Spicing It Up: “High Guardian Spice” is A Cute and Magical Coming-of-Age Story

Sage and Rosemary in the first episode

On October 26, the first twelve episodes of High Guardian Spice aired on Crunchyroll and VRV. The show tells the story of four girls, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme who meet at a magical academy, try to become heroes, and explore their identities while preparing to protect the world from a looming threat.

Reprinted from The Geekiary and Wayback Machine. This was the eleventh article I wrote for The Geekiary. This post was originally published on October 30, 2021.

High Guardian Spice, a comedic and magical coming-of-age animated series, is by Raye Rodriguez, a Cuban-American trans man. Rodriguez was an animator for animated shorts aired on Animation Domination High-Def programming block and a character designer for the LGBTQ-friendly 13-episode series, Danger & Eggs. The latter series was created by Mike Owens and a trans woman named Shadi Petosky, who later was an executive producer on the short-lived 24-episode series titled Twelve Forever.

High Guardian Spice is an anime-inspired animation that centers around four girls who attend a magical school named High Guardian Academy: a pink-haired sword-wielder named Rosemary (voiced by Briana Leon), a blue-haired witch and magical girl named Sage (voiced by Lauren White), a yellow-haired dwarf and blacksmith named Parsley (voiced by Amber Romero), and a sarcastic red-haired elf and archer named Thyme (voiced by Michelle Deco).

Other important secondary characters include Aloe (voiced by Joy Lerner), Anise (voiced by Haviland Stillwell), Snapdragon (voiced by Julia Kaye), Amaryllis (voiced by Katie McVay), Slime Boy (voiced by Julian Koster), and Parnell (voiced by Barbara Goodson). There are also villains like Mandrake (voiced by A.J. Beckles), Olive (voiced by Stephanie Sheh), and Smoke Face (voiced by Audo Paden). Deco also voices Sage’s Mom, while Liisa Lee voices Lavender, Salli Saffioti voices The Triad, and Cam Clarke voices Neppy Cat. Of these cast members, Kaye is a trans woman, Beckles is a Black man, Haviland is a lesbian, Clarke is openly gay, Deco is a Black woman who makes bad puns, and Koster is ambiguously queer, to name a few. These cast members are close enough that McVay, Deco, and Kaye can all congratulate each other on wonderful voice performances, making playful jabs at each other.

The 12 episodes released so far introduce viewers to the four protagonists, as they converge at High Guardian Academy. In the first episode, Rosemary and Sage, two childhood friends very comfortable around one another, travel from their hamlet of Pebble to the academy. On the way, they stay with Sage’s cousin, Anise and her wife, Aloe, a married lesbian couple. While staying in the town of Lyngarth, Sage and Rose bump into Thyme, and they chase a creature that destroys Rose’s treasured locket. They later meet Parsley, who has twelve overactive kids as siblings, four of which are shown (Neddle, Thistle, Clover, and Spurge), all of whom are voiced by Katie McVay. In the second episode, the protagonists begin as students at the academy. In the next episode, the audience gets a look at the academy, led by three women known as the Triad, and its students, as the protagonists go to their assigned classes, and the guardian vow is revealed. Later episodes show the protagonists honing their skills, going on magical adventures, family tensions, attending magic classes, the conflict between “old” and “new” magic, teenage crushes, weapons training, and a dangerous cave adventure. The final five episodes involve cute costumes, an evil catgirl Olive trying to stir up trouble at the autumn festival and turn the protagonists into stone, tensions between Rose and Sage, summoning a demon, mending friendships, merpeople, and an attack on the academy by villains.

The third episode stands out. In the episode, Professor Caraway (voiced by Rodriguez) tells Rose “I’m transgender,” making him possibly one of the first in animation to say those words. After he says that, Caraway explains that he takes a “potion once a month” so he can keep the body which fits his identity, a metaphor for hormone replacement therapy. Other characters, like May Marigold in RWBY, voiced by a trans woman, Kdin Jenzen, noted their transness on screen but never used the word transgender. The scene with Calaway delighted fans of the show, especially those who are trans, genderqueer, and the like. It was also nice that Caraway is friends with Aloe, one of the show’s recurring lesbian characters. When Caraway said he is transgender, it was just as powerful as Benson, in Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, telling the show’s protagonist he is gay, Adam in The Hollow‘s second season letting his friends know that he is gay, or one of the protagonists of Nico Colaleo’s web series, Too Loud, a closeted trans woman, coming dressed to a sleepover crossdressing as a girl named Desiree.

