Review: Nurse Witch Komugi R

They should have called it “Magical Girl Tsukasa-kun.”

Nurse Witch Komugi R, directed by Keiichiro Kawaguchi. Written by Kazuyuki Fudeyasu and Momoko Murakami. 2016. 12 episodes. Approx. 276 minutes. Available on Crunchroll.

There is a character in Nurse Witch Komugi R who, as I’ll explain shortly, should have been the central protagonist. She is (I kid you not) a crossdresser/pop idol/magical girl/cat girl/nun. And that right there tells you all you need to know about this show. To sum it up in a word: unfocused.

It isn't just the imagery that lacks focus.
It isn’t just the imagery that lacks focus.

It is sad but true that a lot of existing magical girl titles are spin-offs of other franchises. The insanely (and, to me, inexplicably) popular harem comedy franchise Tenchi Muyo! was the first, or at least one of the earliest, to begin this trend by spawning Magical Girl Pretty Sammy, which reimagined one of Tenchi’s space girls with magic powers as … um … a non-space girl with magic powers. More recently, Studio SHAFT tested the waters on the possibility of animating a magical girl spin-off of yet another harem comedy, Nisekoi, and the result was, quite frankly, an embarrassment coming from the studio that produced Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

The original Nurse Witch Komugi is also such a spin-off; it appeared in 2002 as a light-hearted OVA derived from a much grimmer and now-obscure series called The SoulTaker. Nurse Witch Komugi made a name for itself largely through in-jokes, Easter eggs, and references to otaku subculture. In 2002, such fan-pandering was still fresh, though by 2016 it’s become trite and tiresome, to the point that anime, with all its otaku referencing, is starting to look decidedly inbred.

I must admit I’ve never seen the original Nurse Witch Komugi, and these days I’m not even sure where one would find it. It came and went. But that doesn’t matter much, as the new series is a complete reimagining, now utterly divorced from its origins. From what I gather, although it still throws in-jokes and Easter eggs at the screen, it’s also significantly toned down from the original version, with a lot less adolescent sexual humor (not to say an absence of, but less).

When this new show first appeared, Anime News Network released five brief reviews that all ask the same question: why? Why this title? And why now? Having now sat through the whole series, I admit I’m asking the same thing.

I had hopes for this show. Even though it is not based on the most promising material, I thought it, along with the remake of Sailor Moon and a few other recent titles, might be a sign that the magical girl genre is trying to get back to its roots. Since the 2011 release of the aforementioned Puella Magi Madoka Magica, magical girls have been going through their Goth phase, where everything has to be either an indifferent parody or else a grimdark, “deconstructive” show with lots of black eyeliner. The attempt to make something lighthearted and apparently sincere is an attempt I applaud, but having seen it, I can only say—back to the drawing board, boys. You done flubbed it.

The story, what there is of it, focuses on three girls, two of them borrowed from the original series and one of them (the only interesting one) brand new. The premise is that these three ball-shaped animal characters have come to Earth from the … (it pains me to type this) … Fanta-C World in order to collect Fan-C Cards, which contain monsters that can break out suddenly and cause minor inconveniences. To collect the cards, these three critters have to find three girls and transform them into Tombo-E Girls with the magical powers to vanquish the monsters and capture the cards. Those three girls, of course, are our heroines.

From left to right: Whatserface, That One Chick, and Tsukasa.
From left to right: Whatserface, That One Chick, and Tsukasa.

First, we have the titular Komugi. She’s not a nurse in this version, and doesn’t even play one on TV. Instead, she’s the daughter of a couple that runs a pharmacy, so she’s vaguely nurse-ish, but not a nurse. It’s her dream to become an idol superstar, and she even has an agent, though all she’s so far managed is to give small-time street performances to advertise the pharmacy. She’s a likeable character, if generic, being always energetic and insanely happy. A little rabbity creature transforms this nurse-ish girl into a nurse-ish magical girl, called Magic Nurse, who has rabbit ears for no good reason.

Komugi being insufferably happy.
Komugi being insufferably chipper.

She’s close friends with a successful idol who’s so bland I can’t remember her name, so I’ll call her Bland Girl. The writers also realize she’s bland, so they shove her into the background with extreme prejudice midway through the series. She transforms into Magic Maid, with ears of what I think is a tanuki, and also gets to be the object of BDSM jokes that were apparently supposed to be a running gag, except they’re not funny, so they stop—thank goodness—after just a few episodes. Why she’s a maid is unexplained, as she does not even have the tenuous relationship with housekeeping that Komugi has with medicine.

Finally, we have the real star of the show, Tsukasa-kun. Of these three characters, she’s the only one with an interesting personality and a personal conflict to go with it, so she eventually shoves the other two girls into supporting roles and pretty much takes over the place. She should have been the star of the story from the beginning, except the producers were bent on making this a Komugi reboot.

Tsukasa CAN'T LIVE A LIE!
Tsukasa CAN’T LIVE A LIE!

Tsukasa is a crossdressing idol who plays male roles on various TV dramas. Although she has to maintain a boyish persona in public, she’s secretly a girly girl who indulges her feminine side by having tea parties in her room with her stuffed animals, apparently implying that her inability to express herself has trapped her in a permanent infantilism—unless I’m reading too much into it, and the writers just think stuffed animal tea parties are funny.

