Never Give Up: Hugtto! Precure

In the opening to Hugtto! Precure, the very first thing spoken by the heroine of the story, Nono Hana, is a motivational mantra: “You can do anything! You can be anything! Embrace your shining future! Hooray, hooray, everyone! Hooray, hooray, me! Here we go!”

At first, it feels a little hokey platitude you say to kids: “You can become president one day!” But over the course of 49 episodes, the words grow and grow in weight and significance. Hugtto! Precure knows it’s not easy to do what’s right, that failure can feel devastating, and that life can turn from joy to sorrow in a moment’s notice. Still, it tells its viewers, both young and old, something ever-important but especially in today’s world: “You define your own success, and who you want to be.”

The premise is standard magical girl stuff: Nono Hana is a 13-year-old girl who won’t let the world get her down, when a mysterious baby named Hugtan nd her talking hamster companion fall from the sky. Gaining magical powers to fight off the nefarious forces after the baby, Hana becomes Cure Yell, and over the course of the series makes new friends and allies who join in her fight. Hugtto! also celebrates the 15th anniversary of the Precure franchise, and it pulls out all the stops as a result. The animation and vibrant, impactful action scenes are frequently among the best in franchise history, and the Hugtto! makes numerous subtle and not-so-subtle references to past series.

But even before the first episode, one bit of news about the show stood out to me more than anything else: the fact that the director of Hugtto! is the famous Sato Junichi—in fact, it’s his first Precure! One of the best ever at making magical girl anime that are both poignant and respectful of the young audience watching them, the same attitude seen in works like Sailor Moon, Ojamajo Doremi, Princess Tutu, and Fushigiboshi no Futagohime is on full display in here. When the primary themes are dreams and motherhood, it can be all too easy to create something contrived, but Hugtto! leaps over that hurdle with grace and enthusiasm.

Major and minor characters alike are robust and fully realized, with their own strengths and weaknesses and unique circumstances, as if they all have their own lives and stories to lead. My favorite character is Aisaki Emiru, a rich girl whose overactive imagination leads her into being overly cautious. However, I think the character who encapsulates what makes Hugtto! so powerful is Nono Hana herself.

Hana’s Precure name, Cure Yell, comes from how “yell” (eeru) is used to mean “cheer” in Japanese. This explains not only her cheerleader-inspired outfit but also her general life philosophy: Everyone needs a supportive voice to lift them up sometimes, whether they’re ultra-talented naturals living their dreams or struggling to achieve anything, and that includes Hana herself. As the series points out numerous times, being that source of encouragement might seem easier or less important than what the superstars around her accomplish—Homare as a figure skater, Saaya as an actress, and more—but it’s just as challenging and valuable to inspire others to not give up. It doesn’t come totally naturally to Hana either; she actively works on it, essentially exuding a motherly and nurturing quality not just towards Hugtan but everyone else too.

People can fail and dreams can change, but “You can do anything! You can be anything!” is not meant to be taken literally. Rather, it encourages a mindset that doesn’t let any obstacle, no matter how big or small, trap people into doing nothing.

In terms of messaging, Hugtto! Precure is one of the best in franchise history. It’s very easy for any show of Precure’s kind—a massive merchandising machine—to play it safe and push toy sales, but Hugtto! actively emphasizes a plethora of important lessons that allow it to overcome that pitfall. For example, while Hugtto! has that excellent fighting action Precure is known for, it still foregrounds the idea that violence is ultimately not the answer, that it is the Precure’ s compassion that wins the day in the end. A key instance of this is when Cure Yell gains an elegant and powerful-looking sword, but rejects its violent appearance, claiming that it isn’t what they need in that moment to not just defeat a villain but save him as well.

Other notable stories highlight a progressive bent in Hugtto! Wakamiya Henri, is introduced as a figure-skating rival for Homare but becomes a key figure for challenging gender and sexuality norms. A stand-alone episode about childbirth becomes a lesson to viewers about the wrongful demonizing of Caesarean sections in Japan. The villains, each named after a different era of recent Japanese history, are all portrayed as having succumbed to cynicism and in need of the Precures to show them that they can still believe and dream. As a side note, it’s highly amusing to me that the villain who represents baby boomers, Daigan, loves to talk big about how he’d fix everything with ease, but ultimately proves ineffectual.

