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Wizards Are Among Us!: Maho Girls Precure

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Witches were the original magical girls in anime, so it’s somewhat surprising that the now nearly-15-year mahou shoujo franchise Precure would take so long to make a series where magic in the conventional sense is front and center. That’s what Maho Girls Precure brings to the table, and the result is a series that, while not terribly ambitious, is a still a good deal of fun.

Maho Girls Precure follows Asahina Mirai, a normal Japanese girl who one day runs into a witch in training named Liko. Searching for a magical item called a Linkle Stone, the two run afoul of a villain searching for the same item. Despite the fact that Mirai knows nothing of magic and Liko’s own skills aren’t the best, they’re able to summon the legendary power of Precure, transforming into magical girls named Cure Miracle and Cure Magical, fighting off the enemy with their new-found abilities. From there, the two become fast friends, even traveling between the magical and non-magical worlds to attend school, have fun, and protect both from malevolent forces.

Given the presence of a magic school, comparisons with Harry Potter are practically invited. There’s even a wise old headmaster (though considerably younger-looking) and a stern female teacher. You might even call Mirai and Liko “chosen ones.” However, unlike J.K. Rowling’s famed series, Maho Girls Precure isn’t a detective story with the elaborate trappings of a magical world, and in terms of seriousness vs. levity remains roughly in the territory of the early, prepubescent Harry Potter stories. That being said, it’ll occasionally raise the stakes at climactic moments and pull it off well. When it comes time to finish, Maho Girls Precure pulls out all the stops in terms of dramatic flair and animation, which is customary for the franchise but always welcome nevertheless. By the end, it’s even the first to really acknowledge the world beyond junior high since my beloved Heartcatch Precure!

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The series is not a terribly bold or daring work, but it also never promises more than it can live up to, which was the issue with the earlier HappinessCharge Precure!—a series that introduced the idea of Precures from all over the world, but never elaborated on it to a satisfying degree. Speaking of HappinessCharge, one aspect from that series utilized to greater effect here is the ability for the Precure to transform into different costumes with different abilities. While it’s not always clear why they use one over the other, they’re all stylish enough in appearance and unique enough in application to not wear out their welcome. My favorites are the topaz outfits, which carry dessert themes and also Green Lantern powers.

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The aspects of the magical world I enjoyed most were the silly little quirks of a different society accustomed to spells and physics-defying elements. From the default incantation of “Cure-up! Rapapa!” to the bizarre shell-shaped sleeping bags found on the snail trains (sort of the Maho Girls equivalent of the Hogwarts Express) to the wizard versions of fairy tales (the fairy godmother is the main heroine!), I looked forward to seeing what simple yet amusing elements of magic would pop up next.

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However, the most telling thing about how I view Maho Girls Precure is that my favorite part of the anime is not the heroines or their fight against the forces of chaos, but a side character, Katsuki Kana. A fan of the paranormal, Kana is quick to notice that some unusual things are going on in their town, except no one else seems to notice, and the Precures themselves actively deny it. When she first encounters Liko’s witch friends, they nonchalantly blurt out about how things are so different in “their world,” prompting a frantic expression from Kana in response. In addition to her panicked reactions towards any hint of magic, her ongoing desire to learn the truth, carry shades of one of my other favorite supporting characters in Precure, school newspaper journalist Masuko Mika of Yes! Pretty Cure 5.

Speaking of characters, I’d also like to mention that Liko is pretty much the anime version of Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic in both appearance and personality. Any fans of Twilight would probably enjoy her antics.

 Maho Girls Precure only rarely ever had me dying to see what happens next, but its simple yet expansive relationship between its characters and their worlds made sure I never tired of it. It’s a series you can take your time with, and it’ll entertain and move, at least one step at a time.

The Transformation of Time from Manga to Anime

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How much does time pass when the mighty Star Platinum punches an enemy Stand in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure? There are many factors to consider, such as how much time has passed in the show itself, as well as how time is being manipulated within the series’ universe itself. Another important element is the fact that the anime is an adaptation of a manga, where the flow of time is abstracted by manga’s existence as a 2-D paper medium.

