The Winter 2018 Anime Preview Guide
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As if Winter 2018 weren't already off to a good start with A Place Further Than the Universe, the new year has also provided a surprisingly enjoyable idol series, to boot. Now, I've always had a tough time clicking with idol series, so to say that I think IDOLiSH7 is mostly pretty good might be damning it with faint praise. It still has many of the foibles I associate with the genre, after all: It looks cheap, the music is middling at best, and this double-length premiere manages to have both too much plot and not enough at the same time. IDOLish7 succeeds where many other shows have failed for me in one key area, though, and that's the dialogue and the characters.
Don't get me wrong, this isn't anything revelatory here; IDOLiSH7 simply manages to make its cast of blandly designed boy-band types likable and interesting as individuals. All seven of the group's performers are built around basic genre stereotypes, but they each have a spark of personality and wit that I find sorely lacking in other shows of this ilk. Riku is the hyper-talented leader of the group, but he is personable and likable in his own right. Nagi is the foreigner/womanizer that speaks with an incredibly strange accent, but he manages to actually be charming and adorable instead of insufferably obnoxious. Tamaki really loves pudding, and that's something I simply relate to, on a deeply personal level.
What's more, the boys all interact with each other in ways that feel almost naturalistic, which is a minor miracle given the artificial sheen that coats every single aspect of the idol industry. They're friendly with one another, but they don't all become best friends right away. They argue and disagree, but it never feels like contrived drama, just the natural growing pains that come with having a bunch of pretty young performers share the stage with one another. Even the manager character gets a name, a personality, and something to do, which is always a relief going into an idol anime such as this one. In this way, I'd say that of the series I've seen, IDOLiSH7's closest cousin, in both tone and its ability to charm a wary critic like me, might be WAKE UP GIRLS!
Despite the unusually engaging cast of characters, this over-long premiere suffers from some real focus problems. This is an episode that revolves around a major audition and rehearsing for the group's first big concert, and yet aside from a single thirty-second aside, we see absolutely no scenes of the boys actually practicing their skills or learning their new routines. The actual showbusiness of putting on a concert feels almost like an afterthought here, with most of the episode's runtime being devoted to just watching the boys of IDOLiSH7 hang out, or listening to Tsumugi engage in such riveting managerial tasks as taking pictures for the band's website, or handing out fliers to passersby. If a more breezy, hangout style show is what you're looking for, than this premiere might work better for you. If you're like me, though, and you want to see the performers actually put in the hard hours and difficult work that goes in to performing, then these first episodes of IDOLiSH7 might prove to be a bit underwhelming.
Still, there's no denying that this premiere entertained me much more than any of Autumn's dire offerings. Despite not being very engaging when it comes to the actual music or performance aspects of this musical idol story, this could very well end up being a success based purely on its merits as a slice-of-life comedy that happens to involve a bunch of impossibly pretty young man singing and dancing on a stage every once in a while. I can't say I'm particularly motivated to come back to it in the coming weeks, but something tells me IDOLiSH7 will find its own well-deserved cadre of fans this winter.
The Winter 2018 season sure is starting off with a bang. After a nearly flawless debut by A Place Further Than the Universe, Idolish 7 follows up with an excellent platform for a new idol show. If you're already a male idol show fan, there is no reason to skip this extremely solid debut. And even if you aren't, there's more than enough sturdy storytelling and engaging character-building here to just maybe pique your interest.
Idolish 7's first two episodes introduce us to Tsumugi Takanashi, a young idol manager who's just been hired by her father's company, as well as the seven idols she'll be managing. Those seven idols are introduced across a lengthy scene that demonstrates what is likely the show's most reliable strength: its graceful and consistently excellent dialogue and characterization.
