You might remember a video I made back in mid-January. Following up on the popularity of Devilman: Crybaby, I covered Re:Cutie Honey, a great Go Nagai adaptation which also doubled as an excellent yuri anime, full of gay girls, fun action, and excellent humor. Directed by Hideaki Anno with lots of freedom given to the Gainax staff that worked on it, it’s truly a great OVA. Well, if you’re one of the 60,000 people who saw that video before it was age restricted and you remember what I said then you might’ve been curious about Cutie Honey Universe, this season’s new adaptation of Nagai’s original manga.
Well, throw everything I said in that video in the trash. Not because I don’t believe it — I absolutely still do — but because this show is not, under any circumstances, Re:Cutie Honey. The original manga’s had a million adaptations over the years, with none of them really being the same, so that was to be expected. I’m certainly not shocked that we didn’t get that show again — it was just so mid-2000s, so Gainax, there’s no way it could be duplicated and even trying wouldn’t be worth it. That said, Universe is not a show that’s lacking in value. It’s not Re, and anyone who expects it to be Re is going to end up being disappointed but it very much is Cutie Honey, for better and for worse.
First, the series is quite distinctly Go Nagai. What made Nagai stand out, the reason he ended up being so influential in the first place, is the fact that he basically had no limits. He was doing whatever the fuck he wanted and publishing it all in magazines aimed at young boys. In doing so, he made a lot of questionable works that were not necessarily good on a consistent basis. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say he was somewhat edgy for the sake of it. But at the same time, it allowed him to do things that no one else in that period could, pushing the industry forward and often landing on cool ideas that a more restrained artist never would have settled on. Universe embodies all of this.
The series almost directly borrows Nagai’s original designs. While his original art philosophy shows up in all his adaptations to some degree, many works take a certain level of distance, creating something that looks more modern while preserving his unique sense of style. Universe basically just uses the designs he drew up for the original manga and anime. And that’s not a bad thing. Nagai’s style is honestly quite attractive and tends to look great. Of course, certain elements, like the hideous gang of bully girls, seem a bit out of place now but given how out-of-time the series itself feels, I’m fine with that. Honey, Nacchan, Sister Jill, and the various members of Panther Claw all look great. There’s a reason Honey became such an important early superheroine in anime.
The other elements feel distinctly Nagai as well. If I were to describe the series with a specific term, it would be “problematic fun”. There’s no denying that certain elements, such as the previously mentioned bullies or the abuse of Nacchan by a teacher, are somewhat out of place in a modern environment. But the series remains fun despite — and occasionally, because of — that disinterest in modernization. As I said, there’s just a lot that’s fun about it because Nagai often knew how to make an engaging work.
The series has action, sex, and humor of all sorts. Sure, it lacks the excellent battle direction that Imaishi brought to Re episode 1, but who can deny that it’s fun to see Honey destroy a bunch of members of Panther Claw, not to mention Genet’s gun usage making her comparable in certain ways to Re’s version of Nacchan. The fanservice varies of course; I’m not going to pretend that I’ve enjoyed it at every moment but a lot of the time it’s just fun to watch. Nagai’s works are certainly very “base”, appealing to a lot of our desires as humans that aren’t necessarily all that noble but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
And then there’s the gay. Oh, this show is so wonderfully gay. Perhaps not as much as Re — it doesn’t have an on-screen kiss between our leads, at least not yet — but it’s not subtext in any sense. The teachers, Jill’s followers, the delinquents, Nacchan, and even Honey herself all show open interest in other girls. Genet is clearly quite the ladykiller and while it’s not explicitly romantic, it’s hard to believe that Honey and Nacchan’s feelings for one another are only friendship. This isn’t a shock, Cutie Honey has almost always been gay, but I’m so glad that they made no attempts to tone that down in this version, making it more prominent if anything. It wouldn’t be a Zeria video if I didn’t comment on how gay it was.
Seriously though, Universe is perhaps the best example of what it would be like to bring a Nagai work into this century without making massive changes. Well, perhaps Shin Mazinger Z is a better demonstration but I’ve only seen two episodes so cut me a break on that. It modernizes certain elements while maintaining most of what made it unique in the first place. It’s no longer groundbreaking of course — the medium and culture have developed to the point that everything it does has been done elsewhere — but it still feels like Nagai, it still carries that countercultural spirit in a certain sense. And it does so without taking a Crybaby or Re route, totally changing the entire concept in order to modernize things. That isn’t to put down those works of course, I like them both, but it is impressive that Universe manages to make a relatively direct adaptation of an early 70s manga feel at home in 2018. If you don’t like Nagai and only like what others did to his works, it lacks any value on its face but to a Nagai fan like myself, it really is an interesting series to look at.
Unfortunately, I can’t actually say it’s an amazing work. For all the praise I just gave it — praise which was all incredibly genuine, this show really does have a lot of good things going on — it’s just not as great as I was hoping for it to be. And primarily, that comes in what’s perhaps the most annoying form of low quality in anime: the fact that it’s simply boring. I was prepared for it to be awful in every way but unfortunately, it’s ended up in mediocrity, the worst place to be.
