I've been watching PreCure. I must be mad. It's a mega-franchise for little girls, full of pink and frills. Do a Google image search and your eyes will explode at the gaudy pastel colours (not a contradiction) and cuteness overload. It's as if my niece's dress-up box on a sugar high. Haruka Haruno and her friends are magical girls, helping to sell merchandise to the audience as they... ahem, no, as they help save Hope Kingdom from Queen Dyspear and her army of despair monsters! However they're also going to school, dressing up in the world's girliest costumes and exploring the Power of Amazing Anime Hair! I defy anyone not to laugh on first seeing Princess Twinkle's double monster pigtails, while the top of Towa's hair from behind looks a little bit like a penis.
Furthermore this is its twelfth season, so I've actually been watching episodes 550-600 or so. Fortunately only two of the seasons so far are sequels, with the others being all-new adventures with all-new casts in their own separate continuity. Each season also gets at least one feature film on top of the Pretty Cure All Stars crossover movies, which star everyone. Those sound insane.
In short: it's great. However it's great and a bit kiddified, so you'll have to accept that you're watching a show that's basically driven by friendship, dresses and the power of love. Mostly it's made up of standalone episodes in which the usual villains do the same thing they do every week, get beaten by the heroines and all ill effects are immediately and harmlessly undone. Adventures don't usually have consequences, although in fairness there are some character arcs and villain progression. Occasionally a one-off guest character will be created for an episode and you're wondering why they weren't brought on board permanently as an addition to the supporting cast.
Apart from that, though, it's a joyful, warm-hearted show with surprisingly good character arcs and menacing villains. Its little girl audience makes it lightweight, but less so than I'd expected.
The show's central dynamic is hope and dreams vs. despair. Our heroines are always trying to protect everyone's dreams from Queen Dyspear, who derives power from despair and is always trying to bring it about by locking away people's dreams. She'll send her lieutenants to Earth to lock people in magical purple cages, saying "Shut your dream!" They also summon giant monsters called Zetsuborgs (with "zetsubou" being Japanese for "despair") that the PreCures will have to fight.
That's a good dramatic foundation, I think. Dreams are a more concrete and specific concept than something nebulous like hope, so it means more when the Princess PreCures free someone from a cage and return to them their vision of driving a racing car, being the world's greatest marine biologist or whatever. This show reveres dreams. It's fuelled by them. They underpin every single episode and we'll learn the dream of every non-villain in the show. Haruka wants to be a princess. (She's been watching too much Disney.) Yui wants to be a children's author. Minami and Kirara both want to follow in their parents' footsteps, although their respective parents couldn't be more different. The only problem with all this in practice is that the villains' standard methods are tame. Really crushing people's dreams and driving them to despair would have been unacceptably harsh for the target audience, so in practice it's all done with handwaves.
1. "Shut your dream!"
2. Look, someone's in a purple cage again.
3. The PreCures fight another silly Zetsuborg.
4. Hurrah! They win.
5. The PreCures release the victim to be reunited joyfully with their dreams. Those people will have been unconscious throughout, incidentally, so even this low-calorie villainy hasn't shown us any actual despair. In short, it's painless and victimless. Despair-less despair. Hurm. Occasionally there are mild exceptions to this, though, with Yui in particular getting locked up often enough that by the end of the show she's capable of resisting it. Ep.48 is a huge Yui episode, as effectively she helps everyone in the school fight and overcome depression. That startled me.
That said, though, the villains are still pretty hardcore in their way. Queen Dyspear is evil with a capital E, apparently more so than any PreCure villain before her, and she's already enslaved everyone in the magical Hope Kingdom. What happened to Twilight is genuinely horrific (including attempted murder) and gives us an excellent run of episodes about halfway through. Furthermore, Dyspear's sidekicks have character arcs of their own and are capable of schemes that will stomp the PreCures into the dirt, forcing the heroes to fight much harder than you'd expect to earn victory. I really liked Shut. He's vile, narcissistic and in the end wonderful. (He also wears fishnet stockings, thigh-length boots and a ton of make-up, but his voice actor isn't making him effeminate at all and indeed is giving him a rather deep voice.)
