“I’ll cover the world with a Bad Ending!” — The Importance of Dark Elements in Precure
“Heartcatch Precure is far too dark. Not everything has to be grim and edgy; it’s a bad show and doesn’t deserve the hype it gets just for having grimdark elements.”
“Suite Precure is too lighthearted! Goofy slice-of-life magical girl anime are unrealistic and goofy and painful to watch.”
— two different sides of the Precure fandom
It really seems like you can’t talk about magical girl anime without the word “dark” being used as a synonym for either “good” or “bad”, depending on whom you talk to. “Dark” doesn’t mean “good” or “bad”, and it doesn’t seem to have any clear meaning, because it’s used to describe anything from the vaguely threatening next episode screen of Kamen Rider Ex-Aid to Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Kiekaku’s numerable shock-less shock value deaths.
Precure, by definition, is overwhelmingly not dark (whatever that means) and often criticized for it by the larger magical girl fandom partially created by Puella Magi Madoka Magica’s massive success. Many (but not all) Precure fans have, in retaliation, defended both Precure and true magical girl shows for their kid-friendly and lighthearted nature, rightly so, but sometimes by attacking something which I feel Precure only needs more of.
You see, Precure is not progressive. It is not feminist. The frilly dresses, high heels, long, colorful hair — all the cute elements — are glorifications of femininity in Japan. Sure, girls can dream about fighting evil. But they’ve got to be girls. They’ve got to do it in outfits that give them magical powerups without resembling anything used in real life combat, unlike shounen superhero suits which at the very least often look like something that could potentially make someone more powerful in a fight.
Underlying themes of motherhood (DokiDoki!, Fresh), innocence, purity, and romance (Happiness Charge!, Yes!), idealized versions of femininity (Go! Princess), and a general tone of “every girl loves girly things, it’s what girls do” (almost every entry is an offender, but Heartcatch! comes to mind especially, due to Itsuki’s plotline), are ever present in the series, which while containing many positive and wonderful messages, can’t be denied to also cater to gender roles. (Most magical girl shows are guilty of this, this article just happens to be about Precure specifically.)
And because it is a show for little girls, supposed to grow up into mothers who hold themselves purely and raise good families and be good housewives, a show that makes femininity the ideal every girl should strive for, Precure is lighthearted. It’s not because children are incapable of handling dark material, it’s not because Mr. Toei wants to show girls that, in spite of what Madoka says, they can save the world and not be responsible for it. It’s because girls are supposed to be weaker than boys, unable to handle reality without being submissive or with the aid of a man. The Precure can save their happy, lighthearted world, but put them in Kamen Rider — the show that airs before Precure, something along the lines of its big brother, ostensibly targeted at kids but with boys in mind, which often contains character death and darker themes — and they would just die, unless reduced to vague supporting characters, literal objects for the men to fight over,or comic relief.
It’s nothing new for children’s superhero shows to feature darker elements. The primary reason Precure does not is because girls are not supposed to handle dark things without breaking down emotionally or physically. Let them transform into a cute, skirt-sporting heroine, ready to defend the world with flowers or cupcakes or music or love, but God (in his blue unbuttoned shirt) forbid they experience tragedy and pain on the same level as their masculine super-powered counterparts in other franchises. Sure, Precure often contains more serious material than many would give it credit for, but it’s still for the most part focused on comedy and femininity.
That is why I love and cherish Precure’s darker elements, whether they’re Majorina attempting to murder Nao’s siblings, or Love’s mom being turned into a sorewatase, or Labyrinth increasing the death rate. By nature, Precure isn’t dark, and I don’t want it to be. However, when it does include serious, “darker” elements, I think that’s a very good thing. Precure, at its heart, is about girls working together to overcome hardship and evil, and the greater the hardship and evil, the more powerful that message is.
Everything I just said does not apply to Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku, Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha, or any other ~mature~ “deconstruction” of the magical girl genre people would inevitably bring up on this post. Precure is shoujo anime, made for impressionable little girls. Magical girl shows that are dark simply to be dark are, as a rule, made for an older male audience. Madoka and Nanoha are seinen. Mahou Shoujo Ikusei Keikaku, Magical Girl of the End, and others are shounen. These are not authentic magical girl shows; they are not targeted at women, and they do not aim to empower them. This group of shows ranges from shock torture porn at worst to average fair with a dark twist at best; the trials their characters go through serve as either punishment to the women for having power, or titillation for the men watching.
On the other hand, when Precure, or other authentic shoujo anime feature dark elements, and show their characters coming out of them stronger, it is for women. By stories like Heartcatch Precure, girls are told they can go through the same trials boys can, equally as well. They don’t have to hear their brothers boast superiority because Kamen Rider is stronger than the Precure.
It’s a good thing when Precure gets serious.