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What is good character design?

Different people will have their own ideas about what helps the design of a character (including myself), but over the past few years I’ve begun to consider more how the elements often described as contributing to character design are a kind of double-edged sword.

Take the idea that a character should have a unique look achieved through simple yet elegant means, and that they shouldn’t be mistaken for anyone else in the cast. This is ideally achieved through stylization, and to some extent exaggeration. For example, I find the character designs in Heartcatch Precure! to be fantastic, and part of this is achieved because the girls are varying heights, and that their distinct personalities come across very clearly in the way they look. However, that same dedication to simplicity and really conveying a character’s particular characteristics through their appearance are the same tools that can be used to, for example, create harmful stereotypes. How do you make a character look more Asian? Give them squinty eyes and buck teeth, because that will immediately communicate their Asian-ness.

Of course, there’s a significant difference between making a character that expresses their uniqueness through their design, and drawing to conform a character to a general stereotype in that one is about individualizing and the other is about generalizing, but I think that the two ideas exist on the same spectrum. Take for example a political cartoon mocking a particular politician through the use of symbols and signs meant to represent that individual. A large hooked nose in this case might become the symbol of a racism against Jewish people in another context. The very tools artists use to express ideas of love, equality, and growth can also be used to spread hatred, discrimination, and regression.

I am pro-freedom of expression, so I do not believe in restricting even the more negative and harmful uses of art, but I do understand that a price is paid as a result. Images persist that can strip young people of confidence, make them feel as if they never have a chance in the world. While one way to combat it is to provide even more positive images, the inevitable difficulty is helping them to navigate all of the disparate messages without necessarily forcing them to be blind to everything that’s out there. When the strategy to helping others out is to block their access to material that might change them, then that itself can become a problem.

I myself don’t entirely know the point I’m trying to get at, but I believe it’s something along the lines of “artists have a lot of responsibility.” Whether you use your art to fight for a cause, against one, or just want to draw things that are cute, cool, gruesome, even actively traumatizing, that is a decision to be made, and to be felt, and you it is good to be prepared for the consequences that arise.

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WARNING: This post contains Go! Princess Precure spoilers

There’s a recurring problem in the Precure franchise, which is basically a post-resolution amnesia to any significant narrative climax. This is especially evident when a new Cure is introduced or an evil character turns to the side of good, complete with a new human guise free of all of the old visual cues that marked her as being on the side of “evil.” In the process, these girls usually not only take the spotlight because they’re so new and exciting, but their newer forms are so fully integrated into their now-human lives that it’s like the show wants you to forget their past.

As a result, while the prospect of a turncoat who sees the light is generally thrilling, the addition of this new Cure to the main team often comes with a small helping of fear and dread. When Go! Princess Precure first introduces its evil rival character, Princess Twilight, the possibility that she would become the fourth Precure in this new series was already there, but the following questions would come up while watching. First, will this new character overshadow the old girls. Second, will the series act as if she’d always been everyone’s best friend?

22 episodes later, we have our answers. Twilight is really Towa, a princess who was kidnapped and brainwashed when she was a little girl, and Cure Flora, Cure Mermaid, and Cure Twinkle are able to rescue her and restore her memories. Thus begins the potential process for Twilight to essentially be “Cure-washed,” but Go! Princess Precure rather impressively makes the misdeeds of Towa’s past a part of her story and her struggle. Even after being rescued and having her original appearance restored (Twilight had long white hair while Towa’s hair is red and done in elaborate curls), Towa is shown to still be in Twilight’s original dress, and the switch away from this outfit is actually a plot point in Episode 23. Even more indicative of the show’s desire to not forget about “Princess Twilight,” however, is Towa’s transformation into Cure Scarlet.

When Towa transforms into a Precure, there are a number of interesting visual cues that she seeks not to totally divorce herself from her problematic past. First, the villains of the series have pointed elf ears, and when Towa becomes Cure Scarlet she also retains this feature. Not only that, but the transformation sequence actively emphasizes the shape of her ears.