As far back as Tetsuwan Atom, adaptations of manga have been a common mode of anime production. Manga act as a spring of new stories to present, and the jump from the comic book format to animation opens up many opportunities. An anime can try to forget its own path through interpretation or divergence from the manga (such as both the Ghost in the Shell films and Stand Alone Complex), or they can faithfully attempt to recreate what exists in the original. However, while the latter cases might often appear to be “direct transplants” of the manga to the screen, the act of having to take a physical and spatial image such as a panel and assign to it a finite amount of time can greatly change the impact of a given scene in spite of the desire for faithfulness to the source material.

In a general sense, having to time dramatic beats for an anime often requires playing around with the contents of the manga. For example, in an episode of Dragon Ball Z, filler sequences (such as the infamous minutes-long powering up spots) not only save budget, but can also be a way to make sure the episode ends on a cliffhanger. On a broader multi-episode scale, Initial D: Fourth Stage does something similar by reversing the order of the final two opponents. Originally, the manga has protagonist Takumi race against a man known as “God Hand,” while his teammate Keisuke races against “God Foot” afterward. In order to make sure the series ends with a climactic battle for its hero, the show has God Foot go first instead.

One consequence of this is that there can be moments when a series feels as if it’s dragging. Sometimes it’s successfully padded out or rearranged so that nothing feels particularly off, but in other instances it is possible to sense an uneven rhythm or pacing.

This notion also extends to the transform of panels into time. Consider that there is generally no specific amount of time that is said to pass in a given panel in manga, or indeed comics in general. What makes a panel feel “fast” or “slow” is partially about how long one’s eyes linger on a panel, and it’s dependent on the amount of content there and the flow of the page. But because time exists differently in manga, things that seemingly pass quickly on the page take much longer on the screen.

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A common example of this would be the frantic explanations of special moves in an action or sports series. Because we tend to read more quickly than we speak, it is possible to believe that an elaborate speech or thought is being made within the span of a ball being passed from one player to the next. However, commit that to concrete time in an anime, and suddenly you begin to wonder why no one is doing anything as they talk for 30 seconds. To appreciate those moments, it requires a viewer to understand that time portrayed is not literal. This is the case even with series not adapted from anime. It does not “really” take Voltes V two or three minutes to combine together, or for Erika to become Cure Marine.

So when what is a single, snappy panel in manga gets stretched out into an extended scene in an anime, it can dramatically effect how a person can feel about a particular title. I find this to especially be the case with comedy series. Take Azumanga Daioh, a four-panel series. In the manga, there will be a comedic moment that lasts for only one or two panels, such as Sakaki rolling on the floor while holding a wild Iriomote cat. In the anime, this becomes a full-on extended display of non-stop rolling with musical accompaniment. A small moment becomes a big one thanks to time. A more recent title would be Nichijou, where the staccato presentation of the manga’s gags are the equivalent of sharp, quick jabs. In anime form, however, the characters’ movements are exquisitely animated and exaggerated, and the result is a series that is in a way much more physical and almost “luscious” in a sense. While the Nichijou anime pretty much takes things directly from the manga, the two turn out to be pretty different experiences.

My belief is that the unusual handling of the (broadly speaking) space-to-time transition of manga to anime is a likely culprit of why someone might love a manga but hate its anime (or vice versa!) even if the adaptation process is largely faithful. It’s kind of like when an actor is cast in a movie based on a book; what was once a nebulous image reliant upon visual/mental interpretation becomes a little more solid and finite.

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Idol Activities are Serious Business: Aikatsu Stars!

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In contrasting the different eras of the popular idol anime series Aikatsu!, I once used a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure analogy. If the original heroine Ichigo is equivalent to Jotaro, then her successor Akari is the Josuke of Aikatsu! If this comparison holds water at all, then the latest series, Aikatsu Stars!, must be the Steel Ball Run of the franchise, and therefore its main character, Nijino Yume, must be its Johnny Joestar. In other words, it’s a new world, a new setting, and all ties to past series have been more or less severed.

