Honey Kisaragi is a playful schoolgirl but also an angel of vengeance. None of her friends know of her secret war against Panther Claw, or that Honey can transform into other bodies. Armed only with guns, boomerangs, swords, explosives, bazookas and gratuitous nudity, can Cutey Honey overcome the forces of evil?
In 1973, Go Nagai created a show for pre-pubescent girls and crammed it full of violence and nudity. Was the world ready for Cutey Honey? Probably not. The show lasted only 25 episodes, although it spawned the magical girl genre (including Sailor Moon). Twenty years later came two 1990s revivals: the OVAs and Cutey Honey Flash, a 39-episode TV series that also boasts a mini-movie that's basically a fortieth episode. Like the original TV series, Cutey Honey Flash still hasn't been dubbed into English, although oddly a German version exists.
Cutey Honey Flash is a better show than the original, but less iconic. It's twitchy about its controversial elements, gradually upping the violence and nudity as the show's run continued and they kept not getting cancelled. It's also less trailblazing. Obviously it's a remake of the original, but it's also following in the traditions of the magical girl genre. The first dozen episodes are almost pallid, with half-hearted action and only one nude transformation per episode. In fairness the 1970s series also had less nudity than people think, but here for the first time one senses a quota. Someone had to defend all this to the networks. Every time an episode has two flashes, there's a compensating episode that's nudity-free.
Most of these flaws would be rectified as the show got bolder, but one bit of censorship survived throughout. They tweaked the theme song! The line about Honey's little arse remained, but we lost the line about her big bouncy boobs. Shocking, I call it.
Sailor Moon fans have called this a Sailor Moon rip-off. Obviously the claim is absurd, but in fairness Cutey Honey Flash took Sailor Moon's time slot and the two shows shared some production staff. Even the artwork looks similar. Go Nagai's character designs have been softened, making this the least visually distinctive incarnation of Cutey Honey. Similarly the scriptwriting downplays the violence in favour of girlie shoujo. There's a Boyfriend In Waiting (Hayami Seiji) and a Mysterious Handsome Man (Prince Zera). Even Panther Claw have become mere thieves. They're still endearingly fond of explosions, machine-guns and underwater knife murders, but I hated seeing them chase jewels and trinkets. They're meant to be psychos, not shoplifters!
I'm not wild about the first third of the series, but it has good points. The villains are suitably freakish, with at least one (a bug-eyed chameleon woman) being downright creepy. The storytelling isn't bad either. Honey gets Shoujo Bloke Dilemma ("which boy do I really want?"), which may be groanworthy but in plot development terms is leagues above the original series. There's an interesting new take on Honey losing her father, while Hayami Seiji is a cut above most romantic foils. He's a character in his own right, not just the heroine's shadow. Despite being a reboot, this show benefits from the weight of its history. There's creative tension from 1990s shoujo instincts creaking to accommodate 1970s Go Nagai insanity. This split personality can bring surprises.
Oh, and one villain has breast missiles. Yup, from Mazinger.
The biggest problem with this mini-season is financial. It's an action show on a shoujo budget. Sailor Moon's talky fight scenes worked because Usagi used magical attacks and avoided violence. Unfortunately Honey likes her sword. The regular episodes get around this by telling character-based stories, but it's a problem in Honey's set-piece battles with Sister Jill. The animators' tricks for dragging things out get almost ridiculous. Honey has dreamy flashbacks in mid-fight, the "I've won bwahahahaha" deathlocks get overused and in general by shounen standards it's a bit slow and stupid.
Then things get better. Panther Claw learn Cutey Honey's identity and target her. The mini-season ends with a decent action episode. Honey carries out a commando raid on Panther Claw's castle and uses weapons: a crossbow, a sword, a bazooka, a quarterstaff and a Japanese polearm called a naginata. She then gets a kinky whipping, a new enemy and a big surprise.
This point is where the show really started spreading its wings. Personally I divide the show's 39 episodes into a 13-part prologue and a 26-part sequel, with the latter being "the real show".
