Ink & Paint: Refreshing Pretty Cure

I'm home sick, which is when my mind goes to strange places.  Recently, I've been thinking about Precure again.

I like the Precure franchise.  It's a magical girl series where there's still some kinetic physical action, it emphasizes familial love & friendship over romantic love for a change, and while it has a basic formula, it is still broad enough to allow for a LOT of variety.  Until fairly recently, it also did a good job focusing on the girls' lives as normal people and not just as superheroes, and it could keep a sense of stakes even during the lighter-hearted filler episodes without slipping into grimdark territory.

The last two seasons, however, have left me cold.  Suite could've been much better than it was; the side characters were more interesting than the main pair, and the main conflict playing out how it did should've been epic.  But by focusing on the annoying Hibiki (easily the worst character in the franchise's history), basically having Seiren/Eren's plot be a quicky rehash of Setsuna/Eas/Passion's story arc without the depth, and rushing the ending, it shot itself in the foot.  You can't really blame them, though; the Tohoku quake & its aftermath forced the creative team to make a ton of last minute changes to the overall plot.  Also, I have to respect how they effectively trolled the people who scour the copyright notices looking for spoilers about new team members.  But overall, it was a blah season at best, irritating at worst (looking at you again, Hibiki).  And with a strong theme like music, it should have been so much better.

As for the current one, Smile, it feels like 100% fluff.  The characters pretty much showed up fully formed, but they're likable enough that you can give them a pass.  I like Nao, the maternal tough girl in the grand tradition of Makoto/Sailor Jupiter, and I adore Yayoi, the cutest sweetest superhero fangirl in the history of all media.  But it feels like there are ZERO stakes.  You never learn about Marchenland that much, so you don't feel worried about its survival.  The survivors from Marchenland are mostly well-adjusted, whereas with Futari wa Pretty Cure and Yes Precure 5! you got a distinct sense that their survivors had been through something awful & were worried for their future.  The villains in Smile, with the exception of the semi-lecherous Joker, are largely defined by running gags instead of any real threat level.  The fights are physical-attack-minimal, and every one is won by using the new power-up so we don't need to animate anything new.  About the only innovation is the fact that the Cures can only use their big named attack once per transformation, which should create a need for physical fighting but is instead used for flat jokes.  It just feels incredibly insubstantial and even more merchandise driven than its predecessors, since they sold their merch with a story, not "OMG, we got a new Decor" every episode like clockwork.

So what do I want to see for the next season?  Well, assuming that we avoid the Post-Deconstruction Trap (i.e. since a popular deconstruction was so good, in this case Madoka Magica, we must emulate the more superficial darker elements of this deconstruction and not the more meta elements like the tight plot or extremely human characters to be as good), here's what I as a Precure fan would like to see:

- Real Villains & Stakes: One thing I loved about both Fresh and Heartcatch were the villains.  Labyrinth had a wonderfully threatening MO, and its denizens were just as developed as the heroes (in some cases, becoming heroes).  The Desert Apostles were quirky & fun, but again, they posed a threat with a means of attack that caused widescale damage and was fueled by keeping their victims in a constant state of self-hating misery.  One wanted to rule the entire multiverse as a highly conformist nightmare; the other wanted to lay waste to Earth and render it a vast, lifeless desert.  Even the smaller stakes I saw with the older series still felt terrifying enough, even on a local "Oh, no, my friends/innocent people might get hurt" focus, and that was exciting.  The only time in Suite when I felt this was when the Melody of Sorrow was performed; the rest of the series was almost a wash, threat-wise.  We root for our heroes more when the threat is tangible & hits a nerve with us.  The two examples I used played on universal fears of never feeling happiness or succumbing to your flaws, and the last one did as well, with outside forces pushing misery upon you without relief.  Kids are just as thrilled with that as adults, and when they're thrilled by a series, they'll love it more & buy more swag.

- Develop ALL of Your Heroines: Every so often, there seems to be a spotlight hog.  But the time Max Heart, I was sick of Nagisa, even though I kind of liked her.  And as much as I liked Fresh, Miki did get pushed to the wayside (I blame that awful outfit).  And you read above how I feel about Suite - "Well, your plotline's done, Beat/Muse! Time for more Hibiki, because she's the pinkest!"  But Splash Star & Heartcatch gave their heroines equal time, and Precure 5 used its two seasons to make sure its main characters were brought out to more than just their initial impressions.  Watching Tsubomi in particular go from a very introverted girl with zero self-esteem to a shy but more confident leader figure was wonderful, but so was watching Erika mature, watching Itsuki embrace both her girly & boyish personality sides, and watching Yuri come to terms with losing her partner.  It made them feel real.  I wanted to know Honoka or Kanade better, but they were largely stagnant characters that served simply to buoy their more "cool" partner; Smile is basically rewarding its cast for never growing or developing.  You want heroines you can embrace, relate to, cheer for, and watch grow to their full potential.  That goes for the whole team; if you take the time to develop everyone, you are advancing that character's subplot if not the larger plot, and thus, those episodes that do that won't feel like time-killing filler.  And NOTHING kills audience interest in any series of any genre quite like filler.

- Change Up Expectations:  Precure has certain traditions - there's always a leader who is the person with the most pink on their costume, there's always certain personality types that are bound to particular colors, the colors will usually be the same, and the leader always gets a special power-up, usually in the movie or finale.  There's also an expectation than any villain who gets close to the heroines will wind up reforming, maybe even becoming Cures themselves (Michiru & Kaoru, Setsuna, Eren...).  The first switch up I saw was having the Pink Leader Cure not have the forward personality in Heartcatch, which was a good start; having the timid, girly Yayoi be a hopeless shameless superhero buff in Smile is the only thing that really surprised me & made me love her because I didn't expect it.  It's been a decade - time to change things up a bit.  Add some new colors, have another one lead, play with personality expectations, or have a heroine turn into a villain instead of vice versa.  It will get people excited again much more than any new piece of plastic ever could.

There's a persistent but unsubstantiated rumor that Precure will end after this series.  I doubt that it will (it makes Toei a truckload of money), and frankly, I wouldn't want it to end.  Like I said before, it's open enough in its concept that you can do damn near anything with it in the magical girl genre, so ending it for any reason other than low ratings would seem arbitrary.  But the past season just doesn't feel like it's trying to do anything other than sell those damn Decors.  That's never been a trap that the Precure franchise has fallen into in the past, not even with Suite, and I'd hate for it do start doing that now.  Precure doesn't need to get all grimdark.  It just needs to feel like it's trying again.

EDIT 10/24/12: Because I'm home sick & feel like sharing, here's the only fight in Smile where they really felt like they were trying.  Oh my stars, stakes & drama & character being more dynamic than an overblown final attack that lets you use the same three minutes of animation every episode - who knew?  Also, really, despite their overall schmuckiness (or maybe because of it), I kind of like the Bad End Generals.  But this is the only time they really feel threatening.

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