SPOILERS: This article covers episodes 1-29 of Hugtto! PreCure.
The magical girl genre as a whole is often stereotyped as blatantly feminine. Characters fight in skirts and frills, love and kindness save the day, and our magical protagonist is almost consistently covered in pink. As a whole, the genre seems to play off of gender stereotypes, but shows such as Hugtto! PreCure go beyond simplistic representations. Through its treatment of male and female characters, Hugtto! PreCure pushes back against gender norms in pursuit of its overall theme: you can do anything, you can be anything.
Each season of the Pretty Cure franchise has a general, overarching focus: music, flowers, princesses, and so on. Hugtto! focuses on “jobs”—a beautifully well-timed focus as more Japanese women than ever are holding some form of a career and Japan faces an unprecedented labor shortage. One of the central conceits of the series is Hana (Cure Yell, the main PreCure) and her fellow Cures exploring the workforce by learning about various types of jobs.
In its exploration of careers, Hugtto! refuses to limit itself to jobs that are more traditionally feminine. The first ending song consists of a list of jobs that young people can be, including jobs that are typically gendered: corporate president, fashion designer, pilot, make-up artist, and engineer, among others. By placing female-coded jobs next to male-coded jobs in the list of what young people can be, the show lives up to it’s catchphrase, “you can do anything,” by suggesting girls can grow up to work in traditionally masculine professions.
Unfortunately, while they are mentioned, it is also worth noting the jobs depicted on screen trend toward the feminine. The show itself has focused on waitressing, childcare, and idols, but not professions such as a pilot, business owner, or illustrator. Considering that there will always be spin-off movies to cameo in, there is still a chance to show the PreCures in more traditionally masculine professions.
Hugtto! also deserves additional attention for its combat, especially when compared to the previous two PreCure franchise entries. Whereas female characters are often relegated to support roles or fight using ranged attacks, PreCure as a franchise has devoted equal amounts of time between ranged attacks and having the heroines simply punching the monsters into submission.
Of course, other magical girl shows have physical combat as well—shows like Sailor Moon drew from the tokusatsu genre and magical girls like Cutie Honey wield weapons such as swords. But since the start of the PreCure franchise, hand-to-hand physical combat has been a staple and fans are quick to notice if they feel it has been removed.
In Maho Girls PreCure!, the PreCures focused on different outfits and forms with different powers to attack the monsters, while Kirakira PreCure a la Mode almost entirely cut out the physical contact in favor of ranged beam attacks. Hugtto! brought physical combat back into the franchise and was recognized for it in fan discussions online. And, though this may seem like a simple thing, having the heroines prove they’re capable of fighting by getting in the ring to physically kick and punch pushes back against the notion that women can only be delicate or fragile.
While Hugtto! primarily focuses on its cast of young heroines, the show also explores gender roles through its male side characters as well, specifically through Henri Wakamiya and Masato Aisaki.
Henri is an ice skater who often wears dresses in the series. While he does not adhere to masculine stereotypes, the show treats Henri’s feminine presentation positively and does not shame him for how he dresses.
In his introductory episode, Henri briefly models a dress at the clothing store which serves as the PreCure’s home base. There’s a token protest from Harry (the mascot hamster and clothing store owner) but it’s immediately countered by Hana, who compliments Henri on his dress.
Hana again jumps to Henri’s defense a few episodes later when some students mock Henri for wearing his school uniform tie in a feminine bow style. Either way, Henri does not seem to be bothered by these naysayers.
Henri’s treatment in Hugtto! is contextually made even better when put into perspective with the series’ earlier entries, such as Smile PreCure and Maho Girls PreCure. Both of those Pretty Cure installments had Cinderella-themed episodes where male villains were cast in the evil stepsister roles and wore dresses for comic relief. The show’s treatment of Henri is a positive step forward for the franchise, as it moves beyond the tired tropes of “man in a dress” for comedic effect and queer-coded villainy.
