Toku and Precure
I’ve been watching the Pretty Cure series recently and despite the “magical girl” label, I always feel like the series resembles a superhero series more than a magical girl series. Googling “precure superhero” just for shits and giggles, I found an excellent article drawing parallels between precures and Japanese superhero shows like Kamen Rider and Super Sentai. Since wordpress can’t reblog from other platforms, you will have to make do with a shitty copy/paste.
Once again, I just want to note that this article is not written by me. Credits to Ivanhobe of livejournal for this wonderful post.
And no, I swear it’s not because I’m running out of materials to write myself.
To Ivanhobe: I actually wasn’t able to contact you. If you see this post and you don’t want this here, feel free to tell me, I’ll delete it.
I have never killed a man.
That’s a weight of my chest, and while we are in this honest mood let me tell you something else about myself: I am a man in his mid 20’s who genuinely loves the Pretty Cure franchise. If you have a problem with either of those two facts, you are more than welcome to share your opinion as I pummel you into submission. With a Hammer.
But here’s the kicker: Pretty Cure is just one of the many, many franchises I love (I am a Fanboy, you see), and it just so happens that I am also a fan of several other franchises that belong to a very particular genre known as Tokusatsu. You may find yourself asking, what does that have to do with Pretty Cure? Well my curious reader, that is exactly the question I am here to address.
Since the dawn of time (2004 A.D.), the Pretty Cure franchise has shared a rather fascinating relationship with the Tokusatsu genre, a relationship that certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by Toku and Precure fans alike. I for one, would have never gotten into Precure if it weren’t for my love of Toku, and I have found out that I am far from the only one; the Pretty Cure and Toku Fandom’s have a habit of overlapping with each other, as several people have gotten into Pretty Cure because of Toku and vice versa.
Since I love both Toku and PreCure so deeply, I have decided to shed some light into this odd relationship and help people understand how Tokusatsu has come to influence Precure over the years, and to also dispel some common rumors and misconceptions that have gathered among the fandoms. Now, since this is an extremely broad subject, I will actually split this essay/retrospective/study/heresy into several parts to properly cover all the various subjects that arise, like the way in which Toku inspired certain elements of PreCure and the myths that have been built around that. I will also aim to remain as objective as possible, though admittedly I will go on a rant every now and then.
What is Pretty Cure and why do I care?
Pretty Cure is a Magical Girl Franchise produced by Toei Ltd., a company most noteworthy for its children programming and their unholy alliance with Bandai. Pretty Cure, abbreviated as PreCure because the ‘T’ letter is overrated, has 13 seasons at the time of this writing and every single one of them follows the same basic formula of a group of girls meeting an extra dimensional Fairy-thing that grants them powers to fight monsters created by an extra dimensional Evil-thing. So there’s nothing special about it, right? It’s basically a Sailor Moon rip-off!
This is one of the most common misconceptions about PreCure and it is one I feel needs to be addressed in order to properly understand what Pretty Cure really is.
For the most, PreCure could be considered an extremely traditional magical girl franchise as it follows all the commons tropes of the genre; from long and elaborated transformation sequences and ridiculous hairstyles to magical mascots with annoying quirks, PreCure seems to be a prime example of what a traditional Magical Girl is… or at least it would be if it weren’t for the fact that the approach to the material is anything but traditional.
To put it blunly, Pretty Cure is a post modern Magical Girl Franchise. For the three or four people reading this who do not have a degree in modern literature, that means that the world where all the Pretty Cure seasons take place is one where concepts like ‘Magical Girl’ and ‘Super Hero’ are part of the pop culture, and as such the characters themselves are completely aware of what they are and of how absurd their situation is. Normally this would be the perfect setup for a parody; a show where the main characters are aware of their ‘genre’ and all the accompanying tropes is pretty much the premise for shows like Akibaranger, but what makes PreCure unique is that while the characters do acknowledge the insanity of the situations around them, rather than subvert them they actually play them completely straight.
When evil strikes they often express annoyance at their enemies for meddling in their lives yet again, but they still fight them with all they got to protect the world; when they transform they are genuinely shocked of what is going on and even question the silliness of their catchphrases, but they still use them every time and even take pride in them. It is usually a tradition for every season to have at least one character who points out whenever the situation around them is absurd, but they always go along with it because fighting evil is kind of cool.
