It is no secret that I’m not a fan of moe anime. Apart from usually looking hideous, they bank everything – character, plot, personality, effort – on the moe. The characters are insufferable, one-note, and what passes for humour is non-stop screeching. Oh god, the voices. They’re torture. So, what does a seemingly stereotypical moe anime with good characters, restraint on the screeching, and real humour look like? Meet K-On.
This anime revolves around the daily school life antics of a girls’ music club. They claim it’s a music club, but they spend more time drinking tea, eating cakes, and doing odd activities to promote the club. K-On is more a slice of life than a music anime. We have Yui the protagonist on the guitar, Mio on bass, Mugi on keyboard, and Ritsu banging the drums. A fifth joins the club later. Each girl fits one of the main archetypes of the typical “cute girls doing cute things” cast. Yui, for instance, is a clumsy airhead, which sounds clichéd. Another girl is the shy, self-conscious type yet popular with the boys. Also sounds clichéd. Their teacher is more of a child than half of her students. Sound familiar?
In fact, if I were to detail K-On in full on paper from its characters to the episodic scenarios, it would be normal for you to dismiss it as more of the same clichéd moe fare. To own a truth, though this had been on my list to watch since before my first review, I always suspected it as more of same that a hardcore fanbase overhyped to outsiders. Probably why I took so long to get to it. I was right, in a sense. K-On is more of the same, technically. However, it takes that sameness and executes it so much better than the competition that it makes me think even less of those other anime. Yes, K-On had many imitators in the years that followed, but it wasn’t an original idea either. I look at this anime and can’t pick out anything I would call different or innovative for the genre, apart from caring about more than the moe. Here we have a great example of the importance of execution over idea. I talk of this plenty in isekai reviews, where all they have going for them is that one change from other isekai, as if that alone will make for a great story. You could change nothing at the core but execute in a great way and now sentiment won’t be, “Oh, it’s just a rip-off of [other anime here].” Instead, viewers will say, “It’s like [other anime] but actually good.”
These characters are fun and the scenarios are fun, especially in season two when the series hits its stride. The humour works and has more than “it’s funny because she’s cute” as the joke. K-On is, in simple terms, fun. Who knew that having good characters with depth would make for an enjoyable experience, aye?
Huge praise must go to Kyoto Animation for applying their considerable artistic talents to the series. Nothing about K-On visually feels template. When the girls have those expected moe and anime reactions, we aren’t getting stock animation you see copied and pasted across the seasonal clones. These characters have such life and energy, such expression thanks to caring artists. Very giffable too, as I’m sure you’ve seen around the net.
One problem tangential to K-On is the ease in which it is to imitate. Imitating well is a different matter, but to create a clone (similar to how easy it is to clone Sword Art Online) takes little effort and had caused a flood on the market. If you have seen its imitators already, I can imagine them lessening your experience with K-On, for while this is better, you could feel as if you know everything about K-On before you even start. That said, should you have an inclination for the genre as an outsider, I do recommend this one. Actually, this is the only anime of the typical moe variety that I would recommend to non-core fans.
I want to be clear. You aren’t finding anything revolutionary here or the anime to change your mind on moe, but it is still a good anime regardless.
One final note – should a dub be your preference, avoid the original Animax dub. Absolutely lifeless. The Bang Zoom redub is close to the Japanese in tone and energy and a fine experience.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: A must for “cute girls doing cute things” fans. This might appeal to those not already predisposed to the moe genre. K-On is good though still very moe.
I touched on the notion of creating anime to sell idol singers in Fancy Lala. As with all good ideas, someone will boil it down the laziest corporate product. Enter Bang Dream.
The story centres on Kasumi and her goal to start a band in high school. Her journey will require making friends, learning music, and putting on a show.
