Cutie Honey: The Classic Collection
Go Nagai (writer/artist), Zak Davisson (translator), Bambi Eloriaga-Amago and Roland Amago (lettering/retouch)
Seven Seas Entertainment
August 28, 2018
Cutie Honey: The Classic Collection is a chunky hardcover that reprints Go Nagai’s influential 1970s manga series in its entirety. Cutie Honey was one of the taproots of the magical girl genre, and its world should be familiar to anyone who has followed the exploits of subsequent manga heroines.
Although outwardly indistinguishable from a beautiful young woman, Honey is an android created by Dr. Kusaragi. She spends her mundane life attending a girls’ school, where she passes herself off as the doctor’s daughter, Honey Kusaragi. But when trouble arises, she uses her hi-tech abilities to transform into one of a range of alternative guises. She can become a stealthy ninja, an armour-clad knight, a daredevil motorcyclist, and even a vine-swinging Tarzan lookalike. But her preferred identity to take into battle is that of a rapier-wielding, flame-haired heroine named Cutie Honey.
It turns out that Cutie Honey has arrived on the scene at exactly the right time, as the world is threatened by a criminal organisation called Panther Claw. Ruled over by the immortal witch Panther Zora, sometime queen of a matriarchal society, Panther Claw is an all-female group bent on stealing beautiful artefacts. “Women are women,” remarks one character. “They like nice things! Pretty jewels, diamonds, rubies, sapphires and all that.” The criminals kill Dr. Kusaragi, and then set their eyes on the cutting-edge matter-transformation device embedded inside Honey’s body. Teaming up with a young reporter named Seiji, Honey sets off to battle the cyborg villainesses of Panther Claw.
It seems safe to say that one of the main factors in Cutie Honey becoming a hit with a generation of boys is its unabashed cheesecake. As well as wearing a cleavagey catsuit into battle, Honey strips naked as she shifts between her different identities (no discreet telephone box for this superhero). This sometimes leads to embarrassment: one fight ends with Honey still in the nude, so she makes her android skin metallic and masquerades as a statue, only to have Seiji’s lecherous father and younger brother arrive for some sculpture-based groping. The evil amazons of Panther Claw are likewise depicted as sex-bombs, with even the more monstrous members of the group universe to flaunting their ample cleavage.
The manga’s fascination with female bodies extends from the beautiful to the grotesque. Alphonse, Honey’s lesbian schoolteacher, is portrayed as a crude hominid that would look at home as an extra in Popeye. The dean, Histler, is a stooping, hatchet-faced sadist who delights in whipping any girls she catches misbehaving. Similarly sadistic is the Sukeban gang, who turn up as secondary antagonists: a clique of ugly-faced, saggy-bosomed lesbians ruled over by the towering, Hulk-like Naoko. This monstrous schoolgirl is so repulsive that Honey is able to defeat her simply by showing her a mirror. (“I feel bad for that poor girl,” muses Honey after her victory.) Go Nagai clearly relishes sketching out every detail of the manga’s female grotesques, from Naoko’s chestful of hair to Alphonse’s curly mustache.
Those prepared to dismiss Cutie Honey as an exercise in rank misogyny may be comforted by the fact that Go Nagai is unafraid to put male bodies on show, and once again shows a fondness for the grotesque. Seiji’s elderly father is, like Alphonse, sketched in as a bizarre simian-like figure. One comedy sequence has a villain slice off his clothes, leaving him dangling from the window naked, and giving a nasty surprise to a person in the apartment below. A later addition to the cast is a bumbling male detective who suffers from such acute hemorrhoids that he spends all of his panels naked from the waist down, at times with cartoon blood dripping from his afflicted posterior. Somehow, Honey’s repeated clothing loss seems comparatively dignified…
As is often the case with serialised fiction, Cutie Honey’s plotting is decidedly ramshackle. The worldbuilding seems to have been developed on the fly. For instance, it is established early on that Honey has exactly seven identities, but some of these—such as a nurse Honey—are shown in one panel and never seen again, while various new identities are freely added as the story progresses. Likewise, a scene where the Panther Claw villains are introduced and name-checked only partially corresponds with the Panther Claw villains actually encountered by Honey. Go Nagai comes across as a restless creator, growing tired of his creations and swiftly coming up with new ones.
The tone of the narrative has a similar quick-change quality to it. One minute Honey’s friends are being brutally massacred by Panther Claw, with not even comic reliefs being spared, and the next minute the reader is being treated to light-hearted japes as Honey tries and fails to have a hot bath in peace. Even the climactic showdown between Cutie Honey and Sister Jill (the Darth Vader to Panther Zora’s Emperor Palpatine) has this tonal whiplash, the tense confrontation being undercut by the fact that Honey has unknowingly turned up for battle naked.
The sense of gleeful boundary-breaking that permeates the manga is captured in the book’s afterword by novelist Yumeaki Hirayama. “To elementary school students of the era, Cutie Honey was close to contraband,” he writes. “Girls, after all, are considered things to cherish. You need a reason to look. If a boy says straight-out that he wants to see naked women… well, that’s a little too honest.” But Hirayama argues that the manga’s appeal goes beyond cheesecake. He describes Go Nagai’s muscular heroines and villainesses in almost mythic terms (“a woman’s nude body can be powerful… It’s like summoning up a primal, matriarchal power figure”) and also dwells on the melancholy aspects of the storyline. When Hirayama recounts explaining to his parents that he read the manga for its science fiction elements rather than its nudity, this is more than just childish disingenuousness. Cutie Honey, for all its apparent simple-mindedness, really does seem to have achieved a multi-layered appeal.
The plotting may be completely off-the-cuff, the characters’ physical proportions may change with the wind, and yes, rather a lot of the action is structured around excuses for Honey to get her clothes off. But Cutie Honey retains an anarchic spirit that shows just how much fun a comic can be.