BHS Blogress Report: 2019, Week 7 – The Belated Hugtto Review

Week 7 – The Belated Hugtto Review

[Sorry this is so late… various complications prevented me from finishing it up until now. Your regular Blogress Report will resume next week. – BHS]

It may come as a surprise to some of you, given how I very publicly and vocally stan the franchise in all of my online hangouts, but I don’t really go into Precure series expecting greatness.

Precure is at its heart a toy commercial. It exists to sell merchandise; I made my peace with that some time ago. When we’re lucky, the series can be funny, or heartwarming, or sad, or scary, or awesome, or even inspiring, but that’s not the norm and I’m okay with that.

There are things I point to as the reasons I love this franchise: the epic fight scenes, the character development, the consistently excellent art and costume design, the performances by a giant and ever-expanding cast of famous voices. But again, these are par for the course; most Precure series have great fight scenes, solid character writing, appealing designs, and famous voices.

What’s special, and very rare, is when a Precure series fires on all cylinders and makes the jump from being pleasant, harmless fluff into something greater. Heartcatch did it, bringing in a huge new wave of fans all over the world. Go Princess did it too, becoming almost as beloved… but sadly not as commercially successful as it should have been. Until this year, I held those two up in equal standing as my favorite Precure series. I was convinced—especially after Mahou Tsukai became massively popular despite being, in the most professional, objective terms, utter shit trash garbage—that they’d share the spot at the top of the list for at least another five years, maybe more. Good Precure series are always welcome, but they just don’t happen very often… that’s just a fact with annualized franchises like this. The quality dips up and down from year to year, averaging out at “pretty good”.

Hugtto is special. It’s very special. So special, in fact, that it did the near-impossible and surpassed Heartcatch and Go Princess to become my favorite Precure series ever.

Now, keep in mind, this is coming from someone who can only be called a fanatic for the series. I’ve finished all of them except for Yes! 5, Yes! 5 Gogo, and Mahou Tsukai. Many of them I’ve watched through more than once… but only Hugtto inspired me to watch the entire series three times from beginning to end while it was still airing. Only Hugtto had me spending entire days of my free time poring over its footage in VEGAS to make fan videos. Only Hugtto had an ensemble cast where I can truly say that there’s no weak link; I love all of them.

So let’s discuss my favorite character by a mile, Hana Nono, Cure Yell, Hugtto’s leader. I believe there’s a wrong way and a right way to write an eternal optimist. Mahou Tsukai did it the wrong way: their attempts to make Mirai’s primary character trait “being easily excited” fell flat for me, partly because she had basically one mood and almost never varied it. There was nothing for her to push back against, no challenge to cheerful disposition… on the rare occasions she got sad, it was a trivial matter to brush it off. It’s easy to be happy all the time if everything always goes your way.

Hana, by contrast, is the right way to do it, because she fails. She screws up, a lot. She has “Mechokku!” moment after “Mechokku!” moment, starting from the very first scene, when her attempt to change her hairstyle goes horribly wrong. Then she’s late for her first day of a new school, then a baseball hits her in the head, then she blows her introduction to her new class… No end of misfortunes. Hana does feel them and she does get frustrated, but she keeps getting back up, no matter what happens… because she believes in tomorrow.

Believing in tomorrow. It’s a core concept of the series. And in our world, which seems to grow more horrifying and dangerous by the day, the idea that one should not just not be afraid of tomorrow but celebrate it… that seems almost radical to me. I don’t know about the rest of you, but that’s a message I think everyone, not just kids, should take to heart. Goofy, accident-prone, excitable, magnificently dorky Hana emerged as one of the unlikeliest of inspirational figures for me in this past year. She meant something to me, dammit, and I tried as best I could to keep her message in my heart.

