I first watched HeartCatch PreCure in Autumn 2018, as only my third taste of PreCure. (I jumped back in time to avoid KiraKira PreCure A La Mode.)
This time, though, I'm watching all of PreCure from the beginning... and alongside children: Natsuki (6) and Misaki (2). HeartCatch was next in the queue, but I'd been planning to skip it and jump straight to Suite. I need to do everything to whittle down my "to watch" list. We started on Suite and watched two episodes, but then Natsuki asked to try the first episode of HeartCatch after all. Fair enough. I said "okay"... and there was no comparison. We didn't return to Suite until we'd finished all 49 episodes of HeartCatch.
Is this the best PreCure series? That's a tough call, but I don't believe any other one is better. HeartCatch has the scariest villain, possibly the best heroines and the best collection of theme songs. (The franchise has had many outstanding songs, but it's unusual for the opener and both closers to be all this good.) There's more dramatic meat than usual... and, what's more, it's subverting franchise formulae. They've found a way to give an emotionally significant core to stock filler episodes.
Above all, though, Tsubomi and Erika are one of the best PreCure duos, immediately making this one of the best PreCure series just by being themselves. (It's a shame that we end up with a four-girl team with Sunshine and Moonlight, which dilutes the impact.)
Moonlight I couldn't possibly object to. She's all-important. She's humourless and no fun, but that's because she's a broken bird with survivor guilt. (I'm not exaggerating.) She pulls the show in a darker, more serious direction, which is all-important for its success. It's a series of two halves. Tsubomi and Erika are entertaining, but you also need the emotional weight of Moonlight's story.
Sunshine, on the other hand, is... fine. There's nothing wrong with the character and she's normal for PreCure, but here she's a makeweight. She's the one you'd remember last. Her strongest trait is her relationship with her big brother, which can be cool (e.g. ep.23) even if mischievous viewers could make jokes about it. (I'd have laughed and laughed if lurid villainness Sasorina had become the Yellow PreCure instead of Sunshine, although it's hard to imagine anyone more inappropriate.)
Tsubomi and Erika, though...
For starters, they're inverting the franchise's stereotypes. Until now, the Pink Leader had traditionally been extroverted, loud and a bit of an idiot, while her Blue counterpart would be reserved, clever and often lonely. This series does the opposite. Tsubomi's the Pink Lead PreCure, but with Blue traits. She's introverted, lacks confidence and is a timid nerd (for flowers and gardening). She lacks the courage to say "no". She can be adorable and funny (e.g. how easily impressed she is), but always in her own Tsubomi-ish way.
Erika, on the other hand, is a Blue PreCure, but with the stereotypical Pink traits pushed into negative territory. This is often hilarious, mind you. She's one of the funniest PreCures. She could make me laugh with silliness like her spontaneous combustion in the ep.27 "Next Week" post-credits trailer, or her insect scuttling in ep.34. However she's also abrasive, insensitive and jealous of her more popular sister. She doesn't consider your feelings. She'll decide what's best for you, bulldoze her way into your life and get in your face. (Personal space? What's that?) Her attention span is miniscule. She's unreliable and childish. She'll overreact to everything.
In other words, she's glorious to watch. However you can sum up these two with how they face their Shadow Selves in eps.37-38. Even after all her growth, Tsubomi is still the vulnerable one of the group. Erika, though, just shouts "I love everything about myself!" This WORKS. She also knows no fear in battle.
(Also, importantly, the show nails everyone's characterisation from ep.1 and so can keep building on that, instead of course-correcting after having to ditch stuff that doesn't work. We weren't so lucky with the previous year's Fresh or the following year's Suite. Heartcatch is also pleasingly uninterested in slightly-sexy PreCures, instead having bold, cartoonish character designs from the character designer of Ojamajo Doremi.)
OTHER FRANCHISE SUBVERSIONS
1. Those sodding fairies. They've been around since the beginning, winding up the PreCures and/or the audience. They're cutesy little blob-creatures, often with affected speech patterns... so of course they're not human. Heartcatch explores that. Coppe-sama is a fairy. However he's also at least fifty years old and he's swollen into a giant moronic-looking blob monster, like King Kong's poo with eyes. The other fairies all revere him and think he's handsome.
2. The fairies also don't have "cute" tag phrases. This isn't unprecedented, but it's still highly welcome. Instead, the character with a tag phrase is the deep-voiced, macho, swaggering Kumojaki.
3. History. There were PreCures before Erika and Tsubomi. That's the first time this franchise had done that. The show doesn't go so far as to make those precursors the heroines of previous seasons, but for the first time we have tragedy and baton-passing between generations. Fifty years ago, Cure Flower fought on her own and battled Dune to a standstill. Today, she's a widow and Tsubomi's grandmother. (She's not even the first in the Heartcatch universe, incidentally. That would be Cure Ange, 400 years ago, from the Heartcatch movie.) After Flower, the next one is Moonlight. She also fought solo, unless you count someone who got killed.
