It's the first PreCure series! If you've never heard of PreCure, then... well, actually that's pretty common in Western anime fandom, but I'd bet money that you've never visited Japan. The franchise is huge. Little girls don't merely watch it, but practically worship it. It's had a new series every year, plus two films, comprising about fifty-ish weekly episodes. That's a new PreCure episode every week since 2004, almost non-stop.
So, the original. Is it good? Yeah. I enjoyed it and I'll be continuing with Series 2 (Futari wa Pretty Cure Max Heart), which unusually for PreCure isn't a reboot and stars the same heroines. Is it great, or even the best PreCure series? No, but that's okay. Compared with the genre until that point, it had two big innovations.
Firstly, the girls have proper fights.
Magical girl shows hadn't traditionally done this. Cutey Honey is even more violent, if you think she counts, but the genre norm had been to rely on magical attacks. The fight scenes in Sailor Moon season 1 (1992) are so lame that I wouldn't even call them fight scenes. Here, though... yow. Honoka and Nagisa kick, punch, body-slam and do wrestling moves. They beat the living tar out of monsters every week, with physical strength and agility that might let them take down Spider-Man. It's full-blown superhero action, except with fourteen-year-old girls. (Ep.14 has two cosplayers pretending to be them and as a result nearly getting hospitalised.) Their opponents knock them about pretty badly too, although I don't remember ever seeing permanent damage.
Admittedly they use magical attacks too, but even these can look apocalyptic. Rainbow Storm in ep.49 looks unsuitable for use in inhabited areas.
They're impressive even compared with other PreCures, if I'm right that they're super-acrobatic. Look at the (iconic) title sequence. They're getting blown through the air in explosions and sent whirling in somersaults, only to land cat-like against vertical beams fifty feet off the ground for a counter-attack. They can't fly, but that's because their acrobatics are cooler than flight.
Secondly, their powers lock them into being a team.
Neither girl can transform on her own. Their magical attacks only work if they hold hands. This is a problem early on because Honoka and Nagisa have completely different personalities, hobbies and skill sets. Honoka's gentle, brainy and often seems to be impersonating her grandmother. Nagisa's loud, book-dumb and sporty, being on the lacrosse team. It takes Nagisa several episodes even to start calling Honoka a friend, while their falling-out in ep.8 had me laughing out loud. (They start arguing in mid-battle and ignoring the monster that's trying to kill them.)
That said, though, the show's not really breaking much ground in other areas. It'll feel particularly familiar if you're digging it up today after years and years of later PreCure shows, as I was. The villains offer few surprises, although their designs and personalities can be fun. Some of my favourites included David Bowie (ep.1+), the genuinely sinister Poisonny (ep.12+) and the dual-personality Regine (second half). In her civilian form, she's a mumbling wallflower who looks as if someone drowned all your cardigans. I love the idea of a timid, insipid supervillain. In her evil form, though, she has comedy hair that goes boing.
Most shocking, though, is the one who becomes an evil love interest and then MASSIVE SPOILER. That was seriously dark, in a show that's otherwise light and fun. Permanent bad things normally don't happen to anyone... unless you're a villain, in which case I'd suggest drawing up a will and testament.
THINGS I DISLIKED
The pre-credits stingers are always, always lame. The show doesn't even seem to understand the concept.
The grand finale's a bit rubbish, unfortunately. The build-up episodes lack impact and there's not enough on an emotional level. The show has one big surprise up its sleeve, but even that ended up going in the box marked "mostly unrealised potential". The final episode itself is okay, but I found myself more interested in the cool-down material at the end after they've beaten the Big Boss, with school friends and saying goodbye to boys. Well, I suppose there's always Season 2.
The catchphrases don't work. I disliked Nagisa's friend who says everything three times, while I'm not wild about how Youko Honna handled Nagisa's "arienai!".
THINGS I LIKED
The show's sombre take on romance. Both girls will have a boy they like, but this doesn't go well for either of them. The show takes them on downbeat or even borderline tragic journeys, although admittedly there are limits to how far a romantic story can go with fourteen-year-olds. (Well, assuming you're not watching scary bad anime.) Ep.43, for instance, is about Nagisa's friend liking the boy Nagisa's secretly fancied ever since the beginning. This plays out conventionally... until the end, which is about Honoka consoling Nagisa and helping her come to terms with her failure.
(Mind you, it would be possible for a certain kind of fan to argue that the real romance here is Honoka-Nagisa. There's quite a lot of that in later PreCure series, but I don't buy it here because Honoka and Nagisa are both being portrayed as heterosexual and you'd be undermining one of the show's strongest aspects if you ignored that. Mind you, Honoka's granny does look very understanding on finding them asleep together and holding hands in ep.40.)
The title sequence and its theme song, which won the "Best Theme Song Award" at the 9th Animation Kobe (2004). Meanwhile the title sequence's visuals set up the show perfectly.
When they use that theme song as incidental music... good grief, it's spine-tingling. (It's usually a precursor to heroism, e.g. Nagisa giving a comedy speech in ep.28 before THE MUSIC and she then takes on more zakenna than the eye can see.)
There's innuendo potential. I spent most of the series thinking the girls' main magical attack was called "Marvellous Screw", rather than "Marble". (There's no natural distinction between "b" and "v" in Japanese.) Also the third mascot character's name could be mischievously transliterated as "Porn", which means that ep.46 involves going to the dark world to look for porn.
The girls' private lives are well done. Nagisa's hostile relationship with her younger brother, her embarrassing dad, Honoka's granny (and absent parents), their different circles of school friends...
THINGS I'M NEUTRAL ABOUT
The magical mascot characters who say their names after every sentence. I'd have paid money to see them barbecued and eaten... but by PreCure standards, they're middling. At least they have personalities. Mepple and Mipple are cooing lovebirds, while Porun is an empty-headed brat. (They're also unusual in being able to transform into mobile phones, because they're basically tamagotchis.)
The way that the show's intially all about collecting Prism Stones... until the writers realise that the show's much more successful than expected, so the Prism Stone fairy gets kidnapped and that plot mechanic gets ditched for the sake of spinning things out for longer.
The way the latest power-up might as well have been subtitled "BUY THIS CHEAP MERCHANDISE, KIDS, FOR SALE IN SHOPS NOW!!!" That's this franchise for you.
I'm very pleased to have seen this and I'll definitely watch the second season. It's the first PreCure. It's a landmark. It's got the most iconic theme tune (although there are others that are lots of fun) and it's a good, solid show. PreCure started well. If you're looking for favourite episodes, these might include ep.8 (the girls fall out), ep.9 (for which my notes mysteriously say "Attack on Titan"), ep.21 (important in series arc), ep.28 (I mentioned it earlier) and ep.37 (school play: Romeo and Juliet). It's still a children's show and I shouldn't think most adults would be interested, but I enjoyed it.