Trick and/or Treat: Halloween in the Aikatsu! Franchise

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One of the interesting things about the 2014 Aikatsu! Episode “Halloween Night Party”  is how it showed that the holiday was relatively new in Japan. Characters repeatedly translate the English “trick or treat” into a Japanese explanatory sentence as if to hammer home the concept. The first few seasons of Aikatsu! didn’t even have Halloween episodes. But it’s been five years since then, and while it hasn’t been a straight line, the concept of “Halloween” is integrated into Aikatsu! pretty thoroughly. At the same time, the degree to which they embrace Halloween varies significantly, as if it’s unclear from year to year how much they should push for Halloween.

2015’s “YOU! GO! KYOTO!” perhaps barely qualifies as a Halloween episode. Instead, the focus is on a trip in Kansai, where the main trio gets together with Hattori Yuu, a friend of Akari’s who’s made a name for herself as a “tour guide idol” of sorts. The girls help her out with a Halloween special, and they do a themed performance as a follow-up. The lack of “trick or treat” is noticeable.

2016’s “Halloween Magic” returns to the Halloween episode format from 2014, albeit with an entirely different cast of characters in Aikatsu Stars! Not only do they bring back explaining what “trick or treat” means, but they even include a special competition just like in “Halloween Night Party.” This episode stands out to me more than any of the others simply because of Rola’s taiyaki outfit, seen above. Taking a relatively serious character and having her go around in the most ridiculous getup without even batting an eye speaks to her character having a certain charming roundedness. I have to wonder if maybe the concept of Halloween needs to be introduced again for newer, younger viewers coming in. Also, while “Halloween Night Party” made a reference to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “Halloween Magic” has one of the characters moonwalk while doing MJ-style “Whoo!”s, as if to say that the King of Pop is as much a part of Halloween as pumpkins and candy.

2017’s “Halloween Surprise” from Aikatsu Stars! places extra emphasis on the “trick” in “trick or treat,” albeit without actually using the words. The second half of this particular series involves a rivalry with another idol school, so the idea of competing takes on a new dimension in this Halloween episode compared to previous ones. Here, participants lose when their heart rate goes over a certain level, so the two sides have to try and scare or surprise one another. It’s kind of a twist on the original formula, and it does a decent job of acting as the stage for a bit of character growth on the character Koharu’s part. There’s a greater emphasis on using Halloween as an opportunity for pushing storylines compared to previous years. Also, for some reason, they reuse the costumes from the previous year. Could it be out of convenience (they already have the character designs laid out), or perhaps the costumes were just that popular?

2018’s “Aine’s Halloween Panic” from Aikatsu Friends! Incorporates Halloween into the show pretty thoroughly without drawing a ton of attention to it. Aine, the most recent heroine, has split off from her Aikatsu partner Mio so that they can train separately and come back stronger than ever. For this purpose, she plays the part in a TV special of a girl who discovers her senpai is a witch. The magical focus is the clear tie to Halloween, but once again there’s no “trick or treat.” In fact, there’s only one trick, as Mirai (seen above) tries to scare a couple characters during the episode. They treat Halloween as the most natural thing—is it a sign that it’s approaching Christmas in terms of cultural integration in Japan?

Looking at all these episodes, a couple things stick out to me.

First, it really is a shame that Yurika, the vampire-inspired idol from the first series, didn’t get any Halloween episodes when she was a more common character due to the relative lack of exposure for the holiday.

Second, the notion of “trick or treat” as a package deal seems to ebb and flow, but its constituent parts, i.e. pranks and candy, remain. One thing worth pointing out is that the tradition of going door to door to trick or treat never took hold in Japan, so maybe it’s no surprise that it would end up as something less codified. That being said, I’m aware that even in the US, trick or treat (especially in big cities) is more organized these days for safety purposes.

So what remains is the aesthetics of Halloween, costumes and all, with a cultural twist. That includes a taiyaki costume, and there’s even one girl in Aikatsu Friends! who dresses as a jiangshi (Chinese hopping ghost popular in Japan). Also, I guess Michael Jackson is part of that aesthetic as well.

