I first watched this in 2008 and enjoyed it, but somehow I never got around to its second season. I bought the DVDs. I just never watched them. This year, though, I dug them out because it's an anime that's safe to watch in front of Natsuki and I'd been surprised to find how few of my discs fell into that category.
On rewatching, I liked it less than I had in 2008. It's still almost hauntingly magical, but there's not much beyond that and Tomoko thinks it's unwatchable due to the Japanese voice acting. (Everyone says the English dub is better.)
Firstly, a summary. Magical girls live in our world and must hide their powers to avoid being noticed. They're a separate race and Sasami's one of them. She was sworn to secrecy at the age of three. However when a new teacher called Washu arrives at her elementary school, she finds that she's one of five such children. Sasami and Misao are the group's emotional heart. Makoto can make herself grow or shrink, but she's sensitive about her height. Tsukasa is an emotionless windmaster. Anri has a crush on Tsukasa and can make words and symbols come alive.
This show portrays their low-key daily life, which eventually becomes a threat to the world.
Next, some background. This show is a descendant of Tenchi Muyo, the 1990s SF juggernaut that kick-started the harem genre. That's still going today. I like its early shows. It's had a bewildering range of spin-offs, but this one's travelled the furthest from its parent.
Sasami Masaki Jurai is the franchise's most adorable character, being a ten-year-old girl who pulls her weight with the adults even in a series full of space pirates, murderous villains and planetary destruction. (This includes beating up villains in fight scenes.) She has a massive worldwide fanbase (possibly even still today) and has inspired the so-called 'Sasami Effect', which says that a young cute girl in an adult cast will become the most popular character. Everyone loves her, including me... so in 1995-1997 she became a magical girl parody. (This is a huge departure for the franchise. It's also not canonical, not even to itself.) This comprised a three-episode OVA series and an even further removed 26-episode TV series that doesn't try to link to the OVAs and reinvents everything differently. They're both funny. They also cast versions of the other Tenchi Muyo regulars in unfamiliar roles.
Ten years later, this got revived in a still less recognisable form. This is a straight magical girl show. It's not parody. It's exactly what they'd previously been lampooning. It's cute, pastel-coloured and all about friendship. It's aimed at little girls who'd never watch raucous, rude SF harem comedies like Tenchi Muyo and indeed hadn't been born when Pretty Sammy was last on the air. Season 1 is plotless and instead is all about its character moments, being cute and very gentle comedy. Season 2 grows a plot, but a gentle one that's too weird and unintuitive for easy engagement.
(Obviously the production team expected Tenchi Muyo fans to watch this regardless, but they're making no concessions to us. We're not the target audience. This really is a small girls' show.)
The show's problems include:
1. The recasting. They ignored the voice cast we'd known for a decade who'd always played these roles gloriously. (I love Chisa Yokoyama. Any change was unwelcome.) Instead they chose terrible child actors, of whom the one playing Sasami might be the worst. Tomoko laughs at me for being capable of watching the show. Personally, though, I find these non-actors paradoxically convincing. They're little girls. You can't get more mimetic than that. They can't act at all, but the show's so lightweight that this doesn't do much damage. There's rarely any drama to undermine.
2. The plotting. Season 1 has no baddies and doesn't really go anywhere. You might wonder why you're still watching. Season 2 fixes the lack of story, but its solutions include a character who's the independently sentient dream of a different, sleeping character. When the latter wakes up, the former doesn't disappear. (I'm not sure what's happening there.) There's a parliament of sleeping immortal trees who created the sleeping character to suck up their negative emotions, or something. The villain wants to fix the world by waking up the sleepers, who'll make everything perfect. (I'm not sure what she thinks is happening there.) She thinks this needs Sasami's light magic (why?), but her schemes to obtain this will awaken Misao's dark magic.
Trying to explain this plot will keep making you say "not sure why" and "somehow". If pressed on details, you'll get vague and make apologies. It was unclear even when you were watching it. The ending's drama doesn't work because you're not sure what it all means or what the implications are. Is the ending bittersweet? I don't know. Being so unintuitive makes the drama lose most of its force.
3. The show doesn't really add up to anything. It's not very good at anything except creating a magical atmosphere, mostly with music. It's neither bad nor good. The series has a faint air of "what's the point of this?", although there are some strong Season 1 episodes.
4. It's Tenchi Muyo in name only, offering very little to fans. It's only inherited four Tenchi characters. (a) Sasami's a shadow of herself, with empty-headed voice acting and a script that's not letting her be brave. (b) Washu's basically the same, but a non-magical schoolteacher rather than a planet-busting mad scientist. (c) Mihoshi's less comedic and more like a human being, which was disconcerting until she turned out to be barely a cameo. (d) Ryo-Ohki is a cat-rabbit that can't talk and doesn't matter.
