I can't let this month pass without covering at least one magical girl series. After all, shoujo as a whole in the US got its start thanks to the likes of Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. That being said, the genre has never really been able to reclaim those heights ever since and I can't help but wonder if mediocre works like today's offering are part of the reason for that.
SHUGO CHARA! (Shugo Kyara!), by Peach Pit. First published in 2006 and first published in North America in 2007.
Amu has a reputation for being a cool, badass sort of girl, but Amu has no idea where it came from. She doesn't see herself as cool and aloof, but instead as painfully shy. She wants to be more assertive with people, particularly where the handsome class president Hotori Tadase is concerned. Her salvation comes in the form of three magical eggs, with each containing a doll-like creature known as a Guardian Character. Under their influence, Amu finds she can do anything and discovers that she is not the only one to possess Guardian Characters. She also soon learns that there are others who covet the Characters and their powers for themselves and that she must fight to protect them from these mysterious (and sometimes cat-eared) figures.
It's weird to think that the same guys that brought us the gross Chobits knock-off that was DearS would end up making a magical girl series. Did the time and genre change improve their writing for the better? Eh...maybe.
Amu's not bad as far as magical girls go, even if her complaints feel a little hollow. Yes, you poor thing, you're forced to wear a wardrobe that wouldn't look out of place at Hot Topic by your mother and everyone thinks you're a cool kid. Surely her lot in life is heavy. Still, she's not dumb, selfish, or completely spineless so it's not too hard to root for her. I do like that the popular kids around her are not opponents trying to keep our heroine from her love interest but instead serve as her allies in life and love and frequently help her out with heaping helpings of exposition. It's a novel twist and I'll take any of them that I can get.
Of course, despite all of her friends turning out to have Characters of their own, Amu is the most special snowflake of them all by virtue of possessing three of them instead of one. She's also able to transform into a (surprisingly sporty) magical girl with a special, sparkly padlock. Once she does, though, the plot starts going completely to hell. That's when you start getting things like a cat-eared opponent/secondary love interest and a shadowy group of people chasing something called 'the embryo.' Whatever it may be, it turns out that Amu does not possess it, but they keep chasing after because otherwise there would not be a plot. It seems that while Peach Pit had a perfectly decent idea for a magical girl series, they didn't think about the plot too far in advance.
So, what about the Characters themselves? Well, each ascribes to a certain skill that Amu wants to improve. You could almost think of them as her personal good fairies, there to give her a stat boost as needed. It is strange that as Amu gains more of them, their skills gets more and more specific. The first boosts her confidence, the second helps her art skills, and the third makes her a better cook. Mostly they exist as cutesy little mascots who can pull whatever plot solution Amu needs out of their butts while yelling "Get confident, stupid!" Since their gifts are not permanent or even all that hard-earned makes this part of the plot feel kind of insincere and lazy.
Being better than DearS is not a high bar to clear, but Shugo Chara makes it clear that they're still relying on a lot of genre tropes and half-baked ideas than anything truly creative and compelling. It's just that this version is a lot more pink and sparkly.
The artwork is certainly a vast improvement. They still tend to draw dark, dense, and weirdly wide-spaced eyes, but the faces and forms are more pleasingly round. They definitely had fun drawing the costumes, be it Amu's mall-goth casual clothes, the student council's ridiculous uniforms (complete with capelets and far too much plaid), or the magical girl outfit that makes Amu look like she's about to play a round of tennis than anything else. Sadly, the costume design cannot make up for the fact that they are damn near drowned out by the heavily patterned backgrounds and the heavily layered panels.
Shugo Chara doesn't add much to the world of magical girls, but it does at least represent a modicum of progress for its creators. That's not enough to make it good, but it's sweet and inoffensive enough to entertain for a bit.
This series was published by Kodansha Comics, formerly Del Ray. This series is complete in Japan with 11 volumes available. All 11 have been published and are currently in print. This series is also available digitally from Kodansha.