Given that the pattern for Aikatsu! Halloween episodes exists, but that each year puts its own spin on the idea, I’m curious to see what direction this year’s takes. Because 2018’s Aikatsu Friends episode took a less upfront approach, could this one be more in the classic style? And with the new giant crossover series Aikatsu On Parade! on its way in 2020, Halloween Idol Activities might very well combine the styles of all previous shows.

 

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Infinite Potential: Aikatsu Friends! Kagayaki no Jewel

I’m unsure of what kids’ marketing research took place, but I doubt it’s a coincidence that both Precure and Aikatsu!—two major girls’ anime franchises—somehow both ended up on a space theme this year. But while Star Twinkle Precure is kind of expected given how every season has a gimmick or three, it’s much more surprising that Aikatsu Friends! Kagayaki no Jewel would establish the concept of “Space Idol Activities” in its own universe. Fitting, perhaps, but surprising nevertheless.

There’s a certain level of absurdity that permeates Aikatsu! as a whole—more than enough to make “Aikatsu in space” not seem like such a bizarre direction. In fact, I think it’s what has allowed the franchise to stand the test of time as a work of art and media, independent of the arcade game it’s based on. Aikatsu Friends! Kagayaki no Jewel leans into that, whether it’s maintaining old traditions (e.g. scaling cliffs) or trying something new. So when the first episode begins with an astronaut entering the stratosphere, the main reaction from me is “sure.” In a way, it feels more fitting than something like, Yu-Gi-Oh!, which now has a history of highlighting card games in different settings—in ancient Egypt, in school, on motorcycles, in space, and so on.

The new season also takes place in a new semester where the Aine and friends are now in the high school division, and I always enjoy seeing the signs of progress that come with such transitions. In this case, it’s seeing the underclassmen pale in terms of aerobic an anaerobic training alike, as well as…idols in spaaaaace.

My only wish is that they push this concept as far as it can go. Why limit it to space-esque idol performances? Why not have an idol school aboard a shuttle? Why not have zero-g dancing? Please take this to the absolute limit, Aikatsu!

P.S. Did you know the best Aikatsu! characters introduce themselves by parachute? It’s true.

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Aikatsu Friends! Knows How to Celebrate Christmas

Christmas is a different holiday in Japan compared to the United States. Even putting aside the religious vs. secular aspects, December 25th is traditionally seen in Japan as more of a romantic occasion featuring cake and fried chicken, and various anime and manga throughout the years have reflected this. That’s why I was surprised to see that the Christmas episode of Aikatsu Friends!—aptly titled “Merry Friends Christmas”—feels so at-home with a more American conception of the holiday.

The episode begins with drawing lots for a big idol tournament. Once the matches have all been decided, each duo goes out to practice and to shore up their weaknesses. The portrayal of “idol activities” is always a highlight of the Aikatsu! franchise, and watching the two goth girls weight-lift using an oversized die and a black crystal ball to shore up their weak stamina reminds me of why I enjoy these shows. What’s more, I like that it doesn’t dedicate the entire episode to Christmas, as it minimizes the sense that this is a one-off break from the main story. The celebration is woven into the overall momentum of Aikatsu Friends!

Heroine Aine decides to invite her partner Mio and their rival teams to have a fun Christmas party, and there’s just something familiarly heartwarming about the gathering. The exchanging of presents, the overall sense that the competition doesn’t overshadow their friendships, and the festive mood would fit right in with US Christmas TV specials—but with all of the morals about kindness and giving merely implied instead of said outright. It’s the sort of execution that makes me wish Aikatsu! could get a real foothold outside of Japan, even though I realize that its success is tied in heavily with the arcade games.

As with every Aikatsu! Christmas, they end with a rendition with of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” with a characteristic rap section that talks about turning a holy night into a party night. At this point, and I have to wonder what the reason is behind keeping the song from year to year. It’s not a bad thing, but I would have expected them to switch it up from series to series—maybe some “Jingle Bells” or “Deck the Halls.” Maybe it’s just what the fans expect, and hearing the latest generation of Aikatsu! stars give their own take on the song is itself a tradition.

Overall, it’s an excellent Christmas episode from Aikatsu Friends, and an excellent way to set the mood for the holidays. It also makes me wonder if the image of Christmas has changed in Japan! That investigation will have to be for another time.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

 

Aikatsu Friends! Choreography Has Won Me Over

I generally enjoy the AIkatsu! idol anime, but one aspect of it that never really hits me the way I think it’s supposed to is the idol performances at the end of each episode. As I watch Aikatsu Friends!, however, I feel like that’s finally changed for me.

