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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.
When I look at Smile Precure! in hindsight, I feel like its status as a hit was almost inevitable. The 9th entry in the mega-popular Precure franchise, it’s in many ways a return to the tried-and-true, but it ends up pulling off those well-worn aspects with such confidence and excellence in execution that it never really comes across as stale.
The premise is typical magical girl and typical Precure: Hoshizora Miyuki is a girl who loves both fairy tales and spreading happiness, and when her family moves to a new town she not only makes a bunch of new friends but ends up encountering Candy, a young fairy from the land where all fairy tales come from, Märchenland. Miyuki turns out to be one of the legendary warriors capable of saving Märchenland from the dreaded “Bad End Kingdom,” and so becomes the pink beam-firing Cure Happy. Later, she’s joined by her friends, the quick-talking Hino Akane (Cure Sunny), the shy but imaginative Kise Yayoi (Cure Peace), the straight-forward Midorikawa Nao (Cure March), and the graceful Aoki Reika (Cure Beauty).
The simple mix-and-match character design philosophy sometimes (and somewhat erroneously) referred to as “database” character design is quite easy to write off as inherently lazy or artless, but Smile Precure! shows that there is a strength to being able to convey characters so succinctly. For quite a few people I know, Smile was the first Precure series they really got into, and though the reasons might have differed, in the end it all boils down to a cast of characters who each possess an immediate and unique appeal which stays consistently strong throughout the series. While it might not have the inspiring feeling and depth of character development of Heartcatch Precure! or as much rough-and-tumble action as the original Futari wa Pretty Cure, what Smile Precure! does, better than any other entry in the franchise for the most part, is give each of its characters an extremely vibrant and magnetic sense of presence.
Thus, even though Candy of all characters gets the most development in Smile Precure!, the robust representations of the entire cast allow the show to place them in all sorts of Silver Age superhero comics-level wacky situations, from turning invisible to getting lost in Osaka to transforming into a giant robot, and have it be as memorable as the rarer episodes of heartfelt personal exploration and growth. It also helps that the villains of the series are equally fun. Derived from recurring antagonists in fairy tales, the werewolf Wolfrun, the red oni… Red Oni…, and the witch Majorina humorously approach the task of being up to no good with such carelessness that I think they could possibly carry a show all by themselves. Rounding out the villains is the masked Joker, who is menacing enough to give the story an injection of seriousness when needed, and whose appearance usually signals an upping of the stakes.
In many ways, Smile Precure! feels like a more refined version of Yes! Pretty Cure 5, and not just because of the obvious similarities (five-man team with the same color scheme and roughly comparable personalities). Smile has the same type of fun and silly character dynamic as Yes! 5, but brings to it those stronger individual characterizations, and adds to the mix a better design sense, more consistent art (especially when it comes to the action), and stronger comedic timing. The places that Smile feels a little weaker are that sometimes the interactions aren’t quite as clever as Yes! 5, the humor of the characters is more reactive than active, and the conclusion (which is pretty similar) isn’t quite as satisfying. That said, I would dare wager that anyone who enjoyed Yes! 5 would get into Smile as well (unless you like Cure Lemonade so much that Peace is a poor substitute), though I’m not sure if the opposite is true.
Also somewhat similar to Yes! 5 is the fact that some of the more minor characters have a surprising amount of popularity. In the case of Yes! 5 it was the handsome princes who were really mascot characters, and for Smile it’s the Precures’ moms. Go figure.
Smile Precure! isn’t darkly experimental, nor is it a representative pinnacle of where the very concept of a magical girl anime can go. Its presentation is mostly conventional, and its similarities to previous shows, especially within its own franchise, are numerous. However, Smile Precure! also has a level of polish that allows it to extend its appeal beyond its expected audience. It’s no Heartcatch (admittedly an incredibly unfair benchmark), but overall its characters and just sheer fun factor makes for a memorable show that’s very accessible and rewarding in its own right. It wouldn’t be so bad to introduce people to Precure through Smile Precure!
If you’ve watched Smile Precure, you’ve probably noticed that while the villains have an overall dastardly goal (revive their evil leader), most of the time their motivations are incredibly shallow and petty, something along the lines of “Eh I’m bored, what evil can I do?” Contrary to it detracting from their characters, however, I feel like it actually makes them more enjoyable to watch, humanizing them beyond simply the idea that they’re “bad,” while also still keeping them cartoonishly villainous. It also adds to the overall feel of the show as fun and enjoyable with a lot of big, vibrant personalities. In this sense, the villains are kind of like K-On!
Another thing I enjoy about the villains, Wolfrun, Aka Oni, and Majorina, is that they have a consistent theme as fairy tale villains which makes them a bit more memorable. That might not seem like much, but at least in terms of the Precure franchise it’s a significant step up. Previous series would utilize such memorable combinations as “a bunch of evil muscley dudes,” or “a plant guy and a gold guy,” and even probably the show with the best villain concept in the series, Yes! Pretty Cure 5 (whose staff I believe is also responsible for Smile) with its evil corporation (complete with evil salaries, evil promotions, and evil quarterly evaluations) basically turned into a mishmash of designs once they transformed out of their (evil) business suits.
Wolf, Ogre, Witch. It works, and the fact that they’re so dumb makes it even better.
Smile Precure! began this month, and it’s bringing back the five-man team back to the Precure franchise. Incidentally, Yes! Precure 5 was also the first Precure to use a widescreen perspective, and when you compare Smile to Yes 5 and its other widescreen predecessors, Smile’s transformation scenes really stand out in terms of how they utilize screen space, particularly with the individual transformations.
Let’s take a look at the old ones first.
Cure Dream, Yes! Pretty Cure 5
Cure Dream, Yes! Pretty Cure 5 Go Go
Cure Peach, Fresh Pretty Cure
Cure Blossom, Heartcatch Precure!
Cure Melody, Suite Precure
Now here’s Smile Precure!‘s heroine, Cure Happy.
Cure Happy’s pose fills the screen in a way that I very rarely see in any sort of transformation sequence, whether it’s Precure, mahou shoujo, anime in general, or even live-action tokusatsu. Happy is not only shot closer, but her body is also slightly angled with both her arms and her hair spread out wide. This makes it so that her body is contact with all four sides of the screen while also occupying the majority of the space in between.
Then we have Cure Sunny, who doesn’t take up quite as much space as Happy does, but still has a body which cuts the shot in half diagonally almost perfectly, again emphasizing the length of the screen.
Granted, not all of the transformation poses in Smile Precure! are done in this manner, as can be seen by Cure Peace above. But whereas the previous series in the franchise stuck to the single figure in the middle of the screen as almost a rule of thumb, the large amounts of empty space on either side of her becomes more of an individual character flourish, and is perhaps even an indicator of her personality. Though I’m not 100% on this, I get the feeling that leaving that much space around Peace has the effect of emphasizing her clumsy, crybaby personality. In contrast, Happy’s personality is the kind that can fill an entire room just as her image fills the screen during her pose.
I actually think there’s a practical reason for this change, and that is the fact that Japan is finally going to switch over (almost) entirely to digital TV in about a month. Older series had to take into account a large amount of people with analog signal TVs, whereas now they can rightfully assume that most of their viewers will be watching in widescreen.