Reviewby Theron Martin, Oct 2nd 2013
AKB0048: Season 1
Blu-Ray - Complete Collection
In the future, the heavily industrialized planet of Lancastar suffers under an entertainment ban, but that does not stop young Nagisa, Orine, Yuka, and visiting Chieri from covertly attending a guerilla concert staged by AKB0048, an interplanetary idol group from the more liberal Akibastar which devotes its efforts to breaking through planetary entertainment bans to bring entertainment to the oppressed masses. A decade later, the four girls all leave their homes to answer an AKB0048 casting call and, along with several other girls, become trainees in the group's 77th generation. The ultimate goal of most of the girls is to become one of the successors, the core members of AKB0048 who each take the name of one of the group's original members as her title. They also quickly learn that one of the responsibilities of being a trainee or successor, in addition to learning to sing and dance, is to fight (sometimes literally) against the DES, the organization which enforces entertainment bans across the galaxy. But all of the rigorous training and occasional outright battles still leave room for handshake events, sexy photo shoots, and all manner of interpersonal drama as each of the girls and their manager pursues her individual and group dreams.
To make full sense of AKB0048 as an anime series, one must be at least a bit knowledgeable about the real-life AKB48, an idol girl group which stands as one of the biggest musical phenomenons Japan has ever seen. In Japan it is the top-selling female group of all time, has racked up 20 consecutive #1 singles through mid-2013 (including the top five sellers in each of the last two years), and in 2012 grossed a whopping $226 million, which ranks it amongst the year's top-grossing acts worldwide. It has even slightly penetrated the American market, as one of the credit songs for the 2013 movie Wreck-It Ralph, “Sugar Rush,” was done by the group. It is also organized unlike anything which exists in the West, as its current membership of 88 teenagers and young adults is divided into four teams which take turns giving daily performances at the group's own theater in Akihabara (and yes, the name does derive from the location) and allow the group to stage multiple simultaneous concerts at different venues. The rosters remain fluid as older members “graduate” and new members get promoted from a pool of trainees and understudies, and which members perform on official recordings are typically chosen by fan vote or competitions of dubious merit, such as rock-paper-scissors tournaments. The group is also well-known for its rigorous cross-promotion and ticketed handshake events, where fans get to meet and shake the hands of group members. Many of these elements come into play in the series, including the group's practice of giving generation labels to members based on when they join; the current pool of trainees as of the time of this writing is the 15th generation.
The series makes no bones about being a fanciful advertising vehicle for the group, either; in fact, that is practically part of the gimmick. The successor names used as titles in the series are those of actual founding AKB48 members, typically those who have perennially ranked in or near the top ten of the group's most popular members, and one can reasonably assume that some of the personality quirks that go with the titles are based on those original members. (If true, this raises some amusing questions about those members, such as whether or not the original Tomomi Itano really is known for having no sense of taste in food and what about Mayu Watanabe possessed the anime's producers to make her successor an apparent cyborg.) The songs used in practices and performances are all AKB48 staples, album names are used for ship names and power-ups, and uniforms for successors are patterned after actual AKB48 uniforms. One can probably assume that the dance numbers are animated based on actual AKB48 choreography, too. The series even flirts with the criticism that the group has taken for its risqué music videos in its gravure (roughly equivalent to the American slang “cheesecake”) photo shoot episode and has a former successor graduate to becoming the group's manager, just like the real-life Minami Takahashi did. Doubtless more studied and dedicated fans will spot other references, too.
Of course, that all is nothing compared to the series' central conceit that the successors and trainees are fighting the good fight to bring entertainment to the masses living in culturally repressive worlds – and here “entertainment” is implied to be synonymous with “idol girl groups,” as posted “no entertainment zone” signs have outlines of idol singers on them and missiles fired by the DES have similar decorations. In execution that means guerilla concerts on worlds with entertainment bans and sometimes having to violently fight off ship, infantry, and mecha attacks while other members of the group are performing. As silly and pretentious as this notion sounds, the premise is actually not entirely ridiculous; ultra-conservative religious groups sometimes even violently opposed to flashy modern entertainment are hardly unheard of in the past century, and one need only look at the Taliban to see a highly militant and proactive example. Sadly, these twelve episodes never bother to flesh out exactly why the DES is so ardently opposed to the brand that idol groups deliver, hence giving the impression that the group exists only to be the antagonists. On top of that the series adds in these semi-magical critters called kiraras that are sensitive to the aura of an idol and gives some of the girls cutesy attack forms, including hair bow weapons and light sabers built into the bottom sides of wireless microphones. Taken collectively, this is a wasted golden opportunity to have strived for a bit more substance and setting development.