Magical Girl Pretty Sammy is more significant, unsurprisingly. Ginji's here and he's perfectly okay, which is a squintillion light-years ahead of my reaction to the abomination that was his predecessor.
However the important one is Misao. I'd known her as the split personality girl who'd been both Sasami's shy best friend and her cackling, raucous arch-enemy as the magical Pixy Misa. Don't expect the latter here, but the cripplingly meek Misao is present and unchanged. She has no confidence and a damaging self-image. She's timid. She's easily hurt. Sasami and Misao provide the show's heart. It's Misao who pulled me in and gave me an emotional hook in 2008 after I'd done a big Tenchi rewatch. Admittedly she's not doing a Jekyll-and-Hyde this time and she has different powers, but she's still dark and troubled. She's liable to summon creepy darkness and snakes, whether she likes it or not.
That was in 2008, though. Rewatched in 2017, this show's Misao doesn't stand quite so well on her own. She still has all that emotional baggage, but this lightweight show is less likely to stir a viewer who's not carrying fresh memories of what had been, frankly, a more dynamic show.
I should have rewatched both series. I'd have enjoyed this more.
All that said, though, the show does one thing that's beautiful, though. It feels magical. Mostly it's the music. It lifts from the Harry Potter score, with flutes and Irish fiddles. There are harps. A song is important to the plot. More than anything else, that music is what's setting a magical tone and mood. Stepping into this show can be like entering a fairy tale. When Sasami and her friends visit the magical world, they'll meet whimsical things like talking turnips that tell them to eat them. (The tall pink-haired friend takes a bite from one while still talking to it!)
This is a show that dances in the moonlight with a dreamy harp-playing boy in a tree. It's a show where a child can look in a lake and see their reflection as an adult.
Oh, and the art can be also beautiful. Watching this after the slightly ugly 1996 TV series was startling. It has a delicate, almost crystalline look that uses computer animation to create what can look like children's book illustrations come to life. The drawings are cute and detailed in unexpected ways. The body language can be surprisingly subtle. Sasami's magic bubbles in particular are a delight, reminding one that this is a genre that esteems cuteness and gentleness.
(Closer examination of Season 2 revealed that this art style was probably quite cheap, though. Also, the faces in profile look like rodents.)
That's it. That's the show. That's what you'll get from it. Season 2 is often called an improvement on Season 1, for obvious reasons, but I thought the strongest two episodes were in the first half. I'm thinking of ep.8 (the first episode that means something) and ep.10. These are quietly emotional one-off stories that go a little further than you'd expect. Things can go wrong. Our heroines can miss deadlines, make mistakes and not necessarily have them undone again.
As for the three new girls, they're bolt-ons with thin and slightly abrasive personalities. At one point in the first half, I realised I'd forgotten which one was Makoto and what her powers were. Tsubasa's the best new girl. In 2008 I found Sasami and Misao sweet together, but in 2017 I'd forgotten what a fan I used to be of Misao-chan, even in this version.
Fundamentally, though, this girl isn't my Sasami. It's someone else with the same hairstyle. That's not just because of the voice, although that's a big part of it. She doesn't need the original's courage. They live in different worlds, this being a fantasy fairy world where everything is cute and girls can rely on their parents. Her life is safe. She's happy, empty and badly acted. She's not going to suffer. Tenchi Muyo's Sasami didn't really have a home, but instead a high-tech sci-fi alien palace where 700 years ago she'd been a princess in line to the throne. Magical Girl Pretty Sammy's Sasami had her life dislocated by unwanted magical powers and a world of trouble. This Sasami's simpler. Her magic powers are innate gifts and she plays with them as easily as breathing. Occasionally I felt echoes of the old Sasami when she was with Misao, but you usually have to put the franchise from your mind and try to take this series on its own terms.
My 2008 verdict: I like this show a lot. I had to put Tenchi Muyo out of my mind to do so, but this is a delicate, stylish show with charms of its own. I couldn't quite see this show being made with the regular Tenchi crew. It's more lyrical, strange and delicate. The Tenchi crew are blunt instruments, but this is mysterious and fairylike. It's about cute girls doing cute things, but that doesn't make it bad. It's a simpler series than Magical Girl Pretty Sammy, but a much less flawed one and it really does look lovely.
My 2017 verdict: it's almost disconcertingly empty. Episodes drift past and you wonder what the point of them had been. The show always seems to be on the point of challenging you to ask why you're still watching. The plot is thin, late and eccentric, even if you're lucky enough to think that it makes sense. However it really does feel magical.