The Mike Toole Show Wake Me Up Before You Shojo
by Michael Toole, Jun 17th 2012
Have you listened to this week's ANNCast yet? If not, do so immediately! It's a sprawling discussion of the best anime of the 1990s featuring myself and Zac, Bamboo, and Justin. Each of us manage to discuss, at length, one of the great shoujo anime series of the decade-- Bamboo cites Pierrot's blazingly popular (particularly for its time) Fushigi Yuugi, while I tip Mad House's adaptation of CLAMP's Card Captor Sakura-- and everyone gives it up for Utena. But shoujo anime still only makes a few appearances on a list dominated by envelope-pushing science fiction, historical action, and psychodrama.
That got me thinking: there really isn't enough shoujo anime, is there? For a pretty long period, shoujo manga boomed; artists like Mitsuteru Yokoyama, Fujio Akatsuka, and Hideko Mizuno got the ball rolling in the 60s, and for decades magazines like Ribon, Nakayoshi, Ciao, and Princess pumped out thousands of pages per month. But shoujo manga's been on a quiet decline lately, possibly because all of the girls are sticking to Shonen Jump these days. But even in its heyday, it seems to me that there never really was enough shoujo anime, and while a lot of fans of older anime and manga point to international megahits like Candy Candy and Rose of Versailles, 80s shoujo anime is a relative blank, characterized largely by magical girls. I'll touch on about that great majokko stuff, but mainly, I want to talk about all of the good shoujo anime from the 80s.
The aforementioned Hideko Mizuno is an impressive talent. She rose to prominence in the 1960s, when an awful lot of girls’ comics were still being produced by men, honing her skills at the infamous Tokiwa House, a combination apartment block/manga studio that housed talents like Shotaro Ishinomori, Fujiko F. Fujio, and Shinichi Suzuki-- the whole racket was put together by a workaholic named Tezuka, and it was a vital incubator for manga talent in that era. Mizuno would hit big with Fire! in 1969, but before that, she had a modestly popular series called Honey Honey's Wonderful Adventures. It looked like this:
Yep, that's a legit commercial VHS tape that was released in the US, one of the first commercially-released anime in the states. Mizuno's Honey Honey, the tale of a turn-of-the-century servant girl who stumbles upon a stolen diamond and leads a merry, whimsical, and romantic chase across the entire globe, was adapted to anime form in 1981 by Kokusai Eigasha. This studio was never a powerhouse, but ‘81 was probably the height of their power - they were the J9 guys, and they also did production work on fare like Baldios and Galvion. Honey Honey kinda stood out from that pack; its heroine is plucky and cheerful, the antagonistic princess of Vienna is crafty but cruel, and the princess's suitors are a pack of absurd stereotypes, including an fabulously wealthy sheik (Oil Dollar) and a suit-wearing Native American chief. And whenever Honey finds herself backed into a corner, she's rescued by Phoenix, a mysterious and dashing young masked man who always shows up in the nick of time.
Some of Honey Honey’s stereotypes were well worn by the time she hit the small screen, having been introduced in earlier fare like Majokko Megu-chan and The Flower Angel, but Mizuno's original manga is one of the titles that introduced such stereotypes. The anime isn't too ambitious, albeit a few episodes have honestly excellent animation, but it's very easy and enjoyable to watch. If you want a lot more background information on it, I'd recommend checking out my friend Dave Merrill's article about it. In the US, Honey Honey was dubbed and shown on CBN, and apparently Enoki Films is still trying to license it to the highest bidder. Anyone care to start a kickstarter for it?
Honey Honey helped set up a bunch of shoujo traditions, but fare like Minky Momo is what turned them from recurring tropes into constant plot elements. Minky Momo, an Ashi Pro TV series from 1983, was the first big magical girl hit of the 80s - it concerns the now-typical exploits of a young girl who uses fabulous secret powers to transform into a slightly older young girl and try to help people with their problems. Momo, resplendent with bright pink hair and sparkling blue eyes, is an appealing heroine who uses her power of transformation to assume whatever occupation-- veterinarian, shopkeeper, etc.-- is necessary to advance the plot, and saves the day with the help of her monkey, dog, and bird (I figure this is a Momotaro reference). Interestingly, the series goes to some pretty dark places-- don't miss the final episode! Minky Momo would spawn a 1991 TV sequel, which ostensibly reboots the story, but then ties into the original in some unexpected ways. Even back in the 80s, magical girl fare was ambitious stuff, not content to just be monster of the week fare.
