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.

 
 
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Real vs. Perfect: The Two Opposing Idol Values

1983’s Creamy Mami was the first idol anime, and it made an idol out of Mami’s voice actor as well. Watching her videos from back then, a 15-year-old Ohta Takako comes across as awkward and unaccustomed to the spotlight, even in “Love Sarigenaku” above, her most “grown-up” song. Compared to many of the slickly produced pop hits of later years, Ohta can come across as almost unprofessional, but that’s exactly where her appeal lies. When it comes to Japanese idols, there are two general directions: “unrefined and real” or “polished and perfect.”

When comparing the Japanese idol juggernaut AKB48 to the K-Pop sensation Girls’ Generation (who have been enormously popular in Japan), the latter visually comes across as a much more “professional-looking” group. While calling them idolsTheir dance and choreography are on point, and their music videos make them look like a million bucks. But while the girls of AKB48 have a kind of awkwardness about them, and many aren’t the greatest singers, there’s a sense of them “trying their best,” and this is exactly what the fans want. In other words, perfection isn’t necessarily desired. It can be, but that strain of inexperience and perseverance is just as strong.

These dual forces can be seen in idol anime in spades. In Love Live! School Idol Project, the main characters are the ragtag group μ’s (pronounced “Muse”), and the defending champions are the practically-professional A-RISE, who come from the richest high school in Akihabara. In Aikatsu!, Hoshimiya Ichigo is shown as having some kind of natural spark of genuineness that contrasts her from the seemingly unassailable Kanzaki Mizuki. And in Macross Frontier, the main love triangle features, as seen above, the humble waitress Ranka Lee (right) vs. the sultry Sheryl Nome (left). In every case, what causes the “small fry” to ascend isn’t that they transform into polished and perfect idols, but that even as they improve, that unrefined and authentic quality shines through. Perhaps it says something that the main heroines of these shows tend to lean that way as well.

And yet, as touched on briefly in the beginning, voice actors who play idols in anime actually end up being idols themselves. When the girls of Love Live! hold live concerts their flaws come out, but that’s part of the appeal of seeing them in person. When watching the characters in the anime or in music videos, that imperfection doesn’t come across in the performances so much as in the dialogue and supporting materials. A similar phenomenon exists all the way back with Creamy Mami. She comes across as much more “polished” than Ohta Takako does, yet they share the same voice.

An interesting case of the strange interaction with the 2D vs. 3D and real vs. perfect contrasts are those that toe the line, like Hatsune Miku or virtual youtubers. With Miku, her limitations—the fact that her voice sounds robotic—is considered part of her appeal. With virtual youtubers, the fact that there’s a person performing behind the character is much more obvious, and the idea that they start to break down or break character is what lends a sense of “realness.”

In this regard, California-born Japanese idol Sally Amaki is especially interesting. A member of 22/7, an “anime-style characters” idol group in the vein of Love Live!, she plays the bilingual character Fujima Sakura while bringing along her own fans as Sally. Not only does she perform the virtual youtuber role as Sakura, but her native English fluency brings an interesting dynamic that highlights a sense of “realness,” especially for English-speaking fans. Not only is there often a contrast between Sally’s “cute, practiced idol” voice and her Californian mannerisms when switching between Japanese and English, but she’ll mention something that only someone growing up in the US would know off the cuff. This lets American fans connect with her sense of authenticity in ways that they might not have been able to in the past.

In the end, “real vs. perfect” is not a true dichotomy by any means, and every idol/idol group approaches that divide in different ways. Whether you’re an idol fan or not, which do you prefer?

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.

Aikatsu! and Idol Franchise “Experiences”

As Aikatsu Friends! inches ever closer, I find myself thinking about the longevity of Aikatsu! as a franchise. By this October, it’ll be a whopping six years old—a lifetime when it comes to children’s anime. Where other similar series have tried to compete, few have managed to hang on as Aikatsu! has. One of its closest competitors, Pretty Rhythm, eventually pivoted towards the male-idol-centric King of Prism series. Either by outlasting or outmaneuvering other idol series, Aikatsu! feels as if it’s conquered its own niche—though the exact nature of that niche is what I’m trying to figure out.

