Synopsis: The fairy kingdom of Märchenland was brought to ruin by the evil Emperor Pierrot, who was sealed in battle by the kingdom’s Royal Queen at the cost of her own sacrifice. The Bad End Kingdom, responsible for the downfall of Märchenland, seeks to revive the Emperor Pierrot by bringing the world to a Bad End. Candy, a fairy from the ruined kingdom, seeks the help of the five legendary warriors known as PreCure to collect the Cure Decor, revive the Queen, and prevent the Emperor’s return.
In my previous review of Suite PreCure, I discussed the merits of the show within the context of its place within the magical girl genre, as well as the anime medium itself; back then, the blog that had hosted the post focused primarily on the discussion of anime as a whole, along with the standard frameworks used for criticism of a particular show, not necessarily limited to the scope of a single franchise.
A year later, Baka Laureate is but a distant memory, and the focus of my blogging efforts have been redirected to this wonderful franchise, full of its own self-references and standards established simply by existing in all of its iterations and by existing for as long as it has. While I aim to examine this show within the context of the franchise itself, my hope is that those reading from an outside perspective (i.e., the PreCure non-fan, or even just the casual fan) will be able to make the most of this post.
That said, Smile PreCure is a fascinating topic of conversation, as it marks an entirely new stage of the storied history of the PreCure franchise as a whole. Following on the heels of last year’s installment, Suite, and the widely acclaimed Heartcatch before that, Smile certainly stands out from both of them, but at the same time manages to establish an interesting space within the PreCure multiverse, particularly as a fascinating and worthy counterpoint to the merits brought about by Heartcatch. Almost every praiseworthy aspect of Heartcatch, which included its dynamic story (particularly centred around each of Cure Moonlight and Cure Blossom), loads of side characters, and unique art style and animation, is fascinatingly contrasted by the competency of Smile’s simplified storytelling approach, its insular cast of main characters, and art that makes references to numerous points outside of the show and even the franchise itself.
At its core, Smile PreCure is about the lives of the five girls who become PreCure, and takes a cyclic spotlight approach to their characterization. Keeping with the spirit of the show’s more simplified philosophy, the characters remain static for the majority of the show’s run, and that’s perfectly fine. Traditional cartoons in the west rested its laurels on the status quo, opting to fully flesh out characters through backstory and examining different sides to them that already exist. For the Smile girls, each of them come together to form the team, and with each passing episode, the audience learns something new about them, which accumulates over the course of 48 episodes, resulting in characters that are more rounded than those from other series that attempt to ride the merits of character development but fail to execute.
In this sense, Smile PreCure’s exclusive focus on the main cast comes at the cost of providing any sort of regularly passing mention to side characters outside of the protagonists and the Bad End villains. While this is an artistic choice that serves to highlight and facilitate the breadth of the primary characterization of the Cures themselves, it makes the side characters that are featured all the more important, as they make up an important part of the main cast’s lives. Such examples are the girls’ relatives, and perhaps most delightfully, the unnamed police officer that shows up during episodes featuring Majorina.
The villains themselves, despite acting primarily as foils to the ideals represented by the PreCure, are not without merit, and form their own interesting dynamic unit. The fairy tale motif presented by Smile serves well for archetype balance and personality variance (lacking entirely in Suite, less prominent in Heartcatch). Wolfrun is the big bad wolf and the middle character in a spectrum with the bulky and moronic ogre Aka Oni on one side, and the senile trickster midget Majorina on the other. Led by the nightmare-fuelled jester, Joker, the Bad End generals are a rogues gallery that rivals the Desert Messengers (Heartcatch) and Labyrinth (Fresh) in identity.
The Bad End bad guys serve as memorable foil to the meatier characterization of the Smile PreCure themselves. As a five-cure unit, the Smile girls form the second-largest cast next to Yes! Pretty Cure 5 GoGo! and its sorority of six. Despite its large cast, each girl joins the cast very early in the franchise via a 5-episode cycle of introductory spotlight episodes that is difficult to get through at first; however, the 5-episode spotlight cycle is revisited numerous times throughout the show’s run, and eventually become the strongest part of the show.
Miyuki Hoshizora is the leader of the group and is as scatterbrained and energetic as PreCure captains that preceded her. She stands out in the franchise due her love for fairytales and her search for her “ultra-happy,” but for the most part, is as straightforward and average in ability as traditional “red ranger” sentai captains go. Spotlight episodes highlight her relationships with her mother and grandmother, and most notably in episode 39, expand on her fondness for fairytales in a fascinating way.