And given that message, it’s fitting that Hugtto has distinguished itself as by far the most progressive Precure series. I’m still sort of in awe; two secondary characters that started out as obnoxious and self-centered (in the case of Henri Wakamiya) and an unrepentantly sexist, bigoted, holier-than-thou lout (Masato Aisaki) ended up being some of the best-developed side characters this franchise has ever seen. I was so afraid that Henri’s penchant for crossdressing would be treated as a joke, but no. Not this show. Henri wears dresses, owns it, and refuses to apologize or change himself for anyone, and with the exception of Masato (at first, I’m getting there), there’s nary a word suggesting that he’s in the wrong for doing so. Hana even gets a line that made me cheer: “That’s okay! Boys can be princesses too!” Pretty much every time he appears, there’s some new, amazing step up: he forgives Masato for his abuse, helps him mend things with his little sister Emiru, and insists that he call him “Henri”. Next time, they’re seen together, it’s at summer festival. Next time, Henri expresses worry about his own future: “My body is changing. I’m growing taller. My voice is getting deeper…” It’s subtle, and I’m sure more than a few people overlooked it, but the language used makes it apparent: Henri is genderqueer. He’s snapped out of this funk in part thanks to Masato, who holds his hand before his next big skating event.

The signs here are all clear, but what comes next is amazing, something that no one thought Toei would ever do. Henri’s ankle is starting to go, and he’s planning on making his next exhibition his last, but a cruel twist of fate involves him in a car crash, ruining his leg and his future. In despair, he allies himself with the villains, wanting to “tear it all down”. The Cures cheer him on and pull him back from the brink… and Henri Wakamiya, gay, genderqueer, crossdressing Henri Wakamiya, becomes the first ever male Precure. It’s just for a few moments, but he transforms and helps save the day… before falling into the waiting arms of Masato, who rushes the rink to catch him with tears in his eyes.

It’s 2019. The stance that queer and trans people exist and should be represented in fiction shouldn’t be controversial, but it is. That’s where we are. Precure, in most respects, has played it safe, being a show aimed primarily at children. Lesbian subtext has been part of it from the beginning, but it’s always been just that: subtext. Other than that, well. There have been effeminate men and boys in Precure, sure, and Happiness Charge had a worrying one-shot character that was played up as an offensive stereotype, a mincing figure with feminine clothes, make-up, and a five-o’clock shadow. KKPCALM had Yukari and Akira, with whom the lesbian subtext was more blatant than it’s ever been, and it had Julio/Rio Kuroki, who gained Cure-like powers for a single episode. None of them have ever really been held up as shining examples of representation… but Henri and Masato didn’t just show up and change all that, they both overcame overwhelmingly negative first impressions to emerge as both progressive characters and fan favorites.

I’m rambling, of course, but Hugtto has been worth the ramble. I could go on for pages about all the things I love about it: the fact that every major character managed to be not just beloved but an indispensable part of the story. The fact that the plot took major risks, giving us what was unquestionably the darkest Precure series, but that it was also the most hopeful. The incredible vocal performances, including what I desperately hope will be a star-making role for Rie Hikisaka as Hana… which was all the more phenomenal for being her first leading role and one of her first roles period, to my knowledge. The crossovers, including the first one that Toei of all companies managed to keep absolutely secret. The abundance of goofy faces, which were spread liberally among the entire cast. The humor, the fight scenes, the art direction, the music—holy hell, the music, done with the aid of a full orchestra, no less!—everything was not just on point, but spectacular. In all my years of fandom, with all the many, many episodes and movies I’ve watched, I’ve never connected with a Precure series like I have with this one. It hit every important point on my emotional scale: it was funny, heartwarming, sad, scary, awesome, and yes, even inspiring.

The finale made me cry. I proudly admit it. Not just a few silent, dignified tears either. Full-on sobbing wreck, all three times I watched it. Any series that can manage an emotional response like that deserves a spot in my all-time favorites list. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong, and maybe Hugtto was never intended to get such a reaction out of a 30+ American anime nerd… maybe it was just a big toy commercial and I shouldn’t get sentimental over it, but you know what? Whatever else it is, Hugtto is about becoming a better person. It’s got a theme of learning and growing from your mistakes, of offering kindness, forgiveness, and second chances even for the worst people. Of not just wishing for a better tomorrow, but creating it for yourself. Sappy and sentimental? Maybe, but as I get older, I seem to be growing more and more fond of works of fiction that say it simply, without irony and without qualifiers: be kind. Be better.

Hugtto Precure is over, but I think it’s here in my heart to stay. Every time I look at the little Hana figurine that I’ve had on my desk since Christmas, I try smile and look forward to the future. It’s what she’d do. Sappy? Sentimental? Maybe, but it works.

Hooray, hooray, everyone.

Hooray, hooray, me.


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