The Winter 2021 Preview Guide
I★CHU: Halfway Through The Idol
How would you rate episode 1 of
I★CHU: Halfway Through The Idol ?
What is this?
Youths aiming to become full-fledged idols enroll in the Étoile Vio School where the students are called are called IChu. But soon after they begin, Kuma Kocho gets them off to a rocky start with a single phrase. As they each work toward their individual goals, their activities as idols make the IChu begin to wonder... "What is an idol?" In their struggle to find an answer, the springtime of the IChu's lives is whittled out in glittering moments and flashes of brilliance.
How was the first episode?
I just finished reviewing Ensemble Stars!, and now I-Chu is here, with the exact same bloated cast of too many boys harboring the exact same gimmicky personalities. Am I stuck in a timewarp? Will some force compel me to watch the rest of the show? Am I going to be stuck watching bland boy idol shows with overlarge casts for the rest of forever?
I don't want to say, “All boy idol series are the same,” because it seems rude to people who like them, but as someone who doesn't especially engage with that particular genre, they do tend to blur together. There's a central group who gets a bit more development, usually with an overenthusiastic leader with the kanji for “star” in his name. The secondary groups all have a gimmick, and their members all have about one personality trait each. The dialogue is hokey and is mostly predicated on spouting lines that reveal that trait, rather than authentic human connections or emotions.
I was able to find a few moments of joy in the episode, even if part of it did involve making my own fun. The dancing in the opening is entirely hand-drawn, and it looks great: fluid, well-synced, on model, and doesn't appear to be rotoscoped. When the principal came rolling out onto the stage on his segway, I started pounding my fist on the arm of the couch and chanting, “IDOL DEATH GAME! IDOL DEATH GAME!” because goodness knows Danganronpa was alarmingly prescient. Unfortunately, he was just there to announce that they all had to sell 3,000 CDs in a month or be expelled, although considering the state of physical media, that might as well be a death game...
And while it's not my thing, I get it. I bought myself a big bag of Jolly Ranchers to help me get through the preview guide. They bear no resemblance to the fruit they claim to be in chemical composition, texture, or flavor. They are fully artificial, but I enjoy them, even though they wreck my teeth when I can't resist crunching on them. Boy idol shows like I-Chu and Ensemble Stars! are kind of like that; the artificiality is what you enjoy. It's brain candy, pure and simple. It's just not the brain candy I'd pick out for myself.
I'll preface this preview by saying that idol shows are really not my thing. Every once in a great while, one will prove watchable to me (most recently last year's Lapis Re:LiGHTs), but normally there has to be an attracting factor beyond just the idol stuff to draw me in enough to keep me watching. I don't see that happening with this series. It is tailor-made for people who are already established fans of idol shows, and it is not very accessible to those who aren't.
The massive operative cast here invites comparisons to other idol school series which feature multiple performing groups, to the point that this one seems to be actively trying to ape those series. Give each group a theme, give each person a little quirk, and presto! You have a show without much effort being required at all. Sure, the first episode tries to spice things up a little by introducing a school principal who perpetually wears a bear costume (complete with crown), but the “strange principal” gimmick has been done a few times before as well. Almost nothing about the personalities of any of the boys offers anything fresh, either; there are twins, artistic types, foreigners, former stars in other entertainment fields, energetic types, juvenile types, vain types, effeminate types – basically, the whole normal range of stock male idol show personalities. There's even a female producer, although she does not appear much. The one twist the series will eventually offer is that it looks like an all-female group will eventually join the cast as well, though they do not appear in this episode.
For all of the episode's other faults, it is mostly getting a low rating for exactly one reason: the songs presented so far are about as forgettable as they come, and that is the one sin that an idol show absolutely cannot commit. Mediocre singing talent is also a factor here, but there is almost nothing catchy about these songs. The series also stretches believability by having two characters with major anxiety issues. Who with that kind of problem would actively pursue going to a school where they have to show off to the public? In fact, the episode might have gotten an even lower rating if it hadn't somewhat hit its stride at the end.
Multiple idol shows are due out this season. Hopefully this one is only the least of the lot.
I'm fundamentally opposed to any show that is willing to fully devote half of an episode's runtime to a stale, by-the-numbers roll call of nearly a dozen interchangeable cartoon boys, but what else is there to expect from a mobile-video game adaptation like I-CHU? When the president of this sketchy idol academy came out decked in a hideously garish bear costume, I had the faintest glimmer of hope that all of these idols might be roped into a violent and psychologically devastating series of murder games and execution trials, but alas, I-CHU takes the cowards way out and just has them all gush about friendship and the transformative power of generic pop music a bunch.
