ARE YOU READY!!
Even now I can remember what spurred me on into taking an interest in the art of animation with astounding clarity, as I bore witness to fluidity unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Not anime as a medium mind, that would require traversing down the dusty corridors of my memory, unsure if I should turn towards Haruhi brazenly assert herself with a nonsensical speech telling of aliens and espers or Sakura capturing Clow cards on television after school, my glossy eyes filled with awe. I’m talking about animation: the sweat-drenched genga which transform into phenomenally inspired scenes which our imaginations scarcely dare to imagine, pens unleashing the equivalent of fairy dust, this enchanted substance which enthralls. Fluidity that we often overlook in favour of narrative resonance. Scenes which wield a power to linger, years later, due to the sheer emotions surging forth.
With each new season comes a litany of shows produced in hopes of capturing our attention and opening our wallets, yet due to wavering capriciousness on my behalf I seldom finish any of the shows mindlessly picked up during the grand week o’ premieres. Whenever there’s a dip in seasonal quality my interest in the medium wanes, volatile as ripples on the surface of a lake. During the summer of 2012 I was certain that my interest would quietly ebb away into the distance, and I will place the blame entirely on spinning washing machines and penguins. Although I will point towards Mawaruu Penguindrum (2011) as the show which truly transformed me into a fan of anime, several months after its explosive finale I found myself abandoned to an arid season bereft of promise and possibility. If you were to ask me about Hyouka (2012) now I would gush about it with unbridled enthusiasm, yet its earlier episodes left me restlessly checking the timer, wondering when it would just end already. It took until the celebrated festival arc to rouse me out of this proverbial slumber, gripping my interest through nuanced character weaving splendidly highlighting both Mayaka and Satoshi’s psychological ministrations. Several weeks on its magnificent Valentine episode held a similar effect over me, most notably through Mayaka’s passionate outpouring of emotions, destroying a present with such heartbroken vitriol that it sent my head reeling. I replayed the scene over and over, pieces growing more intense each time, her explosive sentiments palpable. I knew nothing of who directed the sequence, how long it had taken, let alone the conditions which surrounded that particular cut – I didn’t know what it was, exactly, but I wanted more. And so I could no longer watch the other two shows which I had picked up that summer without noticing how static they looked. But this burgeoning fascination would lay dormant for another four years.
Around the same time I found myself increasingly taken with otaku subculture and its litany of curiosities, extending to vivid starlets inspiring fans to move their glow sticks in practiced unison to bubblegum j-pop. A harmless prospect, yet the more I learned the more difficult I found it to reconcile the artificiality of girls essentially reshaped into commodities with the unsettling history lurking beneath layers of taupe and glitter. Marketed as sweet and demure ingénues, the concept of an ‘idol’ conjures up unattainable ideals which devoted fans ceaselessly strive towards and worship; fundamental human rights optional in the face of grubby masses claiming the girls as their own. These are figures shearing their hair off in order to appease irate devotees for having the gall to be in a relationship. Committing suicide at eighteen. Hounded for possibly appearing in an erotic production long before their professional career took off. Why on earth would anime want to further capitalize on these horrific ministrations, in turn implicating seiyuu and fans in such a deeply parasitic process? I couldn’t understand it, and was left similarly baffled with the advent of Love Live! (2014) which is when casual purveyors really began taking notice of the industry. Although I didn’t understand the craze, I wanted to. And so after debating with myself for what felt like an entire season of enthusiasm towards rainbow-haired sweethearts, I loaded up the first episode, gingerly bracing myself for what was about to unfold. Although the salacious elements were thankfully absent, something felt off as I watched the characters prance about, more unsettling than endearing. After just three episodes I couldn’t take anymore. Cynical venture Wake Up Girls! (2014) likewise bewildered me through its disingenuous condemnation of an industry while championing the show’s accompanying group; sleazy tycoons slapping bikinis on tables for fictitious projections, flesh-and-blood counterparts giggling as the episode drew to a sinister close. “I never will understand this industry”, I thought. It was something that I had made peace with.
Until this year.
