Spoilers for all of Healin’ Good Pretty Cure
Healin’ Good Pretty Cure establishes three things about its main protagonist, Hanadera Nodoka, throughout the first two episodes. The first is her enthusiasm for everything, starting with her new home and continuing to every new experience throughout the show. The second is that she’s eager to help others, running through her new town to help an old woman with a heavy package, or evacuate a park when a monster attacks. The third, encountered after both of these acts, is that she tires easily and is extremely unathletic. In a season about environmentalism and illness, Nodoka is in remission from a years-long infection and doesn’t want anyone to suffer the way she did. While she’s not quite depicted as disabled or chronically ill in the show itself, her arc focuses on recovery from a chronic illness in ways that can be similar to managing one.
Chronic illness is a condition that lasts one year or more, and either requires ongoing medical attention, limits activities of daily living, or both. Often, these illnesses co-occur—the CDC estimates that six in ten adults in the US have a chronic disease (their term), and that four in ten have two or more. A 2018 article by Cother Hajat and Emma Stein estimates that worldwide, one in three people have multiple chronic conditions, though the authors point out the term is imprecise because different countries have different definitions of such conditions. These range from fairly well-known conditions like diabetes and arthritis, to diseases like cancer, to conditions like mast cell disorders that researchers are only now starting to understand. Many require complex care to manage, requiring time-consuming visits to doctors or elaborate combinations of medications. This is on top of the symptoms themselves, as many make you feel constantly tired or cause chronic pain.
In the disability and chronic illness communities, a common metaphor to describe the energy costs of being ill is Christine Miserandino’s spoons theory. The metaphor has been adopted by many sub-communities under the broader disability banner, including conditions where the cost is mental as much as it is physical. It’s still especially useful for illnesses similar to Miserandino’s lupus: autoimmune and neurological conditions, like fibromyalgia and ME/CFS, that frequently develop after viral infections and leave the patient particularly prone to chronic fatigue and pain. The illnesses in this cluster are also very similar to—or are subsets of—the post-viral symptoms that can follow infection with COVID-19, known colloquially as Long Covid.
Healin’ Good had unfortunate timing for its theme, premiering in February 2020 shortly before the global pandemic was declared. This can make the “fighting illness” themes harder to watch, especially when it goes from fantastic monster fights to Nodoka relapsing in Episode 28. However, it also makes Nodoka’s arc particularly timely. While we don’t yet know the full long-term impact of Covid on people’s bodies, particularly children, we know that it can be a disabling condition. Even in recovery, her arc’s focus on prioritizing her own health can be helpful for the newly chronically ill and people around them.
Nodoka’s illness is ultimately supernatural in origin, but probably best compared to something like cancer, which the World Health Organization estimates 400,000 children develop worldwide every year. It’s an illness, rather than a long-term condition or how her body naturally responds to threats. The symptoms are left vague, but include a low temperature and weak pulse. We see her wearing what appears to be a ventilator in some flashbacks, and being pushed in a wheelchair by hospital staff—she appears to have been hospitalized the entire experience, which lasted years. These also leave her with low stamina and conditioning, which take months to build to a non-athlete’s baseline. We also know it caused her severe pain. She makes a complete recovery both before the show starts and after her midseason relapse, but the experience is still isolating and traumatic, made all the worse because she doesn’t know what it is, how to treat it, or if it might come back.
In Episodes 27 and 28, just past the halfway point of the season, recurring villain Daruizen uses a piece of the season villain King Byo-gen to infect Nodoka. It leaves her with symptoms identical to her original illness. The Cures realize that Nodoka’s original infection was also caused by their enemies, the Byo-gens. Further, they and Daruizen realize that Nodoka was his original host, and Daruizen is the entity that made her sick for so long. Her recovery from the second bout is much less pronounced—she goes from struggling to breathe to being able to fight and resume life as normal almost immediately thanks to her Pretty Cure powers.
It’s a magical cure for a magical illness, which can be fraught in terms of representation in both the disability and chronic illness communities. They are definitionally unrealistic, and plenty of disabled people would argue that we don’t need “curing” so much as we need support and acceptance by society as a whole. But a magic cure can be cathartic or escapist sometimes, as well, especially for people with conditions that cause chronic pain and fatigue who do support the idea of a cure. It’s important to remember in these conversations that “disability” and even “chronic illness” are huge umbrellas, and there is no singular universal representation of what it looks like.
Reactions to Nodoka’s illness—and speedy recovery—may go either way depending on the viewer. Her first illness, though, makes her feel a bit like a power fantasy, even if her illness and mine (a permanent condition) are different. She had several years being very ill and still can’t push herself too hard, but she still recovers and gets superpowers that let her do things her body won’t currently allow normally. The traits she developed during her lengthy illness inform her heroism, something the show states throughout. And when she relapses—probably her worst nightmare, given how mysterious her illness was—Nodoka discovers what it is, and that she has the power to ensure it never happens again.
Where Nodoka’s physical recovery from the relapse is quick, the mental impact of the Daruizen reveal leaves her reeling. Nodoka has a tendency to take too much on herself: she wears herself out helping people twice in the first episode, and feels responsible in a later episode when the doctor who managed her care says that he’s changing his specialty to research because of how helpless he felt with Nodoka’s illness. Because she was Daruizen’s host, she feels responsible for the harm Daruizen’s causing. She pushes herself extra-hard physically, trying to rapidly increase her strength as a civilian to be a better fighter as a Cure. During the next fight, she’s extra aggressive, despite being worn out already.
