The Summer 2019 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
Ensemble Stars! ?
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How was the first episode?
The first half of Ensemble Stars offers a fine example of that classic seasonal game, “guess the source material medium.” Early shots framed from behind the generic heroine's head, or panning directly down the hallways of her new school Yumenosaki Academy, had me briefly suspecting this was based on an otome game. But by the time the opening song arrived, with its copious introductions of far too many characters, it seemed clear that this was based on some kind of phone game. That theory ultimately won out - Ensemble Stars is a mixed-media property that began with a mobile collectible card game, and is now expanding onward into a charmingly nonsensical anime.
Adapting mobile games into anime is always a tricky prospect, because not only are mobile games generally not structured in such a way as to translate into a coherent narrative, but the adaptations themselves are often bound by requirements that don't really result in effective storytelling. The common limitations of that transition felt clear all throughout this episode, as a menagerie of would-be idols were introduced largely in terms of their charm points, and engaged in conversations that never felt convincingly human. The only one who really made much of an impression was the exuberant Akehoshi, and that's mostly because his gimmick got very grating very quickly. Additionally, the theoretical heroine Anzu had basically no personality at all, presumably because she's actually the player's stand-in from the mobagame. On top of that, Ensemble Stars' production values are middling at best; there was a reasonably animated short performance right at the start, but the show leans heavily on stills from there out, and is seriously lacking in expression work or character acting.
Ensemble Stars does have one saving grace though, and that is that its idol academy universe is completely bizarre. I figured the show's introduction of its “Dream Festival” competitions would simply be one more example of clumsily translating a game mechanic into an animated conceit, and then suddenly the two idols competing started actually fighting each other, with one swinging a guitar and the other countering with flying kicks. That impromptu physical “idol match” lead directly into a violent purge by the school's apparently dictatorial student council, ending on an unexpected pledge by the main cast to actually lead a revolution within their school.
All that made for a second episode half that felt far more entertaining than the first, though still limited by the show's poor writing and production values. On the whole, Ensemble Stars' conceptual weirdness can't really make up for those other failings - if you're looking for a show about male idols, there are many far stronger choices than this.
Keeping a show's premise a secret until the end of the first episode can be an effective approach, especially if the story undermines genre conventions in some unusual way. It's a tricky thing to pull off, though, as the writing and direction need to work together to slowly peel back the curtain and leave the audience guessing what's really going on until the big reveal. The first episode of Ensemble Stars tries something resembling this approach by holding back the whole “idol school revolution” thing until the second half, but it doesn't quite work. Instead of scattering little hints throughout the episode, it just kills time for around fifteen minutes before casually tossing in the rest of the plot.
The first half of the episode runs through some very familiar scenes with some equally familiar characters. It's possible to guess each of the four main guys' personality gimmicks after a line or two of dialogue, and they're nothing new: you've got the goofball, the serious one, the shy guy with glasses, and the cool dude from a different class. These introductions are followed up by a yawn-inducing campus tour, complete with the inevitable info-dump about how special the school is. The only truly noteworthy thing in this first half is Anzu, who's a serious contender for the title of blankest blank-slate heroine ever. She barely has any lines, and what little dialogue she does have sounds like multiple-choice options from an in-game tutorial. You know, the ones where it doesn't really matter which choice the player makes, because the NPCs are going to have the same reactions either way. It almost feels like a deliberate joke, but Ensemble Stars doesn't commit to it enough to get any laughs out of the situation.
All this eventually leads to a rowdy competition between two new idol boys, who kind of sing and dance but mostly just try to beat each other up on stage. This is at least a little amusing, and for a moment it seems like the series has found a good way to add some variety to the usual competitive performance formula. Since the showdowns can basically be anything, one would assume that each on-stage duel could be tailored to fit the performers' particular gimmicks. Then the student council shows up and conducts a Prohibition-style raid on the whole event, and we finally learn what the series is really about. Unfortunately, the big revelation is just dumped into the viewer's lap without any fanfare or foreshadowing, and that lack of proper buildup and payoff robs it of its intended impact.
The late twist adds a potential point of interest for the series as a whole, but it's buried under so much bland idol fare that I can see some viewers giving up before reaching that point in the episode. There's nothing to stop Ensemble Stars from being a perfectly decent genre title, but its mishandling of this premiere doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. It might be best to wait a week or two to see what direction the story ultimately takes, because at the moment it's a bit of a mess.