While his introductory episode did portray Henri in a slightly judgemental light, he is someone the show wants to position as a positive influence for the audience. Since his introduction, Henri has opened up to the protagonists and become their friend.
He attends the same school as the PreCures and spends time joking with them and supporting them throughout the series. The show thus tells its audience that it’s okay for boys to have more feminine interests (like dresses) just like how it’s okay for girls to have more masculine interests (like physical combat).
Meanwhile, Henri’s exploration of gender roles stands in direct contrast to one of the main protagonists’ brother, Masato. Masato confronts Henri and Emiru, his sister, at a fashion show when they and Emiru’s friend Ruru are walking in. Masato belittles the show’s concept: “girls can be heroes too.” While Hana tries to change his mind, Henri ultimately gives Masato pause as he confronts Masato while wearing the dress he’ll wear in the fashion show.
Masato is unambiguously portrayed as being in the wrong. When Henri confronts Masato, he chastises him with the moral of the episode: it’s important to live life without the restrictions placed on you. The lesson is even more meaningful since Henri has shown up regularly before this episode and continues to appear after.
Thus, Henri practices what he preaches by continuing to wear what he wants after the episode ends. It shows that the Hugtto! PreCure creators have a dedication to pushing this moral forward and making sure that it sticks in the mind of the show’s audience.
The fashion show episode isn’t the first time the narrative has unambiguously portrayed Masato in the wrong. A few episodes earlier, Masato discouraged Emiru from playing the guitar as he believes it is an inappropriate instrument for a girl to play—she rejects his thinking and plays anyway.
Not only does Emiru play the guitar, she starts a guitar-playing idol group with Ruru and, a few episodes later, she becomes Cure Macherie who uses a guitar-shaped weapon. By portraying Ruru, Henri, and Emiru in the right and Masato in the wrong, the narrative attempts to tear down gendered barriers, telling children everywhere: “Hey, if you like doing something, go ahead and keep doing it, even if people think it’s not for you.”
Soon after the confrontation at the fashion show, Masato is captured by the enemy. His negative energy and feelings of regret and confusion about Henri and Emiru are used to turn him into the monster of the week. When the monster captures Henri, he makes a little joke about being the princess to his PreCure’s heroes. Hana responds in turn that it’s fine: boys can be princesses too.
Though this is just a one-off line, it’s also a very important one that shows the young audience that there isn’t any shame in being rescued, no matter what your gender is. Even today, media involving female heroes often has the male characters scoff or tease each other about being rescued by a girl.
Henri never jokes about being weak or being seen as less; he simply jokes about being in the rescued position. Likewise, Hana never teases him about being rescued. Her comment about boys being princesses not only flips common gender roles, but does not belittle, demean, or suggest that Henri is weak in any way.
Once the PreCures turn Masato back into a human, it’s implied he’s learned the error of his ways and remains to watch the fashion show. As the show goes on, Masato becomes even more accepting of Henri’s fashion choices and Emiru’s hobbies. His portrayal shifts from being villainized to being a supporter of the PreCure, showing the audience that anyone can change for the better, no matter what viewpoint they started off with.
All in all, a male character who likes wearing dresses, a character who changes his sexist ways, and a group of female superheroes who help punch enemies into submission might not mean much for gender stereotypes in magical girl anime in the long run.
However, the PreCure franchise’s target audience is young children. The PreCure and, to a lesser extent, Henri, are intended to serve as role models. Based on the licensed children’s costumes, high ticket sales to tie-in theatrical releases, and numerous adorable videos of small children dancing along to the ending themes, children do idolize and empathize with the franchise.
If Hugtto! PreCure’s pushback against gender stereotypes helps any child feel more comfortable in their own skin or helps someone feel more comfortable with their gender-non-conforming friend, then that’s worthy of admiration. Like the Precures themself, here’s hoping that Hugtto! Precure will serve as a role model for its audience and inspire more series, especially more children’s series, to challenge outdated gender norms in the future.