Second, her her hair goes from being a bright red to a pale pink, closer to the white of her Twilight form.

Finally, the ever-present fire in her transformation sequence, though a different color from the flames used when she was evil, are so powerful and overwhelming that they appear sinister and frightening. While past fire-themed Precures also had blazing infernos bursting forth from their bodies, in the case of Cure Scarlet it’s almost as if they’re hinting that she’s liable to commit arson. Of course, that’s not the actual point of the transformation, but it again points to a character who might be “good” but hasn’t necessarily forgotten or ignored her wrongdoings, even if they were arguably beyond her control.

The overall result is a character that I’m looking forward to seeing develop. While there’s no guarantee that she won’t end up overshadowing the rest of the characters, I have greater faith in Go! Princess Precure because of how consistently impressive and high-quality the series has been up to this point.

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The original Yes! Pretty Cure 5 was in certain ways a radical departure back to the familiar. Whereas the previous Pretty Cure shows had focused mainly on duos, Yes! Pretty Cure 5 went with the five-girl sentai team, reminiscent of Sailor Moon. In execution, it ended up being neither a better or worse decision in that each character still received plenty of the spotlight, but what really made the series stand out to me were the unique villains (a literally evil corporation with company hierarchy and everything), as well as a dedication to showing its heroines eating that surpasses even the likes of K-On!

The sequel, Yes! Pretty Cure 5 Go Go, brings a fresh coat of paint that keeps with the spirit of its immediate predecessor. Right from the first episode, the new outfits are much improved from the bizarrely beige/yellow costumes from the previous series, and the attacks are flashier and more impressive: Natsuki “Cure Rouge” Rin’s “Pretty Cure Fire Strike” involves kicking a soccer ball made from flames, for example. The characters’ personalities still provide plenty of humor and opportunities to talk about food, as well as some nice moments of development. The new characters bring excitement and intrigue, especially the mysterious Milky Rose, who comes to save the Cures but initially positions herself neither as ally nor enemy, and eventually starts shooting rose-shaped clouds of shrapnel.


Overall, Yes! Pretty Cure 5 Go Go is actually a sequel that improves on the original, as rare as that is.  The show takes the time to how far the characters have come from the previous series, like when protagonist Yumehara Nozomi (Cure Dream) ends up tutoring Rin’s younger siblings and introduces to them her unique approach to learning. It also continues to do a great job of just showing how the characters are more than two-dimensional, like how Kasugano Urara (Cure Lemonade) is clever yet surprisingly naive at times, and how Akimoto Komachi (Cure Mint) takes her writing very seriously. That said, I can’t help but feel it lost a couple of important gems in the process.

The first is that the new group of villains, even if some of there are individually interesting, aren’t quite as memorable as the Nightmare Corporation from Yes! Pretty Cure 5. While an evil museum collector is a nice concept, and his assistant Anacondy brings in some of that much-loved evil bureaucracy (you can’t be truly evil until you’ve mastered evil paperwork), it just doesn’t feel quite on the same level. The second oversight is just a lack of Masuko Mika the school reporter, whose insatiable appetite for journalism and a desire to find out the secret identity of the Cures led the way to some of the funniest and most heartfelt episodes of the previous series. In fact, her doppelganger Masuko Miyo (intentionally a reference to Mika) probably gets more appearances in HappinessCharge Precure! than she does in Go Go.

If someone liked Yes! Pretty Cure 5 it’s hard to think they’d vehemently dislike Yes! Pretty Cure 5 Go Go, and I even think the sequel can be viewed on its own without any prior exposure to Precure in general. That said, I do think that watching the first series can help, as it does a much better job of showing where the girls came from and how they developed over the course of their narrative.


There are two things I want to mention at the end. First, one of the most memorable gags for me is the gag above, which reminds us that Minazuki Karen (Cure Aqua) is indeed extremely wealthy. Second, if anyone ever wondered who the animators’ favorite character was, the exquisite fight scenes with Kasugano Urara (Cure Lemonade) removed any and all doubt.

