After roughly two years of stopping-and-starting, I’ve finally finished Heartcatch Precure, a.k.a. arguably the best entry in the long-running Precure franchise and one of the best magical girl anime of the past five years or so. Thoughts follow!
Aside from Umakoshi’s distinctive character designs, there is very little remarkable about Heartcatch Precure on the surface. Taking a page right out of the book of Sailor Moon and its progeny, it’s yet another magical girl show for young kids about children in frilly clothing beating up supernatural bad guys to spread happiness and love across the world. The battle scenes often emphasize kicking and punching over Sailor-esque blasts of light, but when it comes down to it the cast choose to purify the villains, rather than explode them into pieces. There are animal mascots, a super saccharine musical score, incredibly long (but well-animated) transformation scenes, and a monster of the week structure that lasts the majority of the series. The story packs some fairly devastating twists, but the grand structure is extremely formulaic: after a certain point, it becomes clear that the format of every single episode is the same, an encounter with a hurting child or adult followed by a monstrous transformation followed by redemption at the hands of the Precure. Note that none of this is a bad thing. Formula is the lifeblood of magical girl shows, ensuring a ready supply of material for future episodes, the ability to save on the animation budget through the use of stock footage and the chance for the target audience to watch their protagonists beat up a monster every episode. But on the macro scale, Heartcatch is very similar to the rest of its kin.
This is to be expected, as Heartcatch is the seventh entry in the now massive Precure franchise. While the majority of Precure can be enjoyed independently from the rest (aside from the odd sequel season) each one recycles elements from previous series while simultaneously shaking things up. It could be said that by this point the Precure franchise is similar to the central setting of cult sci-fi film Dark City, a massive vista of moving parts in which the same elements rearrange themselves every year into something noticeably different. The question, then, is whether an ever-changing chimera of interchangeable pieces could measure up to something invented from the ground-up. Whether a golem formed from clay could be said to have a soul.
What makes Heartcatch wonderful is really the small things. Sick of overly energetic or whiny leads? The protagonist of Heartcatch begins the series as an empathetic but very, very shy young girl who has an easier time communicating with flowers rather than people. Wondering why there are never any important older characters in magical girl shows? Not only are the older characters in Heartcatch some of the most fascinating and best developed in the series, but the protagonist’s awesome grandmother is a former magical girl. Tired of one-dimensional mascots defined by a single tic? The mascot characters in Heartcatch are given a relatively enormous amount to do for this kind of series, often being used to parallel their owners. And if you’re wondering why it is that the power of magical girls is seemingly insurmountable, able to overcome any obstacle with a minimum of effort, then Heartcatch would like to introduce you to arguably its most menacing antagonist, the terrifying Dark Precure. Throughout the early part of the series, our heroines throw themselves at Dark Precure again and again hoping that the power of friendship and love is enough to carry the day; it never, never is, and it’s only through assistance from new friends and allies that they’re even able to challenge her to a fair fight. And for what it’s worth, rather than possessing impossible power like Sailor Moon’s Usagi Tsukino, our two main characters are self-admittedly the weakest Precures in history.
Heartcatch uses its repetitive monster-of-the-week format in order to tell a wide variety of stories about problems that children all over the world (and hell, even adults) face every day. Many of these are difficult to solve, some don’t even have answers, but the series treats each and every one with great sensitivity and a refusal to condescend. Its handling of some episodes actually borders on exceptionally mature, from a family meeting punctured by awkward silence to the perils of a middle-schooler trying to be a surrogate mother for her younger sister, to the sad situation of Yuri Tsukikage. Heartcatch handles its magical girl set-pieces with equal aplomb, from a truly inspired riff on the Tuxedo Mask archetype to a take on the “magical girl fights their evil opposites” scenario which compose two of the best episodes in the series, from both a dramatic and visual standpoint. The end of the series escalates the action to apocalyptic levels, and the last four episodes or so made me tear up more times than I would like to admit.
Of course, one might scoff at all of this and say that despite all these things, Heartcatch is a formulaic magical girl show that squanders any spark of creative life it might have in favor of a repetitive structure that obsessively reiterates the same story week after week. To that I would say that iteration is exactly what gives Heartcatch its power. Taken individually, every episode in the series is good, sometimes even great, but otherwise very similar. But the genius of Heartcatch is that across its 49 episodes, it slowly but steadily develops its central cast from girls afflicted by shyness or brashness or other things into people far more comfortable in their own skin. The clinching factor is that as the characters mature, it isn’t as if they lose the characteristics that defined them earlier. Tsubomi remains shy while Erika remains incredibly boisterous, but they and their friends are able to integrate these aspects of themselves into a greater whole. As Heartcatch makes clear on multiple occasions, accepting yourself and becoming a stronger person means fully embracing every part of yourself, and rather than a two-way street real growth is far more complex and rewarding.
So yes, Heartcatch Precure is nothing you haven’t seen before. It doesn’t tear the genre wide open in the same way as a Madoka Magica or an Utena, and it lacks the meta-fictional weirdness of a Princess Tutu. But while the anime blogging community chases the new, the provocative and the unusual, there’s something to be said for the heartfelt. Heartcatch doesn’t innovate on a grand scale, but taken on its own terms it’s hard to deny its cumulative power.