Just like with American music, film and TV, I find that retro Japanese pop culture and anime in particular has a sort of iceberg quality to it. Every time I think I’ve discovered everything there is to know about the works of a certain period I realize that there are a dozen titles I’d never really looked into, and behind each of those a dozen more that I’d never heard of at all. There’s always a wonderful feeling accompanying this, when I’m reminded that the world has a nearly inexhaustible supply of art stored up, so much that one could spend a lifetime discovering it all without even delving into the works still being produced every day.
I especially love discovering this older stuff because it has such a rich sense of history to it, and holds such enormous potential as a mirror to our current culture. It shows what we value. This is true of contemporary works as well, but it’s especially true of older ones, since we have a subjectivity that tends to prevent us from seeing ourselves reflected too sharply in our own current art. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. And even moreso, the popular art of the past gives us a sense of where we’ve been, which is something that with the rise of the internet seems easier to forget every year. As time progresses and change accelerates, we throw off our cultural aesthetic layers more and more rapidly, like a snake constantly writhing out of its skin, spinning faster and faster to a subliminal beat, threatening to reach a threshold where control–of both our expanding technologies and our grip on any sense of shared meaning–is lost. It serves us well to break this cycle once in a while and breathe, to go back and analyze these cast-off cultural fragments. Things which seem whimsical or frivolous at first may in fact hold deep significance, hidden clues to the subtler yearnings of the human spirit that are too commonly shadowed by the much more prominent informational strata of advertising, political noise, and all the other forms of near-compulsory media which choke our collective dreaming like kudzu. When we look at the art of the past with open eyes, unclouded by digital filtration and background noise, the results can be incredibly refreshing.
And of course, if I’m totally honest, the real reason I immerse myself in this stuff is because it’s what I like do to. And that’s the best reason to do anything, really.
Creamy Mami is a magical girl show produced by Studio Pierrot in 1983, the first of a series of very successful shows by the studio. If you’re familiar with Sailor Moon you would recognize a lot of the ideas in the Pierrot shows, and the launch of Sailor Moon Crystal this Summer was partly what made me want to take a look at these earlier magical girls to see the roots of the genre. It turns out it’s pretty old, dating back to the 60s, but the 70s and 80s were when it came into prominence, and it was in the 80s that it really started to resemble what we know it as now, with protagonists having powers focused on transformation of appearance and identity.
Mahou no Princess Minky Momo was the show that set this trend, in 1982, with a young girl protagonist who literally hailed from a storybook reality and had the ability to transform into various older versions of herself with abilities to fit any given situation. Momo could become a veterinarian, a firefighter, a Tarzan-like jungle princess, or any number of other identities, all of which represented the latent professional and sexual power of the woman inside of her. The show is a great example of the organic and vibrantly colorful style of late 70s and early 80s anime, and it has a wonderful carefree vibe that makes it a joy to watch. Its narratives contain plenty of conflicts and problems, but one consistently gets the feeling that Momo has the ability to handle anything, and her relaxed sense of confidence and playful attitude are infectious. Minky Momo was a hit.
One year later, Studio Pierrot responded with Mahou no Tenshi Creamy Mami, in which Yuu, the 10-year-old protagonist, is similarly able to age herself up with the aid of a magic wand acquired in mystical realm called Feather Star. Unlike Momo, Yuu transforms into only one alternate identity, the Creamy Mami of the title, an unusually beautiful and charismatic teenager who quickly becomes a popular idol. As with Momo, Mami represents the feminine potential inside of Yuu, and she assumes the identity partly because of the crush she has on Toshio, an older boy who is close to her but doesn’t see her as a romantic prospect. Toshio becomes enamored with Mami, of course, but ironically continues to ignore Yuu’s feelings toward him, and this creates the main tension and plot of the show, along with various misadventures Yuu has as she attempts to manage her double life and hide her secret identity like any American superhero would.
Yuu is also a lot like Minky Momo in that she has a kind of unbreakable optimism which carries the spirit of the show. She actually reminds me most of the child Goku in original Dragonball; both of them have a kind of unflinching courage which often seems to border on stupidity, but feels very fitting for a child. While Yuu’s parents, friends and familiars freak out about things that happen in the show she usually remains completely confident, and this dynamic works because in the end she almost always accomplishes her goals. There’s something very zen about this kind of attitude, something our own entertainment doesn’t teach us very often: why stress yourself out when you can just do your best and expect good results? Guilt is largely absent here, and optimism is high.