So where does Hugtto! Precure rank among its fellow Precure series? A part of me is still more fond of Heartcatch Precure! (which I consider the pinnacle of the franchise), but Hugtto! carries much of the same spirit and DNA that made Heartcatch great. In other words, it’s a top-tier show that’s at once familiar and daring, and perhaps casts a long shadow on what’s to follow. Best of luck to Star Twinkle Precure—it’s going to need some.

Best Anime Characters of 2018

BEST MALE CHARACTER

White Blood Cell 1146 (Cells at Work!)

I have been fascinated by the immune system ever since I could read. That’s why Cells at Work!, a manga and anime that anthropomorphizes the cells of the human body, feels like a dream come true. Among the many highly amusing characters, White Blood Cell 1146 is one of the centers of the series, and his actions and personality as the main representative of immune response is an endless source of education and comedy.

White Blood Cell is an absurd entity disguised as a straight-man. His sense of duty and his deep, serious voice present a no-nonsense character. However, when you see him literally biting into a virus as he stabs it repeatedly and then turns to cordially greet his good friend Red Blood Cell, it speaks to an individual who is me than meets the eye. In a way, White Blood Cell being the best is the result of his relationship with Red Blood Cell.

BEST FEMALE CHARACTER

Aisaki Emiru (Hugtto! Precure)

I love Precure in general, and many of its characters among my favorites, but I’ve never seen myself in a Precure character as much as I have Aisaki Emiru. Her initial appearance as an overly cautious girl who over-prepares for the worst spoke directly to who I am, and my similar anxieties on a daily basis. I can’t exactly relate to the enormous wealth and secret electric guitar, but you can’t expect everything.

But it’s not just my similarities to Emiru that make me fond of her. Like all of the girls (and guys!) in Hugtto! Precure, there’s a strong sense of growth and maturation, even for someone as young as Emiru. She learns that friendship can take all forms, that holding back one’s emotions can be harmful, and that a heart which believes in change can make the world a better place. I’ll never forget Emiru’s words as she played guitar that first time: “The ‘nyeowr’ is the shout of your soul.”

THE DAIDOUJI TOMOYO AWARD FOR BEING DAIDOUJI TOMOYO

Daidouji Tomoyo (Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card)

This year brought back to anime one of the best magical girl series ever—Cardcaptor Sakura—and with it the very greatest best friend in anime history. A now-teenaged Daidouji Tomoyo continues to support her beloved Kinomoto Sakura, but now with the power of a personal drone.

What makes Tomoyo great is that she wants the best for everyone she cares for. Wise beyond her years and always willing to dispense advice for her lovely oblivious friends, she’s the one you want in your corner every time.

Basically, I am extremely, extremely biased towards Tomoyo to the point that she unfairly destroys the field of best characters of the year, male or female or anything else. Thus, I’ve spun her off into her own category to make this year’s picks more fair in general.

Hail Tomoyo.

Final Thoughts

There’s one simple word that ties all of my 2018 winners together, including the titanic Tomoyo: friendship. Whether they’re discovering friendship for the first time or long-time believers in its power, all three truly embody the joys and strengths of being a true friend. It’s not just about selflessness, and it’s not just about companionship. There’s a real sense of trust and rapport that come from knowing that you have each other’s best interests at heart, and it lets them overcome just about anything.

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The Dynamics of Hugtto! Precure’s Gay Couple

Following a landmark canon lesbian couple in Kira Kira Precure a la Mode, this year’s Hugtto! Precure (a series that is largely progressive in its views) has established its first clearly gay relationship in franchise history. I want to explore the pairing in terms of how it’s portrayed and its significance because there’s a lot to unpack here.