The brilliant sun, Akane Hino, is the emotional core of the Smile PreCure. She is the hot-blooded spirit that is the mark of the franchise as a whole, and is driven entirely by her feelings. She is a contrast to Reika Aoki’s intellect-driven lifestyle, and is more self-centred as opposed to Nao Midorikawa’s nurturing altruism. Her feature episodes examine the different aspects of her hot-blooded life, which includes Okonomiyaki, manzai comedy, and in episode 36, a precocious romantic experience with a transfer student that was more competently executed than most dramatic/comedic romance anime airing as of late. As Cure Sunny, she adds many dimensions to the group, and is a likely fan-favourite.
Yayoi Kise is perhaps the best-received character in Smile PreCure, reflected by the massive amounts of fan-art on pixiv as well as her recognition as the conventional “token moe” character in the cast. This identity is a sign of changing times in the anime industry, and Toei Animation has adapted appropriately without ruining the validity of Yayoi’s character at all. In fact, she perhaps shows the most character growth in the entire cast, and is the best-voiced character, thanks to the burgeoning talents of breakout seiyuu Hisako Kanemoto (Sora no Woto, Ika Musume, Kotoura-san). Cure Peace’s spotlight episodes showcase the broad range of her identity, from prankster to superhero otaku to loving daughter to aspiring mangaka. She comes a long way from her shy roots to being a determined PreCure warrior who steadfastly fights for her ideals and beliefs, essentially becoming the very superhero that she has always idolized.
Nao Midorikawa is the glue girl of the group, and is the penultimate support character amongst the main cast. As Cure March, she doesn’t garner much attention with standout traits like Cures Peace or Sunny, but the running theme of the bonds between her and the other girls serve as reinforcing point of the underlying importance of friendship which is the source of a PreCure’s power throughout the franchise. Her spotlight episodes highlight the bonds between her and those most important to her. While she is more instinctive than emotional, her episodes often carry the most emotional weight in the series, and are truly heartwarming.
Reika is the last girl to join the PreCure, but is by no means the least capable member. As the strong, intelligent Cure Beauty, she shows the most skill with regards to combat ability against the monsters-of-the-week known as Akanbe; they’re a staple of the magical girl formula, but also the franchise’s signature dragonball-style fight scenes are less prominent in this iteration, which emphasized character interaction and “slice of life” elements rather than fight animation. That isn’t to say that the combat element is particularly bad or absent, as Cure Beauty’s fights are often the most combat-oriented, especially since she is often tied to Joker in that regard; Episode 43 is the highlight fight scene of the entire series, and is one of the best choreographed sequences in the franchise.
As a unit, the five girls that make up the Smile PreCure are a complete team, with thoroughly calculated complements and counterbalances. However, these comparisons are mostly implied through the way their individual values are portrayed; unfortunately, even with the insular nature of the cast itself, the “me first” nature of each spotlight episode limits the examination of the relationship between girl to simply how they fit in with the team as a whole, rather than with each other girl. Only a few episodes prominently feature two or more girls within a particular self-contained scenario. As a result, the sum of its parts is greater than the whole.
Again, it’s a creative decision in this case, and given the choices that were made, the results are quite clear and positive for the intentions behind those decisions. Individual episodes are the strength of the narrative, rather than the overall arc itself. Individual PreCure are the strength of the series’ characterization, rather than the collective cast. Compare that with Heartcatch’s strength with the alternative (overall narrative, a living, breathing community of characters), and one can see that Smile is the perfect complement. Neither of the two are decidedly superior to the other, but are incredibly well-done in their own ways.
These two shows are an example of the different approaches that the franchise can take with regards to representing the tenets of the Pretty Cure series design philosophy, and are an indicator of how that philosophy has evolved over the course of the franchise’s life up to this point, and continues to evolve even still. For several years, Heartcatch was perhaps the quintessential PreCure series, as it simply stood on its own without peer as the perfect magical girl show and the ideal representation of the Pretty Cure franchise; however, with the addition of Smile to the valhalla, Heartcatch now appears to be less PreCurian (perhaps one of the least, even), and is simply one side of a larger collective PreCure experience, and is suddenly just as viable of a starting point in the franchise as the other entries.
From an outsider’s perspective, then, Heartcatch remains the better show with regards to the critical standards used to examine all other forms of fiction in the medium; however, in the context of a single meta-text, Smile emerges as the perfect match. At only 10 years of age, Pretty Cure is still a relatively new franchise compared to that of more storied entities like Gundam, and shows like Smile PreCure aim to only expand on its legacy. With its unique brand of characterization and simplified production approach, Smile PreCure truly succeeds in that regard.
Watch Smile, and be ultra-happy.