Reviewby Mercedez Clewis,
Mana Nagase was a rising idol superstar set to hold, and keep, the top spot in the VENUS Program. Then tragedy strikes, leaving the industry without one of its shining superstars.
What is left is her sister Kotono, a new idol who, after a successful audition, moves into a dorm under the guidance of Hoshimi Production, the same studio that took on Mana and guided her to fame. But being an idol and rising to her older sister's fame won't be easy. It's going to take blood, sweat, hard work, and tears if Kotono and her fellow idols are going to rise to the top and maybe even surpass Mana's legacy.
Idoly Pride is a winter 2021 anime produced by CAAnimation and Lerche. Lerche should be a very familiar name to viewers: they produced winter 2020's Toilet-Bound Hanako-kun, as well as Fall 2019's Given. CAAnimation, on the other hand, has three titles to their name, including Idoly Pride, Summer 2020's Mr. Love: Queen's Choice and Fall 2021's upcoming all-girls hockey anime PuraOre! Pride of Orange. Looking at these studios alone, one might expect Idoly Pride to be an average anime. Yet the end product turns out to be far from that.
Idoly Pride is the story of three young women: the late Mana Nagase, her surviving young sister Kotono, and Sakura Kawasaki, three girls living in Hoshimi City and working for Hoshimi Production under the guidance of Kohei Makino, Mana's former manager and school friend. I say “late”, because within the first episode, Mana meets her demise in a car accident that, in hindsight, is proper whiplash and firmly establishes her legacy to be a central focus of this series. Initially, I thought this was a questionable storytelling decision, and was concerned that the series would spend the rest of its episodes dealing with Mana's legacy and its aftereffects. Thankfully, as the series progressed, her legacy turns out to be just that: her legacy, and not the industry's as a whole. It's a smart move that prevents Mana from overshadowing her juniors, who are the real stars of Idoly Pride.
This, of course, works to the show's benefit as it lets deuteragonists Kotono and Sakura grow into their own as leaders of idol units Tempest Moon and Sunny Peace, which develop as a natural part of the show's plot. It also gives Idoly Pride's plot enough breathing room to let Kotono process the grief of losing her sister, as well as allowing Sakura to come to terms with being physically tied to Mana via a heart transplant. Both of these character arcs converge to create a powerful narrative about moving through – not past – grief and leaving your own mark on the world without having to live in the shadow of someone who succeeded before your story even began.
In idol anime like Love Live!, the injustices – and sometimes even the misgivings and difficulties – facing idols in the idol industry are, by and large, ignored. The goal of such shows is to craft likable characters and inserting them into genuinely heartwarming stories about friendship and mutual encouragement in a world where high school idol units excite and inspire through the magnificent power of music and teamwork. While the characters have to work through personal and interpersonal struggles that are no less authentic or valid, the narrative never pulls back the curtain to acknowledge the realities of being a high school idol in an industry that treats young women as products to be consumed by the public until they aren't deemed worthy anymore. And don't get me wrong: Love Live! can be genuinely impactful. It reignited my love of idols, and gave me some of my favorite rainy day songs for when I'm feeling blue. In many ways, I don't want that sort of critical interrogation from a series like Love Live!. I like that it's focused on how beautiful music can be, on how it can make you feel, and the catharsis that comes from hearing a group of voices rise up in harmony. I know that I still cry when I listen to the μ's version of “Start:Dash”, and feel a bubble of emotion when I listen to Setsuna Yuki's “Chase.” But Love Live!, at least in my experience, doesn't really explore the nuts and bolts of navigating the industry itself, which is a sore blind spot seeing as the voice actors that voice the girls do double duty as IRL idols in the very real, often misogynistic idol industry.
And that's one of the biggest strengths of Idoly Pride: the simple fact that it doesn't shy away from how hard it'll be for a teenage girl to be in the spotlight, though admittedly Idoly Pride does nothing to acknowledge or address the real misogyny idols face either. Still, the show doesn't sugarcoat the trial ahead of its female leads, and in its back half, it even directly confronts what it means to have a para-social relationship as an idol, and how your personal life – and even medical history – cease to be solely yours. Everything about you becomes public data to be consumed, and while Idoly Pride doesn't explore this aspect of celebrity for every girl, it does for deuteragonists Kotono and Sakura, Mana, and Mei Hayasaka, who is one of two characters (the other being Kohei) who can see Mana's ethereal form as a ghost.
Speaking of Mana's ghost, that's another major plot point of Idoly Pride. Like I said before, Mana's legacy haunts the show, but so does Mana's specter. Initially, she's quite prominent, but as the girls of Sunny Peace and Tempest Moon – the two units formed under Hoshimi Production – grow into their own and become formidable idols in their own right, Mana's presence begins to fade. And ultimately, her arc culminates in one of the most powerful moments in the series' finale – one that completely recontextualized the first episode's “twist” concerning the late Mana Nagase in a way that is both tragic and realistic. That's only possible after episodes of thoughtful plot and reflection on those themes of grief, legacy, and honestly, what it means to have a goal of your own rather than clinging onto the ghost of someone important to you.
I'll admit that initially, I had my misgivings, painting this as a potential 22/7-esque idol anime. I was put off by Mana being shifted to the forefront, and wasn't sure how the show would wrangle ten idols across two units. I was expecting little more than a perfectly average idol show.
I was absolutely wrong.
Idoly Pride is, by far, one of the best idol anime I've ever watched. I think of it daily, and the feelings it evoked during my initial watch this winter still resonate within me. This is, in large part, due to the voice actresses, who really bring their a-game. Of note is Mirai Tachibana, who voices Kotono, and Mai Sugana, who voices Sakura. Credit also to Sayaka Kanda, who voices Mana.
Ultimately, Idoly Pride tells a story of loss, grief, legacy, and how we handle moving through those complex emotions, especially when they're intimately tangled with celebrity. While not always perfect, Idoly Pride is a more grounded series than many of its peers, looking at the idol industry with a keener eye and thus, delivering a more powerful story because of that. It might not have the global reach of Love Live! but it has just as much heart, following the journey of two groups of young women who are all trying their best to succeed and leave their mark on the world. Cathartic, powerful, impactful, and tender: those are all suitable words to describe Idoly Pride and the effect that it had on me. It's not often that an anime – and an idol anime at that – makes me cry nearly every episode. Yet I found myself constantly reaching for tissues every Sunday when this show initially aired, and I heartily sobbed my way through the entirety of the final episode.
Idoly Pride is not going to be everyone's cup of tea. In fact, most idol anime aren't. And as a fan of this particular “genre” of anime, I'll readily admit that most of them aren't good. Still, I recommend that fans who shy away from idol anime check this series out, which I consider one of winter 2021's strongest shows. Its heartwarming narrative feels intensely human and not unlike a good meal: filling, complete, and utterly satisfying, right up to the final closing credits.
Overall : A-
Story : A-
Animation : A
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Genuine exploration of grief, legacy, and loss; Friendships feel authentic, especially deuteragonists Kotono and Sakura; Fairly grounded depiction of the realities of being a performer in the idol industry, despite the ghost
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