Episodes 1-2

by James Beckett,

How would you rate episode 1 of
22/7 ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
22/7 ?

22/7's premiere episode helped it stand out from the idol anime pack by taking a decidedly melancholy approach to the material. Our protagonist, Miu, is a shy loner who is perfectly happy to look at the world through the veiled prism of her messy bangs, keeping everyone at a distance and avoiding so much as direct eye-contact whenever necessary. She has absolutely no desire to be the center of any kind of attention, but everything changes when she is summoned to the local zoo, along with a bunch of other, more archetypal anime heroines, under the pretense of forming an idol group. What made that first episode so compelling, outside of its uncommonly solid direction, was how much it committed to Miu's internal conflict. She doesn't want to do any of this, but if growing up and helping to support her family means putting herself in uncomfortable positions that demand her to adapt, then so be it. She'll shake her hips and flash a fake smile for the audience who is using her body and identity as a commodity for their entertainment, but that doesn't mean she'll like it.

Also, the whole group is managed by a seemingly magical, authoritarian entity called The Wall, so named because it is literally a giant glowing wall that forms the centerpiece of 22/7 underground base of operations. I won't lie, for as much as I was attracted to 22/7s ostensibly nuanced approach to what it is like to treat the life of an idol with all of the ambivalence of an hourly day job, I was also maybe just a teensy bit curious about why in the hell there is a sentient wall running an entertainment company that specializes in pop-music sung and performed by amateur teenaged girls.

What is compelling me about 22/7 more than anything at this point in time is pure curiosity: Is the show really going to have something substantial to say about the sometimes ugly realities of pursuing a career in the messy, hyper-commercialized world of Japanese pop idols? 22/7 is a real musical group, after all, and one of the series' chief producers, Yasushi Akimoto, is an industry veteran with close ties to some of the biggest names in J-Pop, like AKB48. One would be forgiven for assuming the worst of what is essentially a very pretty and very long commercial and vanity project. When all is said and done, the end goal off the anime 22/7 is to promote the musical group 22/7, and it would be difficult to get away with an incisive, fantasy-tinged criticism of the industry that is also trying really hard to sell you 22/7 tickets and merch.

As of the second episode, “Amid the Dizziness”, it is too early to say whether or not this series will end up filing for thematic bankruptcy. What I can say is that 22/7 continues to make for damned fine entertainment, which is especially impressive considering the relative inexperience of the show's crew. Director Takao Abo has only spearheaded one full series before, The Rising of The Shield Hero, and anyone that knows me won't be surprised to learn that factoid did not inspire a lot of confidence in me. This is the first time the show's two lead writers, Chiaki Nagai and Reiji Miyajima, have been given full series composition credits, though Nagai has done some solid work for series like The Promised Neverland and Occultic;Nine, and Miyajima has some manga credits under his belt. The voice actors, too, are newcomers to the scene, since all of the performers in 22/7 play their roles here too. Granted, given that 22/7 exists primarily as a virtual idol group, all of the women in 22/7 have experience with voice acting and motion-capture performance, but the scripted melodrama is a far cry from the improvised banter and one-off sketches that 22/7 has specialized in on You Tube.

All of this is to say that young blood really does seem to be a revitalizing factor in 22/7's case, because I haven't been this invested in an idol anime in a long while. The direction is confident without being too flashy, though cuts like the first-person-through-shaggy-bangs scene we get in episode two help establish a visual identity for the show. The writing and acting is good across the board, too, and I want to make especially sure I mention Nagomi Saijō's turn as our main protagonist, Miu. In the Preview Guide, I said I was unsure as to whether I found her performance to be amateurish or original, and episode 2 helped me realize that there doesn't need to be a difference between the two. Saijo is not putting on an immediately recognizable anime archetype voice, as some of her costars do, which makes her character stand out in all of the right ways. She talks like a real human, which can be jarring to hear after so many years of listening to variations the same eight or nine stock character voices. Miu's pain and uncertainty feel so much more raw and relatable because you can imagine her sitting right next to you and venting all of her frustrations. This isn't to say the other 22/7 girls are played badly – far from it – but I think 22/7's first real stroke of genius was to strip away at least one of the layers of artifice we anime fans simply take for granted.

The story in “Amid the Dizziness” is a continuation of the first, fleshing out some of the character dynamics even when it means rehashing some of the same beats. When the girls are called upon to audition for the spots in the group's roster, it becomes obvious that The Wall went out of its way to pick girls that aren't terribly talented at being idols to begin with, save for Nicole, who is both a natural performer and the token jerk of the group, snubbing her nose at Miu most of all. Of course, this means the Wall picks Miu as the center performer of the group, much to both Nicole and Miu's horror. Miu once again ditches the group when it comes time to practice, which would have been a lot more meaningful if she didn't do the same thing in the first episode, but this time the other girls go to her, instead of the other way around.

This last scene is a perfect example of everything 22/7 does right, and everything that might eventually cut its ambitions short. On its own, the scene is nothing special: Sakura Fujima, who is very clearly being established as Miu's closest companion in the group, shows up to convince Miu to come back and perform, but she ends up deciding to let Miu make her own choice. Any group of artists, no matter the medium or genre, is only as good as their shared commitment to their goals. If Miu really doesn't want to dance and sing as 22/7's lead, then it wouldn't just be cruel to try and change her mind; it would be self-defeating. We all know Miu is going to change her mind, and it isn't at all a shock when the other members of 22/7 (save for Nicole) fall out from behind a park playset and express their joy when Miu does indeed change her mind. What sells the scene is the lush artwork, the expressive voice acting, and the humanistic touch the script gives to the otherwise standard story beats. 22/7 might end up being a subversive, psychological touchstone, or it could just end up being your usual idol anime with just a touch of artistic flourish added in for good measure.

In the premiere, Miu foreshadows her time in 22/7 by saying: “I hadn't known that after December 24, 2016, my world would be chilled in a bright light, dazzled by darkness, and heated by warmth that I thought would drive me mad. I didn't know it would scorch me.” I don't need every single idol anime to be an emotionally nuanced exploration of one character's trials and tribulations in a complicated and unforgiving industry, but I've been eager to see that type of anime come to life for some time now, spooky talking architecture notwithstanding. These first episodes are overflowing with potential, but regardless of whatever its themes and goals end up being, I hope that 22/7 allows itself to go the distance and not hold back. The last thing we need in 2020 is more mediocrity.


Odds and Ends

What's the Score?:This is normally where I'd drop in my thoughts about an episode's musical sequences, but 22/7 is taking its time, and the only semi-proper performance we got in these two episodes was the audition scene, which only exists to show off Nicole's skills and Miu's confidence issues. I can tell you that the OP and ED are good, though I wish I could understand the spoken word sections in the intro. Snippets of You Tube videos I've seen indicate that the group has some good tunes under their belt, so I am looking forward to seeing 22/7 take the stage for real.

• Speaking of You Tube, Sakura makes a particular note about living in America before joining 22/7, which gives me hope that the show will let Sally Amaki flex her bi-lingual muscles like she does on You Tube and social media.

• I'll have to come up with a goofy name for this feature too, but I want to keep a running count on the odds of The Wall being a force of good or evil.. On the one hand, The Wall seems to be pushing the girls to grow and improve as individuals. On the other hand, it's a living wall with unlimited resources that everyone must obey without question. So as of Episode 2, I'd say the Good/Evil odds are split 50:50

James is a writer with many thoughts and feelings about anime and other pop-culture, which can also be found on Twitter, his blog, and his podcast.

22/7 is currently streaming on FUNimation.

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