There is a moment in the eight Precure season, Suite PreCure, that perfectly illustrates this; when a Negatone (your seasonal monster of the week) attacks an auditorium full of people, Cure Melody and Cure Rhythm (the ones pictured above) arrive to save the day and tell people to evacuate while they take care of the monster. Since girls in frilly dresses fighting giant monster is not as common a sight as it should, someone actually asks them “You are going to take care of the monster?”, to which they reply “Oh yeah, we look like this, but we are actually really strong”. They then proceed to kick ass, and that is probably the greatest dichotomy of the franchise: the Cures wear cute dresses, ridiculous hairstyles and they hit like a tank.
That is probably the most defining feature of the franchise: the Cures fight their enemies with punches, kicks and the occasional throw, and while the show is not exactly DBZ (although the director for that show did work on the first season of Pretty Cure), they still pummel their enemies into oblivion more often than your average Magical Girl.
Now granted, Magical Girls who can fight is not exactly unheard of, but in this case the fighting is actually one of the pillars the franchise was built upon; they are still 14 year old girls fighting evil in cute dresses using the literal power of friendship, but who’s to say that they can’t be badass while doing it?
There are several elements that define this franchise (did I mentioned the ridiculous hairstyles?), but I feel that these two I mentioned are the most important for they really do make it stand as its own thing rather than as a rip-off of something else. Now just to make it clear, I do love Sailor Moon, I grew up watching it along with several other magical girl shows like Ojamajo Doremi, Card Captor Sakura or Corrector Yui, and that is why it bothers me so much when people say that Pretty Cure, or any other Magical Girl show for that matter, is nothing but a Sailor Moon rip-off; these shows are all part of the same genre, that much is true, but each of them is unique in their own way, so it is a disservice to call them rip-offs of each other when they are all just trying to do their own take on the same ideas.
Personally I really dig the approach PreCure has taken on the genre, and while the show certainly makes nods to Sailor Moon every now and then (Sailor Moon is hugely influential after all), it still does its best to do its own thing.
See? I told you I was going to rant.
What is Tokusatsu and why should I care?
Tokusatsu is Life. I should probably elaborate a little more than that.
Tokusatsu is a genre of Japanese television that is defined for the often extensive use of special effects, and while that definition is quite broad, the term ‘Tokusatsu’ is usually applied to live action productions that use a myriad of special effects, either to create fantastical settings or merely give a sense of enhanced reality. While historians like to argue about the genesis of the genre, most of them agree that Tokusatsu came to be thanks to the popularity of a little cult film released all the way back in 1954.
This film is remembered for, among other things, its revolutionary use of special effects, created by one Eiji Tsuburaya, which included everything from puppets to the always popular suitmation. The success of the film led to the Monster Movie Boom that swept Japan for more than 30 years, and it was during this period that Tokusatsu was actually born. While Gojira and subsequent films are considered to be the origin of Tokusatsu as a concept, it was only when Eiji Tsuburaya opened his own Special Effects company (Tsuburaya Co. Ltd) during the 60’s and started working on several TV shows sporting many of the same techniques he himself pioneered that Tokusatsu really started to define itself as an actual genre and not just some passing fad.
Shows like Jumborg Ace, Mirrorman and the Ultraman Franchise created the groundwork that Tokusatsu would be built upon, though the reaches of Toku certainly expanded way beyond the horizons of this Kyodai Hero (Giant Hero) sub-genre. It is quite telling that while the giant monsters that preyed upon humanity dominated the box office, the heroes who fought said monsters conquered the small screen; even if Tokusatsu can be an extremely varied genre that, much like anime, can cover almost any topic, Super Heroes who fought for peace, justice, or simply to protect the world (i.e. Japan) were always the most popular among the audience, much in the same way Super Heroes dominated the comic book market in the western world.
This movement gained strength during the 70’s with the advent of several shows about young men and women who transformed into super powered versions of themselves in order to fight the evils who threatened the world using either some nefarious scheme or sheer madness.
The popularity of the so called Henshin Heroes is mostly attributed to Kamen Rider, a 1971 show produced by Toei Company (remember that name?) and overseen by producer Toru Hirayama, about a man who is transformed into a cyborg by an evil organization and who then decides to fight back against those who wronged him in order to protect the world (i.e. Japan. Again). The popularity of the show gave birth to several series with similar themes, which in turn resulted into the popularity of Tokusatsu sky-rocketing, cementing its place as a key stone of Japanese media for decades to come.