Bang Dream encapsulates everything that keeps me away from music anime. The predictability of the cast of characters coupled with the barely-there conflict and music indistinguishable from your average J-pop band has no appeal to me. This story and its characters is as paint-by-numbers as you can imagine. Kasumi is so “genki” to forbid you from disliking her an iota. The cat ears hair is the least sickly sweet thing about her. No one in this series has any real problems, for conflict may alienate a potential customer from buying the CDs, figures, and games. The voice actors also perform in live concerts.
The intent of Bang Dream is clearly to sell merchandise. This is a 13-episode ad. And there are more seasons.
Watching Kasumi is exhausting with her impossibly upbeat personality and squeaky lines about wanting to become a pop star. The marketing department is so desperate to have you fall in love with her that they make her brainless. She has this “Disney eyed” moment when she discovers that strumming a guitar produces sound. Furthermore, she goes from mind blown that guitars make music to smash hit professional concert in the span of a year? I mean, of course she does. The figurines and miniskirts (the camera is obsessed with the swish of skirts) are pouring out of factories by the hour. Can’t allow something as trivial as plotting and development to get in the way of merchandise.
I can imagine that if you like the music, then none of this bothers you. Fans probably know this is an ad – they just like seeing the characters on screen and realised through animation. I don’t fit in that group, so this is far from what I’m after.
Similar to Bang Dream, the purpose of Idolish7 is to sell music and the rhythm game from whence it came. The game was first with a manga series commissioned shortly after, followed by more manga, another game, and the anime a few years later, which will be our subject today.
At first impression, Idolish7 seems to be like Bang Dream, a soulless corporate product to flog more merch across the waiting palms of fan girls. Early episodes introduce us to the seven guys of the group and their new young manager, Tsumugi, on her first managerial assignment. The first point of conflict is that four of them must go. This is an audition for a three-man group, like that of their rival company. However, Tsumugi convinces the president of the agency (and her father) that the group works best as a seven-man unit because of the power of friendship, teamwork, and all that jazz pop. With this resolved, I assume that’s as complex a plot that we are going to get. A concert for a theatre of thousands is on the cards.
To my surprise, their first concert is a commercial failure. You can count the members of the audience on two hands. Alright, no instant success. That’s good. Tsumugi’s optimism and go-getter personality is also a plus (she would become my favourite character – great design too).
Unlike Bang Dream dealing with amateurs, these guys are already professional – they can sing and dance, no problem – so the writer can’t rely on the usual plot of learning the skill with the goal of winning in the final showdown. Instead, focus shifts to the challenges of the idol industry and its crushing competitiveness. These are handsome guys (the anime makes no secret of it) with several talents. It should be a breeze. But in the idol industry, nothing is good enough.
These guys have to start by handing out flyers, hand selling music, and just hitting the streets to entice potential fans. We learn about the guys a little, each one coded by hair colour, of course. The series is quite decent.
Then around the halfway point, the story ups the tempo. We have drama – both internal from the pressure to succeed and external from rival group Trigger – meltdowns, dark pasts, and even plagiarism. The cylinders are firing! It’s no Beck, but it’s a ton better than Bang Dream. The plagiarism plot is solid.
In case you’re wondering, the group Trigger had no association with Studio Trigger. That was until Studio Trigger made a music video for Trigger in collaboration with Bandai Namco. I wonder if that was the writer’s intention all along. Hmm…excuse me while I name a character Maaya Sakamoto in my very real anime.
If only Studio Trigger animated the whole series. And here we come to the negatives, of which there are two notable ones. The first is the inconsistent visual quality. We have unrefined edges, such as the crowds repeating one stiff motion during performances, and some truly lousy CG animation for the guys when they dance. I can’t decide which is worse: the constant flipping between 2D (close ups) and CG (sweeping long shots) or the fact that they don’t look like the same people. The character models aren’t of the highest quality. The rigging is certainly not up to par. When they raise their arms in the air, as they often do for a routine, one can’t help but notice the lack of armpits. It’s a smooth pack of flesh from pectoral to lateral muscle. So distracting.
