The Spring 2018 Anime Preview Guide Cutie Honey Universe
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Cutie Honey Universe ?
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Another season, another Go Nagai revival, another reminder that Go Nagai and I stand at pretty much opposite poles in terms of what we like in media. This Cutie Honey revival lacks the absurd visual distinction of DEVILMAN crybaby, but it's still relatively accomplished in its own way as another fine demonstration of the Nagai ethos. Cutie Honey Universe is garish, horny, retro, and well-animated, and though I personally only care for one of those qualities, I'm guessing its fans wouldn't have it any other way.
This first episode tells a pretty standard episodic narrative, presumably assuming we're already familiar with the Cutie Honey setup. I'm not personally familiar with that premise, but this episode was simple enough to follow anyway: there's Honey, there's her nefarious enemy Sister Jill, and then there's Honey's chipper friends and Jill's horny Thundercats minions. In this episode, Jill infiltrates the police department through the guise of Inspector Genet and eventually faces off with Honey in a junkyard.
Storytelling-wise, I feel almost obligated to grade this show on a curve. The writing here doesn't really feel like it's been updated from the '70s, so this episode is basically all lines like “Go, Breast Claw!” and vows to defeat evil. The comedy is slow and obvious, and even the “sexy” stuff feels very contrived. Cutie Honey is '70s-transgressive, meaning its fanservice seems likely to make a cartoon wolf go “hummana hummana” and loll his tongue to the ground, but it's not particularly compelling or shocking in our more modern era. While DEVILMAN crybaby worked to transpose what was core to Devilman to a modern setting and narrative, Universe seems content to simply offer a solidly animated retread of the original.
Granted, that animation is pretty darn solid. This episode features some terrific cuts of animation, with a couple mid-battle spins and a near fall from a motorcycle offering some of the best of them. There are also a fair number of dynamic compositional ideas and some interesting takes on the manga's old-fashioned character designs. There's certainly a fair amount to appreciate visually.
Still, telling a dated and simplistic fanservice manga's story with more visual panache is just not enough for me. Unlike Crybaby, Universe feels pretty strictly designed for existing Cutie Honey fans. If that doesn't include you, you can probably give this one a skip.
While my memories of the Cutie Honey franchise are somewhat hazy, I definitely don't remember previous iterations being this much of a mess. The first episode of Cutie Honey Universe seems uncertain of what this new series is supposed to be; there are moments when it embraces old-school campiness, while at other times it acts like a darker reboot of the source material. Couple that with a story that jumps straight into the action and you get a pretty muddled experience.
If this is the first version of Cutie Honey you've watched, then you'll likely have a tough time keeping up with this episode. Honey's backstory goes completely unexplained, and returning characters arrive on the scene with very little in the way of introductions. It's admittedly pretty obvious who's good and who's bad, but it would have been a smart idea to at least explain some of the show's basic mechanics. Even if you know where the story's coming from, figuring out where it's going may still be a bit of a puzzle. The serious (and frequently lethal) nature of the battle scenes doesn't mesh at all with the silly comedy and fanservice, leading to some distractingly abrupt transitions between scenes. At the moment, Cutie Honey Universe is stuck in an awkward middle ground between being changing too little from the original and changing too much.
The character designs also walk an unusual line between old and new, but at least they look good in motion. The action scenes feature solid animation and direction, and benefit from leaning towards a more fluid art style instead of going for meticulous detail. That said, I'm a little worried about the reliance on dim lighting and abstract backgrounds in this episode. Both of those things are commonly used to make it less obvious when a show's production values can't keep up with the ambition of its visual direction. If Cutie Honey Universe is resorting to those shortcuts right out of the gate, that doesn't bode well for its long-term prospects.
There's enough potential here to make this series worthwhile for existing fans of the franchise, but newcomers will be better off looking elsewhere. Check out some of the older animated adaptations if you're looking for a more accessible point of entry to the Cutie Honey canon, and take a look at Megalobox if you're in the mood for a more coherent update of a classic title.
It's been a literal decade since I last checked in on Cutie Honey; my last exposure to the series were some OVAs that I procured back in high school, along with the live-action movie that Hideaki Anno directed in the early 2000s. This seems to be the year of Go Nagai revivals though, so with the new Cutie Honey Universe out, I was interested to see how if the franchise would take a page from DEVILMAN crybaby's playbook and make some major adaptations to go along with the changing times or if it would stick to its old-school guns.
It didn't take long for Cutie Honey Universe to establish itself as a series that would have been just as at home on the television screens from thirty years ago as it is on our present-day streaming devices. Some modern production flourishes aside, this show takes much of Go Nagai's immediately recognizable style and infuses it with all of the lewd camp and old-fashioned shonen tenacity that has made the Cutie Honey franchise famous for so many years. Thankfully, the premise is dead simple, so even a Go Nagai newbie can follow along. Panther Claw is an evil organization of busty monster women led by the nefarious Sister Jill, and the only one who can stop them is Honey Kisaragi, a schoolgirl who is also a robot that can transform into a bunch of different forms that she uses to take down evil. Not all of this gets explained directly in this first episode, but the basics are clear enough to anyone who's watched a magical-girl or tokusatsu show before. Along the way there's plenty of up-skirt shots, violent deaths, and kinky clothes-ripping, just in case anyone mistook this as a series for children.