There are, of course, key differences between Aikatsu! and other idol character franchises. Series like King of Prism and Idolish 7 utilize male idols in a desire to capture a different market. Love Live! and The iDOLM@STER feel like they skew older. Macross Delta and Symphogear have idols as thematic flourishes as part of a greater science-fiction story. They cover various demographics, as well as various degrees of idol presence. Yet I feel there’s another element of difference that isn’t accounted for, as if Aikatsu! and Love Live! occupy different compartments of mental space, at least personally.

While this is only a tentative thought exercise for the sake of categorization, if I had to describe that difference it would be as the following: With Love Live! or The iDOLM@STER, I’m most interested in how the idols will react, but with Aikatsu! I’m most interested in the actions they’ll take. The way I phrased it makes it seem as if it’s a contrast between more passive characters and more active ones, but that’s not quite right. Instead, it’s more that the girls of Love Live! seem to draw their appeal from the way they behave and influence each other, while the girls in Aikatsu! feel as if they influence the environment around them.

Perhaps the reason I see Aikatsu! different is because of the fans and how they express their love for the series on social media compared to other idol anime lovers. Other series appear to celebrate cuteness and style. Fans of Aikatsu! revel in an aura of power and excitement. At the heart of this fan output remains the indelible images of Ichigo, that very first Aikatsu! heroine, as she climbs those cliffs and wields that axe. It’s as if Ichigo and her successors reshape and navigate the land while other idols move through it.

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 Stars! Christmas 2017 Thoughts

I was asked to talk about the Aikatsu Stars! 2017 Christmas episode, so here I am!

Christmas isn’t the utter juggernaut of a holiday in Japan as it is in the United States, but it’s still celebrated in its own way: as a time for romance and appreciation. It’s not uncommon to see anime and manga feature Christmas stories, notably the many shoujo series where dates happen on and around December 25th. In some cases, series can be long enough Christmas episodes themselves become annual traditions, and this is the case with Aikatsu! Apparently, they even sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” every year:

As a Christmas-focused story, episode 87 of Aikatsu Stars! stands out to me for a few reasons. Generally, with these seasons-long children’s anime, the Christmas episodes are pretty self-contained. Maybe it’ll be about meeting Santa, or just having fun with friends. With Aikatsu Stars!, there’s a surprising amount of overall narrative progression. It’s not like they’re throwing revelations left and right, but the fact that M4 (the series’ premier male idol group) is branching off into their own solo careers is kind of a big deal. That there was some romantic development between perennial cat(-like) girl Saotome Ako and M4 member Kiri Kanata is also notable.

I only watch Aikatsu Stars! on and off, so I didn’t realize that Kizaki Rei is from New York City. As someone who just stopped by Rockefeller Center to see the giant tree right before Christmas, and as someone who kind of takes its presence for granted, I found the show’s presentation of it as this stand-out example of “Christmas around the world!” charming. If there’s one thing AIkatsu! has done right that many other series haven’t, it’s having more non-Japanese characters.

Aikatsu Stars! (and Aikatsu! in general) is that it really is in its own world when it comes to idol anime, or magical girl(ish) anime. Other series will be fun and wacky, or they might be a bit serious, but there’s rarely the almost Saved by the Bell-esque feel you find in Aikatsu! Even when the anime are literally about idols using their singing to defeat galactic empires, it lacks that particular brand of mild absurdity that permeates AIkatsu!. This is why Aikatsu Stars! is the sort of anime that could either go episodic forever or rapidly develop into an elaborate story at any moment, and both are equally welcome. Perhaps the Christmas episodes are indicative of that balance of story advancement and self-contained amusement.

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 Stars! and Nikaido Yuzu, the Ultimate Kouhai/Senpai

At first glance, Nikaido Yuzu in Aikatsu Stars! is not an especially unique character. She’s an energetic, bubbly character in a show filled with energetic and bubbly characters, in a genre (idol anime) conducive to energetic and bubbly characters. One or way or another, however, she comes to stand out over time, especially with the slight shift in her role between seasons from kouhai to senpai.

I previously wrote a little about how the heroine of Aikatsu Stars!, Nijino Yume, undergoes a similar transition. At the start of the series, Yume’s the new girl aiming for the top. By the time Season 2 rolls around, Yume’s at the apex as a member of the elite idol group S4. In contrast, Yuzu starts off already a part of S4, going from the youngest member to the oldest between seasons. But unlike Yume, who has to get used to being looked up to, Yuzu’s personality and approach to life transitions almost seamlessly.