The other issue is the oversized cast. This first season is 17 episodes, yet has introduced the cast of a 52-episode anime. Seven guys for Idolish7, three for Trigger, other idol groups, their managers, production staff, key fans, and more populate this world. It’s too much. This is an unfortunate side effect of the source material, where I’m sure the longer game works better with the larger cast. If I were to edit this, as an original anime, I would cut the main group to four members. Some of these guys become lost in the crowd and could do with merging personalities. Why four? One of Trigger’s three members is brother to one from Idolish7. I would create a point of conflict centred on the Idolish7 brother’s insecurity in the shadow of his brother. Are the other three carrying him? If Trigger only has three, then is he of any use as the “fourth wheel” on Idolish4? The growth would come from the realisation that they can do more as four, which Trigger can’t compete with.
Anyways, the cast is too big. I don’t remember much about most of these characters, though to a fan of the franchise, it’s probably common to know everything about them, right down to their shoe size.
If I were a fan of the game or other material, I would be happy with this. I’d want more, of course, as most fans do, but this wouldn’t give me the impression that the company is just taking advantage of me to swipe a quick buck.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: For J-pop fans. Even if you aren’t a fan of the group, there is enough of a story and plot here to interest the J-pop crowd in general.
Now for a different type of music anime, we have the music drama, where music is the centrepiece but drama is the story. In White Album 2, we follow Kitahara on his mission to revive the ailing music club ahead of the school festival. He hears an angelic voice coming from the school roof, finding it belongs to the kind Setsuna. Along with her and the aloof Touma, a piano prodigy that keeps everyone at room’s length, the trio works hard to put on a good show at the festival. Along the way, Kitahara needs to learn that it takes dedication and hard work – something Touma has no shortage of – to master the language of music, while he will teach Touma that it’s worth having friends, that it’s worth letting people in. Setsuna will also need to emerge from her shell and show her true self as more than just the popular girl outlined by everyone in school.
On a surface level, the story is about practicing music and going about the anime school life. However, underlying these fun youthful months is a brewing love triangle of melodrama. By being the one to crack their emotional armours, Kitahara draws the attention and feelings of both girls and neither is sure what the other wants him too or if he likes them, for that matter.
Quick aside. This isn’t a sequel despite the 2 in the title. It’s merely set in the same world as White Album and covers some of its songs. To confuse matters further, should you be interested in the source material, White Album 2 is its own trilogy of visual novels (if the character designs didn’t it away). No, there is no reference to The Beatles’ White Album, which is surprising (let me know, should this not be the case).
Music is only a focus of White Album for the first half of the series until the big performance at the school festival, marking the midpoint rather than the finale, as one would expect. A definite coupling occurs as well around this time, which I didn’t expect either. In a scenario like this this, especially one adapted from a multi-choice visual novel, you predict it to leave things vague as to not upset anyone in the “waifu wars” or to make the “one true pairing” clear from the start to commit to in act three. So when there’s a commitment halfway, my drama sensors tingle and ask, “How is this all going to go wrong?” The protagonist does look similar to the guy from School Days…
White Album proceeds down an interesting road by rewinding time and showing us the perspective of the “other girl”, as if this were a visual novel with two equally valid romantic candidates. Quite often in romance VNs, once the player commits to the one love interest, the rest of the prospects suddenly act as though there was never anything between the MC and them. The story pretends that the choice made by the player was the plan all along. There was never any doubt of this coupling. So it’s interesting to see this second perspective and it extracts sorrow for the other girl. Her emotions tug at my heartstrings.
It’s a shame they choked on the final verse. After all this building, all this emotional turmoil, all this drama, the best this story can deliver is an unsatisfactory ending without commitment to one direction and it makes all three characters look like bad people. Flawed characters are good, mistakes are good, but you need to nail that high note if you want to audience to walk away a worthwhile impression. I know the story continues in the next visual novel, yet this would still be a bad ending to the first book of a trilogy.