I’m no expert in song and dance choreography, but the impression I get is that Aikatsu Friends is better at integrating those performances into the show itself. To some extent, I think this has to do with the improvements to the 3DCG that have happened to the franchise over time, but I don’t think it’s just about technical progress. Instead, I find that the performances themselves give a far better sense of who each character is, and what makes them tick.

Yuuki Aine

Protagonist Yuuki Aine is new to being an idol, and it shows. She’s not the best singer, and her dance moves are pretty simple, but they highlight her natural authenticity, and the friendliness that is her most outstanding quality.

Minato Mio

Minato Mio, her partner, is known for a kind of perfectionism that isn’t overly obsessive, which is reflected in the subdued music that accompanies her performances, as well as her simple yet graceful movements.

Asuka Mirai

Where it stands out to me most is the fact that Asuka Mirai, one of the top idols in the series, performs differently alone compared to when she’s a part of the duo Love Me Tear. As one half of a whole, she and her partner Kamishiro Karen exude elegance and maturity. When she’s by herself, however, Mirai is all about a kind of wry playfulness—the quality she exhibits when she’s trying to help Aine get comfortable acting for television.

The song and dance routines in Aikatsu Friends! encapsulate what we’ve learned about the character, or what the characters themselves have learned during the episode. Somewhat similar to how a different kind of show might take all the lessons presented during the episode and boil them down to a conclusion by the end, these performances leave a lasting impression about who these individuals are and why they strive to be idols.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

 
 

More Like “We-katsu!”: Aikatsu Friends!

Aikatsu Friends! is the second reboot in the popular Aikatsu! franchise, and based on early impressions, it’s trying to change the formula in a number of ways. While the basic premise is largely the same as in previous iterations—girl goes to a special idol school and aims to become a great idol through the power of friendship, effort, and merchandisable cards—I feel a strong desire from Aikatsu Friends! to differentiate itself from its predecessors.

Aikatsu Friends stars Yuuki Aine—though, perhaps more accurately, it could be said to star “Yuuki Aine’s friendship.” That’s because, as one might expect, the new series is all about bonds on a much greater level than Aikatsu! and Aikatsu Stars! Where those anime would display friendship, ultimately the idols have very strong auras of individuality even as they form idol units. With Aikatsu Friends!, the very premise of being an idol is tied to duos because the default groups are performer pairings called “Friends.” Moreover, even the Aikatsu! tradition of the main heroine standing in front of a show title card and introducing the series has changed slightly, as seen above. Now, both Aine and her idol partner Minato Mio are shown speaking together.

Aine herself reflects the “us” mentality of Aikatsu Friends! in interesting ways. What stands out to me most about her is that her goal isn’t directly idol-related. Every previous protagonist has had “being an idol” as their driving force, whether it’s just wanting to try it out or looking up to another and aspiring to be like them. Aine’s dream, however, is to make a million friends, and becoming an idol is presented as a means to that end. Provided we view fans in a non-cynical light, being an idol can be a rather efficient way to reach that high a number. And while there’s always a chance that Aine’s goal will shift as she learns to love being an idol more and more, the fact that she’s presented this way initially again puts emphasis on idols in pairs over idols as individuals.

Is it friendship, teamwork, or that much more? Ultimately, Aikatsu! is a children’s franchise, but I suspect this series is going to be very popular with yuri fans even compared to older Aikatsu! anime. It’s potentially a little too on the nose, but the explicit focus on pairings—especially girl-girl pairings—seems like it’d be catnip to that fanbase. When Kamishiro Karen and Mirai Asuka, the top “Friends” group known as “Love Me Tear,” are shown being 100% in sync with each other in terms of movement and even seemingly finishing each other’s sentences, I have to give a second look.

One last thing I noticed is that Aikatsu Friends! has done a really good job of showing the difference between a fledgling pair like Aine and Mio and Love Me Tear. From their idol fashion to just the behavior described in the previous paragraph, there’s just a stark contrast between beginners and veterans. It presents a clear point for Aine and Mio to aim for, and it has me interested in where they and their friendship will go.

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to support Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.