Mahou shoujo

I finished re-watching Cardcaptor Sakura a few days ago and was impressed again with how well the series was constructed. There’s a complicated backstory and a tangled web of relationships, but everything we need to know is deftly woven into the narrative. We’re never subjected to information dumps, and the few flashbacks are part of the plot. I was also impressed again with how solid the characters are. Sakura and Touya are a thoroughly believable little sister and big brother, interesting in themselves and not just for their magical abilities. Shaoran is more complex than most adult characters. Much of the pleasure of the show is in the opportunity to spend time with these people and their friends.

It’s not perfect. One motif particularly annoyed me: someone is about to say Something Important to someone else but is interrupted before he can get the words out. It happens frequently during the later episodes. (The second CCS movie, The Sealed Card, is virtually nothing but interrupted confessions, and I don’t recommend it. (The first movie, however, is good.)) There are other nits to pick, if you’re so inclined. Nevertheless, the many strengths more than compensate for the few flaws, and Cardcaptor Sakura is worth thirty hours of your life.

Earlier this year I finished watching the first season of Sailor Moon. Compared to Cardcaptor Sakura, it’s hopelessly primitive. None of the characters have much depth. Disbelief must not be merely suspended but locked away in a trunk in the attic and the door barred shut. The monsters of the week are as ridiculous as the love-love monsters in Magical Project S. And so on. Nevertheless, absurd and downright stupid though it sometimes is, overall I enjoyed watching Sailor Moon. I’ll write more about it later (which may be a while; don’t hold your breath).


I recently took a look at a couple of the other mahou shoujo series, Hime-chan’s Ribbon and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha.

In the Magical Kingdom, one demonstates worthiness for the crown by making a magical artifact, such as a sentient flying broom. Princess Erika’s effort is a red hair ribbon that enables the wearer to assume the appearance of anyone else. To test it, she must find her look-alike on earth and give her the ribbon to use for a year. Erika’s look-alike turns out to be the tomboy Himeko, who prefers overalls to dresses, and Erika gives her the ribbon and the accompanying bracelet despite some misgivings. There are some rules for using the ribbon. In particular, Himeko must change back to her true appearance within an hour of transforming, or she will be stuck permanently in her altered form. Also, as a magical girl, Himeko is entitled a mascot. In her case, it’s her little stuffed toy Pokota, who becomes animate when Himeko wears the ribbon.

Unlike more recent magical girls, Himeko doesn’t need to fight evil, tame wild magic or save the world. Hime-chan’s Ribbon is about the everyday lives of an impulsive thirteen-year-old and the people around her. Is Hime-chan late for school? She can transform into the principal so she won’t get lectured when she enters the campus. Is she too shy to give a gift to the boy she has a crush on? She can transform into her older sister and give it to him on behalf of her shy “little sister.” The transformations don’t go smoothly, of course, and things never work out the way Himeko expects.

I’ve seen three episodes, and thus far it’s not bad. There’s some adolescent angst, but it’s not exaggerated, and it is well-balanced by humor. Whether the show maintains that balance through the remaining 58 episodes, I don’t know. There’s been nothing objectionable beyond an occasional wisecrack and I don’t expect any fan service at all. It’s acceptable for school-age youngsters. They might actually enjoy it, even though it is from 1992 and looks even older.

Trivia: Himeko’s seiyuu, Ikue Ohtani, was also the Japanese voice of Pikachu.

There’s a fine line between homage and ripoff, and Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha straddles it. The three episodes I’ve seen suggest an inferior Cardcaptor Sakura. For the Clow cards, there are “jewel seeds” that must be “sealed;” for Kero-chan, there’s a ferret; for the magical key that transforms into a wand, there’s a magical jewel that transforms into a wand. There are some variations on mahou shoujo motifs. Nanoha’s wand configures itself for different modes of operation in a manner reminiscent of a mecha reorganizing itself, for instance, and it announces its status with a mechanical voice and text displays. The jewel seeds have serial numbers. But these innovations are just cosmetic; there’s nothing really new here.

I have another problem with Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. During the full-length transformation scene, third-grader Nanoha is shown naked both longer and in more detail than the corresponding scenes from Sailor Moon. In the third episode, Nanoha is unnecessarily shown changing into her pyjamas. Even if Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha does have a terrific ending, I will not be watching any more of it.