While Snapdragon “Snap” is, originally, a bit dismissive and rough around the edges with a “tough guy” act, Snap is able to figure out more about themself. In the show’s third episode, Snap starts to have a crush on Sage. Both are shown together, looking at each other happily, in the show’s eighth episode. Snap talks to Sage about the “heavy stuff”, even helping Sage realize her feelings for Rose. Even Amaryllis, who begins the series as a bully axe wielder, described as a garbage girl and “Kokichi Danganronpa” by Lauren Orsini, comes to Snap’s defense after Cal (voiced by SungWon Cho) insults Snap for wearing a girl’s costume, since Cal sees Snap as a boy. This leads to what Snap does in another episode, after Cal insults Snap for wearing a mermaid costume they wore during the autumn celebration, dressing like Ariel. In response, Snap beats up Cal, which we all probably wanted to do, until Caraway stops it. While some may not like that characters like Cal are uttering these transphobic insults, they are missing that the show has a trans man who has transitioned talking to a closeted trans woman about transitioning, making it one of the only shows to do this (that I know of).

Specifically, in one episode, the same one where Snap beats up Cal, Snap explains to Caraway why they punched Cal, saying that changing themselves wouldn’t be easy, that they hate being big, and their desire to be a warrior like the girls. These are more indications that Snap is experiencing gender dysphoria. Snap’s eyes sparkle when Caraway talks about transition magic, referring to gender transition, is excited, and thanks Caraway for listening to them. Clearly, Snap is trans, supported by the fact that Snap’s voice actor, Kaye, is trans. She does a wonderful job in her first voice acting role! Rodriguez recently clarified that Snap would use they/them pronouns, even though Snap is on the road to transitioning toward being a trans woman by the end of the series.

Sage, Snap, Caraway, Aloe, and Anise at the autumn celebration

With the presence of Snapdragon and Caraway in High Guardian Spice, and how both of them are generally treated respectfully by those in the show, this series has some of the best representation of trans people in animation. It is not alone in this, however. There are other examples of wholesome, positive representation out there. This includes Zadie in Danger & Eggs, anime like Wandering Son, or Isabella Yamamoto in Paradise Kiss. High Guardian Spice is a bit different, however, as it presents trans topics in a way that is suited for young teens, which is reinforced by the fact the show tackles internalized transphobia and toxic masculinity.

Fans on social media have said they enjoyed other parts of the show, such as seeing Anise and Aloe in the first episode or the gay vibes between characters like Sage and Rose. The latter is very evident even from the first episode, vibes among other characters, and possible bisexual characters. The fact that the series begins with a lesbian couple in the debut episode means that it begins with far more outward representation from the get-go than She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which did not explicitly show any LGBTQ characters in the first episode, with only implied vibes between Catra and Adora, although that later changed. There has also been some wonderful fan art, although none of Anise of Aloe I’ve seen, only of Snap, Rose, Sage, Olive, and others.

Anise and Aloe remind me a bit of Theoda and Pothina in Cleopatra in Space, or Scorpia’s two unnamed mothers in an episode of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. If High Guardian Spice had been on a platform like Cartoon Network or somewhere else rather than Crunchyroll, there is a high likelihood that the LGBTQ+ content would have been cut or toned down. As for the show itself, Anise and Aloe are probably portrayed as “cousins” in a jab at how Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus were shown in some dubs of Sailor Moon in the 1990s and 2000s. Both characters are an important part of the story, especially helping Sage deal with her insecurities, and kiss each other in one episode. Apart from Anise and Aloe, one could say that Professor Dretch and Coral, voiced by Haviland Stillwell are lesbian, as Stillwell is a lesbian. Thyme has a crush on the latter character, a mermaid, in another episode. This fits perfectly with the show’s focus on friendships and amazing adventures in a world “filled with sadness.”

