I love Cutie Honey. I don't know if I'd call it conventionally good, though, and I'd need yet another rewatch to work out exactly why I love its fairly simple main character so much. (No, it's not the obvious. Drag your minds out of the gutter.) This franchise isn't a masterpiece of anything except insane tonal clashes (hello, Go Nagai!), inappropriate content and driving moral guardians in Japan out of their minds since 1973.
(Hang on. I've just realised that most English-speakers won't know what I'm talking about. Quick summary: Honey is a shapeshifting android girl who fights a criminal organisation called Panther Claw, because they killed her father/creator. She has one of the immortal anime theme songs and a habit of flashing her naughty bits to camera with every transformation. Theoretically that's normal with magical girl transformations, but Honey's, uh, more explicit than most.)
Anyway, I was champing at the bit for this show. We hadn't had a new Cutie Honey anime since 2004, despite three different live-action projects. I liked the first five episodes of this show, but then after that it got kind of hard to watch.
It's grim and depressing. Honey is basically an action hero, but here she becomes an inaction hero. Sister Jill wants to crush her soul and, basically, succeeds. Honey becomes ever more ineffectual, depressed and passive. Every time you keep expecting her to overcome her despair and get back in her groove, she just gets worse. This is new, admittedly. I admire the show's courage in doing something so different and unexpected. I found the show's second half quite hard to watch, but I stuck with it anyway in the hope of a strong finale. This is strong material and I can respect that, even if I'm not enjoying the experience of watching it. Would the show justify its downer second half with a powerful conclusion?
Alas, that doesn't happen. A bunch of stuff happens that's trying to be triumphant, but makes so little sense that either the episode's a massive hallucination or I don't have a bloody clue about anything. Did someone resurrect the dead, or is the episode cheating like a mad bastard? Did everyone go into space or what? Did they go to heaven? Is everyone dead now? (Thinking about it, that might be the only plausible explanation.) There's a mad use of Cutie Honey iconography that's meant to be triumphant, I think, but in fact it struck me as both puzzling and almost disrespectful to Honey herself. It doesn't quite make enough sense. It doesn't work properly, because we're questioning it. It's the kind of gloriously insane idea that could have been fist-punchingly brilliant had the showrunners done the basic work of making it seem like a logical next step for our heroes... but nope. Sorry. The finale's also needlessly sour in who dies and how, if you're looking carefully underneath the magic unexplained "Because The Scriptwriter Says So" handwave for everyone else.
Above all, though, the episode blows the big moment. We'd been waiting six crawling, depressing episodes for this. They'd destroyed an icon. (Like her or loathe her, Honey is an iconic anime/manga heroine and everyone in Japan can recognise her.) Honey had been falling deeper and deeper into her own inner pit of misery and self-loathing, until by ep.11 she's basically committing suicide. I don't think she expected or even wanted to return alive from Phantom Castle. After all that, her climactic change of heart struck me as a bit cheap.
As I said at the beginning, I love Honey. I'll watch anything and everything she appears in. However I can't imagine anyone coming to love the character as a result of watching this. It occurs to me that there's a pendulum in Cutie Honey adaptations:
1973 TV series - the classic, mad original. The violence is so extreme that you hardly notice the nudity, but it's also a silly, repetitive Saturday children's show with a playfully light-hearted heroine. I love the 1970s.
1994 OVA series - which I like to imagine as a sequel to the 1970s series, although that just makes me want to see a further sequel to give the whole thing closure. It has a screamingly 1980s dystopian urban setting, but Honey's still Honey and there's even more nudity.
1997 TV series (Flash) - a straightforward shoujo show for little girls, created after Go Nagai was surprised to learn that Honey had lots of female fans. Introduces an antagonistic counterpart, Misty Honey.
2004 OVAs and live-action film - get a bit silly and odd. The film doesn't show Honey's tits (which, disgracefully, is true of all live-action versions), but there's a lot to like in the OVAs. With hindsight, this was the last year where Honey felt to me like Honey.
2007 live-action TV series - quite fun and I like it, although Honey's fun-loving nature has been exaggerated into idiocy.
2016 live-action film - joyless and miserable.
2018 anime series - ...and again. The show actually gets Honey right in the early episodes, but that's just setting her up for psychological torment.
I'll admit that it's possible that the show's being super-faithful to Go Nagai. That's a hypothesis, though. A lot of the show's odder tonal problems, weirder scenes and more annoying characters are straight from the manga, although I'm no expert and I haven't read it all. (Ep.12's closing credits remind us of this with a slideshow of original manga panels.) The deranged Panther Claw monster designs, the deeply odd staff and students at Saint Chapel School for Girls and the ugly, distracting Hayami family are all straight from the source material, for instance. Young Junpei and his implausible lust for Honey... yeah, I hated him here and I found him deeply problematic, but that's Go Nagai for you. Jarring unfunny comedy? He does that. The manga's even the source for notorious scenes like Junpei performing cunnilingus on Honey when she's disguised as a statue. (That's in the anime too, although they've toned it down slightly.)
