Wednesday 27 June 2018

Anime REVIEW: Cutie Honey Universe

Cutie Honey Universe
Cutie Honey Universe is available in streaming form on Hi-Dive

2018 celebrates 50 years of Go Nagai's work as a writer and manga artist, and given the influence of his back catalogue it's not surprising that his most famous works have been undergoing a resurgence lately. The Devilman franchise has reached an all-new audience with mega popular Netflix exclusive Devilman Crybaby, while the original Mazinger Z anime received a proper sequel over 40 years later with the Mazinger Z Infinity movie. So where does this leave Nagai's high-action, lowbrow magical girl series? An influence to the pantheon that followed, Cutie Honey returns for its first animated outing since 2004 with the release of Cutie Honey Universe. Closely patterned in both story and character design after the original manga series, Cutie Honey Universe was animated by studio Production Reed (who until 2007 were Ashi Productions) and ran for a total of 12 episodes.

As an android fitted with a powerful invention named the Airborne Element Fixing Device, Honey Kisaragi continues her fight against the Panther Claw organisation as the Warrior of Love – Cutie Honey. By day she's the beloved student of Saint Chapel Academy boarding school, but by night works alongside the PCIS (Panther Claw Criminal Investigative Services) to fight against the evil Sister Jill and her army of mutant creatures.

Sister Jill's newest scheme to defeat Honey and obtain the Airborne Fixing Device sees her infiltrate the ranks of the PCIS as their newest transfer, Inspector Genet – much to the confusion of some of Panther Claw's forces. Her game is a long one as Sister Jill pushes Honey to her very limits both mentally and physically – forcing the Warrior of Love into a final showdown as she reaches the very depths of despair.

As the first Cutie Honey anime in nearly 15 years and part of a wider celebration of Go Nagai's works, you might expect Cutie Honey Universe to be a show that's a bit more welcoming to a new audience. And though Universe is a self-contained show that (eventually) tells you enough you need to know about Honey Kisaragi and her fight against Panther Claw, its overall presentation certainly comes off as muddled. Feeling neither like a continuation or a complete reboot, Cutie Honey Universe occupies this strange space where everything is already set up for the most part and the narrative just throws its audience in at the deep end. There's a flashback episode some way in to bring you up to speed, but it's still very much a case of straddling a line between being something new and trying to follow on from older material. Universe feels like a spiritual successor to 00s OVA titles such as Mazinkaiser, which is pretty fitting given that they're both Nagai titles.

With the original coming from a time where anime thrived on much simpler plotlines, Universe apes its predecessor in not really having much meat on its bones as far as story is concerned. There are certainly shades of interesting character motivations and surprise plot developments, but more often than not these fail to live up to their build up – sadly making the series awash with missed potential. Sister Gill's plan isn't stupidly vague, while her time moonlighting as Inspector Genet doesn't really go anywhere other than to provide some wildly misplaced emotion in the show's climax. Characters are ceremoniously killed off to advance the story, prompting others to undergo sudden allegiance changes that don't properly settle in. Tarantula Panther is the one character in the show that has anything even closely resembling a character arc, and in its most crucial moments the plot decides that doesn't matter either. There are so many elements you'll want to like in Cutie Honey Universe, but none of them will ever prove satisfying.

But far worse than the poor plotting and characterisation is the wildly inconsistent tone of the show. Anyone whose got even a glimpse of Devilman knows that Nagai's material can get pretty dark at times, but at the same time it's no secret that Nagai's reputation is also built up on being manga's pervy uncle. There's nothing necessarily wrong with a show encompassing both of these traits but Cutie Honey Universe's approach falls flat at every turn. The show takes some seriously dark turns that do a great job of upping the ante in its latter half, but these moments are always immediately followed up by juvenile fanservice jokes that completely shatter their effect. This is a series where scenes like the Panther Claw taking the fight to Honey's school and murdering half the students can co-exist with the two worst characters (Danbei Hayami and his son Junpei) sexually harassing a naked Honey while disguising herself as a statue - though thankfully not in the same episode. The events of episode six take the series down a particularly dark path that immediately comes across as shocking given the previous five taking a fairly basic monster of the week pattern, but rest assured Danbei and Junpei are almost always on hand to lower the tone. Their bottom of the barrel antics don't feel completely out of place in a show like Cutie Honey, but they do when the narrative is going from one extreme to the other. Cutie Honey Universe is unrepentantly horny, but doesn't know when to put it away.

At this point about the only saving grace the show has left are its visuals. "Like a 00s OVA quality" may largely seem like a negative when it comes to narrative content, but more often than not those titles were pure eye candy and Cutie Honey Universe is no exception. The adherence to Nagai's original style results in some really great looking character designs, while the bright colour palette gives the show a dazzling flair that constantly works in its favour. Praise especially goes to the forces of Panther Claw, which as well as proving to be wild and wonderful also provide some cool body horror moments from time to time. Even though the fight scenes mostly take place against unremarkable blue backdrops, little touches like Honey slicing the entire backdrop and it then staying sliced afterward really add to its "what's old is new again" charm.

As a final note, fans of the previous Cutie Honey shows will be disappointed to hear that Universe does not offer a new version of the franchise's iconic opening theme – a staple which has been carried through each iteration since the beginning. Instead it replaces it with new song "You Can't Fight Without Love", which while not a bad song in itself feels completely out of place in a show that's supposed to be celebrating the character's legacy. It's then made worse but the show featuring numerous musical numbers (including one in the final episode) that then repeat this new opening, rather than bring the original back for a different moment of glory. Even as someone unfamiliar with the history of Cutie Honey it strikes of just how out of touch Universe is with the rest of its peers – wanting to seemingly go it alone but also failing to capture the elements that helped make it popular in the first place.

If Cutie Honey Universe's main goal was to recreate the apparent inconsistencies in Go Nagai's original manga series, then as an anniversary celebration it's definitely managed to achieve that. But between the tonal inconsistencies, poorly developed characters and wasted potential there really isn’t anything here make the show anything more than subpar. This isn't the multi-layered renaissance of Devilman Crybaby nor is it the fan-pleasing nostalgia of Mazinger Z Infinity – it's a colourful but mostly vapid series that has refused to develop its source material with age. An anniversary series might seem like the perfect place for new fans to get into Cutie Honey, but they should probably look anywhere but here.



Unknown said...

The live action its better.

Anonymous said...

Better than the awful live action film.

Judex6 said...

The live action its better === Three are three of them, Unknow.... Wich of them, Cutie Honey, Cutey Honey the live (tv series) or Cutey Honey Tears ????

the 1996 shojo remake Cutey Honey Flash is way better with 39 episodes, a definitive closure on the story, a welcomes expansion over the story of his source material etc...