It’s unclear to me whether this “reset” was necessary, but then again it’s how the Precure franchise has rolled for the past 14 years. Whatever the case may be, to the discerning eye Aikatsu Stars! reveals itself to be a different beast. While it shares plenty of similarities to the Aikatsu! of years past, there are enough changes to make it feel like a new and almost separate entity.

Aikatsu Stars! follows Nijino Yume as she enters the prestigious idol school, Four Stars Academy, in order to chase after her idols, the mega-popular group known as S4. What she lacks in experience she makes up for in enthusiasm, as well as a strange potential that seems to only manifest itself when she’s directly onstage.

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The summary above mirrors both Ichigo and Akari’s own stories, but where it begins to diverge is that Aikatsu Stars! feels like a more serious story with higher stakes. This isn’t to say that the show is dark or cynical; they’re not poisoning each other and putting thumbtacks in each others’ lockers. However, whereas Ichigo is confronted in the early episodes by her classmate Ran’s fairly cutthroat attitude and quickly overturns it, I sense a much greater emphasis on rivalry in Aikatsu Stars! Adding to this feeling is the impact of S4 themselves. As the premier female idols, they give off the impression of being nigh-untouchable, their minds occupying a world almost beyond the reach of regular mortals. Not even #1 idol Tachibana Mizuki in the original Aikatsu! quite has that aura.

The most noticeable change with Aikatsu Stars!, however, is the new character design aesthetic. The girls and guys of Aikatsu Stars! have smaller frames and rounder features, giving them a look that feels to me be to more “gender-neutral.” What I mean is, the original Aikatsu! had designs that I see as closer to shoujo manga. Their large eyes weren’t just expressive, they were almost like miniature planets. With Yume and the rest of the Aiaktsu Stars! cast, the designs more resemble a balance between girls’ anime and bishoujo anime for guys. It’s effectively The iDOLM@STER meets Peach-Pit, the artist duo responsible for works ranging from Shugo Chara (shoujo) to Rozen Maiden (seinen featuring cute doll girls).

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While the characters are all different and look different, there’s one semi-subtle link to the franchise’s lineage, which is that the girls of SF4 match the main four in original Aikatsu in terms of hair color. Blond, blue, red, and brown are all present, and although their personalities don’t really line up at all, it can’t possibly be a coincidence.

There are a couple of other differences which I think make Aikatsu Stars! rather interesting. The first is the greater prominence of male idols. Yume meets a boy who turns out to be a member of M4, the top group from the academy’s male division. The previous Aikatsu! as far as I know only barely bothered in male characters. Is this the influence of successful male idol spin-offs, such as Pretty Rhythm: King of Prism?

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The second is that the series implies a greater and more diverse range of possible idols. Sure, Aikatsu! has things like an American idol, and one who likes to dress as a vampire. But Aikatsu Stars! has a teacher who has a rock background, and the first ending theme is an S4 dubstep song. What other possibilities exist? I want to find out.

Aikatsu Stars! feels more tightly focused and more dramatic, but I do wonder if this comes at the cost of the more lighthearted fun of the original series. That being said, there’s nothing so far that tells me it’s going to plummet or lose its footing. I look forward to seeing Aikatsu Stars! build on itself, and even if the episodic hijinks don’t feel as strong, it looks on-track to being a more polished work overall.

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Here Are My Hopes for Kira Kira Precure A La Mode

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I’ve written an article over at Apartment 507 talking about the latest Precure. There aren’t any major details yet, but if you want a quick rundown of Precure as a whole, and want to know how I’d like the series to go, head on over.

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Friendship Never Dies: Ojamajo Doremi 16

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A sequel is a curious thing, beholden to the expectations created by the original. If you stay too close to what came before, then the work runs the risk of being a pointless retread. Stray too far, and the spirit that made the work special can fade away. Across multiple year-long seasons, the magical girl anime Ojamajo Doremi, managed to never grow stale. Between its lived-in world, genuine respect for its young audience, characters both central and supporting who truly grow as human beings, and a sharp sense of both drama and humor, it’s an example worth holding up.

