[The following is the script of part 1 of Mahou Profile’s Cutie Honey miniseries, viewable on YouTube here. This post to be updated with an accurate video transcript and citations in the future.]
Hey there everyone! Quick heads up before we start this whole endeavour: the Cutie Honey franchise is infamous for its depictions of nudity, violence, sexual humour, and sexual assault. While I will not show anything that violates YouTube’s content guidelines, discussing this show will inevitably lead to topics and imagery which could still be sensitive to some. For these individual video parts, I will include a listing up front with general content warnings for each part. Here is the content warning for Part 1.
And with that… on with the show.
[roll Mahou Profile opening]
Hey there everyone and welcome to Mahou Profile: A History of Magical Girls! We’ve seen a lot of wild stuff in the early days of this genre—little witches, magic mirrors, mermaids, ninjas, cyborgs, and the most bizarre attempt at sex ed ever aired on television. However, in a weird way? All the shows we’ve profiled thus far have fit a similar mold. Every magical girl anime up to 1973 was, to some degree or another, a whimsical slice-of-life story focused on funny antics, problem solving, and the occasional dip into melodrama and character building. Some of them just… happened to involve more gun-wielding hobos and magic zygotes is all.
And honestly, if you squint hard enough, you could argue that the subject of today’s episode fits this mold as well. After all, it was produced by Toei Animation, the same studio who produced all but one of the pre-1973 magical girl anime. It’s about the daily life of a girl with extraordinary powers who helps people out with their problems. It has its fair share of melodrama and character moments. And the heroine’s most notable power is transformation, which by this point was a fairly common trope in the genre.
That said, it would be disingenuous to claim that today’s subject isn’t at least a little… [insert some action-oriented clips] …uhhh… [relatively tame but suggestive clips here] …different, let’s say.
Yes, groundbreaking to some. Horrifying to others. Arguably both to just as many more. Today we are discussing the origins, success, and legacy of Cutie Honey.
Part 1 – The Creation of Cutie Honey
[opening footage: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VYCzN6SKEy4]
As we discussed last episode, in 1973, Toei was workshopping pitches for two similar shows about transforming female cyborgs. Both of these pitches were competing for placement in NET’s highly desirable Monday night “majokko” (or “little witch girl”) timeslot, where past magical girl megahits such as Sally the Witch and Himitsu no Akko-chan had first aired. One of these pitches ended up being the ill-fated Miracle Girl Limit-chan (see the previous Mahou Profile for more on that). And the other pitch came courtesy of a little company by the name of Dynamic Productions.
Oh, and when I say “little company”? I mean that very literally. Dynamic Productions was tiny. It consisted of one manga creator, his brothers, and a couple of his assistants. That’s it. And that manga creator’s name? Was Go Nagai.
So. Go Nagai is another one of those big, intimidating creators to talk about. The sheer amount, breadth, and reach of his work is staggering. To hit just a few highlights: he is considered an innovator for popularizing explicit sex and violence in modern manga. He forever changed the mecha genre with the invention of the piloted giant robot (seen first in his series Mazinger Z). And then forever changed it again with the first combining robot in Getter Robo. As well, the epic themes and aesthetics of his dark hero series Devilman would influence a wide variety of creators, including shoujo manga supergroup CLAMP, Neon Genesis Evangelion director Hideaki Anno, and celebrated indie director Masaaki Yuasa, who helmed a stylish new adaptation of the Devilman series in 2018 called Devilman Crybaby.
And finally, among Nagai’s many accomplishments, he helped to marry science fiction and tokusatsu tropes with the early magical girl genre to create Cutie Honey: the first ever magical girl warrior anime.
Yeah. Dude’s done a lot, let’s say.
Now, Nagai is mainly known as a manga creator, and we’ll get more into that side of things in a later part. However, early on in his manga career, Nagai made several important connections with the television and animation industries. One of his first ever works was a 1967 manga adaptation of the anime Chibikko Kaiju Yadamon. [onscreen text over an image of the magical girl Yadamon: “No relation.”] A couple of years later, Nagai’s breakout hit Shameless School received film and television adaptations, both live action. While this seemed like a great deal for Nagai as a young creator, due to his inexperience with contracts, he ended up receiving only a tiny fraction of royalties from these productions. Understandably, in April 1969, Nagai and his brothers formed Dynamic Productions as a way to protect his creative rights going forward.