Tsukasa is secretly in love with her male co-star Yuto, but he, like most everybody else, is convinced that she’s a lesbian and is trying to get her together with Bland Girl. So Tsukasa is now trying to come out of the closet … as a heterosexual.

When one of those goofy animal thingies approaches her, she jumps at the chance to take on the role of Magic Sister, as it enables her to indulge her femininity in public without being recognized. And she is, if anything, even less a religious sister than Bland Girl is a maid. Her outfit certainly doesn’t resemble any habit I’ve ever seen.

Magic Sister! Not actually a sister!
Magic Sister! Not actually a sister!

Yuto is old friends with Komugi, which makes Tsukasa jealous. Her attempts to get closer to him while he tries to shove her closer to Bland Girl drive most of the plot. At the same time, Yuto develops a crush on Magic Sister, being apparently unperturbed by her vow of celibacy. Altogether, it makes an amusing if not completely engaging comedy-of-errors love triangle.

That Yuto, man, what a hunk. A hunk who gives me an excuse to show MORE TSUKASA!
That Yuto, man, what a hunk. A hunk who gives me an excuse to show MORE TSUKASA!

We have, in the last couple of years, come full circle: beginning as early as the 1960s with Princess Knight and more especially in the 1970s with Rose of Versailles, crossdressing girls have been presented as tough and independent and (at least sometimes) stoically virtuous. But some recent shows have turned this on its head by presenting crossdressing girls trapped by their boyish personas: first was the utterly hilarious Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun, which gives us Kashima-kun, who plays the lead male in all the school plays because she looks like a boy from the waist up, and who can neither bring herself to confess her love for her male senpai nor stop herself from flirting compulsively with other girls. And now we have Tsukasa, who has similar trouble. In both cases, the characters are very likeable and also very funny. It’s no wonder Tsukasa ends up stealing the show.

Unfortunately, the writers phone in the magical girl side of the story. The monsters that hatch from the Fan-C Cards are minor annoyances rather than genuine threats, and the magical attacks that the girls use to vanquish them are made up on the spot. This is characteristic of the show’s great weakness: it can’t quite decide what it wants to be.  It isn’t sure if it’s being parodic or playing it straight, so, in the end, it does neither well. Even taken simply as a parody, it isn’t up to snuff; someone needs to tell the crew that parody is no excuse for shoddy writing: they still need a story with a compelling conflict, and if the story is going to be of the monster-of-the-week type, it needs good monsters, not vaguely sexual nuisances.

This is just sad, and it makes me sad.
This is just sad, and it makes me sad.

Then there’s the humor. To be fair, a lot of the jokes are puns, so they don’t translate well. The funniest moments in the show are in the the stupid TV dramas that Tsukasa stars in; one is a parody of Detective Conan, but the real gutbuster is a parody of The X Files.

However, for the most part, the jokes are phoned-in just like the plot. Komugi R relies heavily on juvenile sexual humor, usually in the form of a character saying something that sounds vaguely suggestive if taken out of context. Sometimes other characters overhear and get the wrong idea, but more often, there’s no one around to hear. Normally, I expect such lines to lead to misunderstandings and hijinks, but in Komugi R, characters utter double entendres and nothing comes of it. I often found myself scratching my head and saying, “What now? Do you expect me to snigger like Beavis and Butthead? Am I supposed to provide the punchline myself? Should I say, ‘That’s what she said’?”

That's what she said.
That’s what she said.
That's what she said.
That’s what she said.
Fullscreen capture 4272016 90314 PM
That’s what she … what?

In addition to the magical girl antics, because the characters are idols, the show delivers a few J-pop numbers animated with CGI. The change in animation style is jarring, but it’s good J-pop and it’s even good CGI. I most especially liked Tsukasa’s number because Tsukasa, if I haven’t made clear already, should have been the title character.

Because anime characters still look feminine in boy clothes. Yes, I said "characters." Not "female characters," just ... characters.
Because anime characters still look feminine in boy clothes. Yes, I said “characters.” Not “female characters,” just … characters.

Because the story doesn’t start with the right focus, it also can’t end with the right focus. Being unconcerned with its central premise, it doesn’t even bother to get a real villain until the penultimate episode. The conclusion is moderately satisfying, but not what it could have been: it should have ended with Tsukasa shocking her fans by walking out on stage in a frilly dress instead of her usual tailcoat and shorts, and then knocking them dead with her best performance yet. Instead, it brings the whole trio together and tries to put the spotlight back on Komugi, even though she had been playing second banana in her own show for the last several episodes.

Yet Tsukasa is STILL somehow upstaging the other two.
Yet Tsukasa is STILL somehow upstaging the other two.

Nurse Witch Komugi R can’t decide what it wants to be, or even who its star is, so it ends up being a slew of missed opportunities. If the writers had only had a definite story arc, if they had acted as if they cared, and if they had kept their hands out of their pants, they might have had something here. But as it stands, it’s juvenile, unfocused, vulgar, and only moderately entertaining.