It falls apart slightly towards the end, but even so it's still considerably more impressive than I'd expected.
It's a Cutey Honey show! I love Cutey Honey, although my wife and mother-in-law regard this as a catastrophic lapse of taste on my part. Cutey Honey is the Go Nagai robot girl with lots of disguises and a naked "Honey Flash" transformation for swapping between them. (Honey Flasher?) She's awesome because she's an innocent, playful girl with a sense of humour, who loves role-playing in all her different costumes and wouldn't hurt a fly... unless you're a mass-murdering evil member of Panther Claw (who killed her father), in which case you're about to die.
She's not a shapeshifter, by the way, although her transformations can create or reshape nearby objects. It's more like rebooting herself with a software upgrade. In episode four, for instance, she needs to perform surgery, so she Flashes into a surgeon and downloads all the information she needs from the evil doctor's computer.
This is a 25-episode live-action Japanese TV series, with a 26th bonus episode that's only on the DVD. I was worried because Japanese live-action TV is quite often unwatchable, because they think stupid overacting is funny. On top of that, Cutey Honey presents its own special problems. Fortunately the show mostly succeeds with its difficult juggling act. I was impressed.
The main challenge was always tone. You can't do a live-action Cutey Honey exactly as Go Nagai wrote it, or at least not if you want normal people to watch. The tone would be at war with the nudity, the ultra-violence and Go Nagai's perverted sense of humour. Cutey Honey is notorious for its nudity, for instance, but there's a fundamental difference between actual nudity and the cartoon equivalent in manga or anime. Look at the live-action Kekko Kamen films, for instance. I don't think anyone wants that.
I'd go berserk for a perfect live-action Cutey Honey, of course, but it'll never happen. Here...
NUDITY - it's CGI non-nudity. You could safely show it at a church meeting. Everything's smoothed out and plastic-looking, like a Barbie doll. Sometimes you can even make out the leotards or tops that the actresses are wearing underneath the CGI. A woman gets semi-topless for no reason in episode 1, as a sop to the fanboys, and there's nudity-from-behind in episode 18 that shows nothing... and that's it.
EXPLOITATIVE GAGS - the cheeky stuff (he says, being diplomatic) has been toned down almost to the point of non-existence, although in fairness the anime was never anywhere near as bad as the manga. There are moments here and there, but they're so mild and throwaway that it's impossible to be offended. Boob-groping Lesbian Headmistress is a bit disturbing, but she's meant to be.
They've even censored the theme song, deciding as did Cutie Honey Flash that it's better not to sing about Honey's bouncy boobs these days. (No one has a problem with her arse, though.) This I can live with, but why, why, why did they make up the time with rap?
VIOLENCE - in some ways, better than I'd expected. Panther Claw is nasty. Their minions will cut you into pieces with their U-shaped knives, or surgically implant a bomb inside you and then use you as their sobbing, evil puppet.
However there's no gore. This is a family show. Blood is conspicuously absent and the bad guys don't seem to end up dead. Normally I was fine with this, but it eventually got a bit distracting with the edged weapons. This show has three Honeys, who use a sword, a chakram and a kukri that could slay a rhinoceros. Heads and limbs should have been flying. Admittedly they do occasionally, but we should have been looking at minced Panther Claw minions on a regular basis.
The show has two phases. The first is Fun Adventures with Honey. These are a laugh and sometimes more than that, although occasionally their sense of humour gets broad enough to make you want to put a brick through your television. (This is better than I'd expected. Note the word "occasionally".) It's not perversion, but just stupid overacting of the kind that Japanese TV seems to think is a form of comedy. 99% of the time, though, we're fine. There are some heartfelt one-off episodes with surprising emotion. Honey's comedy homeless friends are great. The villains' roster is colourful, with no need for Sister Jill. (There's a manic loon with a split personality, a bilingual psycho with a temper, a lesbian headmistress with a daft tokusatsu battle form and an ordinary fishwife. My favourite, marginally, was the fishwife.)
This phase is basically a series of one-off adventures, albeit sometimes with the odd two-parter. Panther Claw does something disgusting and Cutey Honey puts a stop to it. This is good. It's traditional. However there's also the unfolding mystery of Miki and Yuki.
I mentioned three Honeys. They all Flash, they all have combat forms and they're all dangerous in different ways. The main one is our heroine. Number two is Miki Saotome (blue battle outfit, bad attitude), who's basically Misty Honey from Cutie Honey Flash. We've never seen anything like this third Honey before, though, and she's Yuki Kenmochi (white costume, demure and ladylike).
The most important thing in this show, above all, is the leads. They get Honey right, despite significant changes. They've made her empty-headed, mind you. She's got the personality of a six-year-old, seeing everything in the simplest possible light and with her brain usually permanently jammed in two modes: (a) "insanely upbeat" and (b) "be nice to everyone, even if they're trying to kill you". She also doesn't understand social conventions. This is occasionally annoying (e.g. Honey's "ureshii na" dance on her desk at school), but it makes for a strong character, with all the clarity and moral strength of the Honey I know. It's surprisingly powerful to see her devastated by the consequences of some of Panther Claw's schemes, while I adored seeing her charge into battle. You know exactly what's going through her head and it's childish outrage at bad people being naughty.
Miki is similarly awesome to see in battle, incidentally. It's because her motivation's so clear. She's so grumpy and unpleasant that I'd be grinning like a maniac as she'd, say, beat the living daylights out of Panther Claw for stealing her change at the corner shop.