Although High Guardian Spice appears to be family-friendly at first, there are warnings at the beginning of each episode about how the show contains strong language, violence, and sexual content and how the show is for “mature audiences only.” Rodriguez explained this is the case because there is some blood, curse words, and violence later on like Naruto rather than Madoka. It seems that the warning was written by Crunchyroll, similar to the one ahead of Onyx Equinox episodes. However, the warning is a bit of overkill, as it’s wrong to say the show is only for “mature audiences only” or that there is any “sexual content,” despite some mild cursing. Even so, there are some bloody scenes. For instance, Lavender is covered in some blood, as is her sword, when she stabs a creature when fighting alongside Caraway. In another episode, when the protagonists are fighting travers, Rose gets mortally injured. She also gets hurt during the fight with Olive, who she cuts in the arm. You get the idea.

Despite this, the series is not as mature as animations like Inside Job, Disenchantment, Star Trek: Lower Decks, Onyx Equinox, or Final Space, to name a few. While High Guardian Spice includes various LGBTQ+ characters, like the aforementioned series, there is also something to laugh about in every episode, whether from Rose, the cute tongue biter, or other moments. While Amyrillis occasionally bullies the protagonists, like Sage, the series moves from being happy and good-lucky to an ominous threat episode by episode. This makes it similar to how many anime series are constructed, leading to an inevitable battle in the final episode, or even Cleopatra in Space where the school which the protagonist and her friends attend is attacked by the villain and his robotic army in the final episode of the series. The warnings on the High Guardian Spice episodes may be to discourage children from watching more extreme parts. However, the series shares animation styles with all-ages animations. In sum, you could say that the series is a young adult animation, something which creators like Rad Sechrist, Matt Braly, and others have discussed, saying there should be animated series that fall between mature animation and all-ages animation.

The music of High Guardian Spice is composed by Steven Argila. At times the music is upbeat and sets the mood. The songs include Amanda Levari’s “Become the Light,” sung by Wendy Wagner, Audu Paden’s “Friends for a Lifetime,” sung by Briana Leon and Lauren White, and Rodriguez’s “The Guardian’s Path,” sung by Julian Koster. The first song is the show’s opening, while the second is the show’s closing song, and the third plays only in the episode “Festival of Fall Part Two.” In an interview after the series premiere, Rodriguez said that the opening and ending of each episode has been inspired by his favorite anime endings and openings. He also said that writers collaborated on the lyrics of the opening song, and he worked on the closing credits.

In the first episode, “Scarborough Fair,” a well-known traditional English ballad, famously covered by the folk-rock duo, Simon & Garfunkel, plays, something which makes the show that much more wonderful. Some people have argued that the sound mixing of the series is “bad,” but personally I haven’t seen much of an issue with it. In addition, the show’s pacing fits with the animation and the character designs are lovely.

Rodriguez noted that William Ruzicka storyboarded the opening and endings. Although he said that the ending sequence has a slice-of-life, storybook feel like the endings of Petite Princess Yucie and Sailor Moon episodes, it reminded me more of the endings of Cardcaptor Sakura, where Sakura and Tomoyo make a cake together in cute outfits, than anything else. These influences are no accident. The show is clearly influenced by the magical girl genre as Rodiguez noted and is evident from the show itself. Some have even pointed to scene similarities with Madoka Magica. The opening of the first episode of High Guardian Space made me think of the wonderful opening crawl to the first episode of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, which brings the viewer across Etheria and into the depths of the Fright Zone, where the viewer is drawn into the story of the protagonist, Adora, and her childhood friend, Catra.