Furthermore the show isn't completely neglecting the modern peripheral demographic for magical girl shows, i.e. adults (both men and women). It's firmly aimed at its main audience, i.e. girls aged 4-12, but its fight scenes wouldn't be out of place in a Marvel comic. The PreCures can use magical blasts when necessary, but quite often it'll be old-fashioned combat. Haruka can hammer-spin enemies the size of houses, then hurl them into the sky. In ep.15, a Zetsuborg trashes a car by kicking Haruka into it like a wrecking ball.
Very occasionally there's some nascent lesbian romance, handled just about delicately enough to go unnoticed by incautious parents but still blatant enough for it to annoy me a little that the show didn't follow through on it.
Ep.28 and ep.30 have Towa-Yui, in which Towa becomes Yui's romantic knight and carries her in her arms. No, that's not metaphorical. It's lovely... and yet the show never refers to it again. As for Haruka, some people reckon the show's teasing us mildly with her and both Yui (eps.1,43) and Towa (eps.13,23), but the big one is of course Haruka-Minami (ep.5, ep.9 and above all ep.32). The latter goes so far into classical yuri romance that I struggled to read the subtext as anything but text. It's a love triangle episode that ends with Minami rejecting her fiance and reaffirming her relationship with Flora, i.e. Haruka. "Why is Flora so relieved?" someone asks. As a story about standing up for and defending your love, it's almost inspiring. "I may have changed, but I like the current me. But that's all thanks to you. Don't pay attention to what other people say. I want to be with you."
Kirara's the only girl without a clear pairing. She gets a passionate admirer in ep.42, but I don't know if it's reciprocated.
The show has an unintentional anti-theme of privilege. Minami's family owns an international conglomerate. Kirara and her mother are both top international models. Towa and Kanata are royalty. Haruka's the only magical heroine who wasn't born with a silver spoon in her mouth, but her dream is to be a princess and they all go to Noble Academy. (Not Dirty Peasant Academy, oh no.) What's more, as the title suggests, the show's not subverting this in the slightest, instead buying straight into that Disney-like line of "everything's better with princesses". Losing their princess is what made Hope Kingdom lose its hope so that Queen Dyspear could take over. (That said, though, in fairness ep.47 gently deconstructs the myth through a false reality, while I'm mildly impressed that they didn't make Haruka's dream come true by marrying her off to Prince Kanata.)
I liked the foils, Aroma (for Haruka) and Ranko (for Kirara). Aroma and Haruka being old enemies from elementary school is funny, while I'd have happily watched Ranko: The Series.
Yui, though, is even better. For starters, I really like her presence in the show. Not only does Haruka include her non-superpowered friends too even after becoming a PreCure, but Yui herself becomes one of the show's most awesome characters, not having powers and never giving up anyway.
SHINKU SHINKU SHINKU! I realised very quickly that Twilight's voice actress was Miyuki Sawashiro, i.e. Shinku from Rozen Maiden. She's playing them so similarly that you can close your eyes and hear Shinku. This made me happy. Then, later, listen to Sawashiro's transformation catchphrase. In English, it's "the princess of the true crimson flames." In Japanese, the first word of that is "Shinku", which might perhaps be an in-joke from the production team.
I kept falling more in love with the first end credits sequence, despite being CGI dancing. I love the way it builds. All the credits sequences are pretty good, though.
Towa's introduction and the subsequent episodes are so powerful that I thought she lost something in the show's second half, after overcoming her demons and normalising a bit. I'm still a fan of hers, though.
What the dickens are those "premium dresses"? The PreCures keep getting more and more pimped-out dresses, but that's like wearing St Paul's Cathedral. You'd need a stepladder underneath, or else legs three times as long as the rest of your body.
I admire the series ending. It doesn't wimp out on the consequences of what it's been saying. It walks the walk, allowing itself a slightly bittersweet edge that makes the final optimism more triumphant.
I think it's excellent. It is what it is, of course. It's comforting children's fare, even if by PreCure standards it apparently counts as darker and edgier. However the episodes are better and more varied than you'd think, with plenty of episodes I'd recommend to anyone. The Zetsuborg thing is repetitive (albeit fun), but it's rarely the episode's focus. When it is, the PreCures are in trouble. There's also significant character development for all the main cast. I'm proud to have watched this. Next: some PreCure movies!
"If you wish for something from the bottom of your heart, it will definitely come true!"
-- Haruka Haruno, not the deepest thinker.