I love this Honey, so I love this show. It's as simple as that. What's more, Mikie Hara in this show was a gravure (bikini) model and first-time actress, as were all three leading girls. All three have at least one scene where they fail, but even so they're surprisingly effective in their roles. They're been superbly cast, you see. They excel at being who they are. They embody their roles perfectly. Ayame Misaki is so convincingly hostile and hatchet-faced as Miki that it's a shock to discover that the actress can also smile and be girlish. Meanwhile Makoto Takeda (Yuki) couldn't have been more gentle, good-natured and demure.
There's also something interesting going on with Hara's performance in particular. She's slightly robotic. Especially in the early episodes, I wasn't convinced that she was fully inhabiting the character's weirder behaviour. She doesn't always entirely convince as a human being... but she's not playing a human being. It works. It comes across, in fact, as subtle and intriguing. What's more, I suspect this is to some extent deliberate from Hara, which if so would be impressive. I was struck in episode eight, for instance, by how she cocked her head when she didn't understand. That's a very Japanese mannerism, but Hara for me divorced it of human context. It looks like a clock ticking, or perhaps pre-programmed behaviour. In short, this is a performance that's playful, spontaneous and childlike, yet also also convinces as a piece of machinery.
Maybe Hara's a limited actress, or maybe she's a detailed and subtle one. Based just on this, I don't think it's possible to know.
As for Miki and Yuki, both get huge emotional journeys. They're going to be unrecognisable by the end. Cutey Honey's the iconic lead and so has less room to change, but even she gets a significant transformation. I think this is a prequel series. The end of the last TV episode shows Honey fighting a bestial, inhuman villain, more like Go Nagai's creations, and accompanied by a gun-toting Hayami. Presumably the gloves have come off and from now on she's going to be less bubbleheaded and more like the anime.
That's phase one. It's great, if occasionally annoying. Phase two, on the other hand, is a mess. The show's concluding run of episodes is no longer doing adventures of the week, instead going for dramatic developments, shocking revelations and the death of regulars.
In principle, this is laudable. In practice, they don't know what they're doing. People get killed, then come back. This happens often enough that it undermines the show's attempts to create mortal peril and convince us that our heroines are sacrificing her lives. The plot becomes shapeless. People capture, rescue and resurrect each other, of course giving up their own bodies to do so. (How does this work? What are the rules of it? We're never told.) The fishwife makes a ridiculous assumption in episode 23, which needed a lot more justification for me to even consider buying it. (It duly turns out to be ridiculous. D'oh.) There's not enough of Cutey Honey herself, even if there's a plot reason why. A certain character decides that she intends to rule the world, which is silly and unmotivated. Those last few episodes are structured like a game of pass-the-parcel.
They're not horrible, mind you. There's a lot of good stuff there. Emotionally, it rings true and I still loved the characters. There are some powerful scenes, even if I didn't buy Lesbian Headmistress's feelings having apparently transformed into sincere love. It also didn't help that the actress wasn't selling certain key moments very well.
Emotionally, it's strong. Structurally, it's a dog's dinner, but not enough so to make it a failure. It's merely mixed and there's still more than enough there to be worthwhile. All I'm saying is that I was disappointed.
1. Episode one is slightly sleazier than the others, because of audience expectations.
2. The school bullies are laughable. They're so limply written and played that it's annoying.
3. The show's other big innovation, besides Yuki, is to make Dr Kisaragi darker. He's still Cutey Honey's father, i.e. her builder, but now it's more complicated than that. (He's also played by Go Nagai himself.)
4. The feminist subtext is weaker, I think. (The original's had probably just been the accidental consequence of Go Nagai's perversion, but it was still there.) Honey is clueless and less powerful, she needs men for guidance (i.e. the homeless sage, Gen-san) and Panther Claw is no longer all-female. That said, though, I think it's worth looking at where the show ends up. All the men have been knocked out of the picture, either being dead, robot zombie versions of themselves, subordinate to their wives or replaced by a female personality. All this damage was caused by a man in the first place. This show certainly doesn't start with a female-dominated world, but it ends up building one.
5. I love Shouma Yamamoto as Hayami Seiji. He's amazing! He's a comic character, with no story function except to overact like an idiot, but Yamamoto's so charming that he makes his daft material work and made me laugh. Occasionally it defeats even him and he gets it wrong in the show's problematic final stretch, but he brings so much lovable conviction that you buy him. He's really, really good. (Significantly, he didn't get his start by singing in a band, but as a stage actor.)
6. Episode thirteen is flat-out bad, though. The girls go out for a drink with some men and everyone behaves as if they're in lazily written anime. Miki's good in it, though.
7. The severed robot head shot in the title sequence is brilliant.
This is a silly show, but it's remarkable how much of that silliness they get away with. Episode nine, for instance, is outrageous, but it works. (Yuki gets kidnapped, but she's so nice and good-natured that she starts helping her kidnapper.) It's funny, sometimes brilliantly so. However it's also emotional and it's found an interesting story to tell with the Cutey Honey characters. On the downside, though, I think it's a little lazy in the writing, not always bothering to set up or justify things properly (e.g. Natsuki's reactions in episode 19), instead being more focused on the emotional angle and in fairness often doing that very well (e.g. Natsuki's reconciliation in episode 20).
As I've said, it also doesn't end as well as it should. I'd particularly advise against watching the DVD-only 26th episode as the culmination of a marathon of episodes 1-25, since that'll be even more anticlimactic. (It's okay, but it's cheap and it's basically a recap of the series, filling in the backstory and giving explanations and motivations.)
That doesn't stop me loving the show, though. It's flawed, but it gets Honey right.