Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jun 28th 2009
Episodes 38-51 Streaming
Aided by her three fairy-like Guardian Characters, sixth grader Amu Hinamori continues to fight against the sinister Easter Corporation, who aim to take over people's souls by turning their "heart's eggs" into deadly X eggs. Their latest tactic involves using idol singer Utau Hoshina to draw out X eggs with her music, and her newest siren song has become even more powerful after stealing away Amu's fourth Guardian Character, Dia. At the same time, a traitor among Amu's friends is aiding Easter in their cause! Can she overcome the odds and stop Easter from taking over? Also, can Amu ensure that the Embryo—an all-powerful egg that grants the wishes of whoever captures it—doesn't fall into the wrong hands?
If they had just stopped at Episode 43, it would have been a triumph for the ages.
The first year of Shugo Chara! reaches a dazzling, dramatic climax with the Utau arc, reinforcing the series' themes of friendship, hope, and believing in one's self. There's just one problem with this: it arrives about eight episodes early, and with the show already straining to find enough adaptable material from the manga, it quickly retreats to filler materials and tacks on a false ending. (You can almost tell exactly when Shugo Chara! Doki was announced and the staff decided they could slack off now that a second season was guaranteed.) Yet, despite peaking too early and constantly having to battle filler syndrome, it still stands out as one of the defining works of its genre and of its era. Which is not too bad for a heroine with multiple personality disorder.
Of course, after the horrid run of filler during the mid-30s episodes, anything remotely related to the main storyline would be a welcome change. In quick succession, we get a dose of pubescent sexual tension between Amu and bad boy Ikuto (in a thinly veiled metaphor, he tries to fit his magical "key" inside Amu's "lock"—which is both disturbing and hilarious), followed by an introspective look at Tadase's world domination complex, and then pint-sized Rima having to deal with family troubles again. The supporting characters may still be thinly developed, but at least these episodes are trying.
Then comes the deal-breaker—Kairi Sanjo's betrayal—which triggers a run of episodes that surpasses everything that's come before. For those deeply invested in the magical-fantasy-action side of the series, this is pure, unfettered indulgence: everyone suddenly discovers Character Transformations they didn't know they had, magical powers are unleashed, loyalties are challenged, and the two leading ladies—Amu and Utau—reach a level of emotional conflict and catharsis that has been a long time coming. Looking at it from a more psychological angle, it is interesting to see that the protagonist and antagonist, despite being pitted on opposite sides, both seek the same thing: to discover their true identities. Cheesy and predictable? Yes. But at the same time, universal, honest and deeply moving? Yes, all of that as well.
Then comes the epilogue and filler, at which point it's probably not a bad idea to jump straight to Shugo Chara! Doki. Remember how Naruto and Sasuke beat each other to a pulp and everyone had to wait over a year for Naruto: Shippuuden? Be thankful this is only eight-odd episodes. Plus, even amid the wastelands of recap scenes and random kids having to get their X Eggs flushed out by Amu, there are flashes of brilliance: a certain romantic turning point, Utau's comeback moment as a songstress, the Rima episode that reaches the very limits of slapstick humor, and 1.5 seconds of comedy gold when Suu does an impression of a cicada. (Also, a tip regarding Episodes 50-51: no one's going to get the Embryo. Ever. It's like the Inu-Yasha thing.)
Meanwhile, the visuals in this series also feature a very clear delineation between "main" and "secondary" material. When it comes down to the heroines and heroes doing their business, there's no shortage of elaborate costumes (can Tadase really wear that many frills and still maintain his masculinity?), instant makeovers, and sparkly effects. In true magical girl tradition, the transformation scenes are also ridiculously long, but the sheer quantity of new transformations during the final battle makes them worth it. After that, however, comes a steep drop-off in quality: third-tier characters like the schoolkids in the filler episodes, random passers-by, and the goons of Easter Corporation are mere afterthoughts when it comes to artistic detail. The technical side of the animation is also a hit-or-miss affair: the final showdown is an all-guns-blazing lightshow of spellcasting and mid-air maneuvers, while the filler episodes are barely watchable with their uncreative camera angles and halfhearted backgrounds. There's also just enough CGI to scrape by, as shown by the sloppy-but-tolerable egg animations.
At this point in the series, the soundtrack isn't breaking any new compositional ground—the background music simply relies on a handful of oft-repeated melodies to trigger the appropriate emotional response for each scene. Of greater interest, however, are the infinitely hummable theme songs: "Minna Daisuki" works splendidly as a swinging bubblegum-rock opener, while "Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!" (Episodes 38 and 39) and "Gachinko de Ikou!" (the remainder) close things out on a similarly sunny note. Yes, this applies even after a dramatic cliffhanger—it's children's programming, after all, and a certain consistency is necessary.
Like other shows of its kind, Shugo Chara! is cursed by the specter of too much filler—and yet, weren't there also plenty of episodes of Sailor Moon where Anonymous Bad Guy showed up and the heroine had to defuse the situation before the ending credits rolled? And didn't Sakura Kinomoto sometimes have to capture Clow Cards that didn't really accomplish anything? If Shugo Chara! can be mentioned in the same breath as those modern mahou shoujo classics, then surely it must be heading down the right path: a path that culminates with the depths, the heights, the sufferings and the triumphs of Episodes 41-43. If they need to make up some extra material to meet the episode quota for the season, so be it. In the end, Amu's quest to find her true self is a quest that resonates with all of us, not just the female grade-school demographic—and is the reason why she will remain an iconic heroine for years to come.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : C+
Art : A
Music : C+
+ Sharp turns of plot, dazzling magical transformations, and major character developments bring the Amu vs. Utau arc to a definitive, satisfying close.
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