The show’s four protagonists shown in the opening sequence

The voice acting of High Guardian Spice is smooth, with the voice actors getting into their roles and using natural speech patterns, coupled with wonderful animation and background art. The voice acting actually reminds me somewhat of the voice acting by Zach Callison for the titular character of Steven Universe, with his voice acting changing as Steven got older. As for High Guardian Spice, it is evident that the voices were chosen specifically to suit the characters at their current ages, even if people think they are “awkward” or “bad.” Unfortunately, just like Onyx Equinox, Crunchyroll sadly decided that because the show has characters speaking in English that subtitles aren’t needed, even though that would definitely be helpful. This makes the show inaccessible to fans who are hard of hearing or use subtitles to make sure they don’t miss anything characters are saying. It makes me think of Ken Loach’s 1969 film, Kes, where, if I remember right, Loach purposely did not make subtitles available to those watching it on DVD, so people could “understand” thick accent. It seemed to say that people who are hard of hearing should suck it up and watch the film. It appears that Crunchyroll is going down the same route. I hope subtitles are added in the future, as it would help disabled people a whole lot, as the current situation means the show is not fully accessible. One fan even suggested filing a complaint against Crunchyroll, with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, for violating the Americans With Disabilities Act.

One of my favorite parts of High Guardian Spice is the mix of the modern and the medieval. The first episode has a steam-powered train, crank-driven railways, and horse-drawn buses. It reminds me of the steam-powered city of Steamland in Disenchantment, a show which also blends modern and medieval technology together as part of the storyline. It makes me think of the water-powered gondola lifts in Elena of Avalor made by Isabel Flores, the sister of the show’s protagonist, Elena Castillo Flores, or the train in the children’s animation, Mira, Royal Detective.

High Guardian Spice also has diversity in the characters, like The Owl House, Amphibia, and Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, with some fans praising the show for portraying Black characters properly.

Togetherness, acceptance, and discovering your identity are major themes in High Guardian Spice, meant to appeal to a younger audience. A related theme is trauma. Rose has a recurring nightmare about the disappearance of her mom, a guardian, who left behind her magical sword. She gets nervous when she loses her locket to a Tricksie, a creature which is like a magpie, and when her sword, Flowering Thorn, gets broken. She calls Flowering Thorn the “one thing” that matters to her. Her locket includes an important family memory and a photograph of her, her dad, and her brother. Sage, on the other hand, gets nervous when she doesn’t have everything planned out and orderly, even questioning if she should be at the academy at all at one point, and trying to say the right things to people.

Rose reminds me a little of Ash Graven from Final Space or Cassandra in Tangled: The Series, complex characters with troubled pasts who also experience trauma. Cass, a lesbian-coded character, sings about her trauma, saying she is going down a “path paved in black” and that she has “nothing left to lose,” becoming a villain of sorts, although she doesn’t like to admit it. What Rose experiences in the show makes me think of Steven Universe struggling with his trauma in the animated limited series Steven Universe Future, the most prominent series to show trauma in a realistic and non-stereotypical manner. Sage reminds me of Adora in She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, who tries to be orderly, or even Pearl in Steven Universe, although neither of these is an exact comparison.

These themes make High Guardian Spice similar to shows such as Steven Universe, The Owl House, and Amphibia. It also shares some themes with shows such as She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Lego Elves: Secrets of Elvendale, and The Dragon Prince, because of the dragons, demon cats, centaurs, and magic, like a floating chest with wings named Chompy. Some have argued that the series has similarities to The Winx Club as well. The show’s main setting in a school made me think of Little Witch Academia, an anime that some say has queer vibes and is set at a magical school, first and foremost. Although in that series the school is not within a city, like it is in High Guardian Spice. There are fundamental differences between the two shows. Anime series are often set in schools, including anime with LGBTQ+ protagonists, like Bloom Into You, Blue Drop, Whispered Words, and Kashimashi: Girl Meets Girl, to name a few.

Apart from Rodriguez, those working on High Guardian Spice are a talented and diverse group of people. The show is said to have a writers room composed completely of women, a crew of which 50% are women, and being “very ethnically and LBGTQ+ diverse” according to Margaret Dean, who executive produced the series along with Rodriguez. Claire Stenger, who developed the series and is a writer for the show, has helped design various video games based on series like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Amalia Levari, another show writer, has written for Bravest Warriors, Summer Camp Island, Star Vs. The Forces of Evil, and Danger & Eggs, all of which have LGBTQ+ characters.