But what happens when the next sequel is not only removed from the elementary school days of the anime, but also in another medium entirely? That question is what brings me to the main topic of this review: Ojamajo Doremi 16, the first in a series of light novels that shine the spotlight on Harukaze Doremi and her friends in the exciting new world of high school.

At the end of Ojamajo Doremi Dokkaan!, Doremi and her classmates graduate from elementary school. However, rather than continuing on into middle school together, Doremi and her closest friends all go their separate ways in pursuit of their dreams or in support of their loved ones. At the same time, while they had spent the last four years as witch apprentices, they ultimately decide to forego their abilities as they stood on the cusp of becoming full-fledged witches, preferring to live as humans. Three years have passed, and now high school is on the horizon. Doremi discovers that her old friend Senoo Aiko is in town, having moved back from Osaka, and together with Fujiwara Hazuki have reformed their original trio. Not surprisingly, their reunion also becomes a new encounter with the Witch World they had left as kids.

One of the challenges of the light novel comes in how to convey that these are the same characters as the ones from the anime, only older. To this end, the vocabulary of the first-person narrative of the light novel, Doremi’s that is, effectively conveys the idea that she’s matured quite a bit. At the same time, it is clearly Doremi speaking, as her voice sounds very close to the same girl from back then, whose clumsiness belied a special talent for inspiring others. The other characters share similar changes. It can be hard to imagine them as their current selves and not just picture their smaller selves from the anime, though the updated character designs from Umakoshi Yoshihiko (who worked on the Doremi anime originally) certainly help.

Another sign of this change comes in the form of romance. Love for the main cast was never much of a focus for the Doremi anime, and even in this light novel it doesn’t play the most major role, but it underlies many of the other stories that take place. Hazuki’s close friendship with misunderstood delinquent and (bad) trumpet player Yada from their elementary school days has blossomed into a full-on relationship. Aiko is mentioned as having had some boyfriends, but is currently single. Kotake, the boy who began the series picking on Doremi but clearly fell for her by the final TV series, has grown tall and handsome, as well as becoming the star of the high school soccer team, and their being 16 potentially allows them to communicate in ways that they could not as immature kids.

While there are plenty of differences, the actual feel of Doremi 16 in terms of how its stories are told feels right at home. Rather than try to tell one grandiose plot in the span of its 300-odd pages, the light novel tells many smaller stories that both stand alone well and build off of each other to varying degrees, creating the sense of connection between characters that Doremi as a series is so good at. One of Doremi‘s greatest strengths was its excellent side cast, and in Doremi 16 you get to find out how they’ve also grown, whether because they’re the focus of these new stories, or because they simply exist as part of the world.

Fiction-loving Yokokawa Nobuko became a successful manga creator in middle school alongside artist and friend Maruyama Miho. Segawa Onpu, idol and former magical girl antagonist, has struggled with the transition from child star to full-blown actress. Doremi 16 brings you right back into their stories, and it feels immensely satisfying catching up with them, and it never gives the impression that the light novel is simply asking its readers to wax nostalgic purely for its own sake.

At the same time, however, I have some doubts as to whether someone could approach Doremi 16 without any prior experience with the series. I do think it’s excellently written in general, but it relies heavily on a cast of characters that have been previously established through years of anime. While I believe that the light novel quickly sums up its characters well so that you can get an immediate sense of who they are, I’m not sure how much it would matter to a complete newbie to the Doremi universe that Nagato Kayoko, who once suffered from a crippling fear of going to school, has now actually won awards for academic excellence. New characters are established, but the return to the town of Misora where Doremi and the others live is a significant factor in this book’s appeal.

That might appear to contradict the notion that Ojamajo Doremi 16 isn’t just for nostalgia, but it would only truly be a nostalgia-focused work if its story simply dwelled on the good times of the past. Instead, Doremi 16 actively builds on the paths that the girls of Ojamajo Doremi take towards the future, and it encourages readers to similarly reflect on their own lives. Although the three years from elementary school to high school isn’t nearly as long of a wait as the seven-year lull prior to the light novel, I can imagine that the high school world of Doremi 16 is a reminder that time brings about change, and that friendship and discovery are on-going processes whose magics are well worth exploring.