Update: I did watch one more episode of Nanoha after reading the comments on this post. It introduces a second magical girl and suggests that perhaps the story will be interesting after all. Unfortunately, the transformation scene remains unchanged, and it is not acceptable.


The Kamichu! dub

I listened to the first episode and parts of the other three. It’s no worse than most dubs I’ve heard, and no better. I’ll stick to subtitles, but if you don’t mind second-rate American actors, you’ll find the dub tolerable.

One surprise is that the dub doesn’t follow the subtitles closely. Although I didn’t find any places where the meanings dramatically diverge, the dub throughout is more colloquial and usually more verbose than the subtitles.

Although there is nothing objectionable in the first three episodes, I expect that very young children might find the story hard to follow. Grade schoolers and older should be fine with it. It’s also suitable for adults.

The fourth episode does present problems, though. Writer Hideyuki Kurata and director Koji Masunari let their politics get in the way. A pink Martian girl lands her rubbery magenta spaceship in Tokyo, and the sleazeball Japanese prime minister wants to send her and her ship to his American allies so they can steal the technology. His plans are foiled, but not before we see the Stars and Stripes on a military helicopter. In recommending Kamichu!, I assume that the fourth episode is an aberration that won’t be repeated.


Getting it wrong

The first volume of Kamichu!, Little Deity, arrived today. I’m a little disappointed at the quality of Geneon’s work. Although the DVD looks and sounds better than the .avi files, the translation in the subtitled version is inferior to the work of the Iichan Translation Group in the fansubs. (I haven’t listened to the dub yet.) I don’t know Japanese, so I can’t judge the accuracy of the translations, but it’s painfully obvious that someone doesn’t understand English idioms. An example from the fourth episode: at one point, Yurie causes soldiers to move in extreme slow motion. In the fansub, this is called “snail’s pace tactics,” which is reasonable; in the Geneon release it’s called “stonewalling technique,” which is nonsense. The fansub includes explanations of some of the puns and helpful notes on Shinto beliefs and practices; there is nothing similar in the Geneon release. These shortcomings aren’t deal-breakers. If Kamichu! sounds like the sort of story you’d enjoy, place your order. Its virtues survive the awkward translation. But if you have the fansub, don’t discard it when the DVD arrives; keep it on hand for reference. (And do buy the DVD. Geneon may not have done the best possible job, but at least they did license and release the series, and they deserve their reward.)


How do you spoil a charming show?

One good way is to insert some gratuitous anti-Americanism. In the overly-eventful fourth episode of Kamichu!, a magenta spaceship lands in Tokyo. The duplicitous Japanese prime minister, greedy for the technology, plans to send the ship and its pink alien pilot to America for analysis. With Yurie’s help, Martian-chan escapes, but not before we see the stars and stripes on a military helicopter. This is a pity, but it is not entirely unexpected. The same writer and director were responsible for Read or Die, a hugely entertaining OVA that was occasionally marred by contempt for America.

I still have high hopes for the series, which I wrote about earlier. I’ve seen five of the sixteen episodes so far, and while one stinks, the other four are delightful and highly rewatchable. Despite the makers’ brain damage, Kamichu! deserves to be released in the USA, and it probably will be, though it may take several years for someone to license it.

Yurie-sama with Team Happiness, the wish collection and delivery team assigned to assist her by the Gods Association


Shinto 101

It’s not easy being a god.

I departed from my policy of never downloading fansubs this past week….

While I was at it, I also downloaded the first three episodes of Kamichu!, a series from last year that deserves to be released in the USA if what I’ve seen is representative. Yurie, a middle-school student in a small city, learns one night that she is a god. She has no idea of what sort of god, though, or what powers she has. Nobody else knows, either. When she tries to raise a wind, she accidentally summons a typhoon, and when she sneezes, it’s like the gust front of a thunderstorm. Although she is a god, she is still also a bashful student with lousy handwriting, and the boy she likes can’t remember her name. Overall, it’s a sort of Spirited Away-lite. It’s suitable for all ages. There’s nothing objectionable (though parents will want to explain what animism is to youngsters), and there’s enough wry humor to please adults. When — if — it’s released in the USA, it will definitely be worth at least a rental.

The director and writer of Kamichu! previously worked on Read or Die, and the sharp-eyed viewer will notice Yomiko Readman sitting in the back of the classroom in the opening scene, reading.