The Pretty Cure franchise continues to be going strong since it started in 2004, and I have watched small amounts of quite a lot of the different series. One, however, proved distinctly better than the rest; the first. We Are Pretty Cure is very clearly a series trying something relatively new and laying the groundwork for what would become a very longrunning franchise, and doing it in a way that is also very different to what would come later. It is that difference, I think, that makes it so good.
First entries in franchises are often very interesting because they lay down baseline expectations that are then built on, reworked and made new (or not so new) year-in-year-out. For example, Brave Exkaiser has a lot of the things that would turn up in the rest of the Braves mecha series in its heartwarming-ish tale of an idiot kid and his talking family car, but it is remarkable in how unfinished and unpolished it feels. It is a wholly predictable super robot show that starts fairly strongly because you can see how it is setting up things that would be refined in later series, and then runs out of charm because nothing happens and you largely wish you were watching the series that took its ideas and made them good. (It is interesting here to compare it with the arguably equally formulaic Matchless Raijin-Oh, which was good enough for me to watch the whole thing because while it was equally set in its ways it at least had often amusing writing and made its familiar setpieces feel comfortable and familiar, not simply uninspired). Exkaiser and arguably Raijin-Oh (although the Eldran franchise never caught on quite so well) are actually good contrasts with Pretty Cure as they are, you could say, the boy’s own equivalent.
Mecha shows – especially the younger-skewing ones popular in the 1990s – and magical girl shows tend to have some overlap in villain plans, team dynamics and general feel. Super robot shows in the 1990s were quite big on child heroes, secret identities, school settings and the comfy mix of domestic life and action that veers from funny to serious. So, really, was Sailor Moon and even Cardcaptor Sakura. The big difference is really the target demographic. Now, super robot shows were not new in the 1990s when the Braves series began – and so Exkaiser’s shenanigans feel tired even before they start – and magical girl shows were not new in 2004 when Pretty Cure started. So why is We Are Pretty Cure so good, and why did it kickstart such a huge and popular franchise?
Well, it has a major difference to a lot of what came before that makes it really feel like something revitalising its demographic rather than just being another, unremarkable made-to-measure entry in it. To be absolutely blunt, the Cures can fight. Now saying there weren’t combat-focused magical girl shows before 2004 is completely wrong and completely useless. But something that really stands out in We Are Pretty Cure is that you are watching a show that doesn’t seek to be anything but a show for a female demographic, but which also has heroes who fight hand-to-hand, get physical with the bad guys and generally just act like any other transforming hero. Just having that martial arts aspect, with a straight-out theme of you’re warriors, here’s armour, go punch the bad guys until they go away is a point of difference. There isn’t a dedicated “muscle” character in the team, there’s just your power is punching and shooting lightning. That’s great. The show isn’t trying to be a male-focused thing, a show about pretty girls kicking ass for a male audience, it’s a show saying that this time, the heroes who do all the cool fighting are girls. Deal with it. Hell, in episode 2 they stop a lift from crashing to the ground with raw strength, Superman style.
And I think that also shows in how the villain plans pan out a lot of the time. I feel, from watching the series, there’s less obvious girliness in the choices of victims and plots. Less episodes about finishing schools, or stuffed toys, or beauty treatments, or jewellery. Episodes about sports, or killer bears, or getting even with mean teachers, or even about convincing thieves to face the music and take responsibility. It’s a series where there are male characters but that’s still undeniably full of strong female role models (working women, studious students, sporty students, parental figures, the works). It even has a main character who’s studious who has depth beyond being just the bookish one. There’s a whole lot to unpack in this but there’s simply so many good things going on that it offers a whole lot for its target demographic, and the franchise has only gone and run with that even further in later series which – especially in the currently airing Hugtto – really try and offer good messages beyond simply “power of friendship” and “power of family.”
There’s another thing, too; there’s a really small cast of heroes. Two heroes, in fact. Max Heart, the sequel, I believe adds a third, but for a lot of time you have two good friends working together – coming to know each other, building a not always easy friendship, and generally getting along. This immediately forces a much more focused story. Less scope for needing loads of focus episodes for side characters or secondary heroes. More focused fights as there’s not a whole and expanding team to account for. And that focus comes in another aspect, too. The series doesn’t overdo its comedy support cast. There are the usual lot of unpleasant teachers, officious adults and so on, but they’re never pervasive fun vacuums or pratfall victims, the series isn’t afraid to leave them on the sidelines for good chunks of its running time to let other stuff come to the fore.
Overreliance on a small stable of annoying, inconvenient side characters drags a series down a lot because it generally leads to overreliance on stock plots. Sometimes a hyper-focus on school life in this way works (I turn to Gosaurer, which generally got excellent mileage out of its school setting), but on the other hand my favourite episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer are generally not the ones overreliant on the principal being obnoxious for comedy value.