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After a five year hiatus due mostly to not be in the United States, I am making my triumphant return to AnimeNext in Somerset, NJ from June 12-14. I also have two panels I’ll be running alongside the Reverse Thieves’ Alain.

Precure Party

Friday 2:15pm -3:15pm BW Panel 6

We’ll be talking about the crazy enormous Precure franchise that’s now 11 years old and even more popular than Sailor Moon ever was in Japan. Whether you’ve never heard of Precure or you’re a die-hard fan, we think you’ll have a great time seeing magical girls punch monsters in the face.


Giant Robot Romance: Boy Meets Girl Meets Mecha

Sunday 11:15-12:15pm BW Panel 6

Love triangles and star-crossed lovers are a common trope of giant robot anime, but this panel focuses on the series where romance is of central importance to the story. See how love has evolved over time in the world of mecha. We’ll be featuring shows such as Macross, Aquarion, and more!


Also, I’ll definitely be at this panel if you want to chat in person


Kill la Kill, Inferno Cop, and [Redacted] with Studio TRIGGER

Saturday 9pm-11pm Panel 1


See you there! I hope we can all sing the Inferno Cop theme together. Also, if you’re cosplaying Fight Club Mako, I’ll give you a high-five.

Mad Max: Fury Road has received immense praise from critics like few films, both of its type and in general, have ever received. With an astounding 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a long and difficult production history, it’s the kind of movie that I would say was easily worth the wait, had I actually realized it existed prior to opening day. Even then, I didn’t even see the movie until a week later, when half the people I follow on Twitter repeatedly sang its praises and articles talked about just how well-executed a film it is, visually, conceptually, and in terms of narrative.

This would normally be the point where I throw in a “however,” but I really can’t. Mad Max: Fury Road lives up to the hype and then some, even to someone like myself whose only knowledge of Mad Max is that it’s a heavy influence on Fist of the North Star. As a newbie to the Mad Max universe, I was taken in by a story that’s fun yet profound, the creative action sequences that give a true sense of continuity as well as cause and effect that never leaves you confused as to what’s actually going on (no shaky cams here), and a cast of characters that are surprisingly largely sympathetic. Mad Max: Fury Road leaves a lot up to the audience to read between the lines, but gives enough so that interpretations aren’t shots in the dark.

One major aspect of this movie that’s gotten quite a bit of attention is that its story can be interpreted as being quite feminist. On the surface this can be surprising, given that the aesthetic of the Mad Max world is centered around machismo cranked up to 11. Arthur Chu at the Daily Beast argues that Mad Max has always been critical of violent, belligerent masculinity and that the greater presence of female characters able to take a broader perspective on history in Fury Road is what finally make this directly obvious. Again, I have no experience with the franchise so I can’t agree or disagree, but along these lines I think there’s an additional component to the movie and its use of female characters that gives the movie a kind of feminist foundation.

The world of Mad Max is a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where water and other supplies are scarce and death is a common sight. In Fury Road, the antagonist Immortan Joe is the cult leader of a religion that combines emphasis on vehicles and technology with Norse mythology, and the result is a bunch of pale zealots spreading violence and destruction wherever they go. Deserts, blood, and bullets are what make up the environment, and what Fury Road does is say, “Well, of course women can be gritty, seasoned veterans of a war-torn Earth.” In this way, it’s kind of like how the anime series Precure assumes as a matter of fact the immense power of its female characters, though Mad Max: Fury Road takes it a number of steps further by removing much of the glamor, and being very deliberate in where the remaining bits of beauty and eroticism come up.

Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, is just as much a fighter as the eponynous “Mad” Max, and the elderly female nomads who appear later show their decades of experience fighting both people and their harsh surroundings. Even the five wives of Immortan Joe, characters crucial to setting off the main conflict of the film who were locked away and are highly sexualized (what else would women selected by a cult leader specifically to bear his children be?), but they also show their desire to learn more about the world they were hidden away from, and the fact that their skin is so perfect and their clothing barely hides anything is more a contrast with the world than the sole image of women in the film. The film features women participating in this classically hyper-masculine setting as men typically would, and in doing so argues that it need not be considered a “man’s world” at all.

