Reviewby Christopher Farris,
D4DJ First Mix Episodes 1-13 Streaming
Returning to Japan after spending much of her childhood in Africa, high schooler Rinku Aimoto stumbles into a lunchtime DJ playing one of her favorite songs. That aspiring teen DJ, Maho Akashi, finds that Rinku's natural understanding of beat and rhythm makes her a perfect complement to the tunes she's been mixing up. Maho and Rinku end up combining their talents along with those of a couple of friends, new and old, to form a DJ unit named ‘Happy Around’ and find their way in the musical culture encouraged by their school. Their growth naturally intersects with other DJ units on campus, and the experiences and guidance all those groups have together will drive them on towards even more delightful heights.
Music-merchandise tie-in anime is an increasingly crowded field, so some measure of expansion will continuously be necessary to keep these things from burning themselves out too quickly. Just having groups of idols singing songs is no longer enough in the name of progress, so Bushiroad added instrument-playing to the equation and gave us BanG Dream!, which has gone on to be a proven success. And now we find ourselves with the apparent next stage of that evolving entertainment: Dig Delight Direct Drive DJ, and its premier tie-in anime here, D4DJ First Mix, showcase girl groups who perform music not with instruments, but by mixing, remixing, transitioning between tracks, and timing in custom visual-jockey effects. The show's tasked with selling this concept to us and introducing a few of the girl-groups they want people throwing gacha money at in the corresponding mobile game. As the latest in a series of thematically-similar offerings by Bushiroad, it's easy to look at such a project with a degree of cynicism, but it turns out that D4DJ easily stands as one of the best so far.
A lot of that is down to the level of polish they've strived for here. Sanzigen has dutifully produced several seasons of BanG Dream! for Bushiroad, and they were tasked with animating this series as well. If you've watched those preceding series, it makes the progress marked by D4DJ compelling in a way that's beyond just being extremely entertaining 3D CGI animation. The 3D character animation has been carefully calibrated with cartoony actions and reactions between various frames, and characters are presented with strong layouts and storyboarding. Special attention seems to have been paid to the facial expressions, with animators drawing in all manner of top-notch face-game reactions to make sure we still get a sense of integrated artistry. The production of this show both complements and benefits from the use of 3D, rather than mostly seeming to lay compromises, however skilled, over it the way older Sanzigen shows felt. The drawn-over effects extend past the facial expressions to segments where the animators cut loose just to add more entertainment value to the show, such as an attention-grabbing scene in the seventh episode of Rinku angrily eating a bunch of food.
This effective and cumulative utilization of the tools at their disposal must be partly thanks to the extremely experienced hand of director Seiji Mizushima. D4DJ never comes off as boldly experimental as the likes of Studio Orange's productions, and given its rather blunt commercial status, it honestly doesn't need to. But Mizushima's direction has the show consistently ‘feel’ like the more standard 2D anime productions we might be more used to. There are still a handful of moments that feel off: an establishing shot held too long here, an unnecessary flashback to a part from only minutes earlier in the episode there. As well, some of the more conspicuous motion-captured scenes of movement can seem awkward next to the more effectively-tuned character animation in other scenes. But parts like that only stick out because the rest of the show's presentation is so tight. The other major potentially-divisive inclusion I can think of is the sound effects. D4DJ has an odd tendency to animate a huge amount of the characters' motions with audible quirky, bouncy effects. It does help lend to that aforementioned cartoony atmosphere, but it can also be distracting if it's not the sort of thing you get used to quickly.
That polished, if occasionally offbeat presentation of the show means it's easy to spend less time judging or questioning the animation choices and more on enjoying the little story Bushiroad has rolled out for us here. And I want to emphasize ‘little’, because the small, arguably unambitious scale of what D4DJ does here is to its benefit. So many other anime of this ilk too easily fall into the tendency of making the musical pursuits of their characters into overdramatized, life-or-death conflicts. First Mix recognizes that this is a story of the girls of Happy Around just starting out with a hobby they find fun, and tunes expectations accordingly. Rinku is one of those perpetually peppy main characters that would find it difficult to be feeling too down in any situation, so her infectious happiness feels like what's carrying the upbeat mood of a show that compels its audience to smile and nod along with its beat. That isn't to say D4DJ's plot is inconsequential in this opening act of an anime; there are character arcs to overcome, relationships to build, and challenges to take on. Some of that character-building is staged quite strongly, particularly in the case of ambitious visual-jockey and lovable little gremlin Muni.