Japan in the 80s, of course, was an incredibly prosperous and optimistic culture. That comes through here in a lot of different ways, and the show is so positive and cheerful that it seems corny by our modern standards. But it’s also very intelligent and well-written, and it has a great sense of humor that makes it entertaining for adults. There’s something genuinely wholesome about Creamy Mami, overall. The show radiates a sense of trust in human nature, and a message of goodness and compassion that seems joyful and authentic rather than preachy and forced. You can tell they weren’t faking it; the people who made this show were having a lot of fun. Even the animation itself has a playfulness and attention to detail that goes well beyond the functional and necessary, which in anime is always the mark of a show made with love.
One thing that many reviews of the show have noted is that it is not at all about combat, unlike almost all of our modern kids’ entertainment. Rather than fighting people, Yuu is usually helping them. She even ultimately becomes an idol because of her desire to make other people happy. At first she has no interest in it, and the show presents her taking the role as an act of public service rather than one of personal aggrandizement. Mami’s manager, Shingo, is sort of a comedy relief antagonist: his greed and desire for fame are constantly backfiring on him. But even he is ultimately accepted by the show as being a misguided but well-intentioned person, and his vanity is played for laughs very effectively.
As in The X-Files and many other shows, the episode structure of Creamy Mami consists of “mythology” episodes that establish and advance the central plot, and so-called “monster of the week” episodes in which Yuu and her alter-ego interact with a new character or creature who temporarily takes the spotlight. With a few rare exceptions, there aren’t any malicious monsters in Creamy Mami. These temporary protagonists are usually people with problems who Yuu helps with her magic somehow, typically by helping them to learn some kind of lesson and become stronger themselves.
Also like The X-Files, these one-shot episodes tend to be the most interesting ones, because they have a lot of variety and they show us how Yuu interacts with the world around her, thereby showing us why her powers are worthwhile to people other than herself. Such is the case with “Hello, Catherine,” the 10th episode of the series, and the one that convinced me of its brilliance.
I don’t expect my reader to watch the episode, so I’m summarizing it here. Hopefully my summary is nearly as fun!
The episode begins with Yuu and her friends watching at portside as an ocean liner arrives. Mami is going to perform a concert there in a while, and a large crowd is gathered in anticipation. Amidst the tussle of bodies, Yuu becomes separated from Posi and Nega, the two magical cats from Feather Star who originally granted her her powers (their names, as one might guess, are emblematic of their personalities).
Cut to seagulls flying free, and one alighting on the railing of the ocean liner next to an elegantly dressed little blonde girl. The seagull arrives just as the girl, Catherine, is about to make an escape.
We quickly see why, as no sooner does the seagull touch down than Catherine’s governess, Mrs. Lampling, comes charging onto the scene, demanding that Catherine get back in bed because she “has a fever.” From her imperious tone and severe style of dress we immediately sense the darkness of this woman. She represents repression, control, and fear of the unknown, and she’s hellbent on locking down her young charge lest some terrible disaster befall her.
Mrs. Lampling is the voice that all children hear at some point, telling them that they are weak and fragile, that the world outside is too dangerous for them to deal with, and that they are safer going back to bed. All of this is quickly conveyed from her appearance, her frantic rush onto the scene, and a couple lines of dialogue. And the ease of that depiction tells us something: Mrs. Lampling is a familiar archetype, something we have likely encountered before in both reality and fiction, and the creators of Creamy Mami are interested in commenting on her somehow. For the moment, Catherine responds to her in the best way possible:
Whoa! One seldom sees child characters so boldly calling out authority figures to their faces, especially in Japanese media. With this declaration, I went from being mildly interested in the episode to completely rooting for Catherine and wondering where the story would take her.
For now, she takes a fall to the deck below, but survives intact and runs away. Meanwhile, Yuu is reunited with Posi, who is unable to contact Nega through the telepathy they share. It seems Nega got a bump on the head when he fell.
Catherine, who is crawling through the crowd to escape the searching Mrs. Lampling, comes across him. Despite his initial annoyance, she carries him off to ice down the bump, and uses one of her red ribbons as a bandage.
Catherine explains to Nega that she escaped the ship because she wants to go see the house where she was born, where she left something important years ago.
If she gets it, she tells him, she can go anywhere.
Cut to flashback, where Catherine tells the story about how six years ago, when she was a small child of four, her father came back from one of his business trips on the Silk Road and left her a wooden box.
Upon looking into the box, the young Catherine finds herself flying through a fantasy world, gliding over mountain ranges, visiting the great pyramids, New York City, Athens, and the Taj Mahal. The box takes her to all the places where her father goes, and frees her from the confines of her room. It salves her loneliness. Without being directly told so, we get the sense that Catherine has always been a very isolated child. And as we might expect, even the imaginary freedom that the box provides is too much for her to be allowed.
Just before the family moves from Japan to America, Mrs. Lampling insists the box be taken away, and Catherine, desperate to preserve it somehow, buries it in the back yard beneath a tree.
