Spoilers for Tropical Rouge! PreCure.
Media for young girls is often full of gender stereotypes—and the magical girl genre is no different. When Pretty Cure announced that their eighteenth season would be themed around makeup and mermaids, many fans online feared that the series was regressing into gender-specific tropes and expectations. However, what Tropical-Rouge! Pretty Cure delivered could not be more ideal: not only does it express a modern, empowering take on the culture of makeup, it also deliberately puts a new spin on the story of The Little Mermaid. With both of these motifs, Tropical-Rouge balances historical attitudes with refreshing, contemporary ideas that grant its young female characters agency and thus delivers a great message to its target audience.
Applying Makeup With a Varied Palette
When it comes to modern magical girl franchises, there is simply nothing like Pretty Cure in terms of both scale and overall sales. In Japan, PreCure products have consistently ranked in the top-selling toys for girls for well over a decade, so what they sell to girls both in product and in narrative is always important to consider. In the case of Tropical-Rouge! Pretty Cure, the usual array of toys also came with a new makeup line called “Pretty Holic”, a series tie-in for the young fans of the show. This was in keeping with the fact that each Cure has a different “charm point” in-series: lips, cheeks, eyes, nails, and hair.
Across the history of magical girl series, there have been many iterations of characters using makeup, though it usually functions as just a transformation device. Immediate and prominent examples are in the Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon franchise (1992-present) with “make-up” being a literal part of the transformation catchphrase, followed by Wedding Peach (1995) and most recently Smile Pretty Cure (2012) a.k.a. Glitter Force (2015) where cosmetics are merely a method of activating a transformation rather than a central theme of the series. Still, the inclusion of child-friendly cosmetics into a mainstream, popular iteration of Pretty Cure was enough to concern some parents.
In an interview in Animage’s January 2022 Tropical-Rouge! PreCure special issue, producer Murase Aki stated that, “It’s a mermaid motif, but it’s not The Little Mermaid. It’s the tale of strong girls doing the most right now. When they use makeup, it’s not for a prince!” This statement and this idea underlines this entry in the Pretty Cure franchise.
This season has two protagonists: the human Manatsu Natsuumi, who becomes Cure Summer, and Laura Apollodoros Hyginus La Mer, known primarily as Mermaid Laura. In Episode 1, Laura comes to land to find the legendary warriors known as Pretty Cure, while Manatsu is traveling to her mother’s Aozora City from her father’s Minamino Island. During her travels, Manatsu loses her mother’s lipstick in the ocean, which Laura finds, connecting them together. Manatsu explains lipstick to Laura as something she wears when she needs a boost of confidence. We see Manatsu doing this on occasion, but not as often as you might expect, as she’s generally a very confident girl. Her motto is “Do what’s most important in the moment,” and people doing this are what she calls “tropica-shining”.
Makeup is respected as a useful tool, but also not enforced in any way by the characters or by the rules of the show. Yes, when Manatsu, Sango, Minori, and Asuka become Cure Summer, Cure Coral, Cure Papaya, and Cure Flamingo respectively, they must apply magic in a makeup-like fashion. But in their daily lives, makeup is a rare occurrence, something that reflects the lives and habits of real Japanese school girls. They can’t use makeup regularly because that’s not allowed in real schools either, but they can have fun with it in their free time and visit the Pretty Holic store run by Sango’s mother (Pretty Holic has continued into the next season, Delicious Party PreCure, making it a tie-in chain in at least two towns in this magical universe).
Each member of the Tropical Club, which is focused on doing anything and everything they can think of “tropica-shining” at, has a different but overwhelmingly positive relationship to makeup. When Minori, a typically shy girl, explores makeup, it gives her the confidence to face her own fears and explore the world outside of books. In Asuka, we see a girl equal parts tough and beautiful, a lover of cute animals and sports alike: a message that emphasizes, as many past PreCure have, that girls don’t have to choose between supposed “girl” things and supposed “boy” things.
For Sango, whose mother is a makeup artist, she learns that she can use her knowledge and appreciation of makeup to help others around her to express themselves to their fullest potential, if they so wish. Finally, in Laura, we have a girl who discovers makeup rather late in her life and uses it as a catalyst to change her entire world—but more on that below.
It’s a great way to show children that while makeup is fun, it’s not a requirement by any means. Following Manatsu’s motto, makeup is presented consistently as something that boosts confidence and increases strength, rather than something that “makes” you beautiful or cute. Through Sango’s story arc, the narrative even explores that the very idea of what “cuteness” can be isn’t set in stone, but is instead decided by the individual. This is an interesting twist on PreCure’s lessons compared to the work of past seasons. While the cute and colorful characters of the modern era might not make this as clear, the PreCure franchise was built on a foundation of presenting stereotypically boyish concepts as feminine.
Overwhelmingly, the series has a positive and inclusive take on femininity, showing its characters engaging with it in their own ways without being constrained by any kind of social expectations. This, combined with the season’s spin on its fairy tale motif, makes for a refreshing narrative.
