Reviewby Caitlin Moore,
Blu-Ray Parts 1 & 2
Welcome to Yumenosaki Academy! This private school, devoted to training the best male idol units, has just started a new producer track and welcomed its first female student, Anzu. Without a class ready for her, Anzu ends up supporting the four-member unit Trickstars. Its members are Makoto Yuuki, a shy former child member; Mao Isara, a hard-working student council member; the serious-minded son of a popular idol, Hokuto Hidaka; and their de facto leader, the energetic Subaru Akehoshi. These boys have big ambitions for their place at Yumenosaki and in the world, but are greater forces stopping them from achieving success?
Although I'd never heard of it before, it didn't take much guesswork to figure out that Ensemble Stars! was originally a gacha game. The lone female character, Anzu, spends the first half of the series with about as much personality as a sack of rocks and accomplishes about as much, because if you gave her some character traits she'd be harder for viewers to insert on. The cast is truly massive, with so many boys that you'd need flashcards to memorize them all. Seriously, there are literal dozens of them. It is simply too many boys.
Despite my trepidation, there were hints of some actual social commentary at the start. All is not well at Yumenosaki Academy; each unit is ranked through a number of competitions called “Dream Festivals,” or “DreFes” for short. Audience members vote by lighting their glowsticks in the color of the team they favor, and the more audience votes you get the higher your rank. The higher your rank, the more resources are allocated to your unit. However, there are two problems: 1) teams with more resources can put on more elaborate, exciting performances, and 2) they perform first, so audience members usually leave once their favorite unit has performed, leaving the lower-ranked groups without anyone to even give them a chance.
“Ah,” I thought, “a commentary on how meritocracies inherently lead to inequality.” The character writing was silly, but in a fun kind of way, like the boy showing up to a DreFes with pasta sauce all over his face, and then proceeding to have a literal guitar fight with his opponent. It was scrappy, it was goofy, it made me smile, and it seemed to be conscious of real-world power structures. I was fully in.
It didn't hurt that David Production has done, as usual, a very solid job on the technical aspects of the production. I assume most of the design work was lifted from the game, including the music, character, and costume designs, but they are nicely realized in animated form here. The boys are cute and consistently on-model, although their appearances start getting repetitive after the second dozen or so (no, I am not exaggerating). The costume design usually looks good, although Trickstar's look in the last episode was bafflingly ugly. The concert scenes are, like the standard today, a mix of hand-drawn closeups and CG rigs for the middle and long shots.
But oh, how quickly it fell apart. It turns out the structural inequality brought on by the Dream Festival's meritocracy wasn't the result of a system that sounded equal but in actuality was not, or deliberately structured to maintain power at the top; oh no. It was actually something much more bizarre and constructed, without the real-world implications.
There's a sense that you must take the show at its word, instead of trying to think critically and puzzle things out for yourself. Consider, for example, the main group Trickstar. They are, in the grand scheme of things, pretty boring; no elaborate setpieces, no gimmicks, just four boys singing, dancing, and dressed in plaid. The people watching them remark on how impressive and complex their songs are, but when I asked ANN's own Rose Bridges, a published author and musicologist, she said that it sounded like pretty much every other idol song, technically unremarkable. Taking the show at its word is pretty much the only way to make sense of everything, since real-world logic doesn't seem to apply here.
Ensemble Stars! puts me in mind of the philosophical concept of the simulacrum, a thing that imitates something real but is itself artificial, such as the themed casinos of Las Vegas. Idols themselves, with their highly-polished public personas meant to be as charming and marketable as possible, are themselves simulacra; they engage with their audiences not with their authentic personalities but versions of themselves that recite charming lines and banter with their audience which may or may not resemble who they are offstage. The way they engage is artificial and constructed, and that's what their fans are looking for.
Ensemble Stars! is a simulacrum of a simulacrum. It takes those cheesy lines and false personas and extends them to every aspect of its characters' lives. Every line of dialogue, every choice, every motivation feels like it was written by an alien who learned about human culture purely by watching videos of idols onstage or doing talk shows. Cause and effect exist, but don't seem to operate on the same rules as real-life cause and effect. Teenage boys, in this world, are always impeccably coiffed and given to making speeches about sparkling. Their rebellions consist of singing songs about twinkling. There is nothing real about these boys; they are at least two levels removed from reality, objects for the audience to watch instead of subjects to relate to.
At the very least, the first half is cohesive, even if it doesn't make logical sense. There are digressions, sure, but there's identifiable rising and falling action concluding in a climax. The series could have ended cleanly at episode 12 and no one would have been the wiser. However, the story continues… kind of. There are more episodes and a continuation of some of the first half's plot points, but it's incredibly slapdash and random. Most of the episodes focus on some random festival that was, no doubt, an event in the game, with no bearing on what turns out to be the final plot. You just can't make a coherent story about over forty boys in 24 episodes.
If this still sounds like something you want to watch, I seriously recommend going with the Japanese track. The original voices are fine, although considering the material, a naturalistic performance would have been impossible and Maaya Sakamoto is completely wasted as Anzu. The English dub, on the other hand, may qualify as a torture device. Normally I criticize Funimation dubs for being flat and samey, but that would have been a relief compared to the shrill, nasally performances on display here. Some of the lines are questionable as well; when a character said, “I don't know what to do without you guys inside of me,” I made a noise that I'm not sure any human has ever emitted before.
There are two possible readings of Ensemble Stars!. One is that the writers were trying sincerely to tell a human story with human characters that audiences could relate to and empathize with. If that's the case, they did a bad job and this show is terrible. On the other hand, if the artificiality is the point, if the simulacrum is the goal and not merely the result of bad writing, then, well, it's still not great but it's not awful either. A lot of people who engage with idol media – the music, the shows, the phone games – don't want something real. They want something safe and clean and tidy that doesn't require a lot of thought or engagement. They want the simulacrum. And if that's what you're looking for, Ensemble Stars! isn't the worst thing you could watch.
Overall (dub) : D
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C-
Animation : B+
Music : B
+ bright, attractive animation; catchy music; safe, easy, inoffensive entertainment
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