SUGAR SUGAR RUNE (Shuga Shuga Run), by Moyocco Anno. First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2005.
Chocolat and Vanilla are two witches in training from the Magic World. They are also both candidates to become the new Queen of the Magic World, and to determine the winner the girls are transported to the Human World. There they will literally capture the hearts of those around them, and she who collects the most and best hearts wins. The thing is that winning the hearts of young boys works differently between the Human and Magic worlds. In the Magic World, Chocolat's brash snarky ways make her popular, and Vanilla's gentle kindness is a liability. In the Human World, Vanilla is so hopelessly moe that boys practically fall over themselves to love her, while they are scared or intimidated by Chocolat. Worse still, Chocolat begins to fall for Pierre, the class prince whose beauty is only exceeded by his callousness and coldness. You see, while a witch needs to steal human hearts to succeed, a witch who loses her own heart to a human is banished...or worse.
What happens when an established josei mangaka decides to take on the magical girl genre, that most girly of shoujo genres? You get something stranger, something snarker, and something more interesting than the rest.
Most of that comes from Anno's choice of lead. Chocolat is a veritable breath of fresh air when it comes to magical girls, as she is self-confident, tomboyish, and blunt. She's certainly more compelling than Vanilla, who true to her name is so sugary sweet and kind that she becomes something of a bore. I get the idea that Anno prefers Chocolat to Vanilla as well, simply based on what drives the girls. After all, Chocolat has more to drive her to win, as she wants to be just like her beautiful talented mother who was banished years ago for loving a human. Vanilla's mother is already Queen, and is herself is about as friendly and noncompetitive as they come.
Anno milks a lot of humor out of Chocolat's attempts at winning hearts, but it's not done at her expense; indeed, she's shown to be slowly but subtly winning some of her classmates over. For example, her first conquest likes her despite being convinced that she is an alien, and her second is an immature bully who ends up becomes something of a friend out of Chocolat's complete inability to be freaked out by little boy pranks. It's a good way to both build Chocolat's personality and that of the supporting cast, and it's well done.
It's also slightly clever in how this series approaches love and friendship, in comparision to its many genremates. In a typical magical girl story, love and friendship are treasured qualities, qualities that they may even be fighting to protect. Here love and friendship are literally little more than currency for witches, and humans themselves are viewed as something of a renewable resource for witches and wizards to exploit. The only time the subject is taken seriously is when it concerns the friendship between Chocolat and Vanilla; while the girls are competitors, they are friends first and foremost, and Chocolat never takes out her frustrations on her friend.
It also takes love more seriously when it concerns Chocolat's emerging crush on Pierre, and the clear parallels it has to her mother's fate. Honestly, this is one of the few places where I feel that Anno stumbled, as she telegraphs his true nature a bit too blatantly and reveals him as a villain too soon. She would have done better to play his character more ambiguously instead of having practically state upfront that he's playing the girls in his class for fools.
Sugar Sugar Rune, in spite of its sugary title, possesses a lot more spice and bite than its concept suggests, boosted in large part by its refreshingly different lead and its somewhat cynical take on magical girl clichés.
I was curious to see how Anno's distinct style would translate to the world of shoujo, and I'm happy to say that it works beautifully.
The character designs are typical for a Moyocco Anno work - slightly bobbleheaded, frequently pretty, and possessing enormous, dark, and frequently cynical eyes. Sure, the edges are a little more rounded, as befitting the youth of the cast, but all the usual qualities are there. She also puts a lot of detail and variety into the costumes and backgrounds, although sadly we don't get many glimpses into the Magic World. She also doesn't abuse screen tones for emotional moments like so many shoujo artists do, saving them instead for the instances of magic. Panels tend to be large and the characters often burst right out of the borders, giving the pages a greater sense of activity and life.
Being a Del-Ray release, there are the standard honorifics guide in the front and the translation notes and untranslated preview of the next volume in the back. There are also a wide variety of little games and infographics between the chapters.
Sugar Sugar Rune balances the whimsical sweetness of a magical girl story with the spice of a great lead and great art, and highly recommend it to both fans of Moyocco Anno and to those looking for something different in their magical girls.
This series was published by Del-Ray. All 8 volumes were released, but all are now out of print.
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