The Spring 2020 Anime Preview Guide
How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
In a post-apocalyptic future that has been torn apart by shadowy creatures known as the Earless, humanity's heroes are the Players, who pilot mecha known as Equipment to battle their inhuman enemies while earning fame and fortune to boot. Echo is a young tech-head who dreams of working amongst the Players and their Equipment, going so far as to build a makeshift mecha of his own, but he has long since resigned himself to life in the destitute scrap-heaps that cover so much of the world, now. That is, until he discovers an amnesiac named μ (or “Mu”) who has a mechanical port in her back that is the telltale sign of a Player. The pair become fast friends, and they vow to use their skills to fight for the world and defeat The Earless.
How was the first episode?
On the surface, Listeners has all the ingredients of a series that I ought to be over-the-moon for: a rocking soundtrack that complements its snappy visuals, charming and unique character designs that stand out from the crowd, and a pair of protagonists that share some honest-to-god chemistry, both in the original Japanese and in Funimation's excellent English dub. I even love the design flourishes of the series' mecha, known as Equipment — the whole show gives me strong FLCL vibes, except where that show went all in on the fuzzy and hyperactive alt-rock aesthetic, Listeners is going for a much lighter, power pop vibe. Nothing too heavy here, just some cool grooves and slick fights to buzz on after a long day of digging around the scrapheaps of a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Listeners didn't leave me as warm as I expected, though. All of the pieces were in place from the start, and the execution left little to be desired, but there's just something off about Listeners' grooves that I couldn't bring myself to unabashedly jam out too. A kind of vagueness to its world and story, a lack of definition to the characters and their motivations, that gave me the same exact impression I get when I hear a really good cover of a song I love that just makes me want to listen to the original. Take Echo and μ for instance: One's the scrappy slum dog with big dreams and a knack for tinkering, and the other is the mysterious amnesiac he found in a scrapyard who just so happens to kick a lot of ass when she gets her hands on Echo's Equipment. Why are they such fast friends, and how do they work so well together as warriors against the Earless? Because they need to be in order for the story to work, basically.
Speaking of the story, it's more-or-less a condensed and polished-over take on Alita: Battle Angel, except there's nothing here to suggest that classic's gripping sense of place and violence. Outside of the fact that everyone is dirty and poor in most places, I couldn't tell you much at all about this world's place or people, or why either Echo or μ should be the heroes to save it. I also have a bone to pick with the story's choice of names; “Earless” is a hopelessly silly name for a very generic brand of spooky monster, and μ is just plain obnoxious. This might seem like a nitpick, but it speaks to this gnawing perception of mine that most of what Listeners does well was borrowed from other, better stories, and that its personal touches are mostly cosmetic. Kind of like that cover song I mentioned earlier, except writer Dai Sato has been a writer on some seriously legendary projects — Cowboy Bebop, Eureka Seven, Wolf’s Rain, the list goes on — so it's more like when a band release a cover of their own hit classic, and it just sounds stale compared to their first go at it.
Does all of this make Listeners a bad series? Not at all; in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if its world and cast grew more complex and interesting with every passing episode, and the show is rock solid when it comes to its visuals and action. This is the kind of show that is bound to make a lot of people very happy this season. It's merely missing that certain something it would need to get me one hundred percent on board with what it's putting down.
Throughout watching the first episode, I kept finding myself thinking, “Man, this feels like Eureka Seven.” When I checked the credits at the end, I found out why: Dai Sato, the chief writer for that series, is also credited with both original concept and series composition for this one. And it looks like he's relying heavily on his established gimmicks.
Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. “Humble boy meets pretty girl who can pilot an exotic mecha” is one of the classic premises of mecha anime for a reason, after all. What matters is whether or not the concept gets taken in any interesting new directions. At the very least, Mu is absolutely not Eureka, and that's a good thing. She actually has a personality, and a lively one at that; it even fits the flashy (by comparison) style of clothing that she is wearing when she's found. The mecha design, when it finally shows up, is also distinctively different, though it expands out from what looks like an old, standard-sized Vox guitar amp shatters any sense of credibility, as does the vastly more generic-looking protagonist being able to build something that elaborate. Apparently Players plugging themselves into such Equipment, like a guitar being plugged into an amp, makes magical things happen. And I'm sure that's exactly the impression that the series is aiming to convey. The concept for the setting, which is more evident from advertising blurbs than the first episode itself, is that this is a world that no longer has music and that entertainment of any kind – even mecha matches on a TV – is severely frowned upon, and this is all a result of great calamities in the not-too-distant past. The subversive elements there are, of course, is the use of music; I'm pretty sure it's not a coincidence that one of the characters shown in the closer is practically a dead-ringer for Prince or that the name of one Player sounds suspiciously like it was based on Jimi Hendrix. That the amorphous enemies are called Earless also isn't subtle.
