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July 9, 2012 / Bradley

It’s Only a Paper Moon: On Pretty Cure and Conventional Cartoons

I’ve been sitting out this season’s round of new anime punditry. Nothing against the folks doing it or even the quality of the new season. This is usually one of the best times to be an anime blogger: it’s exciting to be among the first to discover a new cartoon and form opinions about it. Most writers seem to be experiencing that right now with the unexpected success of Jintai, for instance. This time of year is a quarterly reminder of why I’m still a fan. So while I’ve been itching to be among the first to tweet about Binbougami-ga or to carry on arguing about whether Tari Tari is any good, I’m sitting this one out because there’s a lot of great anime to watch that isn’t airing right now. Some of it is catching up with the Spring season’s anime- I still need to see Tsuritama and Kids on the Slope, for instance- but most of it is trying to finish a few lengthy series while I still have the time during the summer. I’m primarily jumping between Golgo 13- which I’ve already written some thoughts about, and will probably wrap up by the end of the week- and Pretty Cure, which seems worth writing about as I close in on the half-way point. The end-game for this break is all of Legend of Galactic Heroes, which I swear I will finish by the end of August. Let’s see if I actually do that, or continue to get distracted by Dota 2 and Paradox games.

But yes, how about that Pretty Cure? It seems to have such cynical roots. It’s origins are clearly corporate as opposed to artistic, and seems concocted by committee. “We need to make another Sailor Moon,” say the Toei executives, and for whatever reason, they called it Pretty Cure. A broad sketch of the two shows is identical, with the names changed: there’s a Dark Kingdom that threatens a Light Kingdom and, by proxy, Earth. A Dark Lord needs magic crystals to be resurrected, but cute guardians/mascots have  fled to Earth to recruit middle school girls, giving them magic powers that let them thwart the Dark Lord’s plans. The Dark Lord sends minions to Earth to fight these middle school girls, but not even the monsters they routinely summon can stop them. Common themes include friendship, trying to confess your crush on a boy, friendship, struggling in school, and more friendship. It’s a bit repetitive, and I sympathize with folks who aren’t interested in watching it because that.

It would be too easy to write the whole thing off, but if you did, you’d be missing out. Anime fans generally focus too much on the broad structure of a genre as reasons to dismiss a cartoon- for instance, magical girl and giant robot shows are “too repetitive” because of the monster of the week formula, they don’t like “slice-of-life” shows because “nothing happens,” and that shows like Naruto or Bleach have “boring tournaments” or “boring training sequences.” And while I don’t have a problem with anyone not liking a cartoon for any of these reasons, they don’t make for legitimate criticism. These complaints are like saying, “that action movie sucked because it was too violent,” or “that romance movie sucked because it had icky kissing.” It is fine- and often true- to say that something is too reliant on its genre’s conventions. In fact, that’s the most common criticism I see, but even that is a little too one dimensional. There is room for nuanced criticism and appreciation that goes beyond measuring how much something is like something else. And since most anime are tightly bound by convention, appreciating the details is one of the best ways to appreciate the hobby.

Pretty Cure is a good example of this- or at least what I’ve seen of it so far, since I understand there’s some sort of a mid-season twist coming up- because it more or less makes the Sailor Moon formula its own then adds a lot of nice touches that make it a more endearing cartoon. Yes, I think Pretty Cure is a better anime than Sailor Moon, or at least the respective first seasons. Hopefully writing that doesn’t mean I suffer a horrible fate at the end of a toy wand at a Midwestern convention. But the reason I think it’s better is because, while the broad structure of Sailor Moon may revolutionized magical girl shows, the details of Pretty Cure are what make it a more entertaining show.

Some of it is characters- the Sailor Soldiers were pretty broad types who stuck close to their most cartoonish description, whereas the Pretty Cures are more complex and thought-out. For instance, Nagisa is a sporty, social girl who is happiest playing outside, and while she’s usually the most expressive of the two main characters, she also struggles the most to express her deepest feelings. Honoka is a quiet girl who prefers studying over sports, but even though she doesn’t socialize as well, she’s also the most in-touch with who she is and what she wants in life, making the more articulate of the two. Just like the girls who are the primary audience for this show, and heck, even the adults like me, they each have different ways of dealing with problems. The show acknowledges that there are flip-sides to both approaches- for instance, when one of their friends is depressed because her crush rejected her confession, Honoka tries to talk it out and tell her it’s okay. But Nagisa understands the value of action, and invites her friend over for sundaes to celebrate finishing their exams.

It feels like the characters were designed by someone who wanted to make sure that real girls would see a lot of themselves in the characters, see them doing things they would do and act how they would act, and they wanted to make sure they knew, “it’s okay to be the kind of girl you are.” Call it the Lauren Faust approach to characterization, though she’s hardly the first or only one to do it this way. I think that’s a noble and smart way to approach characterization, and makes the characters really endearing. The characters are clearly intended to contrast each other as much as possible- Cure White! Cure Black!- but it works. It’s convincing- they feel like people I know. And because they’re so different, they don’t start out as friends, and watching them build that friendship and overcoming their differences is very rewarding. The triumphal moment where they acknowledge each other’s friendship is probably my favorite moment in any magical girl cartoon.

There’s other, fun details beyond that, though. Pretty Cure doesn’t take itself too seriously- heck, the first “boss” is basically glam-era David Bowie- but its few moments of solemnity feel earned. Did I mention it has violence? And not magical, throw-your-tiara violence but kung-fu spin kicks, karate chops and a finishing move that puts Kamehameha in its place? Does magical girls using high flying kung fu to fight giant monsters sound awesome? What if I told you this was directed by the guy who did Dragonball and Airmaster, and it shows?

I didn’t expect to write so much about something I’ve only seen half of, but it touched on something I’ve been thinking about for a while and have needed to articulate. Sometimes, the thoughtful details the people who work hard to make the cartoons we enjoy can make the difference something that feels too conventional and something really winning.

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