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Precure is Not a Lesser Sailor Moon

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A few months ago at Otakon, I was talking with Alain from the Reverse Thieves, who had attended a panel about magical girls and feminism. He had described how the presenter went through the various series she’d be discussing, but made specific mention that she’d be omitting Precure from the discussion, citing the fact that she wasn’t particularly impressed. Although I did not attend the panel myself, I found that to be unfortunate, not because of the dismissal of Precure by the presenter in isolation, but because this stance on the long-running magical girl franchise is not that uncommon. Among many fans, presenters, and even scholars, Precure is assumed to be bland and generic and not worth discussion.

In my opinion, that kind of thinking is a mistake. Precure is not only the biggest and most popular magical girl property of the past ten years, eclipsing even Sailor Moon in certain ways (sales, longevity on TV, etc.) and therefore worth observing for its cultural footprint, but it is also a fount of positive imagery for girls. While there are certain elements that can remain issues, such as the increasing ubiquity of pink as the only possible color for the main heroine and the fact that a lot of the magical girl outfits have high heels, Precure utilizes strong female characters by default, rather than making a big deal out of their existence. What’s more, because the series refreshes itself every year or two, its variety results in different approaches to characterization of female characters and themes pertaining to feminism. You have weak girls who become strong over time (as well as a nuanced exploration of what it means to grow), heroines who are more ideals of human potential, and even characters who try to reclaim the term “princess” to mean something more than “demure.” Even the very first series is significant due to its portrayal of girls having aggressive, hand to hand fights (in a show for young girls, no less), and the fact that its two main characters are more about their life goals than pining at the boys around them.

I have my suspicions as to why Precure has ended up with this reputation, and a lot of it has to do with Sailor Moon. It was the first of its kind, the sentai-inspired battling magical girl genre of which Precure is a part. In terms of cultural influence around the world, Sailor Moon has crossed the barrier from niche interest for anime fans only to seminal work, and is frequently cited as a pivotal show in the development of many young artists. Just the fact that it portrays these mature-looking girls who fight and win is on a basic level empowering and inspiring, and so any similar series gets compared not only to Sailor Moon but also its presence as a kind of nostalgic defining moment where any weaknesses it possesses as a series are forgiven. It’s also very important to point out that, especially in the US, Precure is just plain hard to come by. As a result, for English speakers it has much less potential of becoming part of the fabric of one’s upbringing, with the possible exception of Smile Precure!, which has been loosely adapted to become Glitter Force on Netflix.

I get the feeling that, when the Sailor Moon generation typically sees Precure, a common process occurs. First, they see that Precure is similar, and that its story (depending on which version they watch) is often more lighthearted initially. Second, they see that the character designs are younger-looking, and so it seems less mature as well. Third, they might do a bit of research and become aware that the franchise is also popular with adult men, lending a sort of “creepy pervert” vibe to their impressions. Finally, they fill in the blanks, and without watching much more, jump to the conclusion that the franchise can’t possibly do things so differently from Sailor Moon that it’d be worth looking into more, or that it’s only for sad otaku (unaware that Sailor Moon was the show for doujinshi in its heyday). Moreover, because Precure doesn’t have the more immediately apparent dark appeal of a Revolutionary Girl Utena or a Madoka Magica, it’s further assumed to be generic kiddie fare. That’s not to say that the series isn’t for children, but that the type of maturity it carries is more in how it approaches the task of trying to show strong images for a female audience. As discussed above, I believe Precure does this to great success, and to see it brushed aside saddens and angers me.

I like Sailor Moon, and I don’t mean to paint fans of that series with the same brush. However, because it is a defining magical girl show for a lot of people, it gets written about as if it is the be-all, end-all of its particular brand of mahou shoujo. The reputation of Sailor Moon surpasses what is actually in the series in a certain way, and it casts an unfair shadow on Precure when Precure does many things that I would argue are improvements or directions that Sailor Moon never goes. This is especially the case with its feminist qualities. My hope is that, when people think about progressive portrayals in anime and the magical girl genre, they not only remember that Precure exists, but are aware of all that it offers.

