This was the first PreCure series I ever watched and I've always thought it was one of the best. Would it stand up to being rewatched as part of a PreCure marathon? Would I still adore Towa and Yui?
Well, it's clearly far better than its immediate predecessors. This was the first PreCure season in five years not to be annoying, divisive and/or a blatant copy-paste of Yes! PreCure 5. (What's more, the two seasons that followed it, Mahoutsukai and KiraKira a la Mode, aren't even watchable.) This is also the best PreCure had ever looked. They've mastered quality control, stamped out dodgy episodes and animated the most breathtaking action to date. Crucially, they've realised that the bravest characters in a superhero universe are the powerless ones. The episodes that demonstrate this are rare, but they're knockouts. Ep.30 is the biggest action episode in the franchise. Whether the powerless one is Yui the muggle, Haruka (in ep.1) or everyone after the baddies steal their Dress-Up Keys, it's always compelling.
What keeps the series out of the very top rank is its cast. I have a theory that it's the core PreCures themselves who'll make or break a series. A good, solid show with generic heroines (e.g. Smile) will be forgotten. A decent enough show with your favourite heroines (e.g. Futari wa PreCure) will never lose its audience's affections.
This season is a mixed bag, although at least everyone's likeable. It was popular with mature fans, but less so with the target audience who buy the merchandise (little girls). In order of personal preference:
1. YUI NANASE
She's not even a PreCure. She's Haruka's roommate. In any other season, she'd have got superpowers and joined the queue. (Compare with HappinessCharge.) Here, though, she's normal throughout. She'd get squashed in a fight and she runs out of the way when baddies show up.
She's nice, she wants to be a children's book illustrator and she keeps the gang's secrets. She's peripheral, to be honest. I was mildly peeved when she barely features in ep.18, even though it's about a children's book signing. When circumstances force her, though, Yui will step up to the plate. The baddies turn her dreams into a monster five times in the series... and she learns how to resist. By the end of the series, she's breaking their despair spells from the inside and then rescuing everyone else.
Ep.28 also made me love her forever. There's no one else like her in the franchise.
2. KIRARA AMANOGAWA (yellow)
There's a pattern with Yellow PreCures. They'll be the third team member, after the Pink Leader and the Blue #2. They'll be sweet and serene, c.f. Heartcatch, DokiDoki, HappinessCharge. (Sometimes, as a variant, they'll be timid and/or have low self-esteem, c.f. Fresh, Smile, HUGtto.)
Kirara, on the other hand, can be off-putting. She's self-possessed to the point of being hard as nails. She's still one of the good guys and it's impossible not to admire her after ep.42, but she's ruthless about her priorities and will casually brush off Haruka and Minami in the early episodes. She's a top model who can be seen on TV. She works very, very hard for this. Invite her to be a PreCure and she'll say she's too busy and stroll off because she's got a job now. Even if other girls were in floods of tears, Kirara would be immune.
This can be refreshing. She brings a new kind of hardness, but isn't a jerk about it. She's nice. However the cliche episode of "should I take this golden opportunity and quit being a PreCure?" becomes surprisingly tense with Kirara, because she'd do it. I wouldn't say I love Kirara, but she's the one team member who's different from the norm.
My problem, personally, was that I didn't buy that being a model is such a big deal. Walk. Don't drool. Those are the two main criteria, aren't they?
3. TOWA (red)
She's a villain who turns good. In the season's first half, she's Twilight. Afterwards, she's Towa. This is a powerful plot device and it's been used many times, always to strong effect. I still don't think it's ever been done better than in Splash Star, though, so unsurprisingly I was less blown away on this viewing.
I still like Towa, though. There's a lot to enjoy and admire in her.
As a villain, she's dignified, fair and right. When she dissects Haruka's irrational ambitions, she's just saying what we'd all been thinking. You can't become a princess just by wishing and trying hard. It's not like trying to win the 100m or something. You've got to find a prince and play your cards right.
Then, after awakening, she's still all that, but also oddly helpless and incompetent. Before, she'd been dissecting the princess dream, but now she's a deconstruction of the princess reality. She sits there getting hungry in the school cafeteria because she hasn't realised that there aren't any attendants. When looking for somewhere to live... "Do you have a castle? I don't expect luxuries. I'll only need three maids."
She's clueless, frankly. She can't bring herself to confess to a weakness in ep.28, even though she knows she's being ridiculous. However she's also deeply conscientious. "How can I enjoy myself before saving my homeland?" She apologises to her former victims.
As Cure Scarlet, she also has the ultimate Fire Precure transformation sequence. I genuinely don't think you could top the full version. You'd look silly.
At her best, Towa's great. She does suffer slightly, though, from getting less story focus in the closing stretch. There's a Kirara two-parter (eps.42-43) followed by a Minami one (eps.44-45). I'm not saying Towa's excluded, mind you. That's not true at all. She's definitely there and making her presence felt. See ep.40 and her girly excitement over getting her brother back, or ep.46 when she's reaching out to Shut.
