「笑顔のために」 (Egao no Tame ni)
“For Their Smiles”
There’s really isn’t all that much to go on about this last episode of AKB0048, except to just lie back and bask in its glorious spectacle. And boy, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the Kawamori-directed shows I’ve seen until now, it’s that the guy certainly knows how to deliver one hell of a flashy, bombastic climax in shows already filled with flashy, bombastic moments. It’s as if the guy always looks back and says to his team: “Okay guys, we need to take it FURTHER.” Because that’s what this episode essentially is, AKB0048 cranked up to 11, as we get back-to-back performances of Kibou ni Tsuite, Yume wa Nando mo Umarekawaru, and AKB insert Yakusoku Yo! And boy was it glorious. Kawamori and Studio Satelight again prove why they are one of the industry’s go-to for animating concert scenes thanks to their signature style – one of blindingly flashy colors, dazzling visual effects, impressive shots from a dizzying variety of angles and pans, ambitious sequences, as well as the impeccably timed inserts that flow alongside the wild scene-shifts between performances and fights – a winning combination that we’ve seen time and time again in AKB0048, and back in Macross’s various incarnations. Few other studios and directors have managed to capture the same frenetic energy that so defines these musical performances and translated it onto the animated screen, much less with the panache and flair these people have shown. Hell, the sensory overload from all the SFX in this concluding performance is enough to make me forgive the rotoscope CG animation Satelight tends to falls back on, especially