It’s not hard to put into terms the exact reasons it’s boring. First, its directing is incredibly plain and that’s quite a shame. Director Akitoshi Yokoyama is known for having some really interesting visual ideas, even if his actual project before this, Photo Kano, was not exactly the best show of all time. I didn’t know exactly what to expect coming in, but cool shots and interesting storyboarding was a part of my preconceptions, even if great animation wasn’t. I’m sad to say that I was disappointed on this front. This is a thoroughly mediocre looking show, one that shows little if not none of the director’s talents.
The shots tend to be purely functional, never distracting from what the show is trying to do but never really adding anything either, almost the anime equivalent of consistently using neutral-angle medium shots, which is often what the show does outright. It just feels very flat and when you add that to the mediocre at best production, it results in a show which isn’t nearly as fun to look at as it should be given the events that go on. I praised the battles earlier, and they’re fun, but look at the hideous blue background where they all take place. So many of the interesting ideas and elements are dragged down by poor decisions.
This mediocrity extends to many other elements of the series. Another instance of it is in the plot. Certainly, the basic premise is interesting. As always, Honey is trying to get revenge for her father’s death while protecting everyone by attempting to take down Panther Claw and Sister Jill. This time, Jill disguises herself as the mysterious and suave Investigator Genet, going behind enemy lines in order to deceive Honey. This provides for a lot of cool questions. Why is Jill taking this method, when she hasn’t actually been beaten by Honey and could just as easily fight her head on? What does she ultimately intend to do here? How are the parallels being set up between Honey and Jill’s right-hand-woman, Tarantula Claw, going to work out? All of these are worth investigating and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in figuring out the answer to all of this stuff.
But unfortunately, the plot at large lacks the dramatic tension necessary to sustain that intrigue. This show is oddly episodic. Now, I love monsters-of-the-week and have no issue with that being the structure of my magical girl anime. I watch Precure every Sunday, after all. That said, it doesn’t really fit here. The main narrative feels too important and yet little-to-no progress is made in it every week, nor does said progress feel like it’s just around the corner. Sure, characters like Nacchan are slowly growing suspicious of Genet, but there’s still no real sense that anything is about to happen. It’s just kinda there, with the events taking place. Either leave your narrative fairly disconnected without attempting to weave every episode into a tense and interesting arc, or fully commit and make the broader narrative feel important to every single episode. You can’t do both and actually succeed.
The characters are pretty good, to be fair. Honey and Nacchan are adorable and great, while the whole Genet thing does actually make Jill a far more interesting character with a lot more going on than in past entries. That said, and I hate to do this, let’s compare them to Re. If you look at Honey after episode one there, we get that she’s a hard worker who really likes Nacchan and wants to get closer to her, all the while being down-to-earth, fed up with the fact that she’s constantly harassed at her job despite saving the world. Here, she’s… a schoolgirl. She’s not even a fundamentally different character than the Re version but the writing is so much weaker that I feel like I know her less in the five episodes I’ve seen of this than I learned from the first episode of that show. Again, I’m not expecting Universe to have the same characterization as Re. But I was expecting writing that would at least be close in quality and frankly, it just isn’t.
And oh boy, the plot isn’t the worst part. No, the thing that truly makes this show a real bore to watch, even with all the things I like about it, is the simple fact that it totally lacks energy. When I say this, what I mean is that none of the hyperactivity of Nagai or even of Re comes through here. Things aren’t played up the way they should’ve been: they’re just there. Everything is flatly presented in a way that’s not remotely befitting of Nagai. This comes back to the directing once again. It’s as if the staff knew what they wanted to do from a narrative perspective, perhaps even from a script-writing perspective, and yet they totally floundered at bringing those ideas to life in any way.
Scenes drag constantly. There’s almost no moment in this show that didn’t feel like it was going on for at least a bit too long and sometimes it’s far worse. Episode 5 had a 4-minute gag wherein the two Hayami perverts felt up Honey’s body while she was disguising herself as a statue. Had that been 30 seconds or a minute in length, it still would’ve been a bad gag, but I’d get what it was doing. As things stand, it was just bizarre how long it went on. For what possible reason would you drag things out like that? This really feels like a show which isn’t meant to be full length. Either the episodes should be shorter or there should be fewer episodes, because things just get really boring given the way they’re directed and how long the shots are held beyond where they should be.
This applies to the jokes too. They pop up repeatedly, often in the exact same way. A good running gag will vary in how it’s presented, thus keeping it interesting throughout the show. That’s not the case here, where the same jokes will often show up in the same contexts with the same timing. Combine this with the previously mentioned fact that the show just feels stretched to fit its full timeframe and there are points where it can be a real chore to get through the episodes.
I really wish I liked Universe more than I do. All those positive traits I brought up at the start are very real and I like a lot of what the series is doing. If you made a fairly direct manga adaptation of this anime, I think I’d like it quite a bit. But as a TV show it just kind of fails. The production was never going to be a masterpiece but it doesn’t even stand out, at least not in any positive way. It’s really hard for me to call a show that’s this gay bad, but it kind of is. Aggressively mediocre series are just a pain to sit through and I’m not sure I can advise anyone to sit through this one unless they’re incredibly interested in yuri or Cutie Honey to the point that the series being really good isn’t all that important. Check out Re if you haven’t yet because unlike this show it’s excellent. Or, at least, come into this one cautiously.