In the early episodes, Nodoka’s allies sometimes worry about her too much, and this is something the characters all need to learn to mediate so that Nodoka retains her own agency while still taking care of herself. Nodoka’s Healing Animal partner Rabirin tries to find someone else because she’s worried Nodoka is too physically vulnerable when untransformed, and her teammate Hinata feels guilty and tries to fight a Byo-gen on her own when crowds on a mall trip leave Nodoka wiped out. Nodoka pushes back when it happens—she wants to fight and protect others, because she spent so long sick and wants to prevent others’ suffering, and she enjoyed the trip even if she needed to rest.
By Episode 29, Nodoka’s friends respect her abilities as a leader and Pretty Cure, but they also recognize that her limits aren’t the same as theirs. Chiyu, a serious athlete, points out that Nodoka can get hurt by suddenly pushing herself so hard, and helps come up with a sustainable running schedule, while Hinata makes a juice blend for her and her housemate Asumi takes up running alongside her. Nodoka’s friends support her, not by being overprotective but by learning what she can handle and encouraging her to work with that. And because the show has already shown what overprotectiveness looks like, it can differentiate situations where Nodoka is pushing too hard and the others are encouraging her to ease back.
As the show nears its finale in Episode 42, King Byo-gen has been resurrected, having absorbed one of the other Tera Byo-gen to do it. Daruizen is next. He manages to escape, but is seriously injured in the process. Then he runs into Nodoka and Rabirin, and asks Cure Grace for help. Because she was his original host, he reasons while grabbing her arm, if he hides in her body, then he’ll be able to recover. Nodoka looks blatantly terrified during all of this, and runs away. But the decision is clearly weighing on her the next day—she doesn’t sleep well, doesn’t have an appetite, and avoids her friends the next day at school. Rabirin approaches her after dinner, assuming she knows the problem. Surely, because Nodoka’s so kind, she wanted to save Daruizen, but held off because of Rabirin’s duty to purify the Byo-gen. Rabirin says that if it’s what Nodoka wants to do, she’ll support her, before Nodoka cuts in. “I’m not so kind,” she says, curled in on herself in shame.
Nodoka’s learned to make peace with her years-long illness. She wouldn’t be the person she was today without the experience—per commentary from staff, it was five years, so nearly half Nodoka’s life so far—but it was hard on her, and frightening. She doesn’t want to go through it again, and even says she can’t. Her relapse earlier in the series backs it up: it’s physically hard on Nodoka, no matter how quickly she recovers afterwards, and terrifies her parents. Nodoka feels like she should have said yes, and that she’s less kind for running away. But she doesn’t want to.
Rabirin apologizes for misunderstanding Nodoka, and asks if she wants to help Daruizen. Not “does she feel like she should,” but “does she want to.” And when Nodoka says no, Rabirin’s immediate response is, “Then don’t do it.” She doesn’t have to. She has no duty nor responsibility to sacrifice herself for him. She’s already doing her best to help people, and Rabirin will fight anyone who says otherwise. It’s okay for Nodoka to put her health and feelings first.
Conspicuously missing from this sequence? Any discussion of who Daruizen is as a person, after that initial mistaken assumption. Daruizen has been the most unenthusiastic of the recurring villains, but has never really questioned what he’s doing. But instead of framing it around the fact that Daruizen hasn’t actually taken any of the meaningful steps toward redemption, it’s framed around his role as the illness that Nodoka spent years fighting. She doesn’t want to go through that again, and Rabirin says “You don’t have to,” no matter how that impacts Daruizen. Nodoka’s not any less kind or heroic for saying no to something that she knows would seriously hurt her. Daruizen is the one taking advantage of her kindness. This continues into the climax of the episode, where a building-sized Daruizen targets Nodoka while the others keep her safe. He manages to pull himself together and beg Nodoka for help again, insisting his out-of-control rampage isn’t him and that she’s his only hope.
The first thing Nodoka asks is “And what would happen to me?” But even after asking if he’d stop harming the Earth, she doesn’t want to help him. He could have sincerely decided to stop being evil after this battle, and Nodoka still wouldn’t owe him her help. Taking the rest of the episode’s framing into account, she wouldn’t owe anyone the kind of help that would risk a major flare from her. It would be out of line for them even to ask. On the other side, when Asumi proposes a plan to fight King Byo-gen in which she takes another monster into herself the same way Daruizen wanted, she echoes Nodoka—she’s willing to take this risk on for herself to save the world, and because it’s her body and soul, she’s allowed to choose that.
The focus stays on the potential impact on both Cures’ bodies. And the show says “No. You don’t have to do this. If you feel it’s worth the risk, you can, but you don’t have to. If someone asks, it proves they don’t have your best interests at heart.” This message is just as applicable to someone disabled who’s facing pressure to keep going even when they’re at their limit. A good friend, like Rabirin, Chiyu, Hinata, and Asumi have proven, will encourage you to rest and help you recover when you need to.
When Nodoka pushes herself too far, she falls into a line of thinking common to those facing ableism, and those prone to internalizing it. She thinks that she needs to be trying harder, even if it exhausts herself. With her friends’ support behind her, she’s allowed to set limits so she doesn’t relapse, and she’s no less kind or heroic for it. Her health can come first, and someone who jeopardizes that doesn’t have her best interests at heart. For children watching the show, this is an important moral—both for children like Nodoka, living with or recovering from a chronic illness, and friends who could use the model on how to be supportive. Healin’ Good Pretty Cure may be a fantasy series, but it offers a refreshing, nuanced, and supportive take on chronic illness that’s very resonant and applicable for the real world.