The same is the case for Kate Leth, a queer and genderfluid comic artist who is a show writer. Many of the series she has written for, like Bravest Warriors, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, Craig of the Creek, Adventure Time (comics) and Mysticons (comics) often have such characters as well. Other writers include Katie McVay, a comedian who has worked on live-action series up to this point, and Kristle Peluso, who previously worked as a writer on episodes of Onyx Equinox and gen:LOCK. The show’s supervising director, Audu Paden, has worked on series such as Monster High, Ever After High, Animaniacs, and Polly Pocket, during his 20+ year career. Although some have criticized Leth in the past, with the issues being brought together in a 46-page Google Doc reportedly outlining her past problematic actions and words, it is important to remember she is only one of the show’s many writers. As such, even if you are critical of Leth or dislike her for some other reason, no one in their right mind should dismiss an entire show because of what one writer has said in the past, just as no one should dismiss Twelve Forever because the creator, Julia Vickerman, may have been fostering a hostile work environment.

There has been a negative response to High Guardian Spice, primarily from reactionary videos on YouTube and outrage over a “focus on diversity and LGBTQ+ creators,” following the release of a trailer a few years ago. This has reached over into the comments on the episodes themselves, which is worrisome. The response is somewhat similar to how people reacted to the release of Kelsey Stephanides’ six-episode mature animated comedy series, Magical Girl Friendship Squad, which parodied the magical girl genre and included various LGBTQ characters and themes. SYFY originally released episodes on YouTube, but due to negative response from a vocal minority who review bombed episodes, the episodes were pulled from YouTube, and were put behind a paywall. Currently, Magical Girl Friendship Squad can only be watched on an obscure streaming platform, Peacock, while the show was left to die, with SYFY not even attempting to renew it.

The backlash to High Guardian Spice from stick-in-the-mud anime fans is a likely cause for the series, which ended production in November 2019, to miss release dates in 2019 and 2020. This means that Crunchyroll sat on the series for two years! Hopefully, High Guardian Spice does not suffer the same fate as Magical Girl Friendship Squad, or Crunchyroll Originals like Onyx Equinox, which has not yet been renewed for a second season. As one fan put it, “the immature audiences have already declared that they aren’t watching.”

Despite this, there has been a positive response to the show from character designers, artists, reviewers, writers, storyboarders, illustrators, cartoonists, YouTubers, cleanup artists, animators, animation directors, and show creators. Although you could say that the show isn’t for everyone, this doesn’t mean that anyone should hate on it. A lot of the hate toward the show is from misogynist and queerphobic anime fans, even though anime often features LGBTQ+ stereotypes up to the wazoo, with good representation sometimes hard to come by. Hopefully, this minority of hate-watchers of High Guardian Spice will be drowned out over time by new LGBTQ+ fans who love the show, even as Crunchyroll barely promotes it, leaving the promotional work to current viewers and the show’s cast and crew.

Sage boops Rose on the nose in episode 1

If High Guardian Spice receives a second season, it will continue the story of the show’s four protagonists, which Rose dubs “High Guardian Spice” in the show’s final episode. In possible future episodes, Olive, who worked with Smoke Face, her intermediary to the Triumverate, may continue to be a threat, even though she has said that she doesn’t want to kill anyone. As Olive stated in one episode to the show’s protagonist, the Triumverate will keep sending enemies, like Mandrake, to fight the protagonists, attempting to cause them, and those at the school grievous harm. Another season would see more of “cute witches fall[ing] in love with each other,” as one fan described it, and episodes that hopefully push the boundaries of LGBTQ+ and gender diversity in media. Some fans would probably hope that characters like Sage and Rose could “run off and elope and travel the world as a power couple,” as Amber Vanich, an openly lesbian storyboarder for Tangled: The Series once said about the popular ship of Cassandra and Rapunzel in the series, known as “Cassunzel,” or have Sage and Snap do the same, due to their feelings toward each other. There are many possible ships in this show.

