As of late I’ve been talking about mainstream and family anime properties that don’t get all that much attention in the west. One of the few franchises that does have a bit of a fanbase is Precure, the everlasting kids show. Most fans don’t have much of an interest in a show openly aimed at young girls, but its sincere positivity and the fact that it’s one of the last strongholds for magical girls have made it gain a bit of a niche following overseas. Since a new series just began, this is a good chance to learn about the franchise’s production.
For those unaware, Precure is an original anime series with yearly reboots – there were a couple of sequels, but that practice was dropped due to fast popularity decay so now we get an entirely new, perfectly approachable show every year. The core staff also keeps on changing, which means that it constantly allows new teams to develop their vision. Unlike a regular original project though, the very core of Precure iterations is a theme for the toys and ideas for specific pieces of plastic to sell – business comes before art here, by all means. It goes without saying that it’s not an ideal environment, but Toei has very consistently turned their merchandising outlets into outstanding anime feats. Let’s not forget that throughout Sailor Moon we saw the likes of Junichi Sato and Kunihiko Ikuhara as series directors, as well as a Takuya Igarashi who would also go on to direct Precure’s excellent predecessors Ojamajo Doremi and Ashita no Nadja. This tradition of idiosyncratic creators capable of molding business-minded projects according to their personal vision still lives strong, and most of Toei’s brilliant minds in modern times have strong links to Precure. That’s where Rie Matsumoto grew as a creator, steps closely followed by her likely successor. Yuta Tanaka, Takashi Otsuka, Munehisa Sakai, Tatsuya Nagamine – the franchise has allowed plenty of skillful people to handle their own series, while other studio stars like Morio Hatano got to direct fantastic individual episodes. It’s a bit sad seeing how whenever these people manage to land excellent anime aimed at adults, fans tend to forget their roots. If you do care about this industry though, it’s important to keep in mind Toei’s role as an endless factory of talented artists.
This time around, Precure’s directional lineup is exceptional for a couple of reasons. Two is precisely the number of series directors it has, a first for the franchise; the promising Kohei Kureta will act as a main director of sorts, with the veteran Yukio Kaizawa actively supporting him. Kureta debuted about a decade ago and already had his first chance as series director on the last segment of Saint Seiya Omega, but this is without a doubt the biggest challenge he’s faced. He started off within Digimon and became very prolific throughout Toriko, but his formative experience was clearly during Marie & Gali. As an artist he developed many of his traits there, like the canted angles he still loves. But beyond that, you might as well consider that project the seed that is now allowing KiraKira Precure A La Mode to bloom – that marked his meeting with Yukio Kaizawa after all, as he was one of the main creative minds on that series. Kaizawa is a bit of an unsung hero despite having an astonishing pedigree; Digimon Tamers remains as his best known work, but that wasn’t even his only collaboration with his renowned pal Chiaki Konaka, with whom he also handled the immensely charming Fun Fun Pharmacy. His storyboards have a uniquely eerie feel to them, but he’s a multifaceted director who can just as easily create whimsical fun worlds. Rie Matsumoto has professed her adoration for his work, explicitly crediting the influence it had on her and calling his boards a piece of art. If this iteration of Precure manages to raise people’s awareness of him, then it’s already a success as far as I’m concerned.
So, what does this duo have in store? Animals and baking sweets are the explicit themes they’re working with, a combination that sounds like a nightmare for health and safety purposes but also possibly quite fun. It’s shaping up to be the revolution they promised, and yet in some aspects the more things change the more they stay the same. Over the years Precure has built up a library of franchise traditions – a mascot that crashes right onto the protagonist’s face, surprise at how it can talk, the new magical girl who accidentally jumps into the stratosphere because she’s still not used to her new powers. That alone could work as the framework for an introductory episode, but while KiraKira Precure A La Mode pays respect to all these tropes its focus was on very excitedly (perhaps too much?) doing its own thing. Once again the duality between business endeavor and art is having its effects; because executives determined kids no longer enjoy the hand to hand combat, that is being removed as a recurring element. The creators’ response? This iteration will put more focus on the effects animation for the exciting action-y sequences, so they contracted the expert Takashi Hashimoto as the show’s Effects Animation Director for the first time; fulfilling an animation dream of his, as it turns out!
