I love manga and anime. I like Japanese culture in general, but it's through anime that I've been first introduced to it, and it stays my main attraction.
But I don't like all styles of anime. Don't ask me about Naruto, for instance, as I've never watched that one nor have any interest in it. Dragon Ball Z, although I've pretty much seen all its episodes, is also far from my favourite anime. And don't even try to mention Pokemon! No, with only a few exceptions (classics like Captain Harlock, for instance, or Saint Seiya, which I liked a lot and still do), my preference goes to the Magical Girl genre, which is usually (but not always) associated with the shoujo style of anime and manga.
I actually know rather well where my preference comes from. I was lucky enough to be raised in France during the 1980's, in a time when Japanese animation was ubiquitous on French TV. We got lots of great anime, like the already cited Captain Harlock (Albator in the French version), or UFO Robo Grendizer (Goldorak when one speaks en français). These really defined the generation. Ask any French person of my age, and they will all know what I'm talking about. But there was also another anime airing during that time, which unlike the ones I've cited so far didn't involve great heroes fighting against evil villains of cosmic proportions, but a little girl just trying to make people remember their dreams and achieve them, one good deed at a time. It doesn't sound like much, and yet it managed to capture my imagination strongly enough to define my tastes from then on. That's because that little girl was rather peculiar, and to succeed in her mission, this is what she did, in each episode:
The little girl was known as Gigi in France, and she is better known around the world as Magical Princess Minky Momo or Magical Princess Gigi, the daughter of the king and queen of a fairy tale world, sent to Earth to help people regain their dreams. As for the video above, it is indeed a transformation sequence (also called henshin sequence, to use the Japanese word adopted by the English-speaking fandom). It might not look like a very complicated henshin, but it was the first one I ever saw, and I was blown away. It was my first introduction to the Magical Girl genre, and I loved it. Moreover, the whole idea of the transformation sequence was really speaking to me, and from then on, to really interest me most anime I watched needed one.
Unfortunately, the Magical Girl shows that followed didn't capture my interest like this one did. They usually lacked a nice henshin sequence, and in terms of scenario were usually weak. Moreover, those shows suffered from constant airing time changes, jumped from channel to channel as broadcasting companies made arrangements between each other, making it difficult if not impossible to follow a show from beginning to end. Luckily, other kinds of shows took over, which did feature henshin sequences, at least enough for me to be content for a while. Some were anime, like the previously mentioned Saint Seiya (the few scenes where the knights take on their armours count as henshin sequences for me), but most of them were live-action series, like Uchuu Keiji Gavan (X-Or in France) or Super Sentai series like Choudenshi Bioman (which was broadcasted in France a good decade before the USA got that butchered adaptation that became the Power Rangers series). I still enjoy live-action series, especially since advances in special effects have made nicer henshin sequences possible. But I'm straying away from my subject here.
The 1980's went, and the 1990's started, with me growing older, but still enjoying watching anime and live-action series. There wasn't much available in terms of Magical Girl series though. I remember enjoying the Cutey Honey series (Cherry Miel in France), but although the series introduced me to the concept of a transforming heroine fighting evil, it just didn't feel like a Magical Girl series (what with the heroine being an android, and the henshin sequences being very short and simple). And then one day I came upon an unknown series. I had put the TV on early, waiting for the next episode of Saint Seiya, but it started in the middle of an episode of an anime I'd never seen before. It immediately caught my attention, and I quickly knew that it was a Magical Girl series (the talking cat was a dead give-away). However, it was nothing like what I had seen before: the heroine seemed to be an adolescent girl, rather than a 10-year-old child. Also, the setting was different, with something seemingly evil happening (in this case, small children being brainwashed by cute, but deadly, furry animals). And then, suddenly, the girl had to intervene (not exactly willingly, but still), and this happened:
I was shocked: here it was, the henshin sequence I had been dreaming about: long, complex, full of light effects, and accompanied by great music! I had discovered Sailor Moon, and I was in love! Afterwards, other things made me appreciate the series even more: the humour, while sometimes a bit cheesy, was always in good fun; the main character, Usagi, was very well-balanced between the clumsy and selfish brat and the selfless hero, with all her characteristics feeling very natural; the scenario was very inventive; the villains were interesting; and most of all, the series was the first Magical Girl series to introduce companions to the main character, other girls destined to fight evil, all with their personal henshin sequences and attacks! I know it was only applying the well-known sentai principle to Magical Girls, but it was the first time it was done (Sailor Moon is rightly considered to be a true genre-renewer for the Magical Girl genre). Still, all things considered, it was really Sailor Moon's henshin sequence that first attracted me to the series. I also enjoyed the attack sequences, but that needs a separate post.