Another interesting point about the five wives is that, while their original purpose was to be sex slaves, this also affords them the power of knowledge: outside of Immortan Joe’s own family, they are the only ones who know that he is not an immortal god descended from Valhalla, but merely a weak, decrepit old man whose seemingly powerful appearance is a lie. Vulnerability is a persistent theme in Mad Max: Fury Road,  from the fact that Max is haunted by the memory of his dead daughter, to the fact that one of Joe’s fanatical followers, Nux, keeps ending up in different situations that force him to confront his own identity even as he struggles to please his god-king.

The story on the internet is that men’s rights advocates are upset at Mad Max: Fury Road, and while I don’t know how far that stretches even within that particular community, I can see why it might be a cause for alarm in that world. The film utilizes a setting that classically exploits women and views them as play-things (though that’s not to say such stories are inherently bad), and flips it on its head. All the while, the sheer sense of action and excitement is of a level higher than probably any movie in recent memory, so it’s not like focusing on female characters detracted from the presentation. If anything, it’s made Mad Max into something that can bridge generations.

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Magical Angel Creamy Mami

I recently learned (thanks to Japanese popular culture scholar Patrick Galbraith’s new book The Moe Manifesto) that Magical Angel Creamy Mami is not only an influential magical girl anime but the very first anime about an idol. In other words, idols and magical girls have been conceptually tied to each for decades now. You can see this not only in the the fact that you’ll get the occasional idol + magical girl still (Cure Lemonade and Cure Sword in the Precure franchise, for example), but the fact that the latest competitors to magical girl anime have been idol-themed shows, such as Aikatsu! and Pretty Rhythm, both of which feature magical girl-like transformation sequences. I think Creamy Mami is especially significant here because the majority of magical girls prior to it were more “witch girls,” characters who already have magical powers without the need for transformation and use them for mischief.

Of course, the common trait of magical girls and idols is that they both feature cute girls, and with idols especially they’ve always occupied a position where they are innocent yet sexual, and I don’t mean that necessarily in an “idols are creep magnets” way. Both men and women respond to idols for a variety of reasons, and a lot of it is tied to the image they present. They can be somewhat literal idols for girls and targets of affection and desire for men, and this can be seen in how idols are used in anime. While Creamy Mami built an unexpected older male audience, for example, Superdimensional Fortress Macross reveled in it by combining the idol with the extremely prominent aspects of science fiction and giant robots. The 1970s brought forth a lot of giant robot anime, and the 1980s saw the time when those who became fans of robots and SF began creating their own works, as seen with Kawamori Shouji and Macross and later Studio Gainax and their Daicon III and IV animations. Many of these creators said, “I like SF, and I like cute girls,” and created a defining combination of anime where mecha and other forms of fantastic technology are mixed with cute girls.

Daicon IV

It can also be argued that the girl in the Daicon animations is herself a magical girl, but the connection between magical girls and science fiction is especially evident in the 1990s and the advent of the fighting magical girl, most notably with Takeuchi Naoko’s Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon. While Sailor Moon does not feature giant robots, it’s undoubtedly influenced by the Super Sentai (i.e. Power Rangers) franchise with its own transformation sequences, color-coded costumes, and monster of the week fights. Super Sentai is not only traditionally marketed at boys (though this too changes as they eventually start trying to appeal to the “moms” market), but it’s also more broadly tied to tokusatsu, the costumed fighters and rubber monsters genre that more or less literally means “special effects.” What I find significant here is that when it comes to categorization of genres in Japanese, you often see “SF/tokusatsu,” tying things back, at least somewhat, to science fiction.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon

Moreover, the manga group CLAMP have been fans of titles like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Saint Seiya, and Galaxy Cyclone Braiger, and have produced titles such as Magic Knight Rayearth, which features magical girls in a swords-and-sorcery world who also gain the power to summon giant robots. “Rayearth” itself is the name of a giant robot, thus making the title itself reminiscent of the naming scheme of many mecha anime such as Mobile Suit Gundam or Super Electromagnetic Machine Voltes V. It’s as if these female creators have taken the works that were made “masculine” by Kawamori, Gainax, and others, and in a sense re-feminized them in a process that created something new and exciting.