That said, though, the anime's heightened lesbianism smelled more to me of modern anime fashions. (I might be wrong.) I liked the use of Go Nagai's character designs, but there are places (e.g. Honey-Natsuko scenes) where it looks a bit shit and desperately needed thicker-lined art. Crude designs need crude lines. That would have looked retro and cool, whereas the actual show sometimes looks cheap.
Then there's the iconography. Some things you just shouldn't mess with, or at least should definitely know the value of. Cutie Honey has always had this in spades. The nudity, the music, the "aru toki wa" speeches... well, this series has a complicated relationship with all those.
1. Honey's nude transformations aren't nude. There's not so much a nipple (although I suppose that might change on the Blu-ray versions), despite far dodgier elements that for the first time make a Cutie Honey series feel, to me, unsuitable for children. Groping, molesting, whipping, etc. It's as if the show's been defanged by moral guardians, but also made creepy-dirty by unpleasant people in raincoats. (A Honey who never flashes is like a Batman who never hits criminals. It's just wrong. Honey's costume is liable to get interestingly ripped, for instance, in combat or when she's running out of transformation energy... but never actually that much, only ever enough to make the show look a bit lame. They're more into panty shots.)
2. That I don't mind so much, though. The music, though, includes one shocking decision. They don't use THE THEME. I'm speechless. Did these people ever love Honey to begin with? That said, I really enjoyed the new opening and closing themes, but it's clear in ep.12 that the replacement songs are no substitute for the original as incidental music when you're trying to make the audience's spines tingle at a dramatic high point.
3. There's interesting usage of the "aru toki wa" speeches, though. Here, for once, the show does know how iconic they are. It holds them back, not using them for ages and ages... and then breaks them out on special occasions, including some startling usages.
All that said, there's also a fair amount in this show that I liked, or at least found interesting.
Sister Jill is terrifying. She's never been this actively evil. It's hard to think of many villains this appalling, in fact, in any adventure fiction. She creates her Panther Claw minions by stabbing innocent girls with a blood-drinking rose that transforms them agonisingly into monsters. They're yet more victims, basically. (The one she transforms in ep.2 is a battered wife. "The man you love as he beats you day after day...") Jill then sends these involuntary killers to fight Honey and die, or else just murders them herself because it's convenient for her plans. (Or else, more simply, because she's a stone-cold sadistic bitch. That's definitely a factor.) They worship her and fight among themselves for the right to serve her, whereas she perceives no difference between them and the human cattle she sends them to slaughter.
TARANTULA PANTHER (with only her and Jill now left): "Octopanther has been defeated."
SISTER JILL: "Who was that again?"
What happens halfway through the series is shocking too. That's very Go Nagai, mind you. He's capable of wrapping up a goofy sex comedy by having its heroes machine-gunned to death. You can understand why Honey takes it so hard (although that doesn't mean she had to fall apart so completely and become so passive). It's also so surreal and grotesquely beautiful that you'll be questioning the evidence of your own eyes. "That can't be what it looks like," you'll think. "The girls can't be dead." Even when the bodies come apart and the heads fly off, you still won't quite be processing it.
No one is safe here. Jill is deliberately targeting Honey's friends. Some of these deaths are distressing, if you think about them afterwards.
I also appreciated the way the show comes alive again in ep.10. Unexpected people do unexpected things and suddenly you've got surprises and fun character interactions. The show's still tough going, admittedly, but in a more watchable way.
I wouldn't call this a good show. There are things I respect about it, but I also think it's a bit of a failure even at what it's trying to do. I think it's a poor showcase for Honey. You might even get frustrated at her despairing passivity, which shouldn't be one's reaction. I might have rated the show more highly had it ended strongly, but unfortunately ep.12 is for me the most unambiguous proof of the show's failure. Then, on top of that, you've got the ugly tonal clashes and annoying content that come from fidelity to the source material. Junpei drove me insane. Danbei's also a pain in the arse, but I really couldn't stomach this leering, groping, lascivious pre-pubescent boy. (He's the biggest reason I wouldn't show this series to anyone of an impressionable age.)
When my daughter's old enough, I plan to introduce her to Cutie Honey. When she's six or seven years old, maybe. I'm confident that she'll love Honey as much as I do. Honey's wonderful. I'll cheerfully show her all the 20th century material. The 2004 and 2007 stuff I might keep back for a while. (Live-action is more intense for a child.) The 2016 and 2018 stuff, though, is probably better off buried.