Back in the present, Nega muses that if he had the box, he might be able to see Feather Star again. But Catherine can’t hear his voice. She expresses joy at being back in Tokyo and having a chance to retrieve it, and then sadly reflects that even now Mrs. Lampling was trying to keep her confined, even though she “didn’t have much of a fever.” A small expository fragment that tells us a lot about her world.
Catherine resolves to go look for her former house with Nega, but it isn’t long before she has to stop and rest, having never walked so far before.
She hails a taxi, but when the driver stops at a police box to ask for directions she fears that he’s turning her in as a runaway, and she and the cat flee.
On foot again, the two stop at a park, and they bond at a fountain where Catherine holds water in her hands for the cat to lap. They proceed down a busy street with carnival amusements set up, and watch excitedly as a train goes by. One gets the feeling that Catherine is exploring–testing boundaries and playing freely–for the first time in her life.
Eventually the two of them locate Catherine’s old house, only to find Mrs. Lampling waiting there, having anticipated the girl’s movements. They circle around to the back gate, which they find is locked, and then sneak inside a laundry truck and wait for it to hopefully go inside.
Their tactic pays off. After a dramatic encounter with a barking dog, the two escape the truck and manage to find the box, still buried beneath the tree. Catherine’s hands are so soft that digging in the earth hurts her, but she goes on doing it anyway, pushing through the pain until Nega helps out by bringing her a trowel.
Finally, the moment of truth comes. Catherine brings the time-worn, dirt-covered box back to the park she passed through earlier. She sits down on a bench, reluctant to open it.
Interestingly, although Creamy Mami is a show where magic exists, and although we’ve watched Catherine push herself so far in order to accomplish her goal, it isn’t hard for us to guess what’s going to happen next.
There is nothing in the box.
Catherine can’t believe it. She insists to Nega that the box used to show her things, that she wasn’t lying. He says he believes her, but that now she knows what it really is: just a box. The dreams were all inside her head. Catherine still can’t hear him speak, and asks him why the box won’t show her anything.
Catherine and Nega head back to the ship, and Nega meets up with Posi and asks her for a whispered favor. Then some silly stuff happens where Yuu dresses up as Catherine to distract Mrs. Lampling.
Back in her cabin on the ship, Catherine speculates that maybe the box lost its power from being buried underground for so long, and thinks that maybe if she cleans it off it it’ll be restored. Nega sneaks out of the room to meet Posi and Yuu, and Yuu uses her magic.
Cleaning the open box, Catherine notices that Nega is gone, and then looks down to see a glow spreading across its interior. The glow congeals into the form of the cat, who speaks to her audibly for the first time. Catherine is shocked and elated. Posi appears too.
Catherine asks them to show her a vision, like a desert town. But Nega says they can’t. “This is the end of your dream box,” he tells her, and when she asks why, he explains what we all know: in her reliance on the box, she stopped dreaming on her own. Perhaps at one time she needed it, but she can’t go on keeping all her dreams in such a confined thing.
Catherine seems reluctant to accept this, even questioning the idea that she can make her own dreams. But Nega tells her that she’ll be fine, and urges her to think about it during her trip home. Wishing her well, the two cats disappear, and Catherine’s red ribbon falls into the box from Nega’s vanished head. But Catherine isn’t ready to be left alone. She begs them to stay for just a little longer, to no avail.
What happens next is a timeworn plot device. The ocean liner’s foghorn blows, signalling a transition of scene, and we see Catherine waking up in bed, hovered over by a doctor and Mrs. Lampling. Catherine wonders aloud if she was dreaming, and Lampling asks her what she means, then scolds Catherine for how much she made her worry. Catherine asks where the cats are.
Amusingly, Mrs. Lampling seems to be genuinely at a loss here. She asks the doctor if he’s sure Catherine doesn’t have a fever, and for the first time we feel a kind of sympathy for the woman, because of her cluelessness and the fact that she obviously thinks she’s doing the right thing in life. She’s not intentionally evil, just very misguided.
Catherine sees that the box is on the bed next to her pillow, checks inside, and finds that her ribbon is still there. This is the trope we’ve all seen before: confirmation from a physical object that a magical experience was not a dream. She’s overjoyed.
Rushing outside onto the deck of the departing ship, she waves toward the shore as colored streamers drift by on the breeze and calls out to Nega repeatedly, thanking him and promising him that she’ll think about what he said. She’s still stuck with Mrs. Lampling for a while, but we get the definite impression that Catherine is going to grow.
Pretty touching, right? Some would say cloying, I’m sure. The episode is full of cliches that we’ve seen before, and it’s sentimental in a way that we find embarrassing nowadays. But for me at least it was hard not to care about Catherine, an innocent with a pure spirit and an independent will, striving to build an identity for herself and expand her world despite some very strong limitations. Her struggle felt real to me.