However those are story arc beats, instead of being primarily about Towa. She doesn't get a character arc. She got most of her development out of the way in earlier episodes.
4. HARUKA HARUNO (pink leader)
She's lovable. Nothing wrong with her. Standard Pink Leader.
She also has something unique, which is an absurd dream that the show nurtures, cuddles and surreptitiously deconstructs. She wants to be a princess. That's crazy... but she achieves it in ep.1 by becoming a Princess PreCure, then keeps going. She believes in that strongly, supports other people's dreams (which is the show's theme) and in ep.38-39 gets a traumatic two-parter that completely breaks her. (How she recovers from that is inspiring.)
Despite that, though, she's also a bit bland. That seems bizarre, but she is. She has a dream and she wants to support other people's dreams, which is admirable... but the show tends to focus on that, instead of exploring and deepening her characterisation. There's no attempt to say anything about the kind of person who'd focus on something that odd and impossible. Furthermore, the show keeps insisting that her influence has changed other people. Minami's thawed. Kirara's stopped being a bitch. This is all true... and yet the show doesn't show us that. It doesn't tell any stories that show us Haruka changing people. It just lets its cast quietly, incrementally evolve, then in retrospect gives Haruka the credit.
She's more interesting in the early episodes, when she's earnestly and enthusiastically practicing everything in sight. She has a list of Things Princesses Do. She wants to be graceful. She keeps attempting the impossible. She fails. (Her idea of make-up, for example, suggests a circus clown.)
5. MINAMI KAIDO (blue)
Again, I like her. She's a nice person. However she's also the Blue stereotype, played down the middle without variations. Elegant, graceful, academically strong. Family as rich as Croesus.
It's a type that works, which is why we've seen it again and again. However you'd struggle to distinguish Minami from all the others. Her strongest distinguishing features are external to her characterisation, i.e. she gets water/sea episodes, her oldest friend's a dolphin and she has a silly fiance in ep.32.
What sort of show would you have if you cut Minami? A stronger one, but also perhaps a colder, more challenging one. If Haruka's only ally for half the show was Kirara...
7. THE FAIRIES
They're fairies. They say their own names at the end of their sentences. However they're also likeable, while Pafu is a mild pisstake of impractical fairy designs (cough, cough, Milk in Yes! PreCure 5). She looks like Milk, with the same ridiculous ears... which she'll tread on and fall over.
Dyspear is seriously bad news. I don't think she's that scary, personally, because she's just a Bond villain who keeps sending out her incompetent henchmen. (When that changes, look out.) However she's got a sinister Disney Supervillain design, an unswerving devotion to evil and no sense of humour whatsoever. You can take her seriously. She's a more heavyweight baddie than we'd had in years.
Even her henchmen aren't that comedic either. Close looks like a slightly kiddified Ryuk from Death Note. Lock looks like just another brat, but isn't. Shut's the most interesting one, though. He's the narcissistic dandy stereotype who's normally coded as gay. (Fishnet stockings, thigh-high boots, ruffles everywhere and a simply darling hat. Also, make-up and a wig.) However, he's straight, and tragically so. He's in love with the Towa who's evil.
Shut ends up being one of the series's unexpected strengths.
JUVENILE INNUENDO OPPORTUNITIES
1. Towa's rippled penis hairstyle.
2. Tomoko's reaction to Kirara's name was, "That's like a famous porn actress". Kirara Amanogawa vs. Kirara Asuka.
3. The girls attend Noble Academy, which in Japanese is one vowel away from No-Bra Academy. No-Buru Gakuen vs. No-Bura Gakuen.
4. Imagine someone in real life wearing Dyspear's dress. You'd get arrested if you breathed too deeply.
5. More seriously, though, the show's got enough lesbian subtext that it's clear who'd be partnered with who. There's Towa-Yui, Minami-Haruka and... well, uh, Kirara with herself, mostly. But Karin from ep.42+ must have a chance. This is standard anime fan tease. (PreCure has a big off-target demographic.) It's mildly disappointing that these never get followed through, actually, although admittedly other pairings get hinted at too. Minami and the marine biologist in ep.36, for instance. Besides, Haruka gets even more overt romantic set-ups with boys (Kanata and Yuuki).
At one point, I started wondering if the show's characterisation was suffering as a result of too much relationship tease. Scriptwriting priorities, guys. This was around ep.37, with Haruka-Kanata doing Romeo and Juliet.
6. One day, I went crazy and misheard the word "anal" in the second closing theme song. It's not there, but "get your arse out" is. Sort of. If you ignore the "ha" in "hashiri daseba".
7. Minami's PreCure attacks can sound like ice cream. "PreCure Frozen Ripple!"
8. I miss the old days when entire episodes could be devoted to the baddie's Victim Of The Week. Compare with ep.5 here, for example, which makes no attempt to tell a story about the Zetsuborg's victim.