It's very easy for characters within idol shows to fall into simple, repetitive archetypes, where all of a given character's dialogue simply reflects their identity as “the brash one” or “the childish one.” Not so in Idolish 7. Not only do each of this show's seven main idols demonstrate clear and multifaceted personalities, but their internal rapport is already engaging, and their small disagreements and other conversations feel realistic enough to make me actually care about almost all of them. When Tsumugi describes each of their distinct strengths, her critiques come as smart distillations of information that actually matches our experience of these characters. And as the episode continues, their little conversations start to become their own reward, deepening our appreciation of a likable crew of very different people.
Idolish 7 also benefits from both clear dramatic stakes and a fairly grounded approach to entertainment industry drama. Both the first and second episodes of this two-part premiere center on tightly composed, engaging conflicts, and the fact that the team's manager Tsumugi shares top billing means the show can reflect on issues like the difficulty of translating fan interest into ticket sales, or the importance of maintaining your idols' trust. Lines like “she's our business partner. If we can't trust her to have our backs on stage, we can't trust her with our careers” reflect both the sharpness of Idolish 7's perspective and the human nature of its characters. Largely foregoing goofy comedy or nebulous thoughts on achieving your dreams, Idolish 7 instead lets its fundamentally excellent character writing lead the way.
Idolish 7's aesthetic execution unfortunately can't measure up to its writing. The show's music is a mix of flavorless synthpop, and while its characters have expressive designs, the animation is somewhat inconsistent. This premiere concludes on a so-so performance that's forced to lean on pretty bad CG; I appreciated the strong traditional animation mixed in with that CG, but the overall mixture didn't really work.
That said, bad CG is pretty much par for the course in idol shows, an unfortunately commonplace concession of the genre. When it comes to the writing and storytelling, Idolish 7 offers a strong debut from start to finish. These are definitely boys worth following.
The male idol subgenre is still trying to find its Love Live! golden goose, as the popularity of the once-king Uta no Princesama wanes heading into 2018. Production companies have pushed out loads of variations, but I thought last season's Dynamic Chord and its extremely poor reception was going to put a stake through the trend. IDOLiSH7 is giving it another go though, and at least it has the pedigree to turn the sinking boy idol genre around. The multimedia franchise has been going strong for the last few years. Backed by character designer Arina Tanemura, the mobile game has multiple novelizations, manga adaptations, and of course, a mountain's worth of CDs.
So I was a little disappointed that TROYCA's anime adaptation looks very little like Tanemura's art. I was even more disappointed that its first episode was lacking one specific element: music. When our wide-eyed manager is forced to make her new idol group audition to cut it from seven members to three, the narrative's obvious next step is a series of solos that serve as character introductions. But then the audition sequence isn't there. The story jumps ahead and skips the entire thing, which seems like a really weird move for a show about idols and music.
It seems like the staff wanted to show the characters bond over the mutual tension as they wait for their results. But there isn't any tension to get sucked into because the narrative has failed to introduce real stakes. We don't know any of these characters yet, so we can't exactly miss them if they leave. Instead, the segment is just kind of boring. It isn't until the second episode (the series kicks off with both together as a 45 minute double episode) that the show picks up and the character dynamics start to work in the show's favor. The photography scene revealed more about each singer than most of the first episode and quickly designated the series Best Boys (Pudding Boy and Stationary Boy).
By the second episode's end, IDOLiSH7 seems like a serviceable entry in a crowded sub-genre. The one track so far is poppy and its cast of characters is fun, even if the story plotting is pretty standard at this point.
My favorite part of IDOLiSH7 was when they began singing at the end and my cat immediately put his ears back and glared at my computer. Simeon's taste in music aside, however, this game-based boy idol show actually isn't that bad, and it's certainly a cut above a few similar shows that premiered in the fall. In part this may be due to the fact that it follows the successful model laid out by the UtaPri franchise: rather than just throwing a bunch of attractive singing and dancing guys at the screen, IDOLiSH7 gives us a single entry-point character in the form of Tsumugi, the new (nepotistic) hire at their production company. Tsumugi is just as new as the boys to the entertainment world, but she's coming at it from the angle of how to make them a success, while they're more interested in just getting out there. That she's actually invested in her job and stands to be good at it through hard work rather than dumb luck is an added bonus, as is the fact that she dresses professionally instead of trying to look fashionable or cute. That may seem silly, but it really does give her more of an air of trying to succeed in a business, rather than just wanting to interact with the guys.
