It's a particularly strong PreCure series, to the point of being called the most popular to date among the English-speaking fandom. It did things that made the TV news in Japan, and I don't just mean children's TV announcers or something. We're talking the real news, for adults. (PreCure's huge over there, yes, but that's pretty impressive for what's still a magical girl show for little girls. Do a Google image search and you'll see a pastel colour explosion, frilly mega-dresses and impossible hair.)
All this is true... sort of. I enjoyed the show a lot. However, as I said with Heartcatch, even the best PreCure season is still PreCure. It's my usual disclaimer. This is still bubbly, goofy adventures with comedy schoolgirl heroines and silly monsters-of-the-week. This is unquestionably one of the franchise's better efforts, but don't let the hype lure you into expecting something it's not.
That said, let's start talking about Hugtto!. (I'm going to be mischievous and translate that as "Inappropriate Physical Contact PreCure". Well, you try hugging random people in Japan and see what happens.)
Firstly, the theme. I'm working on a theory that the success or otherwise of a PreCure series might depend on its chosen theme or motif. KiraKira in 2017 had "cooking", which I found unwatchable. (Let's cook! Let's cook some more! Let's talk about cooking!) I've heard that Star Twinkle in 2019 has astrology and fortune-telling, although I hope I'm wrong. (Maybe it's just "space" or something.) Huggto!, though, is doing "future". That's meaty. You can take that a long way. Theoretically it's not dissimilar to "hope" (as in the also-excellent Go! Princess), with a message of optimism for the future and inspiring the audience to believe that you have the right to try to become whatever you want. Doctor? Hairdresser? Punk rock guitarist? Give it your best shot and don't let anyone try to put you down. Meanwhile we're also getting somewhat complicated SF with time-freezing villains from the mid-21st century who want to abolish the very concept of having a future.
This is interesting material, but I could imagine some of it looking a bit odd to Western eyes. It's about careers advice for little girls. The PreCures' powers include a "work switch" that lets them turn into shop assistants, waiters, etc. and spend an episode getting work experience. (These episodes will be funny and entertaining, with a monster to defeat, but it's still a surprisingly realistic and very Japanese way to present thinking about your future.) Similarly, the show spends a lot of time on its characters' career choices, even including their parents' and siblings' jobs. Hana's mother is a reporter and her father manages a DIY store. Saaya is a famous actress and Homare is an international figure skater. Hariham Harry starts up a cafe and runs it through most of the series.
This series has only one Talking Animal Mascot character, incidentally. That's Hariham Harry and he's not even annoying! The "small and cute" plot role is instead partly going to the baby he's looking after. Her name's Hugtan and she calls Hana "mama".
The year's full of different angles on its "future" theme. There's lots of parenthood, having babies and bringing them up. There's people's different feelings about growing old. Anyway...
HANA NONO (Cure Yell, pink, thirteen years old) is the lead heroine. She's also a total goofball, even compared with past PreCure heroines. She's super-enthusiastic, a total klutz and literally a cheerleader. Her transformed PreCure form looks like this, complete with pom-poms, and her catchphrase is to cheer people on. She has faith in your future, you see. When the season finale comes, she'll even be healing the villains.
(She also has an oddly endearing mega-ego in the first few episodes. That bit of characterisation doesn't really survive, but on reflection I suspect that's deliberate character development. Her "comedy accident waiting to happen" tendencies only increase, though.)
Going through the full cast would give away spoilers. (However I will mention that watching Saaya carefully will reveal some strange interests. She'll get passionate about things like power tools, tokusatsu, giant mecha and yokai.) The show takes a jump in quality, though, when we meet Cures Amour and Ma'Cherie. I like the three original PreCures too, but Hana's the only comedian from them. The newbies make you laugh, expand the show's storytelling range and lift us from "fun but formulaic magical girl adventures" to something more dynamic and meaningful.
The show's good at surprises. There's a run of episodes where you can almost expect to be saying a last-minute "what??". There's a gender-related surprise much later that's never been done before in PreCure and is one of the ways in which this season hit the news. (It's fantastic and I laughed out loud.) Another of those ways is an on-screen childbirth in ep.49, which might keep a blanket over the important bits but still has plenty of pain and shouting.
A big deal for long-term fans, though, is the return of past PreCures. Such as, for instance, HONOKA AND NAGISA. That's from thirteen years ago! Nonetheless they're here and they kept making me say "holy shit". Their first cliffhanger appearance, for instance. That's what I call an entrance. (Incidentally, the incidental music for their landing is epic enough that the show thoughtfully puts it aside for occasional reuse in later episodes.) I got chills at the franchise's original opening theme ("Danzen! Futari wa PreCure"). I once called that the PreCure equivalent of the James Bond theme, but I never knew how right I was. As for their combat abilities... well, let's just say that Honoka and Nagisa were the PreCures directed by Daisuke "Dragon Ball" Nishio. The 2018 fanbase made a big deal about Hugtto! returning to the physical combat that had been dropped from KiraKira due to executive meddling, but to be honest the violence level can still be pretty tame. There are lots of magical attacks.