Then in 1972, Nagai began serializing both Devilman and Mazinger Z. Working with Nagai through Dynamic Productions, Toei Animation produced anime adaptations for both series, airing them near-simultaneously with the original manga runs. And given that the Devilman and Mazinger anime both became gigantic hits for Toei? They were more than happy to work with Nagai on further projects.
So in the wake of Devilman and Mazinger, Nagai had a meeting with Ken Ariga, a producer and planning director at Toei, to discuss ideas. In this meeting, Ariga asked if Nagai could pitch something involving the idea of “seven transformations”. This may sound like a weirdly specific request, but according to the preface of a 1992 reprint of the manga, Nagai explains that he was pretty sure where this idea came from. At the time, one of Toei’s popular film titles was a series of mysteries featuring the character of Bannai Tarao, a private eye and master of disguise often called “The Man with Seven Faces”. [relevant Bannai Tarao clips] Bannai Tarao wasn’t the only series to use this “seven faces” trope either. Others include Kotohime Shichihenge (a period story about a swordswoman with seven forms), Seven Color Mask (Toei’s first original superhero series, also about a hero with seven forms), and Warrior of Love Rainbowman (featuring another hero with, you guessed it, seven forms).
If these inspirations are accurate, then the roots of Honey’s transformations reach back much further than the television era. All of these characters likely had seven forms as a nod to the kabuki tradition of “hayagawari”, or quick costume changes. Indeed, the man who most often played Bannai Tarao, a veteran actor named Chiezo Kataoka, was a kabuki prodigy in his youth before leaving the stage behind for the world of moviemaking. His experience with the art form shows in his methodical and subtly heightened acting in those films.
While “hayagawari” can refer to any on-stage quick change, there are several popular kabuki productions which specifically call for one actor to take on seven different roles throughout a performance, each with their own associated quick change. [relevant stage show clips of The Seven Roles of Osome] This trope is often referred to as either “nanabake” or “shichihenge”, both of which roughly translate to “seven transformations”. It was this long-standing trope, “shichihenge”, which producer Ariga was likely invoking. After Cutie Honey, the trend of heroes with multiple forms would continue on in countless anime and live action tokusatsu series thereafter, making Honey an extremely important bridging point between old tropes and new.
In any case: Nagai gave this whole “seven transformations” idea some thought and decided it would be a fun thing to do with a modern female protagonist, likening the concept to a model showing off outfits at a fashion show. Not to mention a heroine with multiple forms would be very easy to turn into a line of dolls for young girls go go capitalism vroom vroom cynical marketing decisions V8 baby let’s go. Each of the seven forms might represent a popular occupation that girls may want to be when they grow up, for instance. With that in mind, Nagai agreed to develop this new transforming heroine idea for Toei.
As he workshopped the concept, Nagai added some science fiction elements to the mix, as he had always been fond of the genre. More specifically, he drew some major inspiration from one of the most iconic figures in science fiction history: The Maschinenmensch, or “The Machine Man” from Fritz Lang’s silent film classic Metropolis.
If you’ve never seen Metropolis (and you should, it’s great): about midway through the story, an evil scientist kidnaps a young woman named Maria and uses the Maschinenmensch to create a robot duplicate of her. This robotic Maria then goes out to sow chaos in the original’s place. And one of the most famous parts of the film is a scene in which “Maria” performs a flashy, erotic dance to influence a mass gathering of people. [clips from the dance] Nagai, being the unabashed horndog that he is, no doubt found the idea of a sexy, powerful robot… appealing, let’s say.
So Nagai developed the idea of Honey Tachibana, a teenage android who could transform into seven different forms. At this point in development, the project title was not finalized. Early proposals did use the name Cutie Honey, but for some period of time in between conception and final release, the working title for the show was Honey Idol. I haven’t been able to confirm exactly why the “Idol” part of the title is there. One of her forms was set to be singer/songwriter named Kaoru Murasaki, but I can’t find any evidence that Kaoru was that much more important than any of Honey’s other forms. Plus the meaning of the term “idol” wasn’t as solidified in Japanese culture back then as it is now, so it’s not clear if the title was even referring to her being a performer. What we do know for sure is that Nagai named Honey after the protagonist of one of his favourite American television series: Honey West.
