What’s it about? Five high school boys who belong to the “Earth Defense Club (lol)” spend their afternoons goofing around together, but all that changes when a talking otter calling himself Prince Karl appears in the local bathhouse. Karl “hires” them as his (unpaid) Magic Knights so they can bring happiness to the land—and help him become king in the process.
The creative team behind Cute High Earth Defense Club LOVE is trying to turn their magical boy show into a bonafide franchise by launching this second series, HAPPY KISS. With a brand-new cast and Michiko Yokote no longer working as series composer, can Cute High rekindle the flame of brilliant stupidity that made LOVE so much fun? If this first episode is any indication, the answer is a cautious but delighted “Yes.”
Full disclosure: Cute High is one of my favorite anime comedies of the past few years. Its magnificent second season even made my 2016 Top 10 list. It is, however, something of an uneven and problematic fave.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time trying to explain its paradoxical charms, particularly how it’s both a parody and love letter to the magical girl genre and the way it simultaneously captures the absurdity and importance of adolescence. On the flip side, I’ll freely admit its first season slumps in the middle and its attempts at satire don’t always land (particularly when it tries to walk a tightrope between poking fun at “bromance” anime and just straight-up being a BL series).
It’s also worth noting that there are a lot of naked teen boys in this series, thanks to the guys’ love of public baths and the magical girl-inspired nude transformation sequences. It’s never bothered me, probably because Cute High is targeted at an audience that’s the same age as its characters, the camera tends to be matter-of-fact instead of leering, and there’s always a winking playfulness to it… but, I mean, it does feature nude teenagers, and self-aware fanservice is still fanservice. I won’t try to defend it, and I can understand if it’s a deal-breaker for some folks.
I begin with all of this because, while HAPPY KISS isn’t identical to LOVE (more on that in a minute), it does follow the same general structure and tone, and so far it features all the same strengths, quirks, and flaws. If you tried LOVE and didn’t like it, HAPPY KISS isn’t going to do anything for you. If you enjoyed LOVE, then you’ll probably enjoy this premiere. And if you’re thinking about jumping into the franchise for the first time—well, hopefully now you have a general idea of what you’re getting into.
HAPPY KISS is still the same magical boy comedy series, complete with cute talking animals with ulterior motives, a group of reluctant heroes, a rival organization led by another cute talking animal, anxious classmates whose hangs-up allow the bad guys to turn them into monsters, and the heroes stepping up to halfheartedly save the day. There’s a good chance the series could slide into repetitive laziness, but there are a few key differences this time around that leave me hopeful HAPPY KISS will find ways to shake up its formula.
For one, there’s a more clear-cut plot line this time around. Karl, the otter animal companion, is the first prince of Honyala Land, and he’s competing with his little brother to see which of them will become king. This personal angle, combined with Karl’s ability to turn into a human, offers narrative opportunities beyond the usual monster-of-the-week shenanigans.
Karl is much more aggressive and selfishly motivated than LOVE‘s Wom-san, which is already creating tension between him and the guys. I’d love to see that tension expand into the narrative itself and have the series challenge Karl’s ideas about “forcing happiness” onto other people, though it’s unclear yet if it’s planning to do so.
“Higher tensions” might be the general direction of this series, in fact, as the other major change involves the personality of the team leader (i.e., the guy wearing red). Yumoto, the earnest leader in LOVE, was gung-ho about the job and always sympathetic to the week’s monster. As for HAPPY KISS‘s leader, well… Kyotaro-kun is Always Listless. He’s more interested in napping than fighting, and while he does try to cheer up this week’s troubled classmate (a student who doesn’t want to grow up lest he lose his innocence and become “dirty”), he’s pretty terrible at it.
All of this suggests that HAPPY KISS may have sharper edges than LOVE, and that leaves me wary. A large part of LOVE‘s charm was the way it balanced blunt observations with sincere compassion; the Battle Lovers always called the monsters out on their bullshit, but they also listened, sympathized with, and helped them work through their hang-ups.
Yumoto’s sweet innocence didn’t make him the most entertaining member of the LOVE cast, but he was integral to keeping the story lighthearted instead of mean-spirited. HAPPY KISS will need to find its own moral center in the coming weeks, I think, or it’ll struggle not to slide into smug cynicism.
But that’s a worry for future weeks. For now, Cute High is back and just as irreverent as ever. The repetitious formula may grow old for some folks, but for me, I don’t particularly mind if the beats are the same as long as they make me laugh, and this premiere certainly accomplished that. Between Karl’s terrible sales pitch, meta-jokes about Kyotaro missing from the frame, the goofy-looking horn monster running around shouting “Blorf!”, and Taishi’s nonchalant response to being teleported to school in nothing but a bath towel, HAPPY KISS had me giggling just as regularly as LOVE did.
Whether Cute High is stupidly clever or cleverly stupid, I’m still not certain. But I sure am glad to have its tongue-in-cheek brand of humor back on my watchlist.