Honoka + Nagisa = not tame. "Dual Aurora Wave!"
They're not semi-regulars. Quarter-regulars, maybe. They're in four episodes (eps.21-22 and eps.36-37), but sometimes only at the cliffhanger, and they're co-leads in one of the two movies. Mind you, those include mega-team-ups with all PreCures since the beginning, which is another thing that until now had only ever happened in the All-Stars films.
Admittedly I was getting excited about all this partly because I'd watched this series straight after Futari wa PreCure (2004) and Futari wa PreCure Max Heart (2005). If I hadn't, I'd have probably just thought they were two more superpowered schoolgirls. As it was, though, I loved them. I thought ep.22 absolutely nailed the characters, the tone and the show's message, with Nagisa even making me laugh.
For the most part, this show is just good, solid PreCure. Entertaining, funny, very well made and mildly disposable. Its final episode, though, is special. The villains got defeated in ep.48, but there's still another episode and the future characters have to go home. It's strong stuff. Here, for once, PreCure transcends its genre. Ep.49's first half is all about goodbyes, culminating in the desperate separation of a baby and its "mama". (They're both in tears and screaming as they reach out for each other.) Then, in addition, we also have one unrequited love and one chaste-but-heartfelt lesbian couple who in previous episodes had declared their love for each other, vowed to be together forever and had soul-shredding meltdowns at the thought of being apart.
Yeesh. After that, though, the second half visits the year 2030. It's upbeat, moving and inspiring, but it's also bittersweet if you were hoping for a romantic ending. (PreCure has a history of being unflinching when it comes to love that doesn't work out.) One romantic love is forced to become maternal, which is both heartwarming and devastating. Things then get even darker if you start thinking about whether or not the villains' future has been averted. (It's unclear. Don't ask me about the implications for the timelines.) That was a remarkable conclusion, finding unexpected power and lifting my estimation of the whole series.
RANDOM OBSERVATIONS, MOSTLY THINGS I LIKE
1. This season's new theme songs aren't awesome. "We can!! HUGtto! Pretty Cure", "HUGtto! Future Dreamer" and "HUGtto! YELL FOR YOU" are fine, but you won't be rewinding after the episode to watch them again. However there are also two one-offs, making an unprecedented four ending songs. "Friends With You" (ep.18) is good, but the remix of "DANZEN!" (the team-up episodes) is electric.
2. I love the workplace villains. It's the flip side of the future/career theme, with quotas to fill and forms to be submitted to head office. They get receipts for their taxis. They dump work on their colleagues for the sake of a date with their boyfriend. "I'm off next week, but I'll defeat you all after that!"
3. The male gay couple. What's cool about this is that it's not just "Look, The Token Gays", but instead an understated background story arc of Mr "Boys Can Be Princesses Too" forcing a 180-degree turn on someone we'd previously written off as a gender-roles bigot. There's a strong message this year of "even though species/sex/whatever may differ, love finds a way" and of course the gender thing I half-mentioned.
4. Darkness. Pupple being cheated on by her boyfriend and doing something that could be likened to suicide. PreCure transformation failures that aren't all fixed again by the end of the episode. Saaya and Homare's issues in their early episodes. Hana's backstory with the bullied girl. The unrequited love. The acknowledgement that sometimes life sucks and the future isn't perfect, but we should keep going anyway.
5. The show's boldness. It's easy to wink at the audience and be self-aware, but personally I have more admiration for any show that can do, say, Emiru and Luulu's electric guitar attack. They play their guitars and hearts shoot out of them to defeat monsters.
6. Androids eat food too.
7. The way that this is a superhero series with weekly monster battles, but it keeps all that firmly in its place. Fights come second to character moments, comedy and empathy with the enemy. The All-Star two-parter did well at letting everyone be themselves even in mid-battle, for instance.
8. Good grief, everyone's horrible in their delivery of "one for all, all for one, we are, PreCure, cheer for the future!" How did that get broadcast? Was the director asleep? What's worse, it's a magical attack, so we keep seeing that footage again and again.
Ep.15 = Emiru-Luulu comedy! Emiru is a manic loon from a family that's insane beyond belief, but she's also such a disaster zone that you'll suddenly understand her pessimism. Luulu destroying Masato's arguments (and getting annoyed!) is a joy too, but then FakeCure Emiru is magnificent in a completely different way. (Around here is where the show hits that higher gear I was talking about.)
Eps.21-22 = Honoka and Nagisa.
Ep.29 = Hana's granny, with a "don't want to get old" theme being explored and her emotions about her late husband. At the same time, though, the episode's also funny. "Let's make kibou-manjuu!" "How?" "Don't know!" Then there's granny vs. the monster.
Ep.42 = I'm not saying why, but you'll know it when you see it. Followed by ep.48.
Ep.43 = it's not a funny episode, but... Homare.
Ep.49 = obviously.
Is it great? No, obviously. It's basically just more PreCure. It's a funny children's show with silly monsters of the week. However it's also a clever, highly entertaining PreCure with a good mix of stories and characters, lots of comedy and enough surprises to avoid feeling too repetitive.
And it's even got Honoka and Nagisa.