Honey Kisaragi is a fun-loving schoolgirl who wears mini-dresses and goofs off with her friends at Saint Chapel School. However unknown even to herself, she's an android with transformation powers controlled by something called the Fixed System of Air Elements. She only learns the truth on the day she comes home to find her house ablaze and her 'father' (i.e. her creator) murdered by a criminal organisation of she-freaks called Panther Claw. They want her Fixed System of Air Elements. Honey just wants to have a laugh, tease her teachers, protect her friends... and now also wreak bloody vengeance on Panther Claw until every one of them is dead. Oh, and she strips naked whenever she transforms.
Did I mention that this is an anime for little girls?
I love Go Nagai. Despite what one might think from his reputation, in the 1970s his creations were revolutionising the world of kiddie anime. He invented the Giant Robot genre with Mazinger, not to mention more startling things like Devilman and Cutey Honey. Neither of those made it as big as Mazinger, but the full Cutey Honey roster to date is:
- 1. Cutey Honey (1973 TV series, 25 episodes)
- 2. New Cutey Honey (1994 OVA series, 8 episodes)
- 3. Cutey Honey Flash (1997 TV series, 39 episodes)
- 4. Cutey Honey Flash (1997 movie, 38 minutes)
- 5. Cutey Honey (2004 live-action movie, 90 minutes)
- 6. Re: Cutey Honey (2004 OVA series based on the movie, 3 episodes)
- 7. Cutie Honey THE LIVE (2007 live-action TV series, 25 episodes)
It's often hard to convince Western fans that Cutey Honey was made for pre-pubescent girls, especially since to date only the sleazier 1990s OVAs have been licensed in the West. If you want to watch Honey's TV shows, you'll have to buy the original Japanese DVDs. Thus one sees comments like, "the logical consequence of a drooling pervy sex and violence freak (Go Nagai) mimicking the Magical Girl genre." In fact he invented it. A number of anime's stranger habits can be traced back to Go Nagai and Cutey Honey, such as the routine inclusion of nude transformation sequences in seemingly any show aimed at any audience whatsoever. Even had Go Nagai achieved nothing else in his life, that would be a legacy to be proud of.
Cutey Honey was originally a manga parody of two Japanese superheroes, 7-Colour Mask (1959) and Rainbowman (1972). I've yet to find any Cutey Honey manga that's not uncomfortably perverted. Like Devilman this became the wildly unlikely source material for a kiddie anime, complete with goofy comedy and a truly awesome theme song that's one of the classics. However Cutey Honey's adaptation was more interesting than Devilman's, since the kiddie stuff gelled with the sex and violence to create something fascinating and unique instead of just clashing horribly with it. For those who haven't heard of Devilman, it's what it sounds like but more so.
What makes the Cutey Honey anime so brilliant is that it's sleazy exploitation, but made for little girls. The 1970s TV series has jolly music, comedy sidekicks and wacky artwork that isn't really trying to portray any kind of three-dimensional reality. Some of its designs are so bold as to be abstract art. It's also screamingly 1970s, with sideburns, flares and disco. The results are psychedelic.
However all this kiddification is in a show where even the theme song mentions Honey's cute arse and bouncy boobs. The nude transformation sequences are lovingly animated, albeit fewer than you'd expect if you've only seen the OVAs. Often Honey only strips once an episode, sometimes twice, though the nudity splurges in episodes 6, 10, 13, 17 and 25 are enough to push the overall average firmly up to "twice an episode". Episodes 15, 17 and arguably 19 even show nipples! In addition there are panty shots, skirt rips and boob gropes (the latter in the title sequence, no less). Theoretically there's little here you couldn't see in descendants like Sailor Moon, but there's an obvious difference of intent. Sailor Moon was simply deranged. Cutey Honey is made by lechers obsessed with the female form, which is what makes it hilarious. It's knowing, gleeful and thus perfect for children, who don't understand nudity taboos and just think big boobs are funny.
Better still, it's a feminist fable. Even the nudity is presented in a playfully matter-of-fact way that's arguably empowering. Honey's in control and kicking arse. If anyone in this show needs rescuing, it's the men! Even today, I'm struggling to think of a comparable female role model... Buffy can be a bit whiny and self-pitying, while Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor weren't created for children. However if you think back to 1970s standards, this is tearing down the barricades. It's up there with Pam Grier's Coffy or Foxy Brown. If I were a six-year-old girl, I'd worship Cutey Honey. She has big boobs and kills villains! What more could you want?
