Today we’ll be jumping into a late-00s adaptation of a fairly well-regarded manga, Shugo Chara! Well, I say it’s well-regarded, but my own experience with the manga is limited to noticing my youngest sister bought it back when I was in high school. But my sister has pretty solid taste in manga, and so far, Shugo Chara bears that out.
Shugo Chara stars Amu Hinamori, a fifth-grade student who’s known as a cool, punky girl at her school. Amu’s dress style and fiery way of speaking make her an object of admiration at her school, but also isolate her. People don’t want to get to know Amu – they want to bask in the light of her assumed persona.
All of that sucks for Amu herself, who is perfectly aware her persona is a fraud. The show’s very helpful opening song basically lays out the premise here; everyone thinks Amu’s cool, but she’s actually just a “normal” girl, and their perceptions mean she can’t really be herself. She has to play to her school’s expectations, and thus can’t embrace the song’s ultimate urging to be the person she wants to be.
It’s interesting to think that Shugo Chara is likely aimed at roughly the same age group as shounen stories like My Hero Academia. While My Hero Academia revels in fantastical drama, Shugo Chara’s fantastical ideas (eggs that hatch into Guardian Characters, among other things) are all reflective of its fundamentally grounded conflict – Amu’s desire to become a more honest version of herself. It seems reflective of how girls tend to mature faster than boys, and far more quickly become aware of how their actions exist within a larger social context. You’d rarely see sequences like Amu fretting over gossiping classmates in a manga aimed at male elementary schoolers; the perspective conveyed here instead hews closer to something like Oregairu, with its overwhelming obsession with the social order.
As you might expect, that actually makes me a lot more fond of Shugo Chara than most similar elementary-age productions. Tethering its fantastical ideas to the pursuit of social approval and the embracing of a more honest and healthy self is pretty much exactly what shows like Monogatari do, even if Shugo Chara’s ingredients are a bit more upbeat and simplified. When fantasy concepts have no thematic grounding, they must entertain purely through their surface-level appeal, be that crazy effects or dramatic fight scenes or whatever else. When your fantasy reflects the heart of your show, it possesses an emotive power regardless of how dramatically it’s conveyed.
On top of that, Amu is just an extremely endearing protagonist. Her outer persona stands as a very relatable response to feeling insecure – Amu just bottles up all her insecurities, and puts on a brave face because she’s afraid of having her more honest feelings be rejected, or appear “out of character.” Shugo Chara’s focus on emotional honesty means it effortlessly cuts to the heart of lines like “guardian spirits are something weak people cling to in desperate times,” presenting the cynical, defensive affectation that even many adults embrace as the shield it ultimately is. There is ultimately a bit of truth in Amu’s presentation – she’s not all frills and giddy excitement, she’s a mix of that and the snark that keeps her safe. But from a position of having to rely on that external self, it can naturally feel like everything that is true to her personality is being kept inside.
You might have noticed how I haven’t really focused on the actual plot of this episode, and that’s because the plot frankly isn’t that interesting. There’s a whole bunch of Proper Noun nonsense regarding the mascot characters who will ultimately let Amu transform into other versions of herself, which is more interesting to me as a metaphor than as an actual dramatic device. There are Guardian Characters and Character Bearers and something called the Humpty Lock, and basically all of the secondary terms are riffs on the central egg-based naming scheme. There’s a confrontation with a nefarious catboy, and a thrilling reunion with Amu’s beloved prince.
All of that is fine narrative fluff for a standard magical girl show, but in the end, it was Shugo Chara’s excellent portrayal of Amu’s personal reality that won me over. Lying unhappily in bed, thinking about how much work it was to be the person she’s supposed to be. Storming away from her crush, her inner self berating her outer one for being such an idiot. Isolated in shadow from her happy classmates, her egg-based worries taking the place of any small concept of difference that separates you, makes you weird and uncool and Other from the crowd.
Shugo Chara’s premiere was a charming little thing. I don’t really have any interest in its narrative mechanics, and I doubt my appreciation of its central conceit would carry me through too many episodic conflicts, but I really like its core ideas. It’s a kind and thoughtful show for kids, centered on an excellent protagonist and garnished with magical concepts that neatly reflect its core themes. These are the kinds of shows kids deserve to watch.
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