If we’re talking influences though, Sailor Moon and CLAMP works such as Cardcaptor Sakura are huge in and of themselves, and their shadows can be seen in a number of anime from the 2000s on. Sailor Moon basically transformed magical girls to such an extent that many assume that fighting magical girls have always been the norm, and Precure has come up as a spiritual successor that has lasted even longer than Sailor Moon. The protagonist in Sunday without God practically is Cardcaptor Sakura protagonist Kinomoto Sakura, and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, which has as its primary audience older men, clearly takes a lot from Cardcaptor Sakura as well. In the case of Nanoha, it also incorporates an increasing level of science fiction from one series to the next, as the franchise goes from technology-based magic staffs that shoot lasers in battles reminiscent of Mobile Suit Gundam to spaceships and interdimensional travel. Once again, the magical girl as cute girl is tied to SF. As for idols, they not only haven’t been forgotten, either in real life or in anime (as seen with series such as Love Live! and the aforementioned Aikatsu!), but Kawamori makes his return in the form of AKB0048, a series that not only features idols as magical girls of sorts both piloting and fighting giant robots in a story that spans a galaxy, but is directly based on one of the biggest real-world idol acts in Japan today.


It’s as if magical girls, idols, and SF have been doing a song and dance for years and years, changing partners along the way but always being drawn to each other. They’re seemingly tied together by the fact that just a few tweaks to either appeal to a male or female audience more, while the fact that people will not necessarily stay within the genres or types of entertainment that they’re “supposed” to remain with. Cuteness is a versatile tool that at times reinforces societal and gender norms while other times becoming a tool to defy them, and this continues to influence anime to this day.

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Once again, I’ve sat down with Alain from the Reverse Thieves to talk anime. This time, we discussed the end of HappinessCharge Precure! You can also hear our thoughts on the overall quality of the series, as well as how it stacks up to previous anime in the Precure franchise.

Check it out here.


In Episode 23 of HappinessCharge Precure!, the character Cure Fortune reveals a new attack: Precure Oriental Dream. Cure Fortune appears in a Middle Eastern-influenced outfit and performs a dance that causes the enemy minions to fall over. Upon seeing this, I made the following tweet.

I was making a reference to a seminal book in post-colonial studies, Edward Said’s Orientalism from 1977. In it, he famously argues that the “Orient” is not a neutral description of an area of the world, but a conglomeration of various cultural, philosophical, academic, and imperialist modes of thought and action that position the “East” in such a way so as to define the “West” as superior.

That said, this is not me trying to demonstrate my knowledge. Instead, what I would like to point out is the fact that, as important as I’ve known this book is, I’d still never read it, and it was only after making the joking tweet that I decided to actually seriously sit down and look at Orientalism. Seriously, it wasn’t the fact that I should be aware of how my growing up in the United States while being Asian might have influenced my perception of Asia, nor was it being in the company of intelligent people who have used this book as the background for their own investigations into cultural perceptions that prompted me to open it up. It was a dumb joke I made on Twitter while watching a magical girl anime.

I’m not sure if I’m an awesome or a horrible human being.

With its combination of cute characters, kid appeal, and detailed fighting scenes, the Precure metaseries is presently the most popular and prominent magical girl anime. Though each series has its own share of unique features, one constant that always impresses me is the approach Precure takes to showing strength in its heroines.

When it comes to depicting strong female characters, there is a lot of media out there which relies on some sort of conflict revolving around a character’s gender. Confronted with a sexist/condescending/ignorant adversary, the idea is that the girl then shows what she’s made of and proves her equality/superiority. This is not inherently a problem, and there are many examples out there which make such scenes empowering, but there are also many cases where this becomes lazy or uncreative shorthand for conveying “girl power” as a way of achieving the bare minimum of inspiration.