Based on the 1957 book series of the same name, Honey West is a 1965 series about the escapades of a fashionable detective named, well, Honey West. One of the first female detectives on American television, Honey had it all—killer looks, a sports car, a gun, disguises, martial arts training, a dashing male sidekick, a pet ocelot, and an arsenal of wild James Bond-esque gadgets. [Relevant Honey West clips here] Given the character’s blond bombshell looks and fantastical gadgets, the association with exotic cats, the strong fashion sense— Yeah, Honey West was definitely more than just a namesake here. Her entire image was embedded in the DNA of what Nagai’s Honey would eventually become.
Next, since Honey Idol was supposed to be aimed at a female demographic, Nagai added some romance elements to the story, similar to how Toei had used romance in their previous teen magical girl show Mahou no Mako-chan. Honey’s love interest would be a man named Shun Kazami, a handsome young journalist always on the lookout for a scoop. Supposedly this original concept for the series would have revolved heavily around comedy and the romance between Honey and Shun, and would have featured little violence or action. …Despite Honey’s character concept being perfect for an action series.
Yeah, while feminist movements like women’s lib in the 1960’s and 70’s had made their mark in Japan by this point? There were still a lot of insidious ideas in the country about what girls could and could not watch, and what female protagonists could and could not do. So, despite Honey being designed to have a lot of power, she (much like her studiomate Limit-chan) was going to be restricted in what she could do based on her audience.
To be clear: while there is plenty to criticize about how he has stereotyped and objectified women throughout his work, Nagai has at least always believed that it’s wrong to deny women power due to their gender. We can see this in other early works of his such as The Abashiri Family, which features a tough-as-nails tomboy gangster girl named Kikunosuke. [Relevant Abashiri Family clip here] Nagai’s motives for creating characters like Kikunosuke were, uh, rarely pure let’s say. But the fact that he created these powerful female characters at all is a sight more than most of his peers were doing at least. Not that that’s saying much, but still.
And to be even clearer: all early magical girl anime were transgressive to some degree or another. It’s not just Cutie Honey. After all, they allowed young girls an opportunity to see empowered female heroes saving the day on a weekly basis. This is not a small feat and absolutely should be celebrated. I mean, come on, why do you think I started doing this show in the first place? F’in’… get over it.
However, it should also be stated that very few of these early shows pushed boundaries far enough to truly threaten established power structures. While supernatural powers were involved, most early magical girl shows still focused their weekly conflicts on interpersonal issues or mundane threats such as bullying, petty crime, or environmental issues. Again, not small feats, but—as I pointed out in my Chappy the Witch video—instances of magical girls fighting against more powerful enemies were very, very rare up to this point. As well, in almost all of these early shows, the protagonist either loses her powers or leaves all her human friends behind by the end of the series. Both outcomes effectively communicate the same thing to an audience: that sure, girls and women can have power. But in the end? That power has limits. It can only go so far.
([cough, sidebar voice] Incidentally, the only exception to all of this prior to 1973 was the overpowered ninja heroine Sarutobi Ecchan. And Ecchan just so happened to be created by Go Nagai’s mentor Shotaro Ishinomori. Huh. How ‘bout that.)
So it was a bit of a blessing in disguise when Toei eventually awarded the majokko time slot to Miracle Girl Limit-chan instead of Honey Idol. This meant that Nagai and his team now had an opportunity for some retooling, which they gladly took.
Eventually the show ended up being scheduled for Saturday evenings at 8:30 PM as part of “Majuu Kaijin Daihenshin!!!” (or “Demon Beast Monsters’ Great Transformations!!!”). This was an hour-long programming block for shows featuring transforming heroes. All right, yeah, that makes sense. Not only that, but this was also the same programming block that had aired Devilman just one year prior. What’s that, you say? Another Go Nagai title needs a time slot? Well of course give it the Devilman slot! That makes all of the sense in the world, have at it! …But, well, you see… The only potential issue with this programming block was that it had only ever aired shounen anime (a.k.a.: anime aimed at young boys). And as such, the block had never featured a female protagonist before. Because of course it hadn’t.