The couple is two side characters, Aisaki Masato and Wakamiya Henri. Masato is the eldest son of a rich and powerful family who, when we first meet him, is all about maintaining the family image. Henri is a half-French, half-Japanese figure skater who enjoys wearing women’s clothing because he makes it look good. They’re opposites in many ways, and at first, rather antagonistic towards each other. “Aren’t you embarrassed to dress like that?” Masato once snidely asks Henri.

Masato is an interesting character, though he doesn’t initially appear that way. When the show first introduces him, Masato’s main actions are to shame and discourage his little sister Emiru from playing electric guitar—her greatest passion. He nags her about how it’s a low-class hobby unbefitting a proper daughter of the Aisaki family. But after Masato is captivated by one of Henri’s performances and the two guys start being seen around each other much more, Henri is shown to be much more supportive of Emiru. Something changes in him.

For better or worse, Hugtto! Precure never says outright that it’s portraying a homosexual relationship. However, for anyone who’s paying attention, the hints are numerous. In one episode, Henri is skating in a competition, and during his performance blows a kiss at a crowd of mostly girls which “just happens” to have Masato at the center. All the girls swoon while Masato barely reacts, but it’s clear what’s going on here.

Given that relative subtlety (one might call it “plausible deniability”), I would venture to say that Masato is initially closeted gay. The reason he’s so hard on Emiru, and why he’s so adamant about her giving up guitar, is likely because he’s projecting his own insecurities onto her. He has to be the proper son who lives up to the Aisaki name. He has to dress the correct way, act the correct way, be the correct way.

Henri, with his fair looks and unflappable personality, explodes all of that. And so, even though their relationship progression is never shown outright, Masato is a little kinder every time we meet him. “Close friends” indeed.

In the end, the fact that Precure can’t just outright say what it has is somewhat disappointing, but the story it’s telling about two guys in love is actually a lot more robust and encouraging than that it may initially seem. The hope is that eventually, Precure will be able to say what it’s really feeling.

How Hugtto! Precure Tackles Childbirth and C-Section Controversy in Japan

Episode 35 of Hugtto! Precure was the second time the anime dedicated an episode to childbirth. It makes sense, given that much of the series is about raising a magical baby who might just be the key to saving the future. What makes this particular episode different, however, is that it actually tackles a serious topic in Japan: the stigma against “unnatural births.”

In the episode, Hana and the other Precures help out at a hospital, where they meet a mother who’s there to get a C-section, and is feeling nervous about it. She talks about how she feels like she made a lot of mistakes with her and her husband’s first daughter, and she wants to do anything right this time. Childbirth can be an especially difficult experience (to put it mildly), so it’s only natural that a mother would be anxious about it, but her expressions in the episode seem to indicate something deeper.

As it turns out, Japan has one of the lowest C-section rates in the world (about 10-20%), reflecting a culture that believes that “natural births” are inherently better. Most hospitals in Japan apparently do not even give epidurals to deal with pain, under the belief that the pain felt during labor is supposed to connect a mother to her child.

The mother in Hugtto! Precure wants to correct all the mistakes she made in raising her first child, but C-sections are viewed by many in Japan as an inherent mistake. It’s a challenging position to be in, to say the least. It’s the sort of difficult story that director Satou Junichi is famous for, as seen in his work on Ojamajo Doremi.

At the same time, the anime shows the doctor encouraging the use of C-sections, describing them as safe, and the mother does ultimately go through with it. By portraying the mother’s decision in a positive light, the episode reveals that it’s actually about trying to remove the negative association Japanese people have with C-sections. Moreover, Hugtto! Precure is a show that’s watched by young girls and most likely their parents, so it has the potential to educate two different generations to not look upon medical intervention during childbirth with disdain—a viewpoint that can potentially save lives.

Highlight Clips and the Loss of Context

On the internet in the early 2000s, the short, 5-second-at-most animated gif reigned. Before high-speed internet became ubiquitous, the gif was a low-commitment way to share snippets of your favorite show. While gifs are still used frequently, things have changed with the advent of YouTube, Twitter, the webm format, and more. Where once gifs were ideally super short, super-optimized for size, and often made to loop smoothly, now clips can go for minutes on end to showcase exactly what’s necessary to impress and astound. But as fandom and even online cultures in general have grown into an environment of instant gratification and moving snapshots, I find that it can influence how people view a given work or performance.