While their overall vision for the series is still unclear after just one episode, Kureta and Kaizawa’s styles are already heavily leaking into the show. I’d like to bring attention to the first transformation sequence and the opening, since neither of them are actually credited yet they embody their approaches so much that it’s clear who did what. The protagonist Cure Whip’s henshin is quite delightful, perfectly incorporating the idea of a cake even beyond elements already present in the design, all while keeping a nice flow. And again, the angles simply scream Kureta’s name. The opening is instead a showcase of Kaizawa’s magic, an amusing sequence where he directly channels his work on intros he had handled in the past. The clock imagery is an old favorite of his, but my personal favorite is the creatures lurking in the shadows just like in the Digimon Tamers opening. Charming cut, plus a reminder that eeriness is his forte.
One of the aspects that seems to have benefited the most from the arrival of these two directors is the background art. That might sound like a confusing statement to people mildly aware of how anime production works, since that field is supposed to be the art director’s domain. And that it is, but Precure’s particularities make it so that the series director’s input has a big effect on this. The franchise has only ever had three art directors/art designers, with the last one debuting on this precise iteration. There is a very consistent team of artists drawing the backgrounds of every series in the franchise, and yet their results vary wildly according to the image the main director has for the series – an aesthetic range but also a series of uneven results, sadly. It’s a rather talented art department nonetheless, so I feel like it’s worth a short retrospective. Shinzo Yuki acted as the art director for the first six series, offering some solid traditional work ever since Futari wa Precure; not exactly memorable and with some spatial problems now and then, but decently above average. Its sequel and Splash Star followed similar patterns, with the latter painting a slightly brighter world that fit the new overall aesthetic. Yes! Precure 5 marked the switch to widescreen as well as the first massive change in approach, going for a very distinct sketchy style. Unfortunately, the experimentation had considerable downsides, and as conceptually interesting as it was it ended up looking messy and almost amateur more often than not. Fresh Precure inherited that sense of roughness but gave it a very different spin, feeling like a positive evolution that left behind the messy smudges for a cleaner look. It’s easy to tell they still were not used to working with HD layouts however, since surrounding feeling too empty was a recurring issue.
This inconsistent period was followed up by Ryutaro Masuda’s reign. That lasted for a whole 7 TV series and generally fared a bit better, while still being clearly dependent on strong input by the series directors. He started off quite well with Heartcatch Precure, which featured more stylization than Precure backgrounds had ever seen before. It’s interesting to compare this work to HappinessCharge Precure, also directed by Nagamine; similarly soft environments and a tendency to drop visible lineart altogether, but without Yoshihiko Umakoshi’s genius designs they dropped the geometric shapes as basis to build the surroundings. The other shows under Masuda’s supervision appeared to fluctuate depending on how much the series directors cared about their worlds; Suite Precure was at its best on the most detailed settings Munehisa Sakai envisioned, while shows like Smile Precure and particularly Doki Doki Precure had the least defined aesthetic. Go! Princess Precure stands out as the final jewel in his crown – one of the brightest and most colorful worlds the franchise has ever inhabited, with extra care put into the architecture due to the princess theme. The otherworld was consistently fascinating, especially when in the hands of artists capable of coming up with layouts that exploited its magical appeal. Sadly, Masuda’s actual goodbye was kind of a disappointment in that regard. Mahoutsukai Precure offered a higher focus than ever on a fantasy world, yet when it came to the execution it lacked the precise ideas to make it very interesting, and the more washed out feel did it no favors. Precure’s trajectory in this regard is very interesting because it shows that even an invariable, strong team of artists will be inconsistent – in positive and negative ways – depending on the instructions they’re given.
What about now? Toshinori Iino is the new art director, but that’s hardly new blood since he had already been working on backgrounds for the series before. Once again it’s the series directors who seem to leave the biggest imprint, offering a warm world that reminds me of Kyousougiga (those trees!), but also carry the spirit of Marie & Gali in a way less stylized form. Yukio Kaizawa described that series as pop, which feels rather appropriate for KiraKira Precure A La Mode series as well – particularly when the magic kicks in and we’re greeted by these neon surroundings. The design work is otherwise fairly restrained, yet the environments are all very pleasant to look at. It’s only just started, but that’s one of the best first impressions a Precure world has left on me.
And next time, Precure’s animation!
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