Among anime’s long-running franchises, churning out additions for a loyal fandom every year or so, Pretty Cure (Precure) is one of the finest. I’d even say the magical girl metaseries is the best aimed at girls, next to shonen Gundam for boys. As these series grow storied, they face unique challenges. The expectations of the target demographic (or their parents) (or the advertisers) may change. Further, many viewers who’ve long been hooked will now be older than the intended audience and may have different expectations still, whether from a greater desire for innovation or standards that are harder to please. Hugtto! Precure, the 2018 into 2019 installment, mostly succeeds and is a very good anime, though with a few compromises and surrenders to the spirit of the age that left me shaking my head.
A countervailing strength these never-ending series have, usually counted a fault, is a reliance on toy sales. On the show-to-sales-pitch count, Pretty Cure is even worse than Gundam, with the magical items used in transformations or attacks visibly animated to look like a plastic toy a business partner can easily mass produce! I suspect that the need to maintain a line of toys that work in about the same way is a strong incentive for consistent animation, discouraging any drastic changes away from a strategy that has worked before.
One of the first things you’ll notice is the lovely palate of colors. Even when untransformed, the main girls and their surroundings come in many shades of the rainbow and beyond. Children like these bright colors, and adults used to drab entertainment and a more drab life will find them refreshing.
Hana Nono begins her thirteenth birthday determined to be a new, more adult-like Hana Nono, but soon has a bad hair day on her hands as she clips her bangs too close. After a strange experience where time briefly stops and she hears a baby’s voice leads her to meet Saaya Yakushiji and Homare Kagayaki, clearly future precures from their blue and blonde hair, an adorable baby she names Hugtan and accompanying mascot character Hariham Harry fly into her bedroom window, but after a brief introduction they vanish. Who is Hugtan? This’ll remain a mystery for a while, and entails some surprisingly complex plot developments, but in the meantime she serves wonderfully to draw out the girls’ mothering instincts. The next day Charaleet, the chief clerk at Criasu Corporation, takes advantage of bad feelings between a student and teacher to unleash an Oshimaida (meaning “It’s The End”), a monster that spreads the ”prickly power” (toge power) and makes everyone in the vicinity faint, then tries to steal Hugtan‘s ”tomorrow power” (asu power)-generating Mirai (Future) Crystal. Hana’s desire to protect Hugtan allows that magical baby to cause a thick mobile phone-looking PreHeart to emerge from Hana’s heart, which she uses to transform into Cure Yell, defeat the Oshimaida, awaken everyone and heal all the bad feelings.
Trying to describe what actually happens in a magical girl fight is a real weeb’s errand, with alchemical-sounding powers generated by pure hearts and special items allowing good to defeat evil, but it amounts to visually appealing attacks that are a core part of the draw. Three of the group attacks—Trinity Concert, Cheerful Attack, and Tomorrow With Everyone—really stood out, comparing favorably against KiraKira Precure A La Mode’s Animal Go Round, my favorite from the last season. However, a joint attack by Cure Macherie and Cure Amour, Twin Love Rock Beat, using their heart-shaped guitars as projectile weapons, struck me as incredibly tacky, a least favorite of all the franchise‘s stylized offensives.
Speaking of love, there’s more romance here than we’ve seen since Nagisa’s crush on Shougo back in Futari wa Precure. It’s an unwritten rule that precures can’t have boyfriends; in Fresh Precure, a boyfriend was introduced, but they copped out: it was a brother posing as a boyfriend (I was so mad). That being said, there’s been an increasing amount of yuri in the last few I’ve seen. Emiru Aisaki and Lulu Amour have become especial friends within the group, expressing their bond in song after Lulu catches Emiru’s passion for guitar. Together ”The Precure of Love” when transformed as Macherie and Amour, their affection stays safely in the best friends zone; there’s nothing like the all-but lesbian couple Yukari and Akira from last time around (during her return in one of the movies, butch Akira characteristically pins a girl against a wall). Some of the scenes of them together are touching.
But more importantly, there’s the most tender crush that Homare has on... Harry. In human form, Harry’s a beguiling bishounen, visually several years her senior. Her feeling lovelorn for a mascot character who comes from the future is matched by our knowledge that... this couldn’t work if they were both just humans, either. This makes for some tragedy, and is pretty brave for Pretty Cure. I suspect they upped the romance for older fans who crave couples, and will ship their favorites even if no pairings are provided. A brief scene near the middle of the series seems to confirm it: in a part involving Criasu Corporation villains, there is netorare. Yes, NTR. I almost didn’t believe it, but it’s there. Keep your eyes open for it.
Now that I’ve brought up the corporation again, it’s time to talk about an unfortunate endorsement of gender-bending that was reported in the industry news, and celebrated even by many non-fans. I’ll spare the details. Why does it happen? Since the precures are fighting to save the future from villains trying to freeze mankind in its supposed present happiness, the cures’ futures—careers—are a big theme, and this leads to excellent episode plots and drama. Homare is a first-rate figure skater, and Saaya is already acting in the shadow of her television actress mother. Emiru and Lulu (to the extent she needs to think about it) of course have their electric guitars. Hana... she’s the classic Rilla Blythe who just doesn’t feel geared to any grand vocation. But that, of course, is completely unthinkable today! Particularly for girls. To be sure, Pretty Cure has recognized that not everyone will, or can, grow up to get a “dream job”, and that’s all right: in Fresh Precure, I loved how lead Love Hanazono’s mother was a supermarket cashier. Hana’s father is a manager at the Lowe’s-like HugMan Home Center, also very working class. But since someone decided interesting our youth in these careers is seen as vital to the economy, there is a heavy focus. The first ending lists: pilot, cabin attendant, baker, bookshop keeper, fashion leader, idol, music, arts, illustrator, design, waitress, make-up artist, world traveller, director, teacher, engineer, scientist, florist, nurse—but Japan’s birth dearth is getting pretty dire, so there’s something about falling in love for life thrown in too (in my favorite Precure series, Go! Princess Precure, Haruka bucks the tendency the other way, earnestly wanting to become a princess into her thirteenth year). Hence, the villains hail from a corporation with the hellish office culture and overbearing bosses at every step of the chain of command Japan has become famous for in real life. On the demand side, it’s no news that gender and gender roles are treated as just one more consumer product, personal brands that form ready-made niches, easy prey for marketing. Even the idea that something could be off limits is offensive. Whereas in the past the precure were a legendary few heroes whom girls longed to be, at the end of Hugtto! Precure, that exalted status, too, is extended to a degree I think beneath its dignity.
It isn’t possible to please every part of the audience at once, though. Long-suffering male Pretty Cure fans will have to keep on suffering, and going on the merest crumbs. I-is that a panty flash? As of right now, I count 141 doujinshi for Hugtto! alone, to satisfy fans wanting something more “adult-like”, even if Toei never acts on the cue.
All this, though, isn’t to say Hugtto! Precure fails. If the spirit of capitalism taints everything, even finally magical girl anime, the series couldn’t have survived on the market so long without delivering something small children like, and they haven’t lived long enough for the relevant conditioning to take full effect. Pretty Cure remains a refuge, like a castle rising from the sea, where soaring heroics and stylish feminine beauty may always be found.