To the show's credit, it isn't unwatchable, and some of the characters are vaguely appealing. The Fire Fenix boys are endearingly bad at their jobs, for one, and I'd be willing to learn about the idiot twins who try to trick their videographer into thinking their eyes were falling out of their skulls. Then again, I'd almost prefer unwatchable bad idol anime, because there'd at least be something novel to discuss about it. Like nearly every one of the innumerable iterations of this formula that have come out in recent years, I-CHU doesn't possess anywhere near enough creativity or personality to run the risk of being, well, anything. It's a precision-engineered hunk of flavorless mush, intentionally designed to be as completely inoffensive and unassuming as possible. The sole reason for its existence is to sneak into the seasonal deluge, nab the eyes of a few genre-hungry fans who will be intrigued enough by this overlong commercial to download the game, and lo the river of microtransactional revenue will flow full and free once more.
There's nothing inherently wrong with that approach, mind you, at least not outside of the fundamental evils perpetuated by basically any capitalistic corporate synergy machine – but that's an entirely different conversation. As a piece of animated entertainment, I-CHU is the anime equivalent of a Great Value Dr. Thunder soda. If you were rummaging through your friends cooler at a party (remember those) and all you wanted was a nice, cold Dr. Pepper, would you be disappointed to find nothing but Dr. K? Absolutely. Would it kill you to drink a can? Probably not. But the flavor would be stale, the aftertaste would be distressingly metallic, and you sure as hell wouldn't go out of your way to drink the rest of the 12-pack.
(Only now am I realizing that I could have spared you a lot of time and reserved my elaborate soda-pop analogy for a more interesting show by just writing “I-CHU isn't very good” and leaving it at that. So, uh, yeah, you should probably skip it.)
Maybe I've been spoiled by IDOLiSH7, but I found that I-CHU had very little to offer that hasn't been seen before. That's not inherently a bad thing – there's something to be said for the “if it ain't broke, don't fix it” school of genre fiction – but in hopes of snagging an audience, this series' first episode seems to go out of its way to wear its influences on its sleeves to the point where it's actively off-putting. We've got the fancy school that trains idols, the wacky president/principal, the huge cast of characters all designed to fit the player's/viewer's preferred tropes, the potentially sad backstories for some of them, and, to round it all out, the one female character who doesn't have a name. This last one is perhaps not a fair criticism since she's very likely to be the nameable player character in the mobile games this show is based on, but it's still a familiar genre staple.
While a lack of originality certainly isn't enough to merit writing off the show, the fact that this episode just feels like it's going through a series of checkpoints is. Very little happens here that is actively interesting or lets us get to know the characters beyond the bare minimum, although in all fairness there are hints that two of the three members of aspiring idol group Fire Fenyx have darkness in their pasts. That's probably the most interesting piece of the episode – Kanata and Akira were both in the entertainment industry in non-idol positions before dropping out, and it looks as though bullying and arguments may have led to them deciding to switch. That doesn't explain how they ended up paired with each other and the generically perky Seiya, but it is the biggest example of potential that this episode really shows.
Beyond that, however, we have something that is rather unremarkable. Producer goes around filming an introduction to the newest class of idol hopefuls at the school, the bear-suited principal Kuma gives everyone a suitably ludicrous first assignment involving selling 3,000 CDs in a short period of time (or else – expulsion!), and Fire Fenyx starts to make steps towards becoming a real group. The pop songs are decently catchy, but the sum total is something less than engaging, and since that's largely the point of first episodes – to function as a hook to pull us in – it's looking like rewatching one of the series that obviously inspired this one may be the better plan.
“Oh, that is too many boys.”
That's the thought that persisted in my brain for roughly the first half of I-CHU, as this premiere opens with at least two dozen idols in barely differentiated costumes huddled together in a circle so large it can't fit in a single frame, before they all trotted out on stage for an opening number that did nothing to tell me who any of them are. From there we get an absolute parade of idol boys as we are introduced to 16 different ones, split up unevenly across four separate idol groups as first years at a prestigious Idol Academy. As you'd expect from trying to introduce that many characters in less than an episode, 95% of them wind up as total cardboard cutouts, spouting off their single unique (Sometimes, anyway. I'm pretty sure there's at least 2 womanizers in the mix.) character trait before fading into the background. It's a baffling way to introduce such a large cast, and since none of these guys are even my type, it made for a miserable opening half.
Things get more reasonable after that though, as the bizarre teddy bear principal of Idol School tells our panoply of boys they need to sell 3000 CDs in 3 months in order to stay in school. This largely sounds like a pyramid scheme on the principal's part, and frankly I expect the end of the show to reveal it was Monokuma in that costume all along. More importantly this at least gives I-CHU some direction compared to other idol shows, where the goal is usually a nebulous “be successful” with no identifiable stakes. It also gives the presumed central idol unit, Fire Fenyx, a chance to bond and tell each other their backstories for becoming idols. That doesn't necessarily make them more interesting characters, but it does make them identifiable ones with discernable arcs for their stories moving forward, which is more than anyone else gets this episode.
Visually, this show is fine so far, though not particularly impressive outside of some slick animation in the opening performance. Characters stay on model, move when they need to and look good when still, and if one of these guys catches your eye then more power to ya. Personally I'd prefer some of the more garish and memorable designs of last season's Hypnosis Mic over any of these spindly dudes, but if clean and safe is your bag then there's plenty to pick from. Otherwise this feels like an easy skip.
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