Ensemble Stars' first episode plays out like the introductory prologue of an otome game. All of the potential love interests are introduced one by one, none of them call the heroine by her name (you know, in case you want to change it), and the basic plot of “YOU are the one person who can help all of these hot guys prevail in the face of artistic oppression” is laid out. It's not a bad way to open a story, but it is a very rote one, as well as one that makes clear that this is a series for fans of a very specific genre: girl producers of boy idols.
As far as that genre goes, this one looks more on par with B-Project than Idolish7. As the lone member of Yumegasaki High's new producer track, Anzu clearly doesn't know what she's in for when she starts her first day, although with blank-slate aplomb she just sort of accepts the fact that she's the only girl in her class. I think she asks a grand total of one question that isn't in service of explaining part of the plot (“Where are we going?”) and she primarily functions as our point-of-view character so that Hokuto can info-dump all the background details of the show's world.
There are some entertaining bits that balance out the more standard fare of the specialized high school story. By far the biggest stand-out is the who DreFes angle, a series of competitions among the idol students that supposedly take the place of tests and allow would-be idols to move up the ranks and earn better treatment in the school's meritocracy. But wait! It's not just singing and dancing – there's a brawling aspect to it as well, and competitors can also hurl things at each other and throw punches with impunity, because fighting is such an important part of being an idol. During the DreFes, Ogami, one of the competitors, jumps off the stage and lands squarely on poor Anzu's back, resulting in her needing to go to the infirmary, which somehow causes Hokuto to muse that “girls really are frail.” Sorry, sir, but I'm pretty sure you'd need to go see a doctor if a teenage boy landed on your back from a massive jump, too, especially since he's also holding a guitar that can apparently withstand the kicks of a karate master without breaking.
I don't think Ensemble Stars has much interest in doing anything new with its genre. That doesn't have to be a detraction, but this also isn't quite good enough to merit watching beyond this episode to see how it goes, at least not on a weekly basis. Even if this is your catnip, I suspect that waiting for the second season of Idolish7 may be the better plan.
If timing is everything then this series has nothing to work with, as it has the epic misfortune to come out not only in the same season, but also on the same day, as a much more promising entry (Re:Stage! Dream Days). The one break it catches is that its competition has a partly different target audience: this one is clearly geared specifically towards female idol fans. Sadly, I don't think that's going to help it much.
The series is affiliated with a mobile game that's been around since 2015, and the first episode plays out almost exactly like one would expect from an otome game adaptation. There's one girl who's essentially a blank slate so she can be the viewer insert, and she's going in training to be an idol producer. Surrounding her are a bunch of handsome young guys who all seem ultra-tuned to play to various different fujoshi tastes, which means that that are complete caricatures rather than actual characters. It probably goes without saying that such a group includes a hyper idiot of a redhead who takes all of 30 seconds (if that) to prove to be obnoxiously over-the-top, but the writing doesn't let him carry all that weight or responsibility; the other core guys all soon contribute their own mind-numbingly witless banter in a desperate effort to throw their personalities in the viewer's face. I probably cycled through more eye-rolls in the first half of this episode alone than in all of the other series so far this season combined.
But the series isn't content to ride just on that much inanity. Naturally there has to be a performance contest angle – in this case called DreFes, which is short for “Idol Dream Festival” – to allow students to regularly show off. The one really weird twist here is that these contests are battles in a literal, physically combat sense as well as figurative sense, which makes no sense, but whatever. Not until the final quarter, where the oppressive Student Council is introduced, does the episode show any real spark of creativity. The final couple of minutes, where the truth of the school – that it pumps out idols in a frustratingly machine-like fashion that some want to rebel against – come pretty close to saving the episode, as that part has the feel of not-so-subtle commentary on the idol industry in general. Exactly how Anzu ,who has only a handful of lines and shows no energy or ability to inspire anyone, is supposed to help bring about that rebellion, and why the central guys put so much trust in her to do so, is the mystery that the series will presumably try to solve.
Still, that final angle is the one reason why I am not giving the first episode a minimum rating. The two partial songs are strictly run-of-the-mill and the animation and character designs are uninspired, so there really isn't any other reason to watch this one.
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