You know what are great? Second-hand book fairs. Regular old second-hand book shops are wonderful too, of course, but an event that stocks a convention centre with pre-loved reading material in the name of charity is a whole new kind of magic. You never know what you’ll find; sometimes trash, sometimes treasure, sometimes something so cheap it doesn’t matter which it ends up being, and sometimes the complete collection of a manga that has otherwise vanished off the face of the earth. For only $4 each. Ladies, gentlemen, and other distinguished guests, today I am talking about the early ‘00s magical girl series Sugar Sugar Rune, one of the many golden children of the now-defunct Del Rey publishing, the series that rocked the “cute witch” aesthetic for all it was worth and then some, monetised the Power of Love, and almost—not quite, but almost—had an incest plot twist. Spoilers for the whole series beyond!
Sugar Sugar Rune is the story of two ten-year-old witches, best friends Chocolat and Vanilla, who journey from their home in the magical world to the human world to compete for who will be crowned queen. It’s a bit of an odd political system, but I didn’t really pause to consider this until later in the series when the nature of magical parliament is delved into; initially I was too distracted by the competition itself. Chocolat and Vanilla are competing to see who can collect the most hearts from the human world, “hearts” being the crystallised manifestation of the feelings humans have for them. A yellow heart means the human fears the witch, a green heart represents friendship, an orange heart infatuation, a pink heart a genuine crush, and a red heart for true passionate love. A black (or “noir” because this series loves flinging French around in its magic spells) heart is a sign of negative emotions like envy or hatred, but we’ll get to those later.
The hearts are worth different amounts of points depending on the colour, and as well as being able to use these points to buy magical upgrades and accessories, the witch with the most points at the end wins the crown. And so these kids are unleashed into society to try and charm as many boys as possible, warned to be careful that they don’t end up giving their own heart away in the process—unlike humans, if a witch loses their heart without the proper commitment ritual, they will literally die.
So… this is, off the bat, a story where magical worldbuilding pits two girls against each other over the affection of boys. Thankfully, though their friendship might not get quite as much focus and background as I might have liked (especially at the start—you know that they’re BFFs, but you don’t really know how or why), and though they have their ups and downs (including the two becoming enemies at one point when Vanilla is magically turned evil!), Chocolat and Vanilla vow to stay best friends and not be driven apart by the competition, and by the end of the series this remains true. Chocolat has a love story that forms the emotional core of most of her arc, but though it gets more page-time she never prioritises her romance over her friendship with Vanilla. Perhaps ironically, even though the competition threatens to tear them apart in all that it is, their friendship is treated as something of a universal constant throughout the drama and disaster that occurs throughout the series.
So it’s not as catty a premise as it may sound, which, with that sigh of relief out of the way, brings me to my next mild discomfort: the fact that these girls are ten and have been thrust into a game where they are required to make as many dudes as possible fall in love with them. It becomes apparent fairly quickly that, like Sailor Moon, we’re dealing with “the pure love of a young girl” and the majority of hearts collected are of the orange and pink variety, collected from their classmates and based in the weird world of pre-adolescent crushes where everything is a mess of affection and blushing but sexual connotations haven’t yet reared their dubious head. As much as I don’t like romance being foisted onto literal children, I can reluctantly accept this is fine. However, also to mirror Sailor Moon, Chocolat’s love interest is four years older than her, which is an even more massive difference at her age than it is at Usagi’s. Can you picture a ten-year-old and a fourteen-year-old having a balanced relationship? Do ten-year-olds and fourteen-year-olds even exist on the same psychological planet??
As much as the series eventually endeared me to it, the whole love plotline is, admittedly, a mess of problems and potential nastiness. Chocolat’s love interest, Pierre, is introduced as the Cool Mature Student Council type, quite literally nicknamed “prince” by the girls who idolise him. Having recently watched Revolutionary Girl Utena, alarm bells akin to the Kill Bill sirens began going off in my head. Which is funny, but also turned out to be a correct hunch, since Pierre is soon revealed to be the literal prince of the Ogres, an evil faction of witches banished from the magical court and seeking revenge and power. So, yeah: our love interest is also our preliminary villain.
I know it’s a storyline that can work, but it’s far from my personal taste. Trust no smug blond bishounen, my girl. Just don’t. He will try to steal your heart, quite literally. He will be cold and standoffish and nasty. Among other antagonistic nonsense he will threaten the Universal Constant: he will emotionally manipulate your best friend, implant a black heart in her chest, and draw out her insecurities to make her the worst (but best-dressed) version of herself, turning her into your enemy. You will also find out the same thing happened to him, and have to grapple with whether or not this excuses his dastardly actions. And also grapple with your feelings for him, because of course you can’t shake off your crush on the literal bad guy, even when he has been so blatantly bad to you and the people you care for. I repeat, this is too much drama for ten-year-olds to endure. Stave off romance and magical politics until high school at least!