Highlight reels are nothing new, and I think they fulfill a useful role. Speaking from personal experience, they help me understand things that I can’t quite make time to fully delve into. For example, I’ve never been a big basketball fan, but seeing highlights of Michael Jordan’s famous “flu game” (where he managed to lead the Chicago Bulls to victory despite being incredibly ill) helps to drive home to a novice like me the sheer significance of Jordan’s feat. However, not everything boils down easily to small, digestible clips, and there’s increasingly a risk that people will judge the clipped version as if it speaks for the whole product.

Here are three examples that I think encapsulate this dilemma:

On the wrestling subreddit /r/squaredcircle, one fairly common topic is the WWE wrestler Finn Bálor. In multiple instances, Bálor is criticized for being a boring wrestler whose offense lacks weight and pizzazz. However, I’ve seen another sentiment in response: Finn Bálor is impressive when viewed over the course of an entire match. His moves might not leave a deep impression individually, but he weaves them together into a story. Every dropkick, every stomp from the top rope means something, and viewing the moves in isolation fails to tell the whole story.

Starcraft is a series of competitive video games known for pushing players to the limits. Occupying the real-time strategy genre, it will have the occasional flashes of brilliance that can be captured in highlight clips, but more often what makes people fans are the stories told over 20-60 minutes of adversaries trying to outwit and out-muscle each other. It’s often the case that written essays more accurately capture the strength and tactical brilliance of a player than a minute-long Twitch clip. As a result, games that are conducive to highlight reels, like fighting games or MOBAs, tend to go viral much more often.

On a personal note, when creating the “Precure Party” panel for AnimeNEXT 2015 with Alain from Reverse Thieves, I tried to find the best clip to convey the quality of my favorite, Heartcatch Precure! In my opinion, the show’s greatest strength is how it delivers very profound and considerate messages using the depths and quirks of its characters. What I ultimately decided on was to combine two clips: one showing Kurumi Erika (Cure Marine) being jealous of her older sister, and then another showing her older sister Momoka being jealous of Erika in contrast. The point was to show how it threads together those two episodes two make a stronger point about how Erika’s sense of inferiority isn’t the entire story, but the short highlight reel didn’t hit as effectively as I’d hoped. It just wasn’t as effective as showing transformation sequences, dramatic character development scenes, or easy-to-understand gag scenes. If I were to do it over, I would pick something with a lot more impact, but I’d still be a bit sad that I couldn’t properly convey in that instance the X-factor of Heartcatch.

I care little for complaints about shrinking attention spans; I’ve been hearing them since I was a kid. While there is a lot of desire out there for immediate satisfaction (see commenters online who write gigantic replies based purely on the title of a video or article), I can only put so much blame on the viewers and readers when it’s the people making the ads and videos to exploit their customers’ tendencies. What’s more important to me is that I hope people who see short clips or highlight reels for more complex subjects understand it’s just a taste of whatever they’re looking at, and that it’s not always the best or most ideal representation.

Precure: The Crossroads of Voice Acting

Fifteen years is a long time for an anime to continue running strong, and Precure still stands at the apex of the magical girl genre in terms of prominence and notoriety. In that decade and a half, numerous voice actors have lent their performances to Precure, and it’s made this franchise into one in which seiyuu of all stripes, from anime veterans to relative newbies, intersect. To be involved with Precure can become a defining role, or an affirmation of an illustrious career.