If Minky Momo was one of the first solid forerunners of Sailor Moon, you can tie Tokimeki Tonight to Twilight, or at least to Rosario+Vampire. Its heroine, Ranze Eto, is part of an amusingly Addams Family-esque clan of monsters; as a teenager, she finally discovers her supernatural power, which is to assume the shape of anything she bites (oh no, not that old plot again!). Her monsteriffic mom and dad finally let her out of the family's scary castle so she can go to regular school, and she falls for the handsome but puckish Shun. This is bad news both to Ranze's family, who don't want their precious shape-shifting daughter dating a normal human, and to Yoko, a classmate and gang family daughter who's claimed Shun for her own.
I've sampled a bit of Tokimeki Tonight, which has gotten some fansub love in recent years, and it's enjoyable fare, with plenty of outlandish situations and a pretty, charmingly nutso antagonist who's almost as much fun to root for as Ranze. The Tokimeki Tonight TV anime was one of those shows that wrapped up way before the manga finished, so they had to write a separate ending for it. The manga ended in 1994, so I guess if TOHO were feeling ambitious, they could get started on Tokimeki Tonight: Brotherhood and finish the story.
Great shoujo fare very often concerns elements of magic or the supernatural, but it doesn't have to. In 1983, Toei adapted Kaoru Tada's Ai Shite Knight (“Love my Knight”), which managed to set a few milestones without being about magical girls and their easy-to-reproduce-as-toys wands. Ai Shite Knight is about a love triangle between Yakko, a nice 18-year-old girl, and Go and Satomi, two members of the upcoming band Bee Hive. Akko, who helps her dad run an okonomiyaki restaurant in Osaka, finds herself drawn to both the fiery frontman Go and the more taciturn, introverted songwriter Satomi. What sets Ai Shite Knight apart isn't its complicated love triangle, which had to be toned down a bit for the animated version; it's the music. Not content to produce a small handful of tunes like most cartoons about bands, Ai Shite Knight features an entire LP of fictional hit songs, by both Bee Hive and their crosstown rivals, Kiss Relish. The songs were produced, in part, by one Joe Hisaishi, who'd soon achieve lasting fame as Studio Ghibli's composer of choice. What keeps drawing me back to Ai Shite Knight, though, isn't just the jangly, synth-driven pop fare-- it's the top-notch animation and lovely color palette:
Shoujo manga often tricky to approximate in animation, but I love the simple, clean, and firmly 80s look of the characters here. Images like this are what drew me to anime as a kid, and while I love modern anime aesthetics, I still find myself driven to classic fare like this over and over again.
And now we come to 1984, the year of Van Halen's album 1984. One shoujo standout of that year is Wee Wendy, aka Little Memole, aka Memolu in the Pointed Hat-- yeah, it's got a lot of titles. Wee Wendy is known to me largely because it got dubbed into English and released in digest form. The original series, a gentle 50-episode fantasy, is an unusual spin on the premise of Mary Norton's Borrowers-- a sickly young Swiss girl named Muriel discovers that little people live out in the woods. One of these little folk, Wendy, befriends her-- soon, buoyed by the mysterious healing power of Wendy's people, Muriel is following Wendy back out to the woods to have adventures. What's the twist, you might ask? Well, Wendy's people, the Lillurutians, are actually crash-landed aliens. So Wee Wendy is basically an alien invasion story, only the aliens are Smurf-sized and spend most of their time trying to avoid being eaten by cats.
What else happens in 1984? 1984 is the year when Glass Mask, one of the most famous shoujo anime period, makes its mark. Like Ai Shite Knight, Glass Mask is more concerned with telling a tough tale of the performing arts than fare involving magical toys and talking animal pals. It's about a young actress named Maya Kitajima; Maya isn't particularly beautiful, but she has that special quality, that ability to just disappear completely into a role and command the stage like no other. Her mentally ill mother is convinced acting is a dead end; her mentor, a once-famous actress, is haunted by a disfiguring injury and dogged by a conspiracy to drive her out of business.
Meanwhile, Ayumi Himekawa, who has the good looks and high society background that Maya lacks, still struggles desperately to compete with the acting prodigy. Ayumi has years of training and fine technical skills, but she's facing off against a waif whose natural affinity for the stage seems to sweep aside all other contenders. On the sidelines, studio head Masumi Hayami complains about Maya's unexceptional looks and background, but pines for her in secret. In just 23 episodes, Glass Mask weaves an incredibly complex and melodramatic web, tied together with gusto by character designer Atsuko Nakajima, animation hero Shingo Araki, and veteran auteur director Gisaburō Sugii. Glass Mask is popular enough that it's gotten the anime treatment a couple of subseqent times, but nothing compares to the excellent 1984 TV series.