While the over-the-top fanservice isn't really for me, the show is cheeky enough that it doesn't ruin the experience of watching the show, though one particular joke involving a lesbian couple's outdoors tryst struck me as random and crass in a way that doesn't play quite as well in 2018. Still, this is a mostly fun premiere, filled with the supernatural battles and fighting spirit one would expect from a Cutie Honey show, along with enough '70s fashion and camp to make you wish you had a disco ball to put on while watching it. Sister Jill's plan to infiltrate the police and meddle with Honey's heroics is the kind of typical anime villain plot that works just enough to keep you tuning in every week, and the fight scenes between Honey and the Panther Claw minions are fun and snappy in a Saturday morning cartoon kind of way. (Again though, this show is most definitely not for children.)
I have a soft spot for these kind of cheesy superheroics, so this premiere was a fun time for me, though I wasn't as into the silly fanservice jokes. Sexy camp is integral to Cutie Honey's legacy though, so I won't begrudge the series too much. I could see myself keeping Cutie Honey Universe around this season for whenever I need a dose of silly, colorful, Go Nagai-style entertainment.
This must be the season for revivals, as this marks the fourth 35+ year old franchise to get a new series this spring. In this case, it's Go Nagai's highly-influential early '70s manga about a girl who discovers that she's actually an android capable of using a special device to transform into various forms, including the pink-haired warrior Cutie Honey. This is not established in the first episode of this new adaptation, however. In fact, this seems to be intended more for long-term fans of the franchise rather than as a gateway for newcomers, as the first episode also includes context-less cameos by other characters from earlier versions. Still, despite the lack of explanation for what's going on (newcomers may be left wondering about Honey taking on two different alternate forms, for instance), no one should have much trouble understanding enough to follow along. After all, this is a pretty straightforward super-heroine story in a vaguely magical girl-like flavor.
It's definitely not kids' stuff, though. Go Nagai's original manga invented both transformation scenes involving characters briefly going nude and battle damage fanservice, and those elements definitely come into play here too. The whole series drips with old-school sex appeal; Cutie Honey herself is a sleek and buxom woman in a cleavage-baring outfit and many other female characters are similarly dressed, including the tall dominatrix Sister Jill. Yuri fanservice abounds, including one brief lesbian sex scene involving two older teachers, and another character winds up bound shibari-style in only her undies with clear indications of having been whipped. Though no actual nudity occurs, the art flirts with it several times. The graphic violence, though not pervasive, isn't tame either, as death abounds and not just for the bad guys.
The Cutie Honey franchise has been animated by several different studios and directors over the years, and this time the effort falls to Production Reed (In Another World With My Smartphone) and the director of Photo Kano. It's not an auspicious pedigree, but they handle the production effort well enough. The series intends to retain the feel of Go Nagai's distinctive designs, so the show may look ancient to young fans used to more current aesthetics, with caricature being pervasive and even grotesque designs not being unusual. Battle scene animation is pretty good, as it captures the flair of a magical girl title while still retaining its own more mature intensity, and the pumped-up musical choices support it well.
In short, if you're looking for a magical girl series for adults that makes no bones about its sexually charged content, then this should fit the bill quite nicely.
Am I the only one disappointed that the classic Cutie Honey opening theme has been left by the roadside for this reboot? In the grand scheme of things, it's not much of a nitpick, more akin to Sailor Moon Crystal not using the original “Moonlight Densetsu,” but in this case it also foreshadows some of the more jarring changes to the classic franchise. Given that Cutie Honey Universe presupposes knowledge of at least one of the previous iterations of Go Nagai's magical girl (there's no origin story, so you're assumed to understand where Honey Kisaragi came from and who Nat-chan, Seiji, and the bad guys are), it stands out more than it might have otherwise.
This definitely feels like a less campy approach to the story than I have previously encountered. Honey is much more serious about her fight with Panther Claw and Sister Jill, with a much more standard magical girl personality – in the original series, it felt like Honey was having fun as she took on the baddies, but here she's got a more down-to-business superhero attitude. Perhaps that's why her signature introduction is also left out; not only do Panther Claw's agents seem unsurprised by her transformation, but she doesn't explain that “Sometimes I'm _____ and sometimes I'm _____, but really I'm –“ While it is nice that Panther Claw's minions aren't dumber than bricks this time and Sister Jill has much more of a role, it's a shame to lose some of what has long been associated with the franchise.
More pertinent than nostalgia is the uneven tone of the episode, along with some of the character designs. Honey, Seiji, and the teachers at school, along with all of the Panther Claw agents, look very much like the original 1970s designs. However, new characters have a much more modern aesthetic, which creates a sense of disconnect. Add to this the fact that the episode can't decide if it wants to be sexy, silly, or scary, and it feels like more of a mess than it should. We go from wet lesbian kisses to Sister Jill turning a girl into a monster to lesbian sex to a dying man. It's as if someone couldn't quite decide how to handle the racier aspects of the series in this darker reworking, so they just decided to throw everything into an alternating cycle, switching back and forth between sex and violence.
Cutie Honey Universe isn't the worst reboot out there, but it does lack the lightheartedness that made previous iterations fun. Nice as it is to see Sister Jill have an actual plan beyond “send lots of goons,” the uncertain tone and mish-mash of character design eras keep it from being fully engaging, even as some of the more entertaining aspects (such as Honey's magical cloth that sticks to her nipples and crotch when her costume shreds) succeed. If the series can even itself out, it might be fun, but this episode doesn't give me much hope.
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