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.

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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.