for “the greater good,” but it always comes down to a choice. Either they see that right off the bat, or something happens to trigger that choice, but it’s always a decision they make.
Do magical girls get that decision?
Usagi was pretty much born to become Sailor Moon. It was her destiny. Sakura became a Cardcaptor because she got coerced into it by Kero after screwing up the Clow Cards. Madoka was targeted by a predatory magical pet who depended on girls being placed in harrowing situations in order to effectively make deals with the devil.
Magical girls aren’t created. They’re drafted.
The idea usually gets offset by the very nature of these sorts of shows. Yeah, these kids just got forced into become soldiers against evil monsters trying to destroy the world or whatever, but they still get to go about their everyday lives. They still get to go to school, hang out with their friends, go to the mall, and all that fun stuff. Well, Madoka didn’t quite get to do all of that, but most other magical girls still get to be “civilians” despite living double lives. Fighting evil by moonlight, winning love by daylight, and all that.
But would an active magical girl who has to fight monsters and all that actually have time to live a normal life? Unless she was already well trained in physical combat, magic, and everything else that’s needed to not only beat the bad guys, but to simply survive such encounters, wouldn’t she be spending all of her “off time” training? The magical pets who wrangle up these girls may not have some sort of boot camp to send them off to, but you’d at least assume that they would end up going through some rigorous training between monster attacks. Yeah, they might have to get a first hand crash course during the first few fights, since there’s rarely a lot of time between getting powers and dealing with their first encounter, but after that a magical girl would most likely be spending time learning how to be a magical girl.
Assuming things played out “logically.” That’s far from the aim of Sailor Moon and its ilk, and rightfully so, but it’s definitely a train of thought that comes to mind after seeing the trends and cliches in these shows.
At the same time, would that alone be particularly interesting? There are reasons why things like training montages exist. We get past the rigors of practice and leaning in order to get to the meat of things. You can certainly weave stories out of the act of training– The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is one of the better martial arts movies out there and it’s almost exclusively about training– but it’s also about bucking a system that refuses to see innovation as necessary. It could work, but is that really what we wanna see? I don’t know.
So yeah, Spec-Ops is one of these meta-aware shows that takes these trains of thought, runs with them, and then doesn’t just rest on that notion. All of the training, and all of the “we are now soldiers” sort of stuff has already happened. We jump into the story three years after a major monster attack that forced the Spirit World to join forces with Earth, create magical girls, and fight for mutual survival. Magical girls were created, trained, and sent off to save the world with their newfound power.
Now all of that’s over. The world doesn’t really need them anymore. They aren’t hated or feared so much as their purpose has been served, and now the surviving magical girls have to adjust to living in a world where their talents aren’t exactly suited for everyday life. They were plucked out of their daily lives, were given new daily routines focused on warfare and such, and given no real tools to deal with things after the fact.
And given the age of the main character, all of this happened when they were around middle school age– the usual age of anime magical girls. They don’t even have the benefit of being real life soldiers, who often at least have the benefit of a high school education before being “of age” to be drafted into war. Our lead, Asuka, is readjusting to “civilian” life all while entering high school. Never mind that the plot of the show is obviously going into a “a new enemy is emerging” direction that will require Asuka and her fellow magical girls to return to their former lifestyle in some way. That’s bad enough. But Asuka’s also dealing with the social and emotional strains of being a teen without weathering the tween/middle school years that temper you somewhat.
A return to fighting oh so cute plushie monsters who chop up your parents and send them back to you “piece by piece” might be a relief compared to being a teen without first being a tween. That’s an apt way to deal with how soldiers often feel the urge to return to the stresses of combat in some way, because they’re far more manageable than the existential, nebulous crisis of living a “normal life.”