Reviewby Christopher Farris,
Blu-ray Complete Collection
Kasumi Toyama treasures her childhood memory of hearing the ‘beat’ of the stars. When a guitar catches her eye in a secondhand shop, she thinks she's found the perfect way to recapture that heart-pounding feeling. But learning to play music and put a band together to do so can't be done quickly or easily, and Kasumi will need to make several new friends along the way who can help her in her new dream. As the girls work at practicing, songwriting, and performing, they all learn what they have within themselves that pushes them towards these goals, and how they can truly shine when they stand on stage together.
With a successful concert series, a popular mobile game, a currently-running short anime, and a second season on the way, BanG Dream! seems to have come into its own as a franchise. It's to the point that if you were turned onto the series through any of those aforementioned entries you might be interested in going back and checking out the original anime that launched the project. Unfortunately, in doing so, it becomes clear that if any part of BanG Dream! can be said to be have contributed to its success, it was probably not this show.
For what it's worth, you can see the hopes they had for this series in the considerable amount of money and effort they seem to have thrown at the production. BanG Dream! is extremely nice-looking pretty much the whole way through. The colors of the lighting and atmosphere come through brightly. The character models are remarkably consistent with evocative character acting. Some of the motion is stiff, but aspects like Kasumi's touchy-feeliness or Tae's odd mannerisms are communicated quite effectively, the creators obviously banking on making sure these characters were endearing and marketable. Emotional scenes, especially ones tied in with musical performances, are strongly directed, with CGI character models deployed at times for extra instrument-playing accuracy; These stick out at times but work to keep those concert scenes moving and lively. It's frankly a great-looking product overall.
Which is what makes it so disappointing that BanG Dream!'s impressive production values are squandered on one of the downright emptiest stories I've seen in anime in a long while. The biggest core issue with this series is its almost complete lack of narrative stakes. In a show like Love Live!, it can be easy to poke fun at the melodramatic simplicity of the girls coming together to sing in order to save their school from shutting down. But that plot point still serves the purpose of setting a goal with challenges to be overcome by the characters. There are no obstacles in BanG Dream!; Kasumi simply decides to form a band because she thinks it might be fun, then spends several episodes roping her new friends into the activity. However, the series can't parlay that into simple, relaxing slice-of-life shenanigans and instead tries to frame the proceedings for drama anyway, with every minor setback in Kasumi's short, simple quest being wrung for pathos and some perceived level of triumph when the band moves past it. As mentioned, the direction of the show knows just how to tug on the emotive heartstrings to make you aware of its desired response, but it consistently fails to land because you're aware there actually isn't anything standing in the way of the characters achieving the life-long dream they've had for all of three months.
It makes the series seem overly shallow even by the standards of its mandated musical multimedia-project brethren. The band of Poppin' Party isn't coming together to help anybody or stand in defiance of some disapproving authority or even learn anything really new about themselves; They simply form an after-school musical group of friends in a standard amount of time with the usual conflicts of scheduling and convincing prospective members while the narrative framing nevertheless treats this all like a meaningful behind-the-music story with intensity that simply isn't actually there. Even the last-minute plot point of the venue Space closing down doesn't actually add a meaningful goal to the girls' activities, as instead of fighting for a way to keep it open or help out its owner, it simply imposes a time-limit on the goal that the band wouldn't be too hurt if they didn't accomplish anyway.
The one high point from all this comes in the form of Saya's arc, three episodes about halfway through the series. The storyline actually deals with the dichotomy those aspiring to something like musicianship have to face in splitting time between those goals and the rest of their lives. The potential consequences of Saya's choices are properly demonstrated, infusing real thematic weight when she commits to them at the end, and the process of her arriving at her conclusion draws genuine drama out between her and Kasumi as well. Simply for being the one part of BanG Dream! that's about something this story arc stands out, and it's a boon to the characters it's trying to sell us on as well. Unfortunately it's but one small part of the whole show, the rest of the series never finding those same narrative legs.
For a series ostensibly designed around hawking CDs and concert tickets, BanG Dream! can be surprisingly light on actual music. There isn't a real performance by the characters until five episodes in, with the whole band not even on stage together until several episodes after that. There are a couple of other performances heard by another band in the show, and generally when the series does deploy a song it's used for what maximum impact the direction can wring out of it. Notably, one segment later in the series does an impressive job of depicting a poor performance by the characters. What music is there is generally fine if you're into the particular type of pop-rock this line is trading in, though it probably says something about the production's confidence that the musical ability of Poppin' Party is barely considered above-average at best within the series itself.
Sentai's BD release of the series is about as bare-bones as possible, blurted out onto two discs without even a dub, and only a clean opener and closer as extras. They do at least include the OVA episode, a beach-show bonus that wears the frivolous extent of the anime better than the main series, simply by virtue of no longer having a major ongoing storyline they could pass off for potential drama. The episode also notably features Roselia, another band from the franchise with a brief appearance in the regular series, and their style, dynamics, and distinct music featured in the OVA's closer help being in a flash of variety by the very end of the show.
One of the key scenes of this series comes three episodes in, when Kasumi, Arisa, and Rimi stage a simple impromptu performance of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ as a means of buying time before an important musical act can arrive at the venue. It's as lovingly framed and directed as all the other hollow content in the show, and I think it actually encapsulates BanG Dream! as a show quite effectively. It's a simple act that does an admirable job of killing time and taking up space, but is in no way impressive or all that interesting. This anime is left as an anomaly, a curiosity for fans of the franchise who haven't yet gotten around to seeing the origin of Poppin' Party, or who may want to spend more screen-time with some of their favorite girls. But as a story? There's almost nothing to it.
Overall (sub) : C-
Story : C-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Strong production values, Saya's storyline is good
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