Still, this time slot excited Nagai greatly. He was all for introducing a female protagonist to a male audience, adamant that a female hero could be just as exciting for boys as a male one. He was also a fan of breaking expectations and taboos in general, so the idea of creating such a groundbreaking action heroine just really tickled his fancy. (And probably some other things–)
On that note, I have to stress this: as groundbreaking as she was, Honey was not the first action heroine in anime. In his book Beautiful Fighting Girl, scholar Tamaki Saito cites Bai-Niang from 1958’s Tale of the White Serpent as the first example of the “beautiful fighting girl” trope in anime (you may remember her if you watched my “Magical Girl Ancestors” video). And she wasn’t the only one either. Bai-Niang was later followed by characters like Pako from 1967’s Perman (whom Saito also credits as anime’s first ever transforming girl). There was also Princess Sapphire from 1967’s Princess Knight, and Francoise from the 1968 adaptation of Shotaro Ishinomori’s Cyborg 009. Honestly, there were a lot of “beautiful fighting girls” on Japanese television prior to 1973. Heck, that’s not even getting into groundbreaking female-led live-action series like Suki! Suki!! Majo-sensei, which could potentially be among Cutie Honey’s early influences as well. No, Honey’s main innovations in anime were that she was a solo fighter (earlier female heroes were almost always part of ensemble casts) and that her TV show was aimed at a male audience rather than a female one. That combination is what was unique at the time. We clear here? Okay? Okay.
So, with the time slot and demographic now set, retooling of the show could commence. Unsurprisingly, romance was one of the first things on the chopping block. Honey Tachibana became Honey Kisaragi, and she would no longer have a clear love interest. The team instead reworked the character of Shun Kazami into more of a bumbling sidekick type named Seiji Hayami. The little sister Seiji was originally supposed to have was instead swapped out for two quirky new family members reused from The Abashiri Family, similar to how Osamu Tezuka reused characters in his Star System. These two characters became Danbei and Junpei Hayami, Seiji’s father and younger brother respectively.
The supporting cast also expanded to include students and teachers at St. Chapel Academy, an all-girls Catholic boarding school that Honey attends. In the final product, Honey’s best friend is a girl named Natsuko, or “Nacchan” for short. Nacchan is sweet, chipper, and supportive of Honey no matter what kind of trouble she gets into. In the manga, she is also extremely gay for Honey and does not try to hide it. While this isn’t the case in the ‘73 anime, future adaptations would bring this side of her character back in full force, so I feel it’s worth mentioning here.
And then there are Honey’s teachers. Oh… golly there are Honey’s teachers. The first is Miharu Tsuneni, a strict woman whose over-the-top rants and harsh punishments earn her the nickname of “Histler” or “Hysterical Hitler” among her students (I know, I hate it too). The second teacher is Alphonne Louis Steinbeck III, another character whose design comes from a previous Nagai work (in this case, she is based on a very similar male character from the manga Kikai-kun). Alphonne is much friendlier than Miharu, but also quite airheaded and prone to obsessive bursts of swooning. Usually over Honey. Alphonne is also gay for Honey. So is Miharu. So is the entire student body of St. Chapel (at least in the manga, anyway). Yeah, if there’s one thing you learn very quickly about Cutie Honey as a brand? It’s that everyone is gay for Honey, either subtextually or explicitly. As I said before, Nagai loved breaking taboos, and in the 1970’s, that included sexual attraction between women. One can only imagine why that might have interested him [laughs] Good god… Anyway, point of all that being: if it ain’t gay? It ain’t Cutie Honey.
(Oh and in case anyone thinks I’m glossing over the fact that Miharu and Alphonne are adults and Honey is a teen? Uh… Yeah just wait, we’ll get to that after the content warning.)
With the focus of the series moving towards superhero action, Honey would of course need some quality villains to fight against. Since the series was already breaking the mould with a female hero, it only made sense to lean in and make the villains female as well. Enter Panther Claw: an international syndicate of super androids led by the evil witch Panther Zora. The disposable goons of the organization are all generic male androids in masks and fedoras, while the higher-ups are all powerful female androids with a variety of weapons and abilities. The head of Panther Claw’s Japanese branch, an intimidating woman named Sister Jill, is the primary antagonist for both the manga and anime. She is in charge of sending out new Panther minions each week to either steal treasure, attack Honey, or both. A predecessor for all the Queen Beryls and Rita Repulsas of the world, if you will.
Things don’t start out this way, though…