4. The girls' special attacks are used intelligently in battle. (This is shocking. Yes! GoGo might make you scream with its refusal to do this.) The girls even have sub-attacks as well as finishers, which is unprecedented. Tsubomi has eight. They're Blossom Shoot (a blast of pink magical bullets), Blossom Shower (a blast of cherry blossoms), Blossom Flower Storm (a tornado of cheery blossoms), Blossom Impact (charge up your fist with glowing energy before attacking), Blossom Double Impact (ditto but with both fists), Blossom Screw Punch (a laser beam made of flowers), Blossom Complete Punch (a body slam) and, wonderfully, Blossom Butt Punch (I'm not joking). Erika only has five, but they include Marine Dynamite (turning your body into an energy explosion that can take out dozens of enemies at once).
5. Dark PreCure makes all other PreCure baddies look like nothing. She's a killer. She's not comic relief and she's not the usual kiddie cartoon villain who's only there to be defeated every week. (Kumojaki, Sasorina and Cobraja fill that role.) With Dark PreCure, almost no one can stand against her and she repeatedly trashes Tsubomi and Erika. More than one episode has her about to kill the show's heroines, only for sheer blind luck to save them as Professor Sabaaku summons her back to base. The shot of Dark PreCure opening her eyes at the start of ep.42 sent my daughter Misaki into absolute screaming terror and she refused to watch that scene or anything like it. (Misaki is only two years old, admittedly, but I can understand the reaction.)
6. Granny is the greatest. (There's also no stupid secrecy with her, e.g. ep.2.)
7. The Desertrians aren't just huge goofy monsters with a catchphrase. They're huge goofy monsters that were created by supercharging the negative emotions of this week's victim. Pain, bitterness, envy, sexism, fear, guilt... it's all turned into Desertrians. What's more, they can talk (albeit in a stupid voice) and scream about what's eating them. This gives dark emotional focus even to run-of-the-mill filler episodes. There are Desertrians that come from inferiority complexes, being a club leader nobody likes, fear of surgery and a teacher's professional self-doubt.
I love all the theme songs. The second closing theme is one of my all-time PreCure favourites, but the opening theme is also crucial. It's interesting to note how the movie tie-in title sequences (ep.40 or so) miss what makes the opening theme so powerful, which is the baddie build-up to Dark PreCure as the theme music hits its minor key change.
The show's famous for its dark villains, but its lighter ones are great too. The Snackies are adorable, while Natsuki and I loved the overacting Sasorina and her faces.
It's also worth noting that the show kept my interest even in fashion club episodes where the girls are making clothes. This is the kind of story material that could easily have lost me, but they make it meaningful with characters like Itsuki and her insecurity about being feminine.
The show's all-round strength makes it hard to pick out these. They'll all good, really. (Well, except maybe the "talent for modelling" in ep.20 or the annoying couple in ep.12... but even there, Erika's as irritated with them as we are.) That said, though, I might suggest:
Ep.19 = Ban-kun, the scary SPOILER SPOILER. Also PreCure fan manga creator and the year's best supporting character.
Ep.21 = just to see a Desertrian that's scared of monsters.
Ep.27 = GRANNY'S HISTORY EPISODE. Grandad died young and they never kept that promise for her to listen to his cello. "Some day, play your cello for me. I'll be waiting."
Ep.32-34 = mythology episodes, with death and Moonlight's survivor guilt. Don't watch them out of sequence, though, or you won't get the "holy shit" value of the revelations. I nearly cried.
Ep.39 = Erika comedy episode. What's the good of powers if you can't abuse them? Also, adorable Snackies. (I loved seeing Erika knock over a group of them IN CIVILIAN FORM.)
If you want to study specific characters, ep.13 shows how good Granny is at layers. Ep.16 is good for studying Erica and... oooh, maybe ep.44 for Tsubomi.
The season's last few episodes aren't as good as they could have been. There's lots of fighting. Despite all of its genre subversions, Heartcatch still ends on a disappointingly formulaic sequence of villain battles. That said, though... ep.46, Erika vs. Kumojacky. Bloody hell. The crater. And Cobraja is kinda creepy and sinister.
This season was so popular (rightly) that it made subsequent seasons look bad in comparison. (It wasn't until Go! Princess that the franchise got back up.) The audience figures were great too, up there with Nagisa and Honoka.
That said, though, it's still PreCure. It's still basically a funny, light-hearted magical girl show for children. Sailor Moon goes darker than this. After reading lots of praise of this season, I watched it and (on first viewing) thought it was basically okay. Most of its episodes are as dark as the Teletubbies. A lot of what it's doing is interesting partly as a subversion of PreCure formula, which will mean nothing if you're unfamiliar with the franchise and watching it as a standalone.
On second viewing, though, I really connected with it. It's one of the PreCure seasons I've connected with emotionally, along with Futari wa, Splash Star, Go! Princess and Hugtto!. You've no idea how long I spent working on this review.