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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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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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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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The Open-Ended Nature of Aikatsu’s “Idol Activities”

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to sponsor Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

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There have been many attempts over the years to dethrone the Japanese children’s entertainment juggernaut that is Precure, but while Precure is squarely in the realm of the “fighting magical girl,” most of its challengers are themed around mahou shoujo’s sister genre: pop idols. This includes Pretty Rhythm, PriPara, Lil Pri, and the subject of today’s post, Aikatsu!

Aikatsu! began in 2012 as a multimedia franchise consisting of games, manga, and anime. The animated television series, created by Sunrise (of Gundam fame), follows Hoshimiya Ichigo, a girl who enters the idol training school Starlight Academy after being inspired by its top star, Kanzaki Mizuki. Together with her best friend and idol fan, Kiriya Aoi, and others she meets along the way, they engage in idol katsudou, or “idol activities.”

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Sunrise at this point is well known for another popular idol anime, Love Live!, and despite the fact that they don’t share that much staff, the two shows are similar in feel. Both have an overall lighthearted sense of fun and engaging character interactions combined with learning and personal development. Both feature bizarrely comedic moments (the episode where Ichigo gets into an “Obari Pose” and chops down a christmas tree is famous). Both series are also so entertaining in these respects that the actual “idol performance” moments are comparatively less interesting.

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However, one curious aspect of Aikatsu! that differentiates it from Love Live! (and many other anime) in terms of narrative is that Ichigo and the other idols don’t seem to have a concrete goal to aim for. The girls in Love Live! want to save their school and then win the Love Live. Naruto wants to become Hokage. Ichigo’s motivation is this vague sense of “becoming an idol,” but by the first few episodes she already is one more or less, and there just seems to be this general sense of forward progress. This is also what differentiates it from other more episodic works, or series such as Hidamari Sketch.

Aikatsu! has just enough on-going threads in the background and pays attention to its characters’ growth that the series carries a nice sense of continuity. Aoi becomes the mascot for a crepe company in an early episode, and after that you can always see a copy of the advertisement poster featuring her in Aoi and Ichigo’s room. The show also drops hints that Ichigo’s mom is a former idol, and as I continue to watch the series I’m just anticipating that moment where Ichigo discovers the truth. Every time her mom appears on screen, I think, “Will this be it?!” That desire to see Ichigo’s realization is actually one of my main motivations for continuing to watch.

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There’s one last element of Aikatsu! I want to discuss. More specifically, it’s a theory pertaining to Aikatsu!‘s relationship with Precure. When watching Aikatsu!‘s core cast, I could not help but be reminded of the cast of Doki Doki Precure!, which came out in 2013. While the characters are different enough to not feel like copies of each other, Mana’s blonde hair and pink color scheme in her transformed state resembles Ichigo’s, Rikka (blue) plays the role of the more level-headed and smarter best friend just like Aoi, Alice resembles Arisugawa Otome (orange) not only in name but also in appearance, and Makoto’s occupation as an idol (as well as her serious personality) feels akin to Mizuki. I suspect that Doki Doki Precure! may have taken some inspiration from Aikatsu! but I can’t be certain of this. That said, I recently checked out some of the character design notes for Doki Doki Precure! and noticed that Cure Sword (Makoto)’s design originally had longer hair, which would make her more stylistically similar to Mizuki from Aikatsu!

Aikatsu! has been a series on my radar for a while, that I had only briefly engaged with, but given just how entertained I’ve been by it I definitely want to watch more and talk more about it. Expect future posts, maybe?

Royally Good: Go! Princess Precure

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After Happiness Charge Precure! failed to live up to its potential, I had hoped that the next series in the long-running Precure anime franchise would fare better. Fortunately, Go! Princess Precure wildly exceeded my expectations to become one of my favorite iterations of the popular magical girl anime. From the serious to the silly, Go! Princess Precure hits a homerun.

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Go! Princess Precure follows Haruno Haruka, a teenage girl who dreams of becoming a princess. As a small child, she met a handsome young prince named Kanata who inspired her to hold onto her love of princesses, in spite of discouragement by others. In the present day, as Haruka comes to the prestigious “Noble Academy” with the goal of learning what it means to be a “true princess,” she finds out that monsters have begun to attack the school, preying on everyone’s hopes and aspirations. Haruka becomes a “Precure,” a magical warrior with the power to defend against the forces of Dysdark, and is soon joined by two other girls, Kaido Minami and Amanogawa Kirara, who also use their dreams to fight back.

Princess fever has taken over amidst the enormous popularity of Frozen in Japan, and Go! Princess Precure asks, “What is a princess?” While this question (as well as the thematic flourish of the series) can potentially be criticized on a surface level as sexist and regressive, a closer look shows that Go! Princess Precure aims to claim the concept of the princess as a symbol of hard work and kindness towards others. To this point, a major villain of the series, the powerful Princess Twilight (no relation) even confronts Haruka (Cure Flora) with the idea that one can only be born a princess, and while she’s technically more correct than Haruka in terms of how it works in real life, Go! Princess Precure shows how Haruka, Minami (Cure Mermaid), and Kirara (Cure Twinkle) strive to embrace the idea of a “princess” as being the product of one’s effort. In other words, according to Go! Princess Precure, being a princess doesn’t make you a better person. Rather, being a better person who strives for their dreams and helps others is the key that allows any girl to become a princess all on their own.