In the original Futari wa Pretty Cure, Cure Black was played by Honna Youko, who at the time had more experience playing small roles in live-action series. While the few voice performances under her belt at the time were big deals—starring roles in Studio Ghibli films Omohide Poroporo and Whisper of the Heart—she wasn’t an anime industry juggernaut. Opposite Honna in the role of Cure White was Yukana, who was coming into her own as a fan-favorite due to roles such as Li Meiling in Cardcaptor Sakura and Teletha Testarossa in Full Metal Panic! Since then, Honna has earned some major roles in anime, notably Sumeragi Li Noriega in Gundam 00, but the bulk of her career is in voice-overs and narrations for television. Yukana, meanwhile, has become an anime industry veteran.

Mizusawa Fumie, voice of Cure Marine

Another voice actress who had a career-defining performance in Precure is Mizusawa Fumie, voice of Cure Marine. Prior to Precure, she was relatively unknown, playing roles mostly in small and relatively obscure anime. Now, she’s beloved by both children and adults for her energetic performance in Precure, and is considered a highlight of every crossover movie she appears in. In contrast, Mizusawa’s counterparts—Nana Mizuki (Cure Blossom), Kuwashima Houko (Cure Sunshine), and Hisakawa Aya (Cure Moonlight—were in 2009 already known for numerous characters in extremely popular series. These include Naruto (Nana as Hyuuga Hinata), Azumanga Daioh (Kuwashima as Kagura), and Sailor Moon (Hisakawa as Sailor Mercury).

The list of veterans goes on. Sawashiro Miyuki (Mine Fujiko in the more recent Lupin III works) became Cure Scarlet. Kugimiya Rie, the tsundere queen, came to Precure as Cure Ace. Tamura Yukari (the Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha to Nana Mizuki’s Fate Testarossa) is Cure Amour. Koshimizu Ami, who originally began her career as Nadja Applefield from the 2003 Toei anime Ashita no Nadja, became Cure Melody. In each case, there’s a sense that they’ve “arrived in Precure” at long last.

One unique case is Miyamoto Kanako, who began her Precure career as a theme song vocalist across multiple series. In time, she landed the role of Cure Sword before going back to performing more themes. Other Precure singers have made cameo appearances, but only Miyamoto has made it as a Cure.

Various levels of acting experience existing in a production is hardly unusual, anime or otherwise. However, what Precure has is sheer longevity and the constant reboots to bring in new blood. It’s been around for so long that girls who grew up with Precure are now old enough to audition for it. To that point, according to the original producer of the franchise, Washio Takashi, 2017’s Kira Kira Precure a la Mode was the first time that girls who grew up watching the series became the voices behind the Precures themselves. Precure is in a unique position to push younger talent while also celebrating the efforts of voice acting’s Titans, and it should continue to do so for as long as it’s around.

A Look at Precure Popularity

I’ve been looking at various Precure polls lately, in part due to a desire to see how a franchise that’s 15 years old is remembered. The polls I consulted were Japanese character rankings from 2015, 2016, and 2017 as compiled by user insight_led, as well as a more recent one from the Japanese-language anime news site Anime! Anime! Being a decade and a half old means opinions can change over time (or according to the age of the voters), which is what I normally would expect, but there are some surprises.

Character Popularity

Looking at the Naver rankings, here are the top 10 characters from each year, along with the tallies each one accrued, based on comments on social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook. Also, kids were not included in the votes; if that core audience was allowed to vote, there’d likely be a significant difference.

2015 (Go! Princess Precure airs)

  1. Cure Beauty (1,541)
  2. Cure Marine (1,224)
  3. Cure Passion (1,107)
  4. Cure Twinkle (750)
  5. Cure Pine (624)
  6. Cure Happy (580)
  7. Cure Ace (575)
  8. Cure Lovely (489)
  9. Cure Peace (440)
  10. Cure Heart (432)

2016 (Maho Girls Precure airs)

  1. Cure Beauty (20,041)
  2. Cure Happy (15,580)
  3. Cure Marine (12,824)
  4. Cure Peace (12,682)
  5. Cure Passion (8,107)
  6. Cure Twinkle (7,750)
  7. Cure Heart (7,432)
  8. Cure Lovely (6,999)
  9. Cure Scarlet (6,890)
  10. Cure Miracle (6,619)

2017 (Kira Kira Precure a la Mode airs)