The series affords time for other groups apart from the main quartet to also explore what these exercises in musical careers mean for them. They intertwine in varying degrees with Happy Around's journey, each member presenting different quirks designed to endear them as somebody's Best Girl. Peaky P-Key's story feels a bit more well-integrated into the arc of the show, thanks to them having some presence since the beginning; in contrast, intergalactically-styled idol group Photon Maiden feels a bit underutilized. They're properly introduced late in a way that makes it feel like they could have been in the cast earlier, clashing with the audience's previous understanding of their level of fame. And the nods they do have towards the restrictive practices of major record labels go expectedly underexplored given that this is a piece that exists at the behest of a major record label. They're mostly here as guest-stars to set up the broader universe of the franchise, never dwelling too much on a struggle that might bog down that marketable musical tone.The series at least has the confidence in where it's leading its characters to hand the main unit a few losses as their journey becomes more competitive. As described, it helps make sure the overall plot and attitude isn't getting too self-absorbed in the overblown importance of DJ performances.
With regards to those performances though, it does mean we've got to talk about the elephant in the room with regards to D4DJ's promises of musical exercise: How well does it succeed as a show about DJing? The answer to that is, frankly, not particularly well. The first few episodes have some nominal explanation of the idea behind transitioning tracks during a performance (complete with a somewhat overt explanation of what ‘beats per minute’ means), with similar Captain Obvious descriptions of things like remixes and visual jockeys in later episodes. But the show never goes any deeper than that into the technicalities supposedly powering the characters' musical journeys. Yes, several characters throughout the show work through issues in episodes via composition that usually manifests in a new single we get to hear, but very little mind is paid to the mechanical aspects of doing so beyond some basic advice. As well, the ‘DJ performances’ being carried out by units that also provide vocals, dance moves, and visual elements means that, by the third episode, they're all virtually indistinguishable from your more typical anime idol performances. Granted, they're extremely nice anime idol performances, punched up with lighting and camera direction that are marks of a 3D CGI production utilizing its resources in ways only that version of the medium can. But if you came here looking for a show really committed to being ‘about’ DJing, the most you'll get out of it is hearing a strongly-tuned variety of songs and genres on display with a focus on getting to listen to remixes of some of them a few times.
Given their desire to market D4DJ as broadly as possible, Bushiroad also went and produced a full English dub for this thing, with the first three episodes already available to watch on YouTube. This dub represents an element of the show worth talking about on its own, due to how it was marketed. All the other main characters introduced in those episodes so far sound solidly performed by dub actors, except for the part of Maho. Due to her bilingual ability, the character's Japanese voice actress, Karin Kagami, also plays the part in the dub. This makes for a noteworthy novelty, but brings up the question of how well it works. Obviously the technical tone of the voice as an interpretation can't be judged, since it's literally the same person playing the character, and I'd sincerely say there's no issue inherent to Maho being the only member of the cast with a noticeable accent. But honestly, this is a performance that makes clear that voice acting in one language is a skill separate from dubbing in a second one, and it's abundantly apparent that Kagami has more experience with the former than the latter. Her English performance as Maho is stilted (it may even be a case of simply poor or rushed vocal direction), while also seemingly not given enough chance to clarify her delivery on much of her dialogue. I'm curious to see how she might receive guidance or improvement as the dub of the series goes on. But as-is, while it makes for an amusing bullet-point in the marketing of the show, I have to wonder if it won't hurt the overall presentation of the dub in the long run. On a similar note, this is yet another of Bushiroad's musical shows afflicted with a lack of subtitles for any of the songs presented in the series, which as usual creates a pretty major disconnect especially in the case of numbers directly related to characters and their development. At least the most major example of this, Rinku and Muni's rap battle in episode 12, does get the translation treatment on account of not being a legally-constrained single.
I need to stress that the litany of structural complaints I have up there shouldn't detract from D4DJ succeeding exactly where its ambitions lie. It's an entertaining little aside in a genre where I've seen too many other projects make messes of themselves by getting overambitious on their first go. This series mostly works as a ‘Cute Girls Doing Cute Things’ show with some excellent musical performances and a showcase for ever-growing talents in 3D CGI anime. It's an appreciable sign of how reliably entertaining this arm of commercial shows are getting to be. Rising tides lift all ships, and all that, and D4DJ can take you on a very entertaining little trip so long as you know what you're really getting into.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Extremely effective 3D CGI animation, well-scaled story with fun characters, strong, varied musical scenes
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