Here’s a question for all you content creators out there: would you let yourself be turned into a cartoonish alien being and taken into space if it meant you were guaranteed endless praise and popularity for the things that you create?
At the heart of the pastel-toned magical girl adventure that is URAHARA is a story about the dilemma of creativity. Creators—be they writers, artists, chefs, designers, etc.—are an incredible breed because of their imaginative abilities, and their power to give the things in their imagination physical form for others to see. The great magical halo surrounding The Artist is their ability to do what they do purely for the love of it… but as I’m sure many of us know, The Love Of It can only get you so far. After all, what’s the point of creating if you receive no approval, praise, or recognition for your creation? Creating art for art’s sake often gives way to anxieties about creating the “right” kind of art, creating art that people will like, caught in an endless tug-of-war between trying to follow trends to get a foothold and trying to be “unique”. The very human need for validation, and the contradictory yet complementary need to be seen as different and individual, is a driving force in content creation, as it is the driving force behind the conflict in the middle arc of URAHARA.
The premise of URAHARA is that aliens called Scoopers invade Earth, on the hunt for “culture” since they’re physically incapable of creating their own. On the hunt for creativity and vibrancy, they’re drawn to Harajuku, where they start hoovering up important landmarks and poplar icons. Heroes are needed to combat this dreadful force, so an alien creature shaped like a tempura prawn (yep) drops from the supposed heavens and recruits three best friends—Rito, an artist, Mari, a dancer and fashionista, and Kotoko, a researcher and designer of cute cakes—to fight back against the Scoopers with the power of their creativity and a magical boost. So begins the glorious aesthetically pleasing saga of the newly-minted magical girls slaying Scoopers, which then, conveniently, turn into snacks for the consumption of the heroes.
The girls continue in this monster-of-the-week fashion for the first half of the series, but along the way Kotoko notices strange purple blotches appearing on her friends’ bodies. This leads to a very sweet episode where Kotoko is trying to research this, and worries that she’s driven her friends away in her hyperfixation, only to be reassured in the end that they love her ability and drive to focus instead of finding it weird, a storyline which left me sobbing into a couch cushion. But it also leads to the first hint that something shady is going on with Tempura-san and their human companion when they secretly delete the abnormalities found in Kotoko’s tests. And lo and behold, a few episodes later the adorable pink-haired girl and her fried friend sagely announce that there is something strange happening to the girls’ bodies—they’re turning into Scoopers, and it was part of their plot from the very beginning.
Since Scoopers don’t have the ability to be creative, they’ve set off throughout the universe to find beings that can, in order to transform them into Scoopers themselves, take them home, and use their abilities to create. There’s an interesting philosophical angle here about how an alien race with no imagination begins to crave the ability to imagine as soon as they learn it’s a thing, but that takes a backseat, naturally, to the horrified reactions of Rito, Mari, and Kotoko. And that takes a backseat to the conflict that comes next, when Mari and Kotoko decide they do want to become Scoopers, much to Rito’s shock and horror.
This decision hinges on an argument the friends have, the culmination of themes and snippets of dialogue that have peppered the previous episodes: mostly, the dilemma of originality and validation. As I mentioned before, Kotoko adores her friends so much because they were the first to say she was “interesting” rather than ignoring or teasing her for her tendency to hyperfixate on things she discovers. It was a similar story with Rito, who found true happiness when her new friends complimented her drawings when no one else had before. Mari, too, seeks validation in the approval of her online followers and the fashionistas who buy her clothes.
In all three backstories, but especially in those of the creators, Rito and Mari, there’s the looming question of how to get compliments for the things you make. Do you draw/make what’s popular, to gain an enthusiastic following that way? Or is following trends just a cheap way to gain approval, and you should instead strive to create something truly “original”, even if that means less people will look at it or like it?
It’s the eternal creative dilemma, whether you’re a fiction writer, a feature writer, an artist, a designer… it goes on. We all make things for the love of it, but we also thrive off the approval of others. Is there any point making a thing if no one looks at, or says they like, the thing you put so much work into? We all tell ourselves that pageviews, shares, likes and feedback aren’t the measure of our worth, but the notion always manages to sneak into the back of our minds, to dance around and taunt us late at night. Joining those thoughts is always the contrasting anxiety: am I being original? Should I be original, or should I adjust my style/subject matter to fit what’s popular, in order to gain more of a chance at that sweet, sweet public approval? Is that selling out? Is that selfish?