Making a Splash Under the Sea and On Screen
In recent years, the franchise has had many Cures who are non-human, whether they’re androids, aliens, ethereal spirits, or literal creation goddesses. They’re fun, as otherworldly creatures often are, but they also serve as a reflection of the young (predominantly preschool-aged) audience: characters who are allowed to ask basic questions about what’s normal in society. In the same vein, Tropical Rouge shows Laura La Mer learning about makeup as an outsider. This outsider perspective makes sense; after all, it would be a bit difficult to apply powders underwater. Since the most famous story about mermaids is The Little Mermaid, it also makes sense that this tale of transformation would be the base from which Laura’s character arc blossomed.
In the same Animage special issue, head writer Yokotani Masahiro said, “Andersen’s Little Mermaid is a story about someone who instantly disappears after falling in love with a prince. As for me, I prefer strong girls who stand out over girls who live for princes.” It’s been a long time since Toei Animation tried to tackle The Little Mermaid in an original magical girl series, but it seems worth pointing out that in Mahou no Mako-chan (1970) the mermaid very much lived for her love interest and nearly died trying on makeup one time, so we’ve truly come a long way. Whenever faced with the tale in the show, Laura is quick to dismiss The Little Mermaid as unworthy of her attention for a variety of reasons.
Mermaid Laura is kidnapped at the end of Episode 16 and taken to our main villain, the Witch of Delays, by the beginning of Episode 17. The Witch promises all who work for her the opportunity to make a wish come true, and in the case of Laura, she tries to tempt her by promising to make her into a human. However, rather than accepting this bargain, Laura announces that she will become human by herself, for herself. Despite the fact that she doesn’t have her own powers yet, she is able to make it out of the Witch’s castle on her own. Needing to rescue her friends, she awakens as Cure La Mer, gaining a human form that she can freely change in and out of. She rewrites the classic fairy tale to one where she is self-actualized and becomes human, not for a prince, but for herself and her friends, and does so with fantastically painted nails.
When Laura abandons the path set by Andersen, the Little Mermaid metaphors pass on to the Witch, who has so delayed her life mission that she’s long forgotten what it was, or why she delayed it in the first place. Meanwhile, the PreCure are contacted by the spirit of the Legendary PreCure of this season, an unnamed green Cure who asks them to save the Witch they’ve been struggling to defeat. The fairy tale reflections make a comeback in Episode 44, which tells the story of the friendship between the legendary Cure, known in her civilian form as Aunete, and a monster known at the time as the Witch of Destruction.
After this newfound friendship, perhaps the only one she had ever known, the Witch found herself unsure of her purpose in life, especially in the face of fighting Cure Oasis herself. She attempts to enact agency by not acting, procrastinating her mission to destroy the world, which allows her minion Butler to lead her to a more passive path to destruction. Acting in her name, Butler makes sure the Witch would destroy once again, inevitably removing her agency from her.
Luckily, in the present day, Cure Oasis is able to return to her long lost friend via the Tropical-Rouge team, and she and the Witch float away together towards death in a flurry of seafoam, thus presenting the ending of Andersen’s tale in a much less lonely way. The Little Mermaid imagery here forms the tragic, bittersweet backstory of the villain and her eventual redemption, rather than something for the protagonists to model.
It’s great to see a rewriting of The Little Mermaid, but how can that lesson be applied to human girls in the real world? For this, we can still look to Laura’s story arc. In Episode 37, Laura learns a great secret about Grand Ocean: any mermaid who encounters humans has their memory of the event erased upon their return home, in accordance with the law. It is generally understood to be an unfair law, but seemingly unthwartable, much like how laws don’t necessarily equal morality in the real world, either.
Luckily, Laura’s wit and friendship is enough to fight off this supposed fate. Before returning home, she does everything in her power to ensure that she finds a way back through the former minions of the Witch, who are now reliable allies, not bound to Grand Ocean law. Her drive to make sure she remembers the friends she treasures in Aozora City is so strong she breaks the machine that removed everyone’s memories, changing her society forever. Not only does Laura subvert the Little Mermaid narrative by retaining her own agency, she manages to transform an unjust system and make sure nobody else gets harmed.
We Tropica-Shine, and So Can You!
PreCure is a show meant to lead children towards their section of the toy store, but the franchise has proven, especially in their international viewership, that the story is solid enough without that context, and the Cures are incredible role models for today’s children. It could have been so easy to tell a regressive story using the power of makeup, but instead, when the audience sees Manatsu bump her confidence up with her mother’s lipstick, it’s the exciting precursor to a very serious battle, and an exciting avenue for confidence and individuality across a varied cast of characters.
Again, it is absolutely understandable to have reservations about any show for young girls that includes makeup use at all, especially since they are prone to give messages of necessity in relation to true femininity. Likewise, contemporary stories that nod to fairy tales run the risk of repeating their archaic messages with regards to gender roles and tragic fates. However, Tropical-Rouge! PreCure’s 45 episodes delivered on an exciting and incredible story of female empowerment that went above and beyond. They embraced every level of relationship to makeup, making it an option of femininity to be celebrated. They showed its audience that whatever your story and whatever your dreams, you should take action towards it as best you can. Tropical-Rouge creates an empowering and inclusive space where everybody can tropica-shine regardless of their background.