Buried Treasure
Nurse Angel Ririka

by Justin Sevakis,

For many years, anybody who was into anime had at least one magical girl show they loved. Usually, it was just one, and which one depended almost entirely on when they got into anime. Really old school anime fans had Magical Emi or Creamy Mami. Fans that came a little after I did had Cardcaptor Sakura. But for most fans of my generation, the magical girl show of choice was Sailor Moon.

I tried to get into Sailor Moon. I really did. I tried to watch a few fansubs, but never really got through an entire tape. When it was shown on US television, I saw an episode or two here and there, but was generally put off by the wretched dub and the juvenile setups of early episodes. But more than anything, there were two things that subconsciously made me reject Sailor Moon altogether. One was the fan service: the short skirts and the sexual overtones made me a little uncomfortable in a show that was made for little girls. (This discomfort was further reinforced by the number of Sailor Moon-obsessed old men with poor hygiene that used to make up large portions of anime fandom.)

The other is that the show simply felt like a superhero show. I didn't get the feeling that these were real people, living lives that in any way resembled that of normal people I could relate to.

And so, I never really got into Sailor Moon. It just wasn't my thing. But another show that came out around the same time (and was nowhere near as popular) did give me my magical girl fix. I think I'm better off for it.

Nurse Angel Ririka S.O.S. is so Western-looking, I'm genuinely shocked nobody ever licensed it for mainstream broadcast in the States. Based on a 4-book manga series from Ribon and running an odd 35 episodes, Ririka is easily the most enjoyable magical girl series I can think of.

The series has all of the clichés demanded of the genre: an other-worldly superpower, an evil warlord out to steal the joy of life, one of his minions who eventually turns good, and enough plastic toy tie-ins to keep sponsors happy. But there's something more to this series, almost an adult perspective on the joy of being a child and the fresh, raw emotions they experience.

In the opening scenes of the first episode, there is no dialogue for two full minutes. The lush, intense orchestral music (score by Shinkichi Mitsumune) is warm, but intimidating. With military precision, Miyuki, the class bully, leads a chorus of girls to welcome Kanou, the bishounen transfer student from England, to their school. He arrives in a limousine. And then, a girl named Ririka and her best friend Seiya ruin the sterile ceremony by roughhousing right through the proceedings.

But it's Ririka that Kanou is really after. He's actually a prince ("Kanon") from a parallel world ("Queen Earth"), who has been waging war with the evil force called Dark Joker, a classic ambiguous evil organization out to poison the world. The Earth parallel to their savior happens to be Ririka, and now that Dark Joker has his sights set on Earth, it's up to Ririka to channel her doppelganger and drive away his minions.

So, on her tenth birthday, happy-go-lucky Ririka gets a gift from the unbelievably hot Kanou, which causes all the girls to turn red with envy and Ririka's would-be boyfriend Seiya to turn green with jealousy. The gift is the hat of Nurse Angel, and when she puts it on, she attains all of the powers of her bizarro-self. So, for a while, Ririka takes a break from her daily life to fend off some horrible evil from inhabiting her friends and neighborhood.

This can't go well forever, and it doesn't. Seiya discovers her powers. The attacks become stronger. Kanou, under great stress from the constant fighting, is of failing health. Ririka must grow up fast if she's to realize how much is truly at stake, but her family and her friends are too pleasant, and often it's concern for them that's the most distracting.

So much about Nurse Angel Ririka is this complicated mix of the happy simplicity of childhood and something much deeper. Take the opening theme, for example, a peppy techno J-pop song with the most depressing lyrics I've ever seen:

"Somewhere in town, there is someone alone and crying / If you cherish something too much, you might lose it / I was the one who took away your freedom / The feeling of loving someone eventually changes to pain and regret"

The other notable thing about Ririka is its unbelievable warmth. The inhabitants of Ririka's neighborhood are so overwhelmingly kind and gentle, Ririka's family is so supportive and quirky, and her friends so thoughtful and reassuring, the "normal" side of Ririka is truly living a charmed life. One would think this might come off as over-the-top and soppy, but it feels genuine, and it's comforting to watch. Perhaps we're so used to kids in anime living horrible, tortured lives that it's almost a shock that someone this well-rounded could exist in the genre.

Despite the obscurity of this series, many of the people behind it are now some of anime's best-known talents. The above mentioned opening theme was written by none other than Yuki Kajiura. Character designer and chief animation director Hajime Watanabe would go on to such winners as Kodocha, Animation Runner Kuromi and Kaleido Star. And the director of the series? None other than Akitarō Daichi. Yes, the guy who did Fruits Basket, Kodocha and Now and Then, Here and There.

I attribute much of what makes Nurse Angel Ririka so great to Daichi, and his ability to somehow inject a great deal of humanity into even the silliest of situations. (As might be expected of a Daichi series, there are some real laugh-out-loud moments.) I've asked him about Ririka, and he was rather dismissive of it; it's one of his earliest directorial works, and he doesn't consider it his best.

I wonder if the ending has something to do with that. It's easily one of the most intense endings I've seen in shoujo: sudden, and unexpectedly sadistic in how it rips the viewer's heart out, stomps on it, then quickly puts it back in the viewer's heaving and bloody chest cavity and runs away grinning. People who've seen the ending usually are in tears, then leap to their feet and start shouting in disbelief that it actually had the gall to end THERE. Personally, I love it, but I have the feeling the ending was done in a hurry, as if the ratings were failing and the sponsor was cutting their losses. The television timeslot reserved for the last three episodes was filled with videotaped performances of the franchise's stage musical.

The Magical Girl genre seems to have died out over the last few years. Every few seasons, somebody tries to resurrect it, but usually tends to stick too close to formula adds too much fanservice, and the show dies a slow, low-rated death. I'm way past the point in my life where I would enjoy most magical girl shows, but something in me is a little sad that such a mainstay of the anime experience is no longer relevant. Or maybe I'm just disappointed that today's newbie anime fans won't have to deal with the creepy old men I used to see.

In memory of the magical girl genre, I give you the aborted American live action Sailor Moon show. Enjoy.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How to get it: As I go through these older shows, I'm finding myself more and more shocked at how difficult some of them are to find. The old VHS fansub is still the only place to get a complete version of Ririka. It was never licensed for DVD in other territories (and from what I can tell, only aired on TV in Italy). As if to further prove the show's failure, the Japanese import boxed set was released in 2004 as a limited edition pre-order only collector's set, which is often done when the manufacturer doesn't really expect retailers to stock it. Catalog #POBE-4214 if you're trying to find it used. I have yet to see a VHS rip show up online, and the one group that was making a fresh fansub off of DVD seems to have disbanded after only 19 episodes. Perhaps someone reading this will take the initiative.

Screenshots © Koi Yumeno/Yasushi Akinoto/Shueisha • TV Tokyo • NAS.

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