This season's sometimes seen as childish fluff, but I disagree. It's very good. The relatively weak story arc is normal for PreCure, but there's some strong episode-by-episode writing. Ep.1 was almost startling in how strongly it felt as if PreCure was back at last, after the franchise's recent experiments.
This season's main problem, to be honest, is that it's generic. It's a clone of Yes! PreCure 5. Same girl count, same colours. The personalities have changed around a bit, but they're all familiar PreCure types. There's a super-optimistic slapstick Pink Leader, a shy Yellow one, a brainy Blue one, etc. The nearest we get to an innovation is having two sports-playing girls instead of one. The show shoves the gang together as fast as possible. It wants everyone together to get on with making Yes! PreCure season 3, with lots of filler episodes. I enjoyed it, mind you. The show can also undeniably raise the stakes when it wants, but the results will probably dissolve in your memory into a blob of MORE PRECURE. It'll merge with Yes!. It's proudly changing nothing at all.
Besides, the season's filler-heavy nature doesn't help stamp the cast into your memory. Theoretically, 48 episodes is a lot. Powerful writing doesn't need that long to establish its characters. Here... well, I liked everyone and the show's full of character focus episodes, but in a year or two I'll probably be struggling to remember which season this was.
It's still better than Fresh and Suite, though.
(a) The Pink Leader (Miyuki) is fine... and that's all. She's a pretty good protagonist, but she's one of the two areas where Smile! is clearly inferior to Yes!. Nozomi was hilarious and one of the greats. (The other unique strength of Yes! was Bumbee.)
(b) The orange one (Akane) is this year's Nagisa clone. She's sporty (volleyball) and has fire powers. She's also the cheeky, high-spirited one.
(c) Reika is a classical Blue PreCure, i.e. a Honoka clone. Cool-headed, top of her class, vice-president of the student council, etc. Calls herself Cure Beauty and has snow/ice powers.
(d) The yellow one (Yayoi) is also arguably the most interesting. She's frightened, cries a lot and is clumsy, childish and introverted. However she's also a nerd who draws her own manga and loves superheroes. (She also, surprisingly, loves ghost stories.) Superpower: lightning.
(e) The green one (Nao) is another sports player (soccer), but is also the oldest of six children (eventually seven). She's the down-to-earth one. If someone needs to act like a mum, it'll be Nao. She also has Egyptian Pharoah hair. Superpower: speed.
At times, the show can feel as if it's built out of focus episodes for the different girls. The characterisation's simpler in concept than, say, HeartCatch, but there's nothing wrong with that. Everyone's immediately distinct and the show shares out lots of spotlight time.
There's also the usual "Whoops Let's Forget This" after early misjudgements.
1. The producers were worrying about unbalanced fights with five girls, perhaps because they were following the Yes! template too closely. Ensuing bad idea: using your superpower makes you collapse with exhaustion. This makes our heroines even worse in combat than the Yes! quintet, continually making you shout "just hit it" at the screen. A PreCure can lift a truck above her head. Why keep disabling yourself by firing off special attacks when you could just pummel that Akanbe?
The exhaustion collapse is soon being ignored... but, annoyingly, they don't turn that into an episode. It might have fitted nicely into the PreCure tradition of mid-season power-ups (except that those are really about frillier costumes and new merchandise), or could at least have demonstrated that they were getting more experienced and tougher. Nope. The show just pretends it never happened... and then introduces blue-nose Akanbe that are physically weaker but immune to magical attacks, only for the girls to fail to get it. They keep using those useless attacks, when they could have just punched.
Also, how could all five PreCures together be threatened in a tug-of-war in ep.18 with a single Akanbe?
The good news, though, is that all this gets ditched and the girls's fights become impressive. They even find imaginative uses for their powers, e.g. Miyuki shooting her energy blasts downwards as an improvised rocket, to stop herself from falling to her death.
2. The season's theme is books and fairy tales. Miyuki is book-mad. She becomes a PreCure by finding a magic book in an omnidimensional library... and yet that whole "book" thing soon gets sidelined and one doesn't see Miyuki actually read anything. (Except in flashbacks.) The library returns in ep.30, but is otherwise forgotten. The season's fairy tale elements are relevant and interesting, though.