Despite all of that, though, the series delivers surprisingly well on its storytelling and character development. The vast cast of recurring girls – about a dozen regularly appear, and some episodes feature 20 or more – can be hard to keep track of at first, but the personalities of several key players come together well over the course of the series. That creates some interesting character drama in some cases, such as one successor discovering that a long-time trainee whom she feels is worthy to earn a title cannot do so until she graduates, as the trainee in question has been chosen (unbeknownst to the trainee) to eventually succeed her, or the far more bizarre case of another successor being not only a direct descendant of the original but also coming from a family that has gone to incredible lengths to assure physical as well as spiritual similarity to the original across multiple generations. One episode deals with the hate mail that undoubtedly goes hand-in-hand with being an idol; another deals with a character who suffers stress-induced laryngitis. Mystery elements include the unfathomable nature of the mysterious Sensei Sensei, who is responsible for the lyrics to the groups' songs, and the disturbing disappearances of some former group members who occupied the featured Center Nova performance position, among other things. The guerilla nature of what the group is doing is sometimes taken quite seriously, too. Perhaps most importantly, the series has times when its narrative elements come together impressively well. One of those times is the latter half of the first episode, but other occasions come up in the middle and towards the end, too.
The other surprising aspect of the series is how visually ambitious it gets, especially in its first episode. That the series would use CG-modeled versions of its characters to perform the more intricate dance numbers was fully expected, as that has essentially become the norm for musical group-centered series, but the effort here is distinctly more fluid and realistic-looking than most previous attempts and clashes less with the regular animation. (But that's what you get for having Satelight leading the animation effort.) That the series would base its successor character designs at least partly on the original members they are named after is also no surprise; see here for a comparison. The cutesy practice of having trainees and successors marked by heart outlines in their hair and eyes is amusing at first but becomes irksome after a while, but again, nothing out of the ordinary.
The enormously ambitious art design is unexpected, though. The grungy mining/factory world of Lancastar is gloriously detailed, as are other settings that the group visits, and ship, mecha, and weapon rendering is all on a quality level one would expect of a top-name mecha action series; the Japanese otaku practice of itasha (i.e., cars elaborately painted with anime images) is even reproduced here using mecha, a concept that, somewhat surprisingly, has rarely or never been used before in anime. The regular character rendering and animation is surprisingly robust, too, despite taking some shortcuts. The combined effect is not quite top-of-the-line but does create some visually stunning effects, such as scenes where the main performance ship Flying Get is opening up its stage bay as it comes down for a landing and flashes a light show worthy of any top-name concert or the scenes where the successors fly around on mobile hovering platforms while performing. Fan service and graphic content are both minimal, so it is a relatively clean-looking series, too.
The music is, of course, a featured element. Set pieces naturally come courtesy of AKB48, and in some cases it is not hard to see why the group is a pop sensation, as the songs mostly have catchy beats and enticing bubblegum pop sounds; unlike with many other series about performers, a viewer will not have to wonder why the songs create such excitement. The effectiveness of the soundtrack beyond those numbers varies, with some episodes featuring excellent use of mood-setting music (especially episode 1) and others more benignly drifting along on the strength of remix versions of the opener. Both the opener and the regular closer are sung by a subgroup called No Name which is composed of nine members of AKB48 and its sister groups, and both feature the quality sound and accompanying visuals one would expect of a team-up between a polished, enormously popular pop group and one of the current top names in animation production. In fact, opener "Kibou ni Tsuite” stands about on a level with Macross Frontier's “Lion” as top-caliber idol-oriented anime openers go.
The Japanese voice work is notable because all of the enduring 77th generation members are voiced by members of No Name, including one of the successor namesakes used in the series. (The successors are all voiced by professional seiyuu, though.) The results are not bad but are not spectacular, either. Sentai Filmworks' casting choices sometimes result in certain girls sounding quite a bit different in English, but the performance quality shows no drop-off and characters that have to sing are typically performed by voice actors with established singing track records, such as Monica Rial; the singing in set pieces is wisely left untranslated, however. The problem with the dub is in its quality control. On at least three occasions in the series lines of English dialogue seem to be missing, on another a line is in the wrong place, and a couple of the names (especially Nagisa) are not consistently pronounced between different voice actors. Subtitles for the song lyrics would also have been appreciated. Overall enough of these little flaws exist to warrant a minor rating downgrade, but these are more minor nuisances than major problems.
The quality of the Blu-Ray transfer offers no complaints, as it looks good and sounds great. Extras are limited to Japanese promos and clean opener and closer. A DVD version is also available.
AKB0048 is far from being a great series but it is better than one might expect, especially if one can tolerate the sillier elements. Established AKB48 fans should love it, and it holds enough production value and storytelling merits to keep the interest of non-fans. Not surprisingly, it proved popular enough to earn a second season, which Sentai has also secured but not announced a release date for as of the time of this writing. Thus this is one franchise whose story will not end with unresolved plot threads.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Art production, some strong musical numbers, some story elements are compelling.
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