I was sad when the series ended, but psyched when its sequel started airing. New story, updated henshins and attacks, I was in ecstasy! And it carried on over five series (the last one I only ever saw in original version on my computer, as only the first four aired in France). Today, it's still my favourite anime, and some of its henshin sequences are just fantastic. Especially those of the third series. Watch them:
After Sailor Moon, the anime presence dried up on French TV, so I didn't get to see any of the Magical Girl series that followed it, until I got a computer, Internet, and discovered fansubs. Thanks to them, I've been watching lots of Magical Girl anime of the post-Sailor Moon era. Some are near-clones (like Wedding Peach, although it's different enough that it deserves watching on its own), while others explore radically different ideas (like Prétear, which has one of the best musical score of all anime I've ever watched, or Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha, which isn't even a shoujo anime). In any case, I saw enough anime and henshin sequences to draw up a list of criteria that define what I feel is a successful henshin sequence. Those criteria are very subjective, of course, but let me illustrate them. You may draw your own conclusions after that.
- A good henshin sequence must be long, yet fast-paced. I don't care about verisimilitude, and I don't mind filler stock footage henshin sequences as long as they are of good quality. I like to see lots of details, so the henshin sequence needs to take its time, while keeping speed. You can always shorten them in further episodes. The henshin from the Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha is a good example (although its
exploding clothesintro can sometimes bother people):
- A good henshin must be flashy, and yet keep to a single theme. If you mix and match too many different kinds of effects, or change backgrounds without rhyme nor reason, you end up with a sequence that lacks unity. Mew Mew Strawberry's henshin from Tokyo Mew Mew is an example of this issue (it's not too bad, but it feels a bit too chopped up to my taste):
- A specific music may be the most important ingredient to a good henshin, and I cannot emphasise this enough. As much as I liked Wedding Peach, it always bothered me that the henshin sequences in this anime didn't have their own music. A good henshin music sequence must be closely related to the action on screen: ideally, a blindfolded person should be able to imagine the action happening on screen just by listening to the music. One of the reasons why this is important is that if music and animation are not well coupled, the sound effects associated with the action won't fit with the music: they will just clash. Typically, some kind of crescendo music fits pretty well with the idea of a transformation up to a certain form. A good example of great henshin music is the following, coming from the anime Otogi Juushi Akazukin. The henshin itself is not spectacular, and a bit too slow (some of its effects are original, though), but the music really carries it very well:
- Finally, ease up on the fan service! I don't mind a bit of nudity (even Minky Momo's henshin had some, but it was playful), but I've seen so many henshins with girls gaining suddenly 4 cup sizes and rebounding breasts that I'm sick of it. What interests me is how intricately the heroine's costume appears on her body, not what her anatomical features are. I won't show any example here: I find them far too tasteless.
So there you have it, my four criteria for an enjoyable henshin sequence: length and rhythm, unity of style, a specific music score, while keeping the fan service to a minimum. Of course, quality of animation, colours, effects and the like are important, but they can't save a henshin sequence that just lacks rhythm, or unity, or does too much fan service.
Naturally, as I wrote earlier, those criteria are deeply subjective. You are quite welcome to disagree. So to end this, I'm going to present you a few henshin sequences that I feel embody the spirit of my criteria really well. They rank naturally among my favourite henshin sequences so far. Tell me what you think about them!
As it happens, all those henshin sequences come from the anime Futari wa Pretty Cure, its sequel Futari wa Pretty Cure Max Heart, and its spin-off Futari wa Pretty Cure Splash Star. You can say what you want about those anime, but the guys who made them nailed the art of the henshin sequence to near perfection. But images speak louder than words, so I'll let you make up your mind by yourself.
The original series' henshin sequence (somewhat longish but great all over):
Pretty Cure's henshin in the sequel (shorter and even more dynamic than the first one):
Shiny Luminous's henshin (featuring maybe the best crescendo in henshin music I've heard so far):
The spin-off's henshin (my favourite henshin music among those five sequences):
Pretty Cure's upgraded henshin in the spin-off (its music is not as good as the previous one, but it makes up for it by adding more movements, slight differences between the two heroines' henshin, and upgraded light effects):
So there you have it: an over-long post, full of Wikipedia links and Youtube videos, over a subject you probably couldn't care less about. Hey, I'm a geek: it's practically my duty to obsess over such a topic. But I do hope you enjoyed it. And I'd be really interested in reading what your favourite henshin sequences are. I'm always ready to discover new ones!