Ep.8 = a body swap episode. Can the Useless Fairy successfully impersonate Miyuki? Answer: no. Candy Fairy PreCure is also amusing. I enjoyed this show's fondness for playing with PreCure tropes, e.g. when turning the girls into fairies (ep.24), mecha (ep.35), small children (ep.38) or Cinderella characters (ep.39). Then there's the scene in ep.30 that makes them fight underwater. (No, Yayoi. Not the lightning.)
Ep.11 = aka. Honey, I Shrunk The PreCures. Nao's scared of insects, yet the PreCures end up fighting to save a bunch of garden bugs from the villains. I laughed a lot. This episode is brilliant.
Ep.20 = invisible girls, done a bit differently from usual.
Eps.21-23 = the traditional mid-season finale, which seriously raises the stakes. It's as if we've shifted genre. The dumb villains get serious, Joker so outclasses the PreCures that he's playing with them and I was wondering if people were getting killed.
Ep.25 = a pretty cool showcase for Akane, Nao and their sporty competitive streak.
Ep.27 = grandmothers are cool. That's the law in PreCure and it's still true here. Wolfrun vs. Granny had me and Natsuki laughing out loud.
Eps.40-48 = yes, all of it. Again, the show steps up a gear. Ep.42 has Wolfrun trying to kill children. (That was strong stuff.) Ep.43 made Natsuki cry. Ep.44 shows that Miyuki was a bit broken when she was younger. Suddenly there's danger, explicit death threats and serious challenges that push each girl to the limit. The finale's both interesting and thrilling, although ep.48 wallows in that over-familiar ending from Splash Star, HeartCatch and All Stars DX3. (It's correct, thematically relevant and ultimately well done, but it drags on a bit and we know how it'll end.)
Ep.9 = Yayoi tells a lie for April Fool's Day, only for this to spiral out of control. I thoroughly approve of the episode's message, but Yayoi could have stopped the nonsense at any time just by confessing. It works. It's in-character. However watching it is like torture.
Ep.17 = the guest star episode. I was dreading this. Real comedy duo Fujiwara play themselves as the girls enter a stand-up comedy contest. In fairness, there are laughs here (e.g. Cure Gorilla), but the girls on stage had me writhing in pain. Watch this if you like embarrassment comedy.
Ep.36 = with Brian the exchange student from England. Is that a UK accent? I don't think so. Also, Brian has the character depth of a painted stage flat.
Every PreCure season has a Trademark Food. This year it's okonomiyaki, which is one of their better choices.
The tag phrases are worse than usual. Not only does the Useless Fairy get one ("kuru"), but so does one of the villains ("oni") and he's not cool enough to make it not annoying.
The monster-of-the-week Akanbe are evil clowns. Initially they look stupid, but they gradually get more evil-looking.
PreCure has always flogged merchandise to its audience, but ep.30's advert insert is hilarious.
This is one of very few PreCure series to get an American dub, renamed as Glitter Force. They cut the eight episodes that were most obviously set in Japan (sigh), but apparently it was quite solid and entertaining. They replaced the CGI end credit dance sequences with much worse ones, though.
I'd compare this with Splash Star. This series was more successful financially than that one, regularly reaching Japan's weekly top ten anime shows and recovering the viewers that had been lost by Suite. However both this and Splash Star are blatantly ripping off an earlier version of PreCure. This succeeds. In their own ways, both are very good. They understand their template. Smile! knows what it's doing and has even introduced mini-games for the target audience, e.g. the ad break fruit machine and Yayoi's rock-scissors-paper every time she transforms. (Natsuki would be playing rock-scissors-paper with the episodes.)
It's comfort food. It's PreCure like the old days. It's safe, light-hearted and easy to watch, but at the same time it's quietly clear about what it's doing. Each episode is about something. Even the goofball villains will coincidentally always be doing something that links into this week's theme.
If I had to rank the PreCure incarnations so far, from best to worst, I might suggest
- 1st = HeartCatch
- 2nd = Futari wa (because I love Honoka and Nagisa, but objectively it should probably go below Splash Star)
- 3rd = Splash Star
- 4th = Smile!
- 5th = Yes!
- 6th = Fresh (I had to reread my own review to remind myself and that was only six months ago)
- 7th = Suite
On that ranking, Smile!'s halfway. That seems fair. It's a good, solid and only moderately anonymous entry in a massively successful franchise. Recommended.