It’s these twin demons—“originality” and validation—that underscore the crisis point in URAHARA. Mari, stung by the idea that she’s not a “true artist” for following trends, but also deeply attached to the happiness and validation she gets from her high follower count, goes into a headspin. Whether because she’s been off the grid fighting aliens, or due to some hypnosis by the evil tempura shrimp (admittedly, a collection of words I never thought I’d type), she watches her online follower count plummet to zero, and decides that she may as well become a Scooper and a culture thief since she isn’t “original” in her designs anyway. She enters a sort of state of mania, hearing crowds cheering for her as she eats more of the snack food that will transform her into an alien, hooked on their approval. And Kotoko, hooked on her approval, willingly follows Mari, deciding that she’d rather turn into a cartoonish space-creature than be stuck alone on Earth without the only people who have ever accepted her as she is.
Caught in the middle of this is poor Rito, who, it’s worth noting, raised an important counterpoint during their argument about originality: “is it really that bad to study and copy things you admire?” That’s how you learn and grow, after all—sitting in a vacuum waiting for the divine inspiration of a truly “original” idea will get you nowhere. Rito fights tooth and nail against the forces trying to tempt her into joining the Scoopers, even engaging in combat with a giant crepe vendor, but eventually she succumbs. In the end, the thought of her creations disappearing into the abyss because no humans will look at them wins out, and she instead opts to create for the Scoopers, who will let her draw whatever she wants, trends be damned.
In the post-Madoka world we live in, I have to admit this arc had me a little worried that this show was embracing the “dark twist” to the magical girl story (complete with the demoralising gut-punch that the girls are being manipulated and turned into the things they’re fighting). True, it goes to a dark place—even if it’s cartoonish, body horror is still body horror—but it sticks to the roots of the magical girl genre by having that darkness be something to overcome, and true to form, the Scoopers’ mind games are defeated by The Power of Friendship. Rito’s transformation is horrifying enough to snap Mari and Kotoko out of their own binge-eating, and they end up chasing her down trying to convince her that her art is important whether she has an entire alien race cheering it on or not. A lot of affirmations and an adorable flashback to the beginning of the girls’ friendship is the final tug that’s needed to draw Rito out of her creative crisis/alien transformation.
Is it a little bit of a convenient fix-all? Maybe. But a) if The Power of Friendship can’t reverse the evil machinations of the villains, no matter how heinous they are, what kind of magical girl show are we watching? and b) there’s a wonderful sort of emotional power behind this. Rito realises that the validation and support from her best friends, who have always and will always love her work, is worth a lot more than generic popularity. Mari realises that whether or not she’s “original” she’s still making things she loves and that bring joy to other people. And Kotoko gets the affirmation that even if she can’t create as well as the others, her ability to focus and research and discover new things is still valuable. They all inspire and support each other, and it’s enough.
And honestly… this is a really important message to hear, especially for young creators (the show is aimed at girls in their pre- and early teens, as I understand it): explosive popularity isn’t the be all and end all of creating content, and neither is the pursuit of “true originality”. It’s okay to just make what you love, and when you find a couple of good friends who unconditionally support you, that’s when you’ve hit the jackpot. Everything that builds from there is a bonus, and with the unconditional support of those friends—your first fans!—you’ll be better able to gather the strength to grow and practice and make something truly amazing.
It doesn’t solve the dilemma of originality vs popularity by any means, but it provides an emotional solution on a personal level that serves as a good reminder to content creators everywhere, regardless of age. The follower count isn’t everything. How “original” your art is isn’t everything. If you fixate too hard on either of these things, the frustration you endure might cause your creativity to fizzle out completely. And, if the invasion of the Scoopers proves anything, our ability to be creative is one of the most amazing and unique things about our species, so we ought to each embrace and celebrate our own talents whether they gain worldwide recognition or not.