In contrasting the different eras of the popular idol anime series Aikatsu!, I once used a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure analogy. If the original heroine Ichigo is equivalent to Jotaro, then her successor Akari is the Josuke of Aikatsu! If this comparison holds water at all, then the latest series, Aikatsu Stars!, must be the Steel Ball Run of the franchise, and therefore its main character, Nijino Yume, must be its Johnny Joestar. In other words, it’s a new world, a new setting, and all ties to past series have been more or less severed.
It’s unclear to me whether this “reset” was necessary, but then again it’s how the Precure franchise has rolled for the past 14 years. Whatever the case may be, to the discerning eye Aikatsu Stars! reveals itself to be a different beast. While it shares plenty of similarities to the Aikatsu! of years past, there are enough changes to make it feel like a new and almost separate entity.
Aikatsu Stars! follows Nijino Yume as she enters the prestigious idol school, Four Stars Academy, in order to chase after her idols, the mega-popular group known as S4. What she lacks in experience she makes up for in enthusiasm, as well as a strange potential that seems to only manifest itself when she’s directly onstage.
The summary above mirrors both Ichigo and Akari’s own stories, but where it begins to diverge is that Aikatsu Stars! feels like a more serious story with higher stakes. This isn’t to say that the show is dark or cynical; they’re not poisoning each other and putting thumbtacks in each others’ lockers. However, whereas Ichigo is confronted in the early episodes by her classmate Ran’s fairly cutthroat attitude and quickly overturns it, I sense a much greater emphasis on rivalry in Aikatsu Stars! Adding to this feeling is the impact of S4 themselves. As the premier female idols, they give off the impression of being nigh-untouchable, their minds occupying a world almost beyond the reach of regular mortals. Not even #1 idol Tachibana Mizuki in the original Aikatsu! quite has that aura.
The most noticeable change with Aikatsu Stars!, however, is the new character design aesthetic. The girls and guys of Aikatsu Stars! have smaller frames and rounder features, giving them a look that feels to me be to more “gender-neutral.” What I mean is, the original Aikatsu! had designs that I see as closer to shoujo manga. Their large eyes weren’t just expressive, they were almost like miniature planets. With Yume and the rest of the Aiaktsu Stars! cast, the designs more resemble a balance between girls’ anime and bishoujo anime for guys. It’s effectively The iDOLM@STER meets Peach-Pit, the artist duo responsible for works ranging from Shugo Chara (shoujo) to Rozen Maiden (seinen featuring cute doll girls).
While the characters are all different and look different, there’s one semi-subtle link to the franchise’s lineage, which is that the girls of SF4 match the main four in original Aikatsu in terms of hair color. Blond, blue, red, and brown are all present, and although their personalities don’t really line up at all, it can’t possibly be a coincidence.
There are a couple of other differences which I think make Aikatsu Stars! rather interesting. The first is the greater prominence of male idols. Yume meets a boy who turns out to be a member of M4, the top group from the academy’s male division. The previous Aikatsu! as far as I know only barely bothered in male characters. Is this the influence of successful male idol spin-offs, such as Pretty Rhythm: King of Prism?
The second is that the series implies a greater and more diverse range of possible idols. Sure, Aikatsu! has things like an American idol, and one who likes to dress as a vampire. But Aikatsu Stars! has a teacher who has a rock background, and the first ending theme is an S4 dubstep song. What other possibilities exist? I want to find out.
Aikatsu Stars! feels more tightly focused and more dramatic, but I do wonder if this comes at the cost of the more lighthearted fun of the original series. That being said, there’s nothing so far that tells me it’s going to plummet or lose its footing. I look forward to seeing Aikatsu Stars! build on itself, and even if the episodic hijinks don’t feel as strong, it looks on-track to being a more polished work overall.
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