To the former members of S4 who graduate, Yuzu is a bundle of youthful enthusiasm. But to the younger members of S4 who come in after her, Yuzu is an eccentric wise man of sorts, her decisions seemingly bizarre but ultimately with some underlying purpose or reasoning—even if Yuzu herself doesn’t quite know what that is herself. This balance is on display in episode 67 of Aikatsu Stars!, when Yuzu sets up an elaborate treasure hunt on Aikatsu Island.

Yuzu tells the participants, many of whom are her underclassmen, to find a treasure that’s so well hidden that even she can’t remember its true location. As one hint after another comes up to help the hunters along, there’s a certain sense that they’re not just clues, but philosophical ideas about what it means to live. In a twist straight out of “The Purloined Letter,” the actual treasure is revealed to have been disguised as an overly obvious giant treasure box-shaped prop at the very beginning, and the treasure within is…friends. Literally. Out of the enormous box comes the three former members of S4. In that moment, between S4 girls new and old, Yuzu is simultaneously the wide-eyed “kid” and the experienced “adult,” so to speak.

Compare this to Yazawa Nico from Love Live!, a character known for being older but acting younger. Nico’s cutesy behavior is meant to contradict the fact that she’s a third-year in high school, and lets her act as a foil to the young-but-mature Nishikino Maki. Yuzu, on the other hand, isn’t really a “contradiction”; she just “is.” Her actions and behavior fit, whether she’s dispensing advice or giving it, because they reflect a generally positive approach to life that’s all about excitement without being beholden to “newness.”

Aikatsu Stars! is generally a fairly lighthearted show bordering on the wacky, and Yuzu fits well within that universe. Energetic and bubbly she may be, but those are surface qualities that open up to a sense of loyalty and adventure, rendering her a unique figure. She’s the kind of character who could thrive in any degree of prominence, whether main, side, or even background figure.

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.

The Star that Shines Brightest: Thoughts on the Aikatsu! Five-Year Anniversary Crossover

“Five years of Aikatsu! sounds strange. Sometimes, the series seems like it’s been around forever. Other times, I remember it as one of the many young upstarts nipping at Precure‘s “anime for young girls” throne. However my feelings sway, the reality is that the show is long enough now to have a mega crossover event.

In episodes 69 and 70 of Aikatsu Stars!, the characters if the latest series encounter their predecessors from seasons past. While there are plenty of interactions across the cast, the main focal point is how heroine Nijino Yume meets her protagonist senpai, Oozora Akari and Hoshimiya Ichigo.

One thing is crystal clear after these episodes: out if all three main characters, Ichigo is by far the most memorable and the most meme-able.

That’s not to say that Akari and Yume are bad characters or uninteresting. However, everything about Ichigo leaves an impression. Like in so many other franchises or enduring works, being the original confers a kind of aura of greatness. Whether it’s Amuro Ray from Gundam, Superman, or Cure Black and Cure White from Precure, there’s a sense of reverence for being the first.

But it’s not just being the inaugural protagonist that elevates Ichigo; it’s that she comes across as amusingly superhuman compared to the other two. Like Cure Black and Cure White in their own crossover specials, Ichigo is portrayed as the strongest. She scales cliffs with ease. Her skill with an axe is so notable that the crossover puts special emphasis on it. I’m fact, nowhere is the animation as lovingly handled as the tree-chopping scene, as the anime plays with dynamic angles, fluid animation, and perspective. Yume and Akari recede into the background in the face of Ichigo’s might.

If you look at the S.H. Figuarts figure for Ichigo, she actually comes with an axe. It’s an identifying element for fans. What would Akari and Yume come with? It’s less obvious. One might argue that they’re more subtle as characters, and that this is a strength, but even Cure Black and Cure White don’t overshadow their Precure successors this much.

It might sound like I’m being critical of the franchise for not developing its later heroines more, or of the crossover episodes for not doing a good enough job, but I’m not. I found the crossover episodes to be a fun celebration of all things Aikatsu! I especially enjoyed seeing the previous S4 (Yume’s senpai group before she got to the top of her school) and Soleil (Ichigo’s group) perform. It was also great to see my favorite, Ichinose Kaede. My thoughts on Ichigo are more of an observation.

On a final note, I thought the character designs for Aikatsu! and Aikatsu Stars! would clash more, but they really don’t. I think they made the original Aikatsu! girls’ faces a bit rounder to make the different casts more visually cohesive. This is generally the sign that a crossover knows what it’s doing.

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.