Since then, there have been many new shows and franchises that have joined the ranks of Tokusatsu, such as the Super Sentai and Metal Hero series, and the legacy of the genre cannot be understated; generations of Japanese (and non-Japanese) children have been raised with these shows and eventually grew to become the minds that have shaped the modern world.
What does Tokusatsu has to do with anime and why do you care?
The histories of both Anime and Tokusatsu are closely intertwined, and while Anime certainly came first it cannot be denied that both genres influenced each other during their early years; as you are probably aware, my cultured reader, Japanese entertainment saw a huge growth during the 70’s and early 80’s, a renaissance of sorts where storytelling started to explore more complex themes that moved beyond the classic good versus evil tales and several of the tropes and genres that defined the media started to take shape. While there are probably many factors that contributed to the coming of this Golden Age, I usually like to point out the works of two rather remarkable mangakas: Shotaro Ishinomori and Go Nagai.
I won’t go into the details of the careers of such illustrious men, books could be, and certainly have been, written about it, but let’s just say that between the two of them they created pretty much everything you know about anime; Go Nagai is usually attributed with defining/popularizing the Super Robot and Magical Girl genres, and let’s just say that there is a reason why Shotaro Ishinomori is known as the King of Manga.
The work of these two had a tremendous impact on entertainment media at the time, and I mean ‘media’ in general; both men were primarily mangakas, but their work has been adapted into a lot of different mediums, often creating trends that would bounce off from one genre to the other. For example, Go Nagai pretty much created the Super Robot boom, a boom that eventually extended to Tokusatsu and lead to the creation of several classics like Red Baron and the Super Sentai Franchise. Similarly, Ishinomori’s works were adapted both into Toku and Anime, and his style of storytelling had a lasting effect in both of them.
We could argue that Anime and Toku are something akin to childhood friends as they essentially grew in the same environment and were shaped by the same ideas, but were ultimately radically different entities.
Even if we accept the shared background between the two, that is far from the extent of the influence Toku has had on anime; as I mentioned previously, whole generations of Japanese children have grown watching Toku, and plenty of those kids grew up to become the very artists that have shaped the anime industry for the last few decades. Granted, the evolution of anime and Japanese pop culture has certainly influenced Toku as well, but the way in which the specter of Tokusatsu has influenced anime is quite fascinating.
It is a pretty well known fact that Hideaki Anno, the mind behind Evangelion and all related remakes, is a huge Ultraman Fan (he even opened a museum for his Ultraman collection) and this is clearly reflected on his work: when watching both Ultraman (1966) and Evangelion (1995), you can see how both series follow a similar structure of having a scientific organization dealing with extraterrestrial threats using military type operations, and that is without considering the many, many references to Ultraman that Anno added to the show and following movies. We also have the rather famous case of Naoko Takeuchi, creator of Sailor Moon and self-proclaimed Super Sentai fan. Believe me, it is not hard to see how Super Sentai influenced Sailor Moon, which is not to say that the legendary magical girl show is a rip off, but it is clear that many of the ideas the Takeuchi used to revolutionize the genre were inspired by common Super Sentai Tropes.
We could also spent all day talking about how Gen Urobuchi, writer of Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Fate Zero, seems to really, really like Kamen Rider Ryuki, but I think that the fact the he became the main writer for Kamen Rider Gaim speaks for itself.
Those are probably the most poignant examples I can think of, but they are far from the only ones; it is not uncommon for the people who work in the anime industry to reference the very shows they grew up with, and you would be amazed of how many anime contain Toku references in them. Sometimes it is something as simple as a character doing the trademark pose of some Toku character or a famous quote, and sometimes it is an elaborated homage to a particular show.
This is not surprising when you consider that the Tokusatsu Heroes have become staples of the Japanese culture; heroes like Ultraman and Kamen Rider hold similar positions to heroes like Batman and Superman, characters so iconic that their very concept has become something of a recurring element in storytelling.
All in all, the way Toku helped to shape anime is undeniable and it really is fascinating how the industry seems to hold the Tokusatsu genre in a place very close to its heart, even if Anime and Tokusatsu are completely different mediums in terms techniques, narratives and overall execution. That said, there are times when the line between both seems to blur a little, which actually brings me to our next point…
What does it have to do with Pretty Cure and why should we all care?
By now you should know what Pretty Cure is, heard a brief history of humanity/Tokusatsu, and presumably built a time machine. This of course leads to the grand question I have been failing to build up towards: what exactly is the relationship between Pretty Cure, a Magical Girl anime, and Tokusatsu in general? To answer this question, and presumably fulfill the purpose of this charade I call “article”, we have to look into the far past at the fabled year of 2004.