If another season of High Guardian Spice does happen, there would be more of what Romero described as an “incredibly inclusive” fun and magical adventure. Such a season is possible despite the fact that Rodriguez is developing a new mature animated drama for Legendary TV and another based on DC animated character for Warner Bros. Animation. If the show was to be renewed by Crunchyroll, new episodes would need to be developed, meaning the show may be on hiatus for some time. As Rodriguez put it recently, on an account which has gone private to avoid harassment from trolls, it’s up to Crunchyroll if a second season is greenlit, adding that he’d “love to make a season 2” because he wanted to have the story following “the girls through all 3 years at High Guardian Academy.”

As Georden Whitman, creator of Nomad of Nowhere and the upcoming animated series, Port by the Sea, stated, “it seems a lot of people are enjoying it so I hope that hate crowd is nullified.” I hope for the same. As for Rodriguez, he has been drawing characters from High Guardian Spice, beginning with Rose, since 2013, even putting Rose in an animation he made in 2014. As a result, it is clear that he would definitely be interested in continuing the series if he is able to do so as he is invested in the characters, even likely basing the name of the catgirl on his cat, Olive, featured on his Tumblr blog along with early illustrations of the show’s characters.

It is significant that Rodriguez described Princess Tutu as his favorite anime and Duck as his favorite character, saying she is “put through hardship after hardship, but she always makes it through smiling, she never gives up hope.” The series has some similarities to High Guardian Spice in that it has magical girl elements and effective emotional appeal, with emotional honesty from characters. However, Princess Tutu is said to be a “fairy tale set to ballet” with the use of dance in lieu of violence, which makes me think more of the fusion dances in Steven Universe than anything in High Guardian Spice. As one reviewer put it, “the show draws from magical girl series like Sailor Moon and Princess Tutu.” While I can’t speak more to the influence of Princess Tutu, the sequences in the episode where the girls become mermaids is definitely inspired by the magical girl transformations in anime such as Cardcaptor Sakura, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Sailor Moon, and the like.

High Guardian Spice is, as Marisa Balkus, an animation manager at Netflix, put it, a “very special show that was intended to connect with audiences outside of its main platform.” I hope, like she does, that people “find fun, comfort, and… a best girl in it.” Certain YouTubers who complain about the show to get clicks and money flowing into their pockets or the hostile people in the Crunchyroll comments don’t represent those who actually watch the show. Such people also did not represent those who watched Magical Girl Friendship Squad. The same can be said for the latter show’s hard-to-find pilot series, Magical Girl Friendship Squad: Origins, stuck behind innumerable paywalls, written by Diana McCorry, the same person who created the little-known animated comedy web series, Human Kind Of, in 2018.

In a possible Season 2, it would be wonderful to see more magic, wholesome girls from this charming and cute series which has the feel of a Toonami or Ghibli anime but the fluidity and expressiveness that a modern cartoon can offer. Due to the fact it has four female protagonists at the helm, it not only shares some similarities with anime series like Princess Connect! Re: Dive, but with Western animations like Middle School Moguls, the Tales of Arcadia anthology, and Welcome to the Wayne, although each of those series are different in their own ways.

The show’s last episodes, where the catgirl, Olive, turns people into stone, reminded me of the ending of the first season of Disenchantment when Dreamland is turned into stone except for the King, making it appear abandoned. In this case, however, the spell is lifted, while in Disenchantment everyone is still encased in stone, and that hasn’t been reversed even in the most recent episodes.

The first season of High Guardian Spice makes me think of the four-episode prelude series by Yssa Badiola, entitled Recorded By Arizal. Like that series, I see these 12 episodes as introducing viewers to the show’s characters and getting viewers invested in them, and setting a foundation for a future season. Another season would allow the characters to shine even more, and add more characters, perhaps those who are non-binary for instance. Even so, due to review bombing by some anime fans, it is possible that Crunchyroll will not see renewing such a series worth their while. Hopefully, they decide to renew it anyway and let the story continue, as the end of Season 1 left viewers with an unexpected cliffhanger!

I would highly recommend High Guardian Space. It is a harmless, cute, wonderful magical fantasy, and a queer magical girl show all in one.  I hope Crunchyroll will take the dive and keep this series alive. In the end, I hope that readers of this review help give High Guardian Spice a chance by watching it, whether on Crunchyroll or VRV.

© 2021-2023 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.

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