But is the series going to do anything interesting with that? Right now, I'm ambivalent. On the plus side, the animation quality is pretty good. On the minus side, the Earless are currently the most generic foes imaginable. The biggest blow for me may have been that the music doesn't sound all that special for a series where it's meant to be the centerpiece. I want to be blown away by the music on something like this, and I wasn't. The episode does enough things right for me to give it a middle-of-the-road grade, but so far it's not sparking my enthusiasm much.
Having written scripts for projects ranging from Cowboy Bebop and Eureka Seven to Stand Alone Complex and The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, Dai Sato is easily one of the most recognizable and acclaimed writers in anime. With its early trailers clearly evoking Eureka Seven's narrative and aesthetic, I was eager to see how he'd handle lead writing duties on this season's Listeners. And after watching the premiere, I can confirm: in terms of first episodes, this is basically Eureka Seven all over again.
That's not a bad thing, though! When I think of Eureka Seven, I generally think of positive things - expressive and beautifully animated characters, distinctive worldbuilding, and a “boy seeks adventure” narrative so unafraid of cliche that it loops right back around to feeling simply iconic. Listeners has all of that in spades, with its premiere introducing us to a world where rather than surf-based heroism, the heroes here are essentially rock stars, riding amps that transform into monster-fighting robots. The young trash sifter Echo only dreams of being such a hero, until he comes across the discarded “Player” Mu, who can plug directly into his own ramshackle amp.
None of these narrative beats are particularly novel, and I almost rolled my eyes myself when I saw the show setting up that classic “starry-eyed boy stumbles over fantasy girl” premise. But more important than the uniqueness of your ideas is what you actually do with them, and in Listeners' case, this episode quickly establishes a strong, endearing rapport between its two leads, and complements that core hook with lots of compelling details. Echo isn't your usual font of boyish optimism; he's insecure and world-weary, qualities that quickly irritate his new companion. And for her part, Mu is strong-willed and unafraid to speak bluntly, quickly establishing herself as more of the classic rock star type. The chemistry of these two is supplemented by strong design work, plentiful character acting, and a narrative that knows exactly where it's going, and how long it should take to get there.
Little about Listeners' premiere is genuinely fresh, but all of it feels confident and engaging, as if the show itself knows it is destined for greatness. While I wasn't particularly impressed by the CG fight scene at the end of this episode, the excellent dynamic established between Echo and Mu more than made up for that, and the show's writing and visual design were compelling from start to finish. Listeners has immediately established itself as one of the heavyweights of the spring season.
First things first – was that Prince in the ending theme? Because I feel like I may have seen Prince. That wouldn't be totally out of the blue, because Listeners takes the idea of music being a superpower and combines it with mecha (and amps) to create a strange world where monsters known as “Earless” can only be defeated by people called “Players” guiding giant mechs called “Equipment,” and in the case of our protagonists, untransformed Equipment can look like the amp for a musical instrument. Not coincidentally, Players are apparently identifiable by the fact that they have a port for a cord on their bodies, so that they can actually plug into the Equipment.
If you think this sounds awfully on-the-nose, you're not wrong. Listeners' first episode glories in its elevation of music to science fiction levels, and that's really not going to work for everyone, especially those without much vested interest in it as a theme. Fitting it to a dystopian setting doesn't really help with that, as it simply adds a very tired layer to the more unique premise, and protagonist Echo feels very much in the usual vein of “plucky young man out to change the world.” I do enjoy that his name is Echo Rec while his older sister is Swell Rec, but it's not quite enough to make all of the music references work.
On the other hand, as someone who doesn't like loud sounds – including music – the idea that music can be weaponized to fight off monsters with its sheer power really works for me. That the monsters are Earless (and those are horns, not ears on their heads, so the name fits) and can only be repelled with sufficiently loud blasts of almost physical sound is a nice tribute to another power of music, which can be as repellant as it can be soothing to the proverbial savage breasts. More often we see the power of music in terms of it bringing people together or promoting dance or other positive things, so to have it used for more dystopian purposes here is a good use of the setting and theme in a way I did not expect. That it also brings Echo and Mu together does acknowledge the more typical usage of music in fiction, so there is a little something for the music lovers too.
Mostly, however, this episode didn't really do it for me. It has its moments, like when Mu and Echo just leave the mayor presumably squished under a fallen monument, but masked unitard-wearing mystery women, a junk-city, and the other basic elements of the story's set up didn't do enough to pull me in. It's not without potential, but the faded colors of the artwork reflected my waning interest as the episode wore on.
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