Anyhow, if we’re talking about the love story, which you inevitably are with a shoujo series, you probably don’t want me to leave that accusation of almost-incest hanging in the air. So here goes: late in the story, Chocolat finds out that her father is Duke Glace, the leader of the Ogres. Her mother, Cinnamon, was sent to join them undercover as part of a Big Secret Plan with Vanilla’s mother (the magical world’s current queen), and from putting different flashbacks and bits of info together we can infer that she fell in love with the Duke and they had a baby together. Cinnamon had to run away, was eventually put on trial for high treason, and was turned into a cat, leaving Chocolat to be raised by her grandfather assuming her mother was dead… which is an absolutely wild and heartbreaking backstory that provides all sorts of fascinating insight into the grown-up political machinations of the magical world, and I would have read chapters more of it if I’m being honest. (As a sidenote, Cinnamon has some of the most dynamic and gorgeous costume designs in the series, taking cues from couture fashion plates and magazine illustrations from the ‘20s and ‘30s. This manga has a strong aesthetic and it knows what to do with it. Bring me more Cinnamon)
Though you don’t see any of Cinnamon and Glace’s romance, the reader—and Chocolat—is assured that Chocolat being born is a symbol of their love. The most important thing for the plot is that Pierre, Prince of the Ogres, was raised to be Glace’s successor, so Chocolat is suddenly forced to realise that she and her love interest might have the same dad. Now, we already know from flashbacks that Pierre was half adopted, half indoctrinated by the Ogres and implanted with the Noir heart that made him who he is today. Who his blood parents are isn’t really delved into, but the most important thing is we can be pretty sure they’re not Cinnamon and Glace. Chocolat doesn’t know this, however, and is sent into a headspin fretting that she and her blood-related brother have fallen in love with each other. Clearly, having shown that Chocolat wasn’t fazed by the magical politics keeping them apart, the author felt they needed to up the ante on the forbidden love angle.
And I just… look, if Chocolat internally declaring that she can’t and won’t fight her feelings for Pierre even when she thinks he’s her brother was meant to be endearing and dramatic… it just gave me really unfortunate memories of The Mortal Instruments series and a bad taste in my mouth. Guys, I really shouldn’t have to spell out that incest is not an acceptable mode of Forbidden Romance. There’s just too much nastiness at play there, and there are so many other alternatives that are much more interesting and much less gross. Utena tried to warn you about this shit as well as the whole “prince” thing.
Mercifully, Chocolat finds out the truth before story’s end and can relax and head forward into her Happily Ever After. As much as I’ve ground my teeth at the whole business in this post, I have to admit I actually ended up liking Pierre, which I did not expect given his introduction and setup as the villain. Admittedly this is mostly due to my favourite arc of the series: Vanilla (who is doing her best to be Evil at this point) uses magic to create a fake beach for heart-stealing purposes, but overloads from the effort of making such an extensive illusion and faints. This causes the illusion to break apart… while Chocolat and Pierre are in the “ocean”. This strands them in a weird liminal space between the human world and the magical world, and they have to communicate and bond to find their way out of it. Stuck together, they have no choice but to build and explore their relationship rather than ignoring it, and they end up cooperating and getting along quite well.
Given the chance to actually develop, Pierre is a sweet soul, really, when he’s not trying to live up to the role of cold-hearted prince he’s been foisted into. It’s not a mega-extensive character study, but it’s just enough to make him layered and endearing and for his inner conflict to make sense, and enough for Chocolat’s crush on him to become based on something genuine rather than wayward doki-dokis towards a handsome but nasty older boy, which let me believe in their romance 192% more.
This foray into the weird space between worlds also helped expand and build the fantasy setting, which was something I was consistently fascinated by every time the series dipped into it. For one thing, the magical world looks fantastic, somehow combining the aesthetics of Wicked, The Nightmare Before Christmas, couture illustrations, gothic lolita fashion, and the good old cute-and-spooky Halloween candyland look. For another, there were enough peeks into the flaws and behind-the-scenes workings of the world to make it feel realised rather than just a fun backdrop, including but not limited to corrupt politicians who strand the queen as a figurehead and inspire her to mount a quiet rebellion with the woman she was meant to be competing against. Chocolat and Vanilla’s mamas were badass, you guys. Where’s the prequel about their contest and their big plans?
While the contest that forms the backbone of the series was ultimately entirely silly, I did enjoy one point it kept consistently bringing up: that Chocolat is unpopular with boys in the human world because she’s brash and outgoing, whereas Vanilla is (to her surprise) well-loved because she’s more naturally shy and demure. Chocolat is told repeatedly that boys do not like her as she is and she’ll never collect hearts if she doesn’t adjust her behaviour, and though she bemoans this… she really makes no effort to change herself just to get ahead in the contest.
Chocolat collects hearts through her own methods and through finding people she’s genuinely compatible with rather than reshaping her image just to appeal to boys, and as well as obviously ending up with a Happily Ever After, her strengths are ultimately celebrated as being complimentary alongside Vanilla’s. Staying true to herself and to her beliefs (and to her loyalties!) ends up being much more important than changing who she is to attract a love interest, and that was something I sincerely appreciated. It makes every instance of characters clucking that “boys don’t like girls like you!!” tongue-in-cheek and something to be proven wrong rather than something readers ought to take as scripture, which is especially important given this is aimed at young girls.
In the end, there’s a lot to like (the sense of magic and fun, the strong aesthetic, the positive messages about self-image and friendship), and a lot to like not so much (some pacing issues, the near-incest), and overall it’s a good time if you want to sink into a perky magical world of innocent infatuations and neatly-sliced battles between good and evil. It draws to an epic conclusion but for the most part Sugar Sugar Rune is a sweet and light magical adventure about Chocolat trying to figure herself out and do what she thinks is right, making her quite a heroic as well as funny and endearing protagonist. While it was ultimately a mixed bag, it was a world I enjoyed spending time in. ☆ Sugar sugar choco rune! ☆