Precure completely circumvents this issue by depicting its heroines as capable in a way where gender doesn’t really matter. Villains will mock them for inexperience, or talk about how hopeless they are for struggling, but the fact that they are girls and not boys is never really considered. When confronted with the question of whether or not girls can be strong, Precure simply says, “Of course they’re strong, why is that even a question?”

The gradual building of inner strength and emotional resolve in Heartcatch Precure! is the obvious example, but let’s instead take a rather stereotypically feminine-looking character such as Kise Yayoi (aka Cure Peace) from Smile Precure! Yayoi can be described as a crybaby who’s full of enthusiasm but lacking in confidence, a point which the villains will constantly bring up to taunt her. In regards to strength, Smile Precure! does two things. First, it provides four other girls to show how crying is not just something girls “do,” but something specific to Yayoi as an individual person. Second, it has Yayoi prove that being a crybaby doesn’t mean you’re incapable, it just means you can be capable while also crying a lot. Even with a character such as this, where it wouldn’t be surprising to see a show  convey her as “strong, for a girl,” Yayoi’s gender is never the issue.

This is not to say that Precure is devoid of traditional notions of femininity, as other signature features are brightly colored frilly outfits and cosmetics/accessories-based merchandise, not to mention the rare romance. With respect to the potential and capability of of girls, just as there’s no need to spend time in a film or cartoon to show that the sky is blue or that fire is hot, this approach treats the existence of strong female characters as such an obvious non-question that it becomes capable of normalizing the very notion that girls are strong. Without the need to “prove” anything, it can tell stories without being bogged by the classic obstacle that is the gender-centered confrontation.

Recently,  Dokidoki! Precure revealed all of its main cast and their transformations. In seeing comments about them, I’ve noticed that the transformation for Cure Sword (pictured above), has received somewhat less fanfare compared to the others because it’s not nearly as fanciful as the others. When you look at the Makoto/Cure Sword sequence, it really does lack many of the flourishes of the other Cures, but rather than this being simply a less impressive transformation I do think that the simplicity both in the “camera work” as well as the small amount of details is intentional, as it gives a better sense of Cure Sword’s character.

curerosetta-outfit curesword-armsraised
(All gifs taken from

Cure Sword is different from the other Cures in Dokidoki! in that she is a seasoned warrior familiar with being a Precure. Just the fact that she stretches her arms above her head and lets the costume simply form over her is reminiscent of someone just putting on a standard and familiar uniform. When you compare that with Cure Rosetta’s playfulness and spring in her step as she transforms, it becomes especially obvious.

Makoto’s change into Cure Sword is thus rather straightforward. While other girls’ hairstyles bob and flow tremendously, Makoto’s barely does so. And where the other girls move as if they’re dancing while announcing their names, further giving that feeling of excited performance, Cure Sword slashes at the air, giving the impression of a serious fighter.


The thing that really differentiates the Cure Sword transformation from the rest of the Dokidoki! team is simply the fact that, unlike the rest of them, she has a glower on her face pretty much the entire time, only changing her expression into a smile during the final team pose. When put side by side with the other Cures, it really makes her stand out, and along with the lack of movement in her tranformation it becomes indicative of her more serious personality.

Makoto is not the first character in Precure to have a stern look on her face as she transforms, as Cure Moonlight’s features a similar expression, and much like Cure Sword, Moonlight’s transformation appears more efficient than the others’ in Heartcatch Precure! There is still a difference, however, and I think the key factor to consider is Makoto’s origin. When you look at the transformations of other characters in Precure, including Dokidoki!, it’s as if they’re undergoing a metamorphosis. Even when you look at the characters who are from other worlds like her, such as Milky Rose, Cure Passion, Cure Beat, and Cure Muse, they take on a new identity by transforming. Makoto, however, is simply returning to her true self. Rather than being a normal girl who becomes a warrior, she is a warrior who disguises herself as a normal girl.

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