While this was all happening, Studio Pierrot were busily shaping and defining the whole magical girl thing. In 1983, they had a surprise hit in Creamy Mami, a TV series about a young girl, Yu, who uses a magic wand to turn into a slightly older young girl. With the help of a pair of cute talking alien cats, Yu establishes herself as singing idol Creamy Mami; and when she isn't burning up the charts, she's meeting exotic aliens and fighting adversaries both inside and outside the music biz. Along with the raft of toys, Pierrot actually used Creamy Mami as a vehicle for Takako Ohta, a fledgling entertainer who'd never voiced an anime character or cut a record. This approach was so successful that it's now typical for seiyuu to record pop albums and have parallel record careers. Before Creamy Mami, this wasn't that common.
Mami was followed by Pelsia, which casts a bizarre, little girl version of Tarzan as the heroine. Naturally, the titular Pelsia uses a headband and magic wand to transform into a slightly older young girl. This seems like a pretty appealing hook, honestly - just say the magic words, little girls, and you too can skip right past acne, training bras, and junior high dances! The next Pierrot majokko classic is my favorite, Magical Emi. Not only are the character designs and animation good-- honestly, they're always pretty good in these shows-- our heroine isn't a singing idol or warrior of love, she's an aspiring stage magician. For Mai Kazuki, transforming into her slightly older alter ego, Magical Emi, isn't just a way to entertain people and perform great tricks; it's a way to skip past her own clumsy body and lack of sleight-of-hand training. The last of Pierrot's 80s magical girl shows is Pastel Yumi, which I haven't seen at all. You know what I have seen, though? Alien X from A-Zone, a comedy OVA that teams up all of Pierrot's heroines and packs the story with gags, in-jokes, and references to other stuff. My favorite part: a scene depicting a UN assembly meeting, featuring none other than Captain Kirk and Mr Spock!
The later 80s would involve the return of two of shoujo manga's pioneers-- one of them is Secret Akko-chan, the story of a girl who gains the ability to transform into anything by using a magical mirror. There's some magical stuff going on there, but Akko-chan is really all about a fun, precocious tween girl using her powers to get into all sorts of trouble. Akko-chan is one of those grand cultural institutions, like Gegege no Kitarō; it seems to get remade every ten or fifteen years. The 80s version is actually its second go-around, and Akko-chan would appear again in 1998. In fact, there's an Akko-chan movie coming out in the fall, which ages the characters forward quite a bit. I hope it's at least as good as that Casshern movie!
Akko-chan's manga actually came very early, but we think of Mitsuteru Yokoyama's Sally the Witch as the first real magical girl because she made the jump to animation first. The original Sally the Witch, which set up stereotypes like the two best buddies (one is always an energetic tomboy! The other is wealthy and elegant.), actually dropped during a transitionary period in the late 60s, so some of its episodes are in color and others are in black and white. But not to worry-- Sally would return in a new all-color series in 1989, which happens to be hilarious to watch if you're a Giant Robo fan. Yokoyama's stock character designs all look vaguely similar, and it's pretty weird to see Sally butt heads with what appears to be members of the evil Magnificent Ten.
We'll close off this look at great shoujo anime of the 80s with one of the weirdest: 1989's Cipher OVA. The original Cipher manga was about a girl named Ellie, who discovers that a handsome boy at school, Shiva, is actually two twin boys, Shiva and Cipher. The two good-looking dudes, who use their curious shared identity in acting and singing careers, promise to reveal all of their secrets to Ellie-- but only if she can figure out which of the identical twins is which at a glance. The thing about Cipher is, it takes place in New York City, and that makes a bit tough to read - artist Minako Narita is fond of featuring the World Trade Center in the background, and it appears again and again in both the manga and anime versions. The most bizarre twist, however, is that English-speaking actors were hired to play the characters in the OVA, which is one of those “hey manga fans, this is for you!” shorties. Pair that up with puzzling re-recordings of classic 80s tunes like “Against All Odds” and “Footloose,” and you've got... well, this. Check it out.
After a long look at shoujo manga of the 80s, there's one thing I notice. We praise fare like Utena for its willingness to tackle tough subject material and abstract metaphors, but check this out: these 80s shows are chock full of paeans to the difficulty of adolescence, the drama of growing up poor, or in broken homes. Utena may have turned up the juice on such themes, but they've been present in shoujo manga and anime for a long time.
A lot of the above shoujo hits were popular in Europe, but only a few got exposure in the English-speaking world. Did you watch these shows? Or are you bummed that I didn't mentioned your favorite 80s shoujo, like maybe Akanuke Ichiban, Lady Georgie, or Good Morning Spank? Let me know in the comments!
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