 

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Looking Back on Ojamajo Doremi

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In 2010, I found what would become one of my favorite anime ever. Ojamajo Doremi, at one point brought to the US as Magical Doremi, is a magical girl series targeted at young children, but with such great character development and genuine respect for children’s intelligence that it is easily one of the strongest works of fiction I’ve ever seen, let alone anime or kids’ material.

While I never really reviewed the series beyond the first season, my verdict on the sequels more or less amount to “more or less just as good,” so I didn’t feel it necessary to say the same thing four times. Now that I’ve finished Ojamajo Doremi Dokkaan!, which concludes the original series (there’s an OVA that takes place in Seasons 3 and 4, as well as canon light novel sequels featuring the cast in high school), it gives me a chance to rwhat eflect on I think makes this series so special, but now within the context of having followed the cast over 200+ episodes.

Doremi follows a group of young girls who become witch apprentices, and with their newfound abilities they use their magic to help others out. What makes this series remarkable from the very beginning is that they often cast magic in order to solve people’s problems for them, but rather utilize it in a way that lets people help themselves. Unlike the current Toei magical girl franchise, Precure, each season of Doremi is a direct continuation of the previoust, so we follow the girls from third to sixth grade. Doremi and the others meet a ton of characters and encounter a vast number challenges, so it’s easy to assume that all of the events would kind of blend together in one’s memories. However, the biggest testament to how strong Doremi is in general that the series is filled with characters both major and minor that create lasting impacts.

In the second season, Ojamajo Doremi # (pronounced “Sharp”), where Doremi has to take care of a magical witch baby named Hana. As a 4th grader in elementary school, Doremi cannot handle actually taking care of a baby, and Hana makes her life a living hell. However, when Doremi runs to her mom for comfort because she can’t stand being reprimanded for messing up, her mom instead of offering her a hug actually slaps her. While this might seem harsh, Doremi’s mom is trying to get a message across: while Doremi’s feelings might be hurt for making a mistake, Hana is a baby and utterly helpless. If Doremi isn’t there for her, she could die. Right at this point, the series teaches a valuable lesson: being a mother is no small responsibility, and it’s not to be taken lightly.

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In the third season, Motto! Ojamajo Doremi, Doremi meets a girl named Kayoko, who loves to read but has a deep fear of attending school. The show successfully portrays Kayoko’s fear as something convincingly terrifying to her, and perfectly understandable: at some point, the pressure she felt from both herself not being able to keep up and the perception of her classmates’ seeming disappointment in her became too much. What’s more, in the episode that introduces Kayoko, the show initially creates the expectation that Doremi has solved her problem already, only for her to turn away at the last second. It’s not until a number of episodes later that she’s able to overcome this psychological turmoil and go to school, and then another few before she can even attend class (as opposed to study in the nurse’s office). What’s more, it’s also with the help of another minor character (who also undergoes a good deal of growth) that Kayoko finally recovers.

Then in Dokkaan!, many of the episodes explore the life of a former Queen of the Witch World. Though at first they seem to show individual happy memories from her time in the Human World, gradually they build up to a significant plot point: if the girls truly want to become witches, they must be aware that it might forever divorce them from being unable to fully empathize with their families, friends, and other humans. Life spans, ways of thinking, everything changes.

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So when the final episode of Dokkaan! features many of the characters Doremi helped coming back to help her, I found it rather amazing that I could remember so many of them. It made me aware that, though they appeared countless in number, they each stood out in their own ways. Each of their stories were so special, so filled with emotions and the rewards of having been able to work through their problems with Doremi’s help, that they both individually and collectively speak to how tremendously strong Doremi is as a while.

Doremi creates an incredibly robust world from just the simple wish fulfillment concept of girls gaining magic powers, and does so without veering into either coddling over-optimism or grim pessimism. The franchise is mostly full of positive energy but will temper it with an awareness of the doubts and worries that children possess, and is not afraid to show them that life isn’t without is challenges. Whether people are young, old, famous, nobodies, from foreign countries, or right next door, everyone has a story and their own circumstances to work through, and Doremi encourages us to help however we can.

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