  1. Cure Happy (12,450)
  2. Cure Beauty (11,394)
  3. Cure Marine (8,924)
  4. Cure Peace (8,804)
  5. Cure Passion (6,409)
  6. Cure Flora (6,102)
  7. Cure Lovely (5,877)
  8. Cure Heart (5,322)
  9. Cure Blossom (5,285)
  10. Cure Chocolat (5,180)

Based on these three rankings, what surprises me is how little recency bias actually seems to influence results. Cure Beauty and Cure Marine are consistently top 3, even as the total counts fluctuate. There appears to be something enduring about both of those characters, which is all the more interesting because they’re 1) in unrelated series 2) almost polar opposites in personality.

For Cure Beauty, the reasons generally given for her popularity are that she’s an ideal combination of strength, intelligence, and beauty. Out of all Precures, Beauty most closely matches the yamato nadeshiko (traditional ideal Japanese woman) in both looks and demeanor, so I wonder how much that’s a factor.

When it comes to Cure Marine, however, the queen of comedic intensity defies expectations for why fans come to love Precure characters in the first place. As mentioned in those rankings, while pretty every other character generally gets comments like “I want to be her” and “I want to be with her,” Marine’s are mostly “I wish she were my best friend.” Seeing as Marine is my favorite Precure character, I’d like to think the Japanese fans also just have incredibly good taste.

Show Popularity

According to the Anime! Anime! poll, the top 3 most beloved Precure series are as follows:

  1. Go! Princess Precure
  2. Futari wa Pretty Cure
  3. Heartcatch Precure!
  4. Kira Kira Precure a la Mode
  5. Smile Precure!
  6. Maho Girls Precure!
  7. Fresh Pretty Cure!!
  8. Yes! Pretty Cure 5 Go Go!
  9. Yes! Pretty Cure 5
  10. Futari wa Precure Max Heart
  11. DokiDoki! Precure
  12. Suite Precure
  13. Futari wa Pretty Cure Splash Star
  14. Happiness Charge Precure!

It should be noted that given the purpose of the site, the general audience for Anime! Anime! would skew towards older and more interested in anime as an industry. One goes there to read essays about and interviews with creators, as well as following general anime news. That’s why I think it’s no coincidence that the most popular iterations of Precure are 1) the original pioneer 2) the series with (in my opinion) the strongest narratives and overall messages. What I’m more surprised about is how well this top 3 aligns with my personal tastes. I consider Heartcatch and Go! Princess to be #1 and #2, respectively, and the unrefined, yet innovative quality of the first Pretty Cure to be a big part of its charm.

While the character rankings and the series rankings are from two different sources, I find it remarkable that character popularity and series popularity don’t really line up. Based on my personal experience, this isn’t a complete shock, but I think it really goes to show that memorable characters can exist almost apart from their sources. Cure Heart is a top 10 (out of 51) character, but Doki Doki! Precure is a bottom 5 (out of 14) show, according to the above sources. It’s also interestingt to me that Cure Marine comes out ahead here. She’s considered a top 3 character, and Heartcatch Precure! is seen as a top 3 show.

Go! Princess Precure is considered the best Precure anime, but interestingly enough, it also has among the worst toy sales out of the entire franchise.

Go! Princess Precure is third from bottom

One might assume that a greater focus on quality storytelling might conflict with how one of the purposes of Precure is to sell toys, but this is not necessarily the case. According to the chart above, the most successful Precure in terms of merchandise sales is actually Heartcatch Precure! There’s perhaps a challenge in being able to achieve high marks in both, but it’s not impossible. The fact that one doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the other is simultaneously reassuring and daunting.

Conclusion (or lack thereof)

I’m not a statistician and I don’t pretend to be. I’m also unsure if there are any truths deeper than what I observed, like how Cure Marine is the Nintendo Switch of Precure (doesn’t compete directly with other Precures and is the better for it), and that toy sales and show quality almost exist on separate planes.

So in closing, Heartcatch Precure! and Cure Marine are the best. Fight me.

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