The Curse of Minky Momo

Andrew Osmond on an unexpectedly dark anime

Minky Momo looked at animation which turned to the dark side, starting off cute and cheery before suddenly devastating their audiences. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is one recent case; another is Giovanni’s Island. Heck, the recent family hits Paddington and Big Hero 6 both had sadder scenes than their marketing would suggest, or at least their Anglophone marketing. As we saw in the case of Big Hero 6, Japan actually plays up the sad bits.

One example we missed in our previous round-up, though, is the strange case of Minky Momo, which is a case so curious that it’s inspired an urban myth and may have helped plant seeds for Madoka Magica.

Magical Princess Minky Momo, as you might guess from its full name, was a magic girl series. It was made back when that was just a children’s genre… well, nearly. The original Momo was broadcast in 1982, a decade before the first Sailor Moon and a year ahead of the better-known Creamy Mami (we don’t make these names up). Mami had a crowdfunded US DVD recently by Anime Sols.

Minky Momo was made by the young Ashi Pro studio, founded in 1975, which was also responsible for the robot show Goshogun. Back then, magic girl series were still associated with the vast Toei studio, home of One Piece and Dragon Ball. Toei had kicked off the genre with Sally the Witch back in 1966, followed by the likes of Secret Akko-Chan (1969) and today’s Precure.

All those shows were for children, but the above montage from Youtube demonstrates how the magic girl genre quickly produced mutants, series for rather older viewers. Go Nagai’s breast-fixated Cutey Honey, which was some kind of magic girl series, reached TV in 1973 (6-45 in the video clip). Minky Momo, though, was aimed at the Sally demographic, though Mike Toole argues it advanced the genre in its own way. Ashi Pro played up Momo’s magic transformations – she disguises herself as a range of adult women – and her gadgets. She’s even shown driving her own car – as a child! – which is horribly ironic given what happens to her later on…

Like many magic girls, Momo came from a magic world, the dream realm of Fenalinasa. In the first episode, she comes to Earth and magically infiltrates human society. She casts a spell which convinces a childless married couple that they have, in fact, a daughter, conjuring her own bedroom into existence! It’s a fascinating, rather disturbing idea. In SF it’s the stuff of horror stories like John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. In fantasy it echoes “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” – animated by Ghibli as The Tale of the Princess Kaguya – and foreshadows the ‘Dawn’ plotline in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For a long time – nearly a year, in fact – the show followed the magic girl template, with Momo using her powers benignly. She performs good deeds in order to keep the hopes and dreams of mortals alive, aided by her magic friends (a dog, a monkey and a bird). From the episodes I’ve been able to see, Momo stands up remarkably well after thirty years just by being funny, with goofy cartoon antics and expressions. More than one source suggests Momo’s popularity was boosted for less innocent reasons. The early 1980s saw the rise of otaku culture and ‘lolita’ manga, and perhaps not all Momo’s fans were kids. But it still looks like a genuinely good cartoon.

And then, more than forty weeks into the series, something shocking happened. Momo loses the magic gem that bestows her wonderful powers; in effect, she’s now just an ordinary girl. Okay, it was an unexpected turn, but one with obvious story possibilities. Plenty of superheroes go through similar arcs, having to cope with the world like the rest of us. (Hayao Miyazaki would do something very similar in Kiki’s Delivery Service.) Momo remains upbeat, ready to face the challenges with her normal cheer…

Minky Momo

…and in the very next episode, she gets hit by a truck and dies.

Er, yes, you read that right. The sweet, rather Disneyish kids’ cartoon killed its main character, a shockingly ordinary, realistic death. It’s not shown graphically, but in a hauntingly oblique way (shades of Bambi), with the girl’s shadow wiped out by the truck’s, followed by an artfully surreal shot of toys scattered on the road. The clip itself is here; now imagine being hit by it at the age of ten.

According to a Mike Toole column on Anime News Network, Momo’s death was actually a case of anime’s famed ‘media mix’ going wrong. Although Momo itself was popular (a 10% ratings share, higher than One Piece now), its spin-off merchandising was apparently not doing well, and one of the toy sponsors had just pulled its backing. It’s certainly tempting to see a double meaning in the image of the toys strewn over the road – not that it would mean anything to a child viewer mourning the anime heroine.

Perhaps it just shows how cruel anime and manga creators could be when they were in a bad mood. Or perhaps, on the contrary, it shows how responsible they could be. A shock anime episode might be among the few things which could impress on a kid the importance of taking care on roads. Remember what happened to Minky Momo! British TV was doing the same in the1970s and 1980s, whether in the school drama Grange Hill – remember this? – or in scary public information films – remember this? Minky Momo may have traumatised kids, but it could have saved some of their lives.

And as you might have guess, Minky Momo’s ending wasn’t really that sad. In the cartoon, her spirit survives; in a mind-bending anime twist, she ends up being reincarnated as her foster parents’ first true baby. The episode ends with the infant dreaming up a wondrous parade of anime characters. It looks like the natural conclusion… except that, presumably for contractual obligations, the show had to run another dozen weeks!

From this point, Momo became ‘meta,’ in a manner not unusual in twenty-first century fantasy media, but head-spinning for a 1982 show. Minky Momo, inexplicably, returns as her old self, continuing her good deeds as if none of the previous twists had happened. Eventually, though, her powers start to fade and a new, nightmare enemy appears, far too strong for her. It’s finally revealed this is all a dream of the reborn baby Momo, and she must fight a dream battle, sustained by the tears of the people who mourned her death. Yes, they were doing this in kids’ anime in the 1980s.

The show wrapped after around sixty episodes. There were a couple of video spinoffs, one dubbed in America as Gigi and the Fountain of Youth. (Minky Momo was named ‘Gigi’ in several other territories). A decade later (1991), a second long Minky Momo TV series was made, a sequel in which a different girl becomes the new Minky Momo. This Momo was voiced by Megumi Hayashibara, an early role for the ‘Queen of anime.’ Her predecessor had been voiced by Mami Koyama, who went to voice the Russian boss Balalaika in Black Lagoon. The Momos meet briefly in one episode; the first girl is sometimes distinguished as ‘Sky Momo’ and the second as ‘Sea Momo,’ reflecting their magic homes.

And that, apart from a couple more video sequels in the 1990s, was that for Momo… But what of the urban myth we mentioned above? Well, it appears Momo did traumatise contemporary viewers in Japan, who’ve come to see her as a harbinger of disaster, specifically earthquakes. Watch the bizarre Japanese TV clip below (if the subtitles don’t come up, click the fourth tab from the right.) And keep it in mind when you rewatch Puella Magi Madoka Magica. It turns out that magic girls were associated with death and doom long before Kyubey…

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