Back in those days the people at Toei animation were faced with a challenge: create a new female oriented show to fill the timeslot recently vacated by “Ashita no Nadja”, a show I know nothing about and that I cannot bring myself to look up. Anyways, the extraneous challenge of creating a new animated show that appealed to young girls befell on the hands of producer Washio Takashi. While he wasn’t very experienced in the shoujo genre, he did have a clear vision of the show he wanted to make: an anime series that appealed to little girls and that was unlike anything that had been done before. His pitch to achieve such a noble ideal? To create a Magical Girl show using a two-person dynamic and that was heavy on the action.
Magical Girl shows are certainly not the most daring and unique idea ever as anyone who has watched anime in the last 30 years can atest, but placing a major focus on the action brought an unique spin on it: while Magical Girls getting physical is nothing new, having them vanquish evil through tenderness has always been the primary focus, so the incorporation of an action element acted as a subversion of the genre. But here’s where it gets interesting: when coming up with the concept of an action heavy Magical Girl show, the main inspiration for Washio and his crew were Henshin Hero shows like Kamen Rider and Ultraman, something that they have actually admited in a few interviews.
It does make sense when you think about it: a hero who transform and fights evil is pretty much a staple of Japanese culture, and I don’t have to tell you that transforming heroes are cool as hell.
So the big idea was to take the concept of an action hero who transforms and transplant that concept to a Magical Girl, which admittedly doesn’t seem like something hard to do, after all transforming and facing evil is already the whole deal of Magical Girls, but what you have to understand is that when they decided to make Pretty Cure more akin to Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, they also borrowed the heroic elements of those shows.
This is actually very important, for you see, while Pretty Cure is classified as a Magical Girl franchise, it is actually more accurate to call it a Super Hero Show. This is not a mere delusion of mine, for the show does incorporate several staples established by Toku Super Hero shows, and what’s more, the show itself is completely aware of this fact; remember when I mentioned how Pretty Cure is a post-modern series? Well, in the context of the show this means that our main characters are aware of concepts like Magical Girls and Super Heroes, but in a hilarious twist the show, or rather the Pretty Cures themselves, never seem to think of themselves as Magical Girls; in what is actually a recurring joke, the characters believe themselves to be actual Super Heroes.
While admittedly this is an aspect that has mostly become prominent in recent years, it was clearly there since the beginning and it is something that did not went unnoticed: the people who watched the show couldn’t help but to notice that this animated show about young people who transformed and fought evil was suspiciously similar to those live-action shows about young people who transformed and fought evil. Live action shows that aired literally right before it.
It wasn’t long before people started associating the three franchises (Super Sentai, Kamen Rider and Pretty Cure) together, an association that Toei Company in all of their wisdom has been happy to exploit; ever since Pretty Cure started to become popular, Toei and Bandai have geared their marketing campaigns to lump these three franchises in an effort to promote their “Super Hero” shows together.
So to give an answer to my long proposed question, Pretty Cure is a franchise that was inspired by Toku in its creation and that it has continued to associate itself with those other franchises for marketing purposes and because well, Super Heroes are cool, and no one said that girls can’t be Heroes too. Now, I know this argument sounds like the ramblings of a deranged mind trying to associate two of his favorite things, and to be fair I do suffer from a crippling case of apophenia, but the truth is that Toei/Bandai has never been shy about this issue; In one particular occasion during a press conference, a Toei producer compared PreCure’s success with that of Kamen Rider and Super Sentai, hoping for the young franchise to follow on the footsteps of her “brothers”. Thinking back, a few years ago they even did a summer “Super Hero & Super Heroine” special that featured the Super Hero Taisen Movie and the Precure All-Stars New Stage movie back to back. Hell, I will give you three guesses as to what are the three main exhibits at the Toei museum.
Again, I know this may come off as a crazy, awesome delusion, but I see nothing wrong with it: having a franchise entirely composed of female super heroes that does not caters exclusively to male audiences by way of fan service is a really good thing, and while the portrayal of female characters is not always perfect, Pretty Cure still tries its best to enforce the positive aspects of femininity along with the ideals of courage and selflessness that heroes usually represent. There is nothing wrong with the franchise trying to stand on the same ground as her predecessors and become a positive role model for their audience, be it young or adult, and for what is worth they do seem to take a lot of pride on this association; for years PreCure has continued to make constant nods and to take direct inspiration from its older brothers.