Due to the warm encouragement of several animation enthusiasts, I found myself persuaded into checking out the premiere of The Idolm@ster (2011) – cue audible gulping on your blogger’s behalf. While the franchise no longer appears to be as encompassing as it once was, any seasoned fan would be no stranger to the multimedia behemoth which has captivated the imaginations of otaku for the past decade –a multi-million yen franchise which arguably, serves as the progenitor of the slew of starry-eyed aspirants which dominate each season hoping to shift BDs and ticket sales, Love Live! included. Of course I had my doubts. Of course I expected it to disturb me. The odds were not in my favour.
But what I never could have expected was that I would actually like it.
A lot, actually. To the point where it has quickly grown into one of my favourite series.
Before elaborating, I should warn any potential aficionado that this is a franchise which requires casting aside any preconceptions they may harbour before delving into what similarly extends to all that it’s drawing on. Despite deep and encompassing reservations only strengthening the more I grew familiar with figures such as Okada Yukiko and Minegishi Minami, over the course of Animas’ 26-episode run it nevertheless proves to be a magnificently constructed spectacle from beginning to end for it is a passion project through and through. Understandably, its very premise invokes criticism, ostensibly parading a menagerie of (mostly) underage caricatures intentionally fashioned with otaku appeal, one of whom you raise to be a top idol over the course of an in-game year. Throughout your chosen darling’s route you encourage the budding starlet to do well in lessons which take the form of mini games, engaging in brief communicative activities to ensure that she’ll be mentally equipped to perform during auditions – not unlike a renai game where the player gathers affection points through selecting correct dialogue responses. Given the franchise’s suspect origins you would certainly expect the anime to be little more than a bright and shiny harem with the girls simpering over its milquetoast of a viewer proxy; musical components a seditious afterthought to shift CD sales. You would expect it to look as cheap as the premise feels. But Animas is never – and I mean never, what you expect it to be.
You soon come to learn that it is in fact a splendid creation lovingly fashioned by ex-Gainax and Kyoto Animation stock, figures that hold nothing but the utmost respect for the franchise and its characters. With what is certainly the power of love driving them forward, they mesmerize viewers through positing a lovable ensemble cast, each of whom are impeccably portrayed with a grace and dignity which is noticeably absent within ostensibly similar productions. There is no limp in the herd with each of the girls possessing a startling charisma that endears you to no end, each focus episode proving to be infinitely charming as they depict the members of 765Pro rising up the ranks, and maybe even growing a little. What ensues is a unique and compelling animated experience like no other.
A marvellous case study would be a character who has buried her way into my heart, Hagiwara Yukiho. Initially portrayed as possessing a timorous disposition, androphobic and seemingly afraid of her own shadow to boot when first encountering her I could feel my eyes rattle ‘round my skull at the sheer audacity of such an obvious appeal (“she lives in fear of every man, except for… m—m-me?!?!?!”). It was early days yet and despite a promising premiere I expected to loathe her, but of course I hadn’t seen anything yet. In order to develop Yukiho as a functional member of the group, her focus episode took place as soon as the story would allow which happened to be the third. Over the course of its twenty-odd minute runtime I felt genuinely taken aback at how affecting it ended up being, her plight sympathetic and culminating in an immensely cathartic sequence which I never could have anticipated. You are not told by some booming voiceover that “Yukiho has gained confidence!”, instead witnessing it as self-assured hands reach towards clothing and make-up, no trace of hesitation in her fingertips; bold and courageous body language painting a vibrant developmental portrait. The animation becomes a narrative of its own through Yukiho asserting her agency which extends to a phenomenal stage performance. In a whirlwind span of just twenty minutes I shifted from cold dismissal to swelling pride that she had come so far.
Not too long afterI mustered up the courage to play Wandering Star (2009), one of the three entries in the popular SP series, and found myself involuntarily wincing at Yukiho’s behaviour, her paranoia-fuelled spirals when faced with the prospect of performing in front of a crowd or being interviewed hitting a little too close to home. Her borderline irrational thought process struck with startling acuity of how I felt years ago when my anxiety reached its claustrophobic apex, putting herself through the emotional wringer and eternally assuming the worst; a slave to Murphy’s Law. Pangs of sympathy and understanding aside, the game proved to be engaging and decidedly heartfelt, a far cry from the seditious simulator I assumed. And of course, Yukiho was anything but the caricature I expected, and in many ways I see her as a representation of all that the franchise has grown to be. It seldom turns out how you expect it to. What I expected.