9. You'd need stepladders under the Premium Dress-Up Skirts. Or else two-metre giraffe legs.
EPISODE 1 = a great Haruka episode. She doesn't have her powers yet, so Close could squash her like a bug. Nonetheless, she defends Yui's dream and even stands up for that flower. That's courage. We're also introduced here to her eccentric ambitions, which makes her look a lot more distinctive than she ended up being.
EPISODE 7 = another strong Haruka episode, because she's such an idiot. She wants to play a tennis match, but has no experience. She volunteers anyway. D'oh... and yet, despite this, we end up really wanting to see the match. What's more, her partner is Aihara Yuuki, aka. the best PreCure romantic interest yet. (The show doesn't go there, but it could have done.) He and Haruka are funny together, because they knew each other years ago and the Yuuki she remembers was a revolting little brat.
Even the opening credits are a treat. As happens every years for a few episodes, they're a trailer for the All Stars movie.
YUI EPISODES, obviously. No more need be said. Ep.10, ep.11 (where she's so brave that she gets electric guitars), ep.28 (the start of her unstated pseudo-romance with Towa) and eps.48-49 (wow).
EPISODE 12 = which is funny. Kirara gets a rival with an even worse personality. Seeing these two in lightning-forehead battle is a joy, especially since they're both in show business and have to act cute for the cameras. (Her name's Ranko and she's grossly underused in the series as a whole, but gets funny cameos.)
I particularly enjoyed the bit at the end of this episode, where Ranko falls over while running a race. Will Kirara do the PreCure thing and go back to help her rival? Nope.
TOWA'S ARC = roughly eps.21-24. This is why I fell in love with Towa when I first watched this series. They're all knockouts. Ep.21 is stirring and climactic. Ep.22 takes a strong, dignified character into despair. Ep.23 is funny, but also has a startlingly sharp description of depression. "When you're hungry, you can't move. Your heart is the same. When your heart is empty, you can't move."
Then, ultimately, ep.24 teaches her how to smile... but she's still afraid. Her character exploration continues in subsequent episodes. She'll have nightmares about Dyspear. "In the evening, when this time comes, I remember my time as Twilight. I'm scared I'll be swallowed again."
EPISODE 26 = because it's funny. Shut makes a tiny Zetsuborg out of an insect. (Yes, he knows he's slumming.) Can Pafu and Aroma save the day?
EPISODES 29-30 = holy shit. Ep.29 is seriously big, after which ep.30 is probably still even now the best PreCure action episode. Towa gets a cool rescue entrance.
EPISODES 38-39 = the breaking of Haruka, which is brutal and probably hard to watch for the target demographic. Better still is how she picks herself up again. She doesn't just get rescued, or wait for validation from her man. She works it out for herself, then turns the tables by teaching Kanata.
EPISODE 42 = the episode where Kirara really earns hero status.
EPISODES 48-50 = the finale. Yui, Yui, Yui. And everyone. Haruka is mighty. Also, impressively, they don't cheat on the tearful farewells at the end.
None. Absolutely none.
I even appreciate, say, the silliness of eps.32-33, which are funny and demonstrate breadth.
On a nuts-and-bolts level, PreCure has never been this solid. After a rocky few years and several mistakes, this year's quality control is flawless. Bad episodes: zero. Good: all of them. Outstanding: several.
Unfortunately, though, just having lots of good episodes isn't always enough. Look at Smile. You need to stand out. If you're generic, you'll fade. This series had oodles of potential, but doesn't quite live up to it and doesn't follow up on itself properly with Towa and Haruka.
I love Yui and Towa. Kirara is genuinely new in PreCure. Even Haruka could have been special, given her early episodes, while even now she's admirable. She carries the show. Its key episodes are built around her and she more than carries them. Minami's not that interesting, but she's likeable.
The show nails one key thing, though. Having chosen a weird premise, it doesn't chicken out on it.
Boys in ep.1: "You can't become a princess."
Irresponsible bastard Prince Kanata in ep.1: "Yes, you can. Dreams have a lot of power."
Haruka's dream drives this show. It's genuinely exploring that question, albeit patiently and surreptitiously. Towa dissects it, both in her good and evil forms. What does being a princess mean? In a Disney world, is it so bad to tell children that they can dream too? Then, ultimately... "Become my own princess."
This could have gone wrong. These are privileged girls. Top models, heiresses to international conglomerates, actual real princesses, etc. Especially with Kirara in the mix, these people weren't guaranteed to hold our sympathies.
Do I still love this series? Dunno. To some extent, yes. I'd like to rewrite its final stretch, but that's not to say that the actual episodes are bad. Sometimes it's almost frightening. Sometimes they hit it out of the park. And, at their best, almost every regular can take your breath away.