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Not only is Go! Princess Precure strong thematically, it’s just an incredibly solid show in general. In terms of animation, it has some of the finest fight sequences in all of Precure as early as episode 1, and while it rises and dips in quality as is typical of a year-long anime, its overall consistency as well as its high points are notable. The outfits and character designs are all on point (In terms of narrative, the series benefits from an entertaining main cast with well thought out character development. Flora’s story at the half-way point connects to that greater theme of “princess” self actualization. Kirara as the donut-loving fashion model eager to speak her mind is one of the most unique Precure characters ever (I voted her as my favorite among the Princess Precures for this reason). The supporting characters, though not quite on the level of Heartcatch Precure!, grow admirably throughout the series as well.

Perhaps most notably, when the anime introduces a fourth Precure late into its run, she does not overshadow the rest of the cast. It’s a common problem for shows like Precure or Super Sentai, where in an effort to push the new character and her toys she ends up practically taking over the show. Honestly, I can’t recall a single bad episode.

Go! Princess Precure might be quite the hard act to follow. Whether it’s in comparison to the rest of Precure or as an anime all on its own, Go! Princess Precure is simply an outstanding work that embodies a lot of what is best in children’s shows and the magical girl anime genre. I highly recommend anyone, even those skeptical of mahou shoujo, to take a look.

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Glitter Force: Afraid of Sadness?

smileprecure-yayoidadWhat is appropriate for an audience of American children? This is a concern that comes up all the time with cartoons, whether it’s My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic‘s first season explicitly giving moral lessons to live up to its E/I (Educational/Informative) Rating, or the decision to change Japanese names to English ones when adapting anime. Though it feels out of place in this current era, the recent Glitter Force goes to great lengths to hide its Japanese origins as Smile Precure!, one of many series in the long-running Precure franchise. While the edits are not surprising, and obviously I’m not in the target demographic of little girls, I do worry about the point at which these edits hinder animation for children in terms of addressing difficult but important subjects.

When Glitter Force was first announced, it was described as having 40 episodes, down from the 48 in Smile Precure! Fans and curious onlookers speculated as to which episodes would be cut. With the first half of Glitter Force available on Netflix, we now know the first three.

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Two of the episodes are clearly gone for being “too Japanese.” While we could have a debate as to what that even means, in this case it was because they were just too difficult to edit around. One is an episode about okonomiyaki, and while you can call it Japanese pizza all you want, kids know what pizza looks like. Saban wants their young audience to feel like the show is taking place in a city or town much like their own. Another episode guest stars actual Japanese manzai comedians. Not only are there potential likeness rights issues, but manzai comedy is notoriously difficult to translate. Again, makes sense.

The third episode cut is where my main concerns come up. Titled “Thank You, Papa! Yayoi’s Treasure,” the story involves Yayoi trying to recall memories of her late father. In an otherwise silly series, it naturally stands out as a serious and heartfelt story.

It’s not surprising why they would remove it. They want Glitter Force to be even more of what Smile Precure! is: a cartoon that generally emphasizes fun characters, positive female role models, and vibrant animation, which can then be used to sell toys. Even in Japan, series like Ashita no Nadja failed to be commercial successes possibly because of its moments of gravitas. However, decisions such as removing the story of Yayoi’s dad feel as if they contribute to the long-standing belief that cartoons for children can’t be serious, that they’re incapable of respecting children’s intelligence. Why can’t a fun kids’ show take some time to say something more, and maybe let parent and child feel sad together?

The tide of current children’s animation is actually going against this entrenched view. Shows like Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Avatar: The Last Airbender, and even to an extent shows like Kim Possible and American Dragon: Jake Long have brought weight and substance to kids’ entertainment. Glitter Force could have also contributed to this, and it might very well still be able to, depending on how they handle the second half, but things are looking grim. With five episodes on the chopping block, my worry is that they’ll cut the most character development-heavy episodes.

(Or even worse, the Happy Robo episode.)

I actually don’t think Glitter Force is that bad of a dub. The acting’s decent, the characters still look hilarious, and the edits they’ve made to bits of the story and such are odd but not deal breakers. I also understand where Saban is coming from, and given that they have all this successful Power Rangers money and all, they probably know more about marketing to American kids than I do with my obtuse-for-a-casual-audience anime blog. I can even see how Smile Precure! was probably the best fit for an American audience. That said, I’m not a fan of how they had to go to great lengths to write around the fact that Reika/Chloe is extremely Japanese, to the extent that they ended up removing her stern dedication to 道, “the path,” the seeking of truth and oneself. In Glitter Force, they replace it with “GF.”

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I also feel as if I really cannot trust them with any other Precure series, especially not the stronger ones like Go! Princess Precure or Heartcatch Precure! If they can’t let a deceased father by, how are they going to handle Cure Moonlight’s path to redemption, Cure Flora’s introspective confrontation at the middle point, or any of the other equally powerful or memorable stories?

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