While animation being a narrative of its own is pleasantly evidenced throughout the series, during performances its convincing physicality truly shines. It would have been a comparatively effortless prospect to transform the original dances into that janky brand of anime-exclusive CG which veers right off into the uncanny valley à la Love Live! Sunshine (2016), but once again this is Animas we’re talking about and like its vibrant cast, refuses to settle with mediocrity. It feels cathartic when a complex routine is nailed, the girls smoothly transitioning across the imagined stage without stumbling into one another, reaching those high notes in tandem; belting their hearts out as one perpetual motion machine. You see their determination every step of the way through faint movements during practice as a song kicks into gear, the giddy sense of anticipation leading up towards a flashing sidestep palpable. Arms move with physicality and fabric shifts while generously animated tendrils fly about. Rehearsals bear fruit once their debut show arrives, tension crackling as heads bang, figures rush through halls panicking about items misplaced and rummaging through cosmetic boxes. The crew being late to perform is a cliché in and of itself, but Animas sends it to tense heights, its agitation tangible leaving you restlessly wondering if Ryuuguu Komachi will make it in time. On stage the girls frantically rush through their set list as you’re privy to the chaos exploding behind the scenes, all shrieks and worried faces; costume malfunctions with zips refusing to budge and spilled drinks when they’re meant to go on next. Yet a capricious girl, on a whim, takes on the world and succeeds: all eyes are on her, including the viewer’s. It’s chaos. And you can’t possibly tear your eyes away.
It is a project impeccably crafted in every realm, which naturally extends to its exquisitely written character arcs. As was the case with Yukiho, the girls each have their day in the glittering limelight, but some days prove to be more affecting than others which rings especially true as the series draws to a close. For a character harbouring issues as severe as Chihaya, it would be nothing short of disingenuous to reserve her pain to a single twenty-odd minute runtime so is delicately woven throughout the series’ body, offering you pause each time a fragment of her past poignantly shines through. Even episodes before it all comes to a head we observe a cold and lonely apartment, sharply juxtaposed against the warmth of 765Pro’s office; Haruka looking small in its vast expanse with the past suffocating. She is unable to handle compulsory entertainment dealings like the poised and enigmatic Takane, unable to cheerily put on a smile for the camera like Haruka, unable to go along with reality television trivialities when all she wants to do is sing; the viewer privy to the artificiality of it all with cinematography emphasizing the production aspect. And boy, can she sing.
Following Chihaya’s sincere and nuanced exploration of grief comes Haruka’s arc in all its glory, delicately portraying relationships falling under strain as opportunity beckons. Although Animas is very much about the girls rising to the top and their magnificent transformation from scrappy underdogs to showbiz powerhouses, as achingly realized through the perpetually grinning cornerstone you’re left lamenting the disintegration of the vivid group dynamic despite dreams being achieved. It is a strikingly poignant climax, portrayed through understated gestures such as Haruka gingerly perched on a sofa, drinking cocoa, in the eerily still office of 765Pro – as silence lingers for another beat to truly let the isolation settle, you can’t help but cast your mind back to how we were introduced to the whirlwind of chaos which ensued following character introductions. She doesn’t want it to end, desperately gripping onto elusive shadows of the past as characters are unable to make practice due to increasing obligations. Their faces adorn posters everywhere she turns, and it seems that they’ve all moved on, leaving Haruka behind…
Its expressive directing and breathtaking scriptwriting covering a myriad of tones and themes aside, yet another point in Animas’ extensive resume is that its score is bursting at the seams with genuinely catchy tunes as opposed to Love Live’s cacophonous production with repetitious melodies actively working against each other to the point where I assumed that the show only had a single composer. Given that the franchise is a media powerhouse it boasts some of the more prolific composers in the industry, yielding tunes so ubiquitous that you have surely heard at least one in some capacity before as they’ve even been incorporated into meme-like realms such as Nico Nico melodies (I dare you not to hum a few notes of ‘ハレ晴レユカイ’ following the gloriously indulgent spectacle that is an idol beating up a thug and making it all look so effortless!).
When friends enthuse about animation directors and scheduling woes I tend to quietly sit at the side, attentively listening. Animation is a fascinating realm with endless possibilities that I may have only just begun exploring, but thanks to some hair twirling and skirt flipping it no longer seems as daunting.
I’m more than ready.
In fact, you could say I’m L@DY.