What's more, Honey doesn't just sob at her opponents until they get bored and go away. She has weapons a-plenty and isn't afraid to use them. If you go up against Honey, kiss your arse goodbye. However this is justified since Panther Claw are unbelievable bastards, machine-gunning bystanders, blowing up planes and committing terrorism. They also have one of the most horrifying "executing a minion" scenes I can remember offhand, anywhere. Nevertheless Honey is just as startling, going after them with axes, machine-guns and anything else she can lay her hands on. She severs heads and hands in sprays of blood. This show is so violent that in episode five it's disappointing to see the villain merely roasted by lightning and then thrown off an aeroplane in mid-air. Don't get me wrong, I admire altruistic heroes who can have compassion for their foes. However that's not Honey. Panther Claw deserve everything they get, which is usually the business end of her sword.
Crucially however Honey is also a fun-loving girl genuinely outraged by Panther Claw's crimes. She doesn't want people hurt. This show's goofy comedy occasionally strained my patience, especially the slapstick at school, but it's vital for Honey's characterisation. She's sweet and playful. She teases her enemies in battle, but she's vulnerable. She's not above considering suicide when her battles endanger those she loves. All the best characters have a dichotomy and Cutey Honey is no exception: she's an innocent schoolgirl badass. What makes this series special is its lead character. She's not Frank Miller's Dark Knight or some other broody alley-dwelling avenger. She's wonderful. She's a robot risking her life for humans, but more fundamentally a cute brave girl who fights monsters.
The series itself is blatantly made up as they went along. At the start it's formulaic "monster of the week" nonsense, with nearly identical episodes and inappropriate comedy. However it soon starts ringing the changes. Halfway through, Panther Claw learn Honey's secret identity, burn one of her friends to death and blow up her school. My jaw was on the floor. Then in the last few episodes, they introduce a new setting and major additions to the cast, for all the world as if they thought they had another fifty episodes instead of just another five. It's Paradise School, as also seen in Go Nagai's Abashiri Family. Even the conclusion is sequel-hunting, as Cutey Honey finally kills Sister Jill only to set her sights on Panther Claw's real boss, Panther Zora. The story eventually continued in the 1990s OVAs.
The supporting cast is lively. Most important are the Hayami family: weird old Danbei, pint-sized brat Junpei and young man Seiji. They all lust after Honey but at the same time worship her. Bizarrely Junpei breaks all the laws of television by not being indescribably annoying. There's also Natsuki Aki, Honey's best friend at school, and their two strange teachers. Miharu-sensei is a harpy in horn-rimmed glasses, while Alphonne-sensei looks as if she's halfway through her sex-change operation. She has huge breasts which she regularly fondles, but also a masculine lantern-jaw face and a moustache. This freak of a teacher has a deviant crush on Honey and will do things that should have got her sacked. And that's without mentioning the scary violent thug in charge of Paradise School in the last few episodes.
The later episodes merrily run through all the pulp cliches: pirates, mermaids, cowboys and UFOs. There's a duel to the death in a live volcano and a villain who dies with Honey's sword through her chest immediately before being crushed by a falling submarine. There are freakishly insane she-villains, including one called "Breast Claw" with prehensile boobs that she can extend to strangle Honey from a distance of twenty feet or even lift trucks. There's a gangster flick that's basically Martin Scorcese's Casino twenty years early. Honey visits Arabia, the jungle and the North Pole. In episode 22 she even gets tied to a cross with her dress falling off, which is such a startling image that it went on to reappear in almost every subsequent Cutey Honey revival.
I haven't even mentioned Honey's disguises, which could theoretically have got old fast but in practice are always fun. She adopts all kinds of identities, but always for the sake of an action sequence or a gag. These disguises include Topless Mermaid Honey in episode 12 and Topless Boxer Honey in episode 22. One surprising omission from the series is romance, which would admittedly have been eyebrow-raising between a robot and a human but that's never stopped anime before. The show didn't need it, though. Honey has quite enough on her plate without that.
Most of these episodes are just ultra-violent nudity-riddled fun for the kiddies, but sometimes they can get serious or even moving. Episode 12 has a buxom Creature From The Black Lagoon who just wants revenge for her long-dead sister. We even see a flashback to that brutal mermaid murder, after which Cutey Honey is begging the villain to stop in the middle of their fight because she doesn't want to kill her. There's Honey's friend getting killed and Honey becoming suicidal, then episode 24 has a scary kind of "honour among badasses" and episode 25 has absolutely everything... apocalyptic imagery, a Salvador Dali landscape and a girl appearing out of nowhere purely to have her skirt blown upwards.
There's nothing I don't love about this show. Its music is iconic. The production team are clearly having a ball wondering how long they can get away with this. I want to have a daughter just so I can make her watch Cutey Honey. Okay, and a bunch of other things too. However most importantly Honey is one of the greatest heroines of the 1970s, and possibly of all time.