It wasn’t half-bad until then.
Do I recommend it? The music is nice and most to my taste of the three anime featured here. The drama, however, is heavy on the melodrama side of the scale and thus is likely to depress or tire those not into all the crying, dramatic hugs, and Dutch angles.
You probably haven’t heard of Fancy Lala – I hadn’t until this came in as a review request – and for good reason. If I gave you these two pieces of information, what does that tell you: “magical girl anime” and “1998”? Yes, it matches Fancy Lala, but also matches a titan of the genre, Cardcaptor Sakura. They didn’t just release in the same year. They came out in the same week. And Cardcaptor Sakura eclipsed the anime we will be looking at today.
Fancy Lala is about a third-grade girl with an imagination larger than life. Miho has a chance meeting with two little fairies (more like dragons) who give her a magical pen and notebook. Anything she draws in the notebook becomes real. Furthermore, the pen can transform her into the blue-haired teen Lala from her sketches. It isn’t long before an agent discovers her, convincing Lala to become a model and singer. Thus, Fancy Lala is born.
The first thing that strikes me about Miho is what she considers “cool”. Get this, right, she has the power to create any clothes she wants. Anything. So what does she draw? A transparent raincoat. Except it’s not even a raincoat. It’s a plastic wrap. Then we have her stage name, Fancy Lala, of all names. And I love it. I love how nonsensical her imagination is. This is what a nine-year-old would come up with. The brilliance of Miho is that she feels and thinks like a little girl, not what an adult says a little girl is like. I remember this one kid from primary school who said that if he were a billionaire, he would have a McDonalds at his house so he could eat there every day. That was the grandest thing he could think of. Miho captures that child mentality.
There isn’t as much fanfare as you would expect when she discovers the power. She’s rather casual about it, though I suppose transformation magic isn’t far out of the ordinary for a kid full of imagination.
The episode to episode story reminds very much of Clark Kent/Superman from the Lois & Clark TV series, except with modelling and school drama instead of dastardly villains. Lala has a photo shoot today, but oh no, Miho has to do something with her school friends at the same time! There’s plenty of transforming back and forth, Miho pretending to have arrived just as Lala left, and all that fun secret identity stuff. She notices how differently people treat Lala from Miho. The story strikes a good balance between real Miho plot and the Lala work plot. While she’s trying to make it as a model and then as a singer, she also has school events, family conundrums, and personal issues.
The one real gripe I have against Fancy Lala is how it handles the entertainment industry. Now, I know this a cartoon for little girls and not Perfect Blue; however, no one questions why a teenager never has her parents with her at any photo shoot, film set, or performance. You don’t want to teach kids to go into entertainment alone. The closest thing we have is an agent that tries to force her to work for him, from whom she flees, but then the woman she does join is also a stranger. She could be a trafficker for all Lala knows.
Apart from that, this anime has many great lessons to teach young girls. It explores the power of imagination, but tempers it with reality, talks about divorce, emphasises the importance of hard work and becoming someone people rely on, to name a few. When I first started Fancy Lala, it reminded me of Searching for the Full Moon, a similar anime I had seen long ago (in that, a girl with cancer can transform into a teen singer). Turns out it was inspired by Fancy Lala. This reminiscence was not a positive, for Full Moon was atrocious and taught some horrible life lessons. I expected to have much the same here – wish away your troubles, hard work doesn’t matter, and all that idiocy. Thankfully, Fancy Lala proved me wrong before long.
As a brief side note, Fancy Lala itself took from another series, as is the case with all art, called Creamy Mami, the anime that invented the idea of using an anime to promote idol singers. Fancy Lala’s twist was adding an actual story and drama.
Is it fair that Cardcaptor Sakura pushed this anime into obscurity? No, not in the slightest. Fancy Lala is the better anime. I like Cardcaptors well enough, but this not only avoids a formulaic structure each episode, the characters have more depth and the life lessons are far stronger. Fancy Lala has an ending I would not expect of the magical girl genre. It is a poignant end that leaves the audience with the best message of the series, while instilling inspiration and joy.