There's also the potential for more of a storyline with the boys’ rival band, TRIGGER. (These bands love their caps lock.) This is the big name in boy bands at the moment, who Tsumugi's father directly wants to go up against with his new group, and these first two episodes go out of their way to show us that TRIGGER isn't made up of ultra-idols – they're just three guys who have their own problems that they worry might affect their success. The one that rings the old warning bells is Ryu, who apparently can't interact with women at all; this could lead to some of the excessive love geometry that these shows are prone to. (See UtaPri season 3.) Not that the plotline with the seven main guys is all that original – there's some serious telegraphing in the mention of the mysterious idol Zero who vanished at the height of his career and Riku's super awesome brother who may or may not come to their concerts; I'll be surprised if they don't turn out to be the same person, possibly in a coma or something. All of the guys are also nicely color-coded as per the Idol Boy Code. I did have to laugh when Tsumugi's father said that no one would be able to remember seven guys’ names, because the color coding is precisely so we can at least remember them by color.
There's really only one song so far in the show, with not even an opening or ending theme in sight yet. It isn't much more than pleasantly harmless and mildly catchy, and the best thing about it right now is that when he sings Nagi's voice actor isn't using the horrifically annoying accent he affects when speaking. The CG dancing, however, is definitely a cut above some of the others I've seen, and the choreography is also a bit better than the norm, if only because it's specific to male dancers and doesn't make them try to shake things they don't have. The only real shame about the art is that Arina Tanemura's original character designs didn't translate particularly well and you can really only see her touch in the performance outfits and Tsumugi's up-do. All in all, IDOLiSH7 looks like a fairly competent entry into a crowded field – not too ambitious, but that will probably turn out better for it in the end.
I'll be frank: idol group series are one of my least favorite current anime genres. I'm especially not a fan of male idol group series, which I find to be the most generic in existence. So my rating and preview is less about how good the series looks to be and more about how accessible it is to anyone who isn't already a fan of such fare.
To my complete surprise, the first two episodes actually get a passing score in that regard. I am not at all enamored with the pointy-chinned character design here, and the basic scenario couldn't be more generic: a new, young female employee of a talent agency has been assigned as the manager for a group of bishounen idol wannabes, setting up all sorts of potential for a reverse-harem situation. The array of hair colors and personality types is about as standard as could be, and each is introduced by name with his own theme color. The initial crisis – that the group may have to be pared down to three to meet the president's demands – also seems fairly typical, as does their introduction to their new managers.
So what makes the difference here? Mostly it's the way little details add up. Though they may be stock personality types, all of the idols feel like they have a bit more character than normal. The same can be said for their manager, who is a step above the standard self-insert; it's not hard at all to understand why the guys respond positively to her, and her being the president's daughter makes it more convincing how she ended up in that situation. Their interactions with each other are also more natural than the normal cynically-calculated routines; you can easily imagine all of these guys actually being friends rather than just putting up with each other to meet professional goals. That makes a much stronger group dynamic than normal, as does the way they are pitched as having individual strengths that should work well together as a whole.
Most importantly, the series actually has heart, like it's striving to be more than just another male idol group series, more than just a blatant promotion for a singing group. This is powered by outstanding use of string and piano-driven musical score beyond the feature performance number at the end, which is also a grade above in both song and performance quality. This series may not dwell on the minutiae of practice and prep like other idol titles do, but that's definitely for the better.
I probably won't end up watching this one unless this winds up being a weak season overall, but I think it has some real potential. It may be the first male idol group show that I can actually recommend even to those who aren't genre fans.
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