Review

by Rebecca Silverman,

Wish Upon the Pleiades

Synopsis:
Wish Upon the Pleiades
Subaru is about to begin middle school...without her best friend, Aoi. Feeling hurt and isolated, she goes to the school observatory, only to open the door on a mysterious and beautiful greenhouse. There she meets a frail boy her own age named Minato, and soon after this encounter she finds that there's more magic around than she expected – she walks into a classroom where she finds four girls in magical girl-style witch costumes, including Aoi. It turns out that they're helping a small blobby alien to find the missing fragments of his space ship, and Subaru has the power to transform and help them too. But a strange young man with a strong resemblance to Minato is also after the engine fragments for his own purposes...can Subaru and her new friends beat him to it? And what will happen when the engine to the space ship is complete?
Review:

There have been some strange production team-ups in entertainment history, and Wish Upon the Pleiades is one of the latest: a magical girl show co-produced by famed anime studio Gainax and Subaru. That's “subaru” as in the car company, and no, the show is not about magical girls who are great on snow and ice. It's an oddly harmonious marriage, and the resulting show, while it does have some decidedly weird car-related quirks, is a magical girl story that hearkens back to when the genre was strictly for little girls, with a bittersweet charm that makes it work.

The primary heroine of the story is Subaru, a fan of astronomy who has just started middle school. She's got mixed feelings about this new stage of her life – a short while before, her best friend Aoi surprised her with the fact that she would be attending a different school, and Subaru feels very hurt and abandoned. She hasn't really made any good friends yet, but she's joined the astronomy club and is pleased that the school has an observatory. She's heading to it one day when the door reveals a totally different place: a beautiful garden where she meets Minato, a kind boy who appears to be in a fragile state of health. Neither of them are sure how she got to the garden, but there's a sense of destiny about it, especially since after she leaves, Subaru encounters a group of magical girls who are helping an alien to find the scattered fragments of his space ship's engine. Subaru joins the girls, who, much to her shock and delight, include Aoi among their number. It seems that the world has been reordered so that they can transform and fulfill the alien's request, and that's just fine with Subaru.

The blend of fantasy and science fiction elements in a magical girl show has been an established device since at least 1983's Creamy Mami, with Sailor Moon being probably the best known to do it, and that latter is clearly the influence on the space-themed adventures of Subaru and her gang. The story incorporates science both real and specious and most of the magical girl activities take place in outer space. This may be a nod to the sponsorship of Subaru, which as you may know is the Japanese name for the Pleiades. The girls (and their magical boy nemesis) fly around on “drive shafts,” which works a bit less well than the other science fiction elements, largely because of the sound. The girls' shafts look very much like the automotive component they take their name from, which in an engine transmits torque and rotation. That's kind of a neat idea in magical transportation, but the accompanying engine noises really take away from the whole “magical girl” feel, as does a later upgrade when the drive shafts get little front grilles. It's really the only time when the show kind of screams, “Hi! I was partially paid for by a car maker!” If you're looking for it, you can spot times when the Subaru logo is visible in the stars, but it's much more subtle.

While each girl gets her own episode, and Minato as well, Subaru is clearly the heroine of this story. Through the episodes devoted to the other girls, we do learn that each one of them, and most especially Minato, has something that they wish could have gone differently in their lives, and in many ways the moral of the story (for lack of a better term) is that it is both the good and the bad that shape us into who we are. This ties nicely in with the The Little Prince motif that shows up in the latter third of the series, and in fact those final four episodes contain the same bittersweet elements as Antoine Saint-Exupéry's classic novel. That feeling carries over into the ending, which plays with the idea of choice that ultimately drives the characters – had I chosen differently, what would have happened? What does it mean to choose to continue on? It's a little heavy-handed, and the characters all feel a bit older than they're supposed to be, but ultimately it does work.

As is usual with magical girl stories, no one can recognize anyone while they are transformed, which may lead to a little frustration on the part of older viewers in one specific case. Despite that, the characters' relationships are well done, particularly Subaru's and Minato's. The title of the final episode, which relies quite a bit upon their relationship, calls to mind the Tanabata festival, which celebrates the once-a-year reunion of two lovers separated by the Milky Way, which in the tale takes on the aspect of a river. This symbolizes the bittersweetness of the story very well, and may be one the strongest uses of symbolism in the show. (Which is good, because another, a flower from the magical garden, is not used to its full potential.)

The animation is fairly good in this show, with the exception of when 3D models are used for the girls flying around on their drive shafts, which is really jarring. Both opening and ending are pleasant, though I found that I came to really prefer the opening, and the background music fits in nicely enough that it enhances without intruding. All the main characters are color-coded, but in this genre, that's pretty much a staple, and everyone looks different enough that you could tell them apart without the colors. It really does have the feeling of the old style of magical girl stories, although it is sadly lacking in transformation sequences, and limits fanservice to pretty much one episode, which in this case is a good thing.

Wish Upon the Pleiades is a mostly satisfying viewing experience, hiding its corporate sponsorship as well as it can and playing on themes of choice and loneliness in a bittersweet way. It isn't really a genre stand-out, but it is a show that genre fans can enjoy without catering to them to the point where others are driven away. Ultimately I would say that it is a nice story, one aware of both its heart and its roots, and that will give you a craving for sugar star candy and a shooting star.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : B

+ Pulls you in and is easy to watch, nice use of themes. Girls all look unique, corporate sponsorship isn't screamingly obvious.
CG models jarring, some plot points will feel too obvious to older viewers. Car noises for drive shafts don't quite work, aspects of the final episode feel rushed.

Director: Shouji Saeki
Screenplay: Haruka Kimura
Music: Shiroh Hamaguchi
Original Character Design: Daisuke Kikuchi
Character Design: Mai Otsuka
Art Director: Hiroshi Katō
Chief Animation Director: Mai Otsuka
Mechanical design: Hisao Matsumura
Sound Director: Satoki Iida
Director of Photography: Toyonori Yamada
Executive producer:
Hiroyuki Oomori
Tomoyuki Saito
Producer:
Jun Fukuda
Hirokazu Hara
Yukihiro Ito
Naoya Moritani
Akihiko Okada
Fuminori Yamazaki

Full encyclopedia details about
Hōkago no Pleiades (TV)

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