Art – Medium
The art is notably aged, but it holds up well and cel animation always has that textured beauty to it.
Sound – Medium
It shouldn’t surprise you to learn – considering the genre – that a first timer, an idol with a short-lived career after the series, voices Miho/Lala. Her acting is alright, better than one would expect. She’s here for the singing talent. The OP screams ‘90s magical anime. The dub actress is similar, whereby her musical ability is stronger than her acting. She’s fine in that regard as well. They did a good job translating the songs.
Story – High
A little girl finds a magic pen that transforms her into a teenager, soon becoming a model and singer. Packed with good lessons, escapist fun, and some nice music, Fancy Lala is a strong offering from the magical girl genre.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: For young girls. I like Fancy Lala. Do I recommend it? Not quite. Not unless it’s to a child or an adult who has fond memories of being the sort of child who would have loved this anime, ready for a comfort trip back in time.
College graduate Souichi dreams of becoming a wholesome popstar. Shame then he became a death metal frontman so vulgar that Satan himself would evict him from Hell. Johannes Krauser II of Detroit Metal City (DMC) is said to have killed his own parents and then raped them. Or was it other way round? Either way, he can vocalise ten rapes a second! He killed his parents and so should you.
Detroit Metal City has one of the most absurd premises I have ever seen and it is hilarious! The shift back and forth from meek-mannered Souichi to indecency incarnated Krauser had me laughing every episode.
Problems most often arise when Souichi tries to put the moves on his crush, only to have Krauser’s crazed fans enter the scene and bring out his inner Demon King. He can’t supress his alter ego at the sound of DMC’s music, and pity any fool that dares challenge his might. In the first episode, DMC fans attack him for badmouthing the band to his crush after she says death metal is horrid. As a defence, he must air guitar Krauser’s moves to prove that he didn’t really mean it. This turn into a head banging, air banding romp and blurts out a line from his song – to do unsavoury things to the girl. She runs off in tears. Each episode’s scenario is funny. The rap battle may be the best. When Krauser raps, he destroys your life with shameful facts about your past.
Possibly my favourite character would be the band manager, who gauges how well a performance went by how wet she is and how many orgasms the music gave her. If she’s as dry as sandpaper, then the performance was trash!
This dark humour won’t be for everyone. Certainly not. Out of context, this all sounds horrid. Fans of the darker side will be in pain, however. One of the best decisions the team made with Detroit Metal City was to have half-length episodes (excluding OP and ED) with accelerated dialogue. It keeps the pace quick and the jokes rolling.
I had a ton of fun with the hidden gem that is Detroit Metal City. And don’t worry; Souichi’s parents are alive and well living peacefully in the countryside.
Art – Medium
Like South Park, Detroit Metal City uses intentionally jank art and seems recorded by someone holding their phone vertically at times. Shame! SHAME! But seriously, the art adds to the humour, though more visual variety and quirky animation would be better.
Sound – Very High
The acting is sharp, fast, and hilarious – the manager’s random English swearing is great. The music sucks in the perfect way.
Story – High
A soft-spoken boy dreams of singing innocent pop music, but transforms into the Demon King of death metal against his will when inconvenient. This premise works far better than expected to hilarious results.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: A must watch for dark humour fans. Detroit Metal City’s compact size packed with vulgarity of ludicrous proportions is a hilarious watch.
In his dying message, an old man tells his robot granddaughter, Key, that she can turn human if she makes 30,000 friends. She has until her battery runs out. Key becomes enamoured with pop idol Miho and desires to be a singer herself, believing she will gain the requisite friends through the big stage.
I can’t be the only one who thinks that 30,000 friends as the secret to becoming a ‘real girl’ is ridiculous. What an odd solution. I wonder if they considered that for Pinocchio in 1883. Believe it or not, Key the Metal Idol does find a way to justify the mass friend request gimmick, but that doesn’t make it any less illogical. If you can’t accept this goal, then stop the anime right there – the story doesn’t get better.