Episode 14 is impressively pervy. Claiming to be Honey's twin sister, one Misty Honey kicks things off with a fencing duel and later a breast grope. Mmmm, lesbian twincest. She's basically Evil Honey, with her own nude transformation sequence... and with two stripping superheroines, suddenly we have approximately five flashings in a single episode and a general sense that the animators have been let off the leash. Cutey Honey looks topless as Boxing Honey, Panther Claw's minions suddenly have an eye for a pretty figure and Seiji accidentally gets a faceful of Honey's bosom. The result is a slap and "Seiji-san no ecchi". Ah, the good old days. There's also a crucifixion, which is one of the weirder Cutey Honey traditions. Even Prince Zera gets interesting and suddenly you don't have a clue what's going to happen.
Ironically the show became more faithful to the original's spirit by doing things we'd never seen before. The whole point of Cutey Honey is showing tits and violence to little girls. That's what makes it special. Water down Cutey Honey and it becomes a waste of time.
The catalyst's Misty Honey. This was always a sexy franchise, but for the first time someone's explicitly sexual. It's slightly shocking. Misty's also obsessive and self-destructive. Sometimes she's just evil, sometimes she has a softer side (or at least a side that wants to be so) and at other times you don't have a clue what's going through her head. Oh, and she delivers her attack cry of "Honey Sexy Dynamite" with a breathless sultriness that has me on the floor laughing every time.
By this point the show's going from strength to strength. They remake occasional 1970s episodes, e.g. the ghost ship or the car race, but changing enough to feel fresh. Particularly impressive is their rich cast of villains, in which department Sailor Moon had improved on the 1970s Cutey Honey. Panther Claw's minions have feuds and individual motivations. One episode in particular ends with a murder that shocked me. That annoying notion of them being thieves is played down and eventually contradicted in a mythical reinvention of Biblical imagery and the supernatural.
Oh, and Scud Panther is an Arab who hates mankind, but loves missiles and blowing things up. It was another world before the World Trade Centre fell on 11 September 2001, wasn't it?
Cutey Honey Flash borrows extensively from the original series, but dynamically instead of just creating a status quo. Everything is part of the ongoing story, with revelations and plot developments. Honey doesn't learn everything in the first episode. They explore her psychology, ask why she fights and make her examine her motivations. There's also death. Characters die whom I'd expected to live. One or two episodes genuinely astonished me. Some of this is strong stuff... emotional, shocking and a million times nastier than Sailor Moon. They machine-gun down a little girl! This show may not be able to show nipples, but it has blood.
Even the action improves. Episode 20's fight between Cutey Honey and Prince Zera is genuinely exciting. Things regress soon afterwards, with shoujo cliches and visible budget strain, but by the time we hit episode 30 things have improved enough for a scythe fight on the roof of a runaway train that's about to go over a demolished bridge and explode. That's what I call a fight! Soon afterwards we're getting cliffhangers, a dwindling cast and the only time in the franchise when Honey actually beats Panther Zora.
The apocalyptic episode 37 even has a sex scene! Admittedly it's all done with hints and allegorical imagery, but it's arguably a keystone of the whole series. Honey talks about marriage and a petal falls. Yup, deflowering. The scene's allusive languor makes it more mature than mere hentai, done with a subtlety that would have eluded the target audience. Then in the last episode Honey has a three-year-old daughter! Years have passed and she's now a mother, although she hasn't yet got married. That felt oddly fitting. Seeing Honey with her daughter was like hearing her talk to the audience. It's a reminder of who this franchise was created for.
Need I say that the nudity keeps improving? It's not up there with the OVAs, but eventually it's well ahead of the original TV series. Even including the first thirteen episodes, it averages out the same (about two flashes an episode). There's also Mermaid Honey in part 19, Venus de Milo Honey in part 34 and a four-minute sequence in part 33 which is part of the plot. Then in part 38 she seems naked more often than she's clothed.
After a shaky start, this series got everything right. I have problems with its first dozen episodes and its relative lack of violence, but it's a more intelligent and better-constructed show than its 1970s predecessor. It has a story arc and plot twists. It has better villains. Most importantly, it has Cutey Honey. She's still the hero she's always been, having fun and teasing her enemies even as she's ready to kill them with her sword. She's sexy, sassy and warm-hearted. She rules.