The metaphor of Catherine’s boxed-in existence resulting in her imagination taking the form of a literal box seemed especially true, and was something I personally related to. In fact, after watching the episode it suddenly occurred to me that the very day before I had gone out and acquired a dated, scratched-up box, specifically for the reason that it had once been a conduit for my own imagination.
As a kid, my original Game Boy held a special fascination for me because of the disparity between its size and the size of the worlds it contained. Its RPG games in particular were huge, holding seemingly endless landscapes and horizons, worlds that fit on tiny cartridges that plugged into a box I could hold in my small hands. It amazed me, and the simplicity of the black-and-white games and their chiptune music provided fertile ground for my imagination in a way that few other video games have. Like Catherine’s wooden box, which hails from an era before the existence of portable screens, my Game Boy was an object that enabled me to dream.
What I found upon purchasing this GBA SP and playing some of Sword of Mana–a remake of one of those games I used to love–was that I felt rather nonplussed. The experience wasn’t bad, but in many ways I’ve grown out of it. While I still enjoy video games, they aren’t large enough to contain my imagination as they once did. My imagination is now manifested most vividly through acts of creativity, like writing. I often create worlds now, rather than just passively experiencing them, and that’s really what Nega was urging Catherine to do. Her world was all interiors, all observance, and her furthest horizon was the inside of a box. By getting out and interacting with the world for the first time in her life, she discovered how much more she was capable of.
It seems like a quaint story for children, and I almost feel embarrassed to write all this about it. But to be honest, aside from the Game Boy thing, it made me think a lot about my own life, especially about the amount of time I spend on the internet. Relatively little of my day is typically spent outside interacting with other people and with the physical world. When I do go out it’s usually either to go sit inside another box for a few hours doing a rather niche activity (graduate school) or to go stock up on supplies inside some other larger box. I think this is why I’ve come to enjoy bike rides so much. They always give me an opportunity to explore and broaden my literal horizons, and I usually return from them feeling relaxed and free. I only wish I could meet other people on them more often.
I think the boxed-in way in which I live my life is pretty common, nowadays. How much time do we all spend staring at the insides of boxes daily? How much time every week do people collectively spend gazing at their smartphones, scrolling on their laptops through clickbait lists and outrage porn articles, posting with their small group of friends on facebook or other narrow niche communities that draw them into smaller and smaller circles of existence, limited bubbles that discourage adaptation the broader outside world with all of its variations? Is Catherine’s story really a childish one, or is it one we’d like to feel we’re above because the alternative–not having learned her lesson–is what’s likely?
The story of Catherine is great because it provides a rather ironic comparison: we spend so much of our own lives boxed into rooms, staring into smaller boxes, narrowing ourselves, but for most of us there is no Mrs. Lampling forcing us to do so. What one little girl would do anything to escape we subject ourselves to voluntarily, because it’s safe and easy and predictable. And the further we go down this path, the more we separate ourselves from each other and lose the ability to truly empathize, to relate to other people who aren’t like us at all. The effects of this can be seen in our society, and seem to be getting worse daily. The media–especially online media–is more and more full of finger-pointing and constant attempts to jockey for victim status. More often than not, the goal of our talking heads seems to be to drive us apart into segregated groups and increase the animosity between woman and man, black and white, gay and straight, and so on. The wool is being pulled over our eyes by greedy people who exploit our insecurities for their own profit, financial vampires who thrive on fear and rage and absolutely do not want Americans to see eye-to-eye and live together constructively in the real physical world. Strife in notional spaces is what brings these people profit, and the more each of us narrows the band of reality that we perceive, the easier we can be convinced that those who we don’t understand and interact with are our enemies.
One could of course say the same thing about my own focus here, about this article. How obscure and narrow and odd, to focus on an episode of a magical girl anime from thirty years ago. My interest here is certainly niche. But I think niche interests are great. We all get excited about specific things that other people probably don’t enjoy as much. The thing we should probably ask ourselves is whether we come out of our niche activities feeling more self-assured and excited to share our passions, or more walled-in and convinced that we’re on our own in a hostile world. For myself, I find that it’s often the latter, and that’s something I want to change.
Creamy Mami and “Hello, Catherine” in particular are psychologically powerful for me because I feel like the people who made this show, rather than trying to force some kind of lesson on the viewer, were just sharing a wonderful feeling they had. They were artists projecting their confidence into the world, resonating on the frequency of a society that was full of optimistic harmony, and their sentiment carries just as much weight now as it did then: while it’s tempting to do so, don’t choose to limit yourself. Our saddest moments always come when we are isolated and alone, and our greatest joys are always when we reach out and expand our worlds.
Thanks for reading all of this, if you did! If you’re interested in watching Creamy Mami, you can find it at animesols, a crowdfunding site affiliated directly with Studio Pierrot.