When all you need is 30,000 friends, I’d say going on TV as an automaton would do the trick. If people can create fan clubs from their favourite waifu, then a real android would have millions of adoring fans. She certainly doesn’t try to be discrete about her identity, so what the hell, go for it.
Before aiming at pop-stardom, Key finds herself roped into an adult video company. Hey, the producer wasn’t lying – she would receive many “friends” in a short time. Just sayin’. Thankfully, her friend Sakura rescues her from the casting couch. The adult video producer pursues her since. Key later becomes the faith healer of a cult, which is admittedly quite humorous (and the cult leader looks like the drunk boxing coach from Tomorrow’s Joe). Once another friend rescues her, the cult is now in pursuit as well.
Key the Metal Idol takes a while to reach its main plot of her trying to become a pop star (I thought this was a subplot for act one). The narrative is often distracted by subplots tangentially related to Key. She feels like a supporting character in her own series until the finale.
Once the main plot does begin, the conflicts stem from the choreographer obsessed with her, and from the evil robot scientists that wants the secret behind her autonomy beyond any other android. She is said to contain an immense amount ‘Gel’ (android power source). The main villain seems…special. Let me see if I understand you rightly, Mr Villain. You have created robots that pass for human and have complete remote control features, and your grand plan is to make a pop music group? Are you sure your PhD is real?
From the adult video producer to the scientist, all the villains are corny one-note characters, stereotypes. “I am evil!” yelled the mad scientist. “I am abusive!” yelled the abusive artist.
Key the Metal Idol’s best quality, if I had to give you one, is its eerie feel. From Key’s wide, unblinking eyes to the muted, unwavering music contrasted by the pop songs, the atmosphere does convey the feel of a child in a dangerous adult world. A better protagonist could have taken this atmosphere and chilled you to the bone.
Emotionless characters in anime rarely work. Rather than give us a pitiable character to care for, these writers give us empty characters with no personality for us to accept as deep. However, the ‘Nothing’ character is usually part of the supporting cast (50% of harems have one). In Key the Metal Idol, the Nothing is protagonist. You can see what the writer wanted. He expected us to feel for Key, similar to her inspirator Pinocchio, an innocent child lost in the dark world of reality as nefarious entities seek her power. But with no personality, this is like asking me to care for a gun in an action movie. There is no emotion to latch onto. We do see attempts at bridging a connection between her and the audience. For example, she drinks water in episode one in an attempt to fit in with the other school kids, despite it damaging her systems. The presentation— in fact, the presentation of this anime as whole, lacks style and weight to affect the audience. Even within the confines of Key as she is, the story doesn’t use her well.
I commend the team for trying, but it tackles subjects far beyond its ability. Key the Metal Idol is out of its depth.
Art – Low
The animation is surprisingly good for the time, but the cels weren’t lined up well, which results in screen jitter. For those who may not know, traditional animation uses cels (short for ‘celluloid’) with the background and each character painted on separate transparent layers. To make sure the cels align for each frame of photography, they have ‘registration holes’ on the edges (out of frame) that give consistent placement. I’m wondering if Key the Metal Idol used registration holes because every layer jitters more often than acceptable. It feels like they guessed the positioning of frames.
Sound – Low
Key is better in English – actually sounds like a robot in both cadence and filter – but the Japanese takes the rest. I like that they redid the music in English for the dub. It works within context.
Story – Low
Should an android make 30,000 friends before her battery runs out, she will become human. Key the Metal Idol reaches too far and the goal slips through its fingers.
Overall Quality – Low
Recommendation: For Serial Experiments Lain fans. I don’t know any better way to describe who will enjoy this anime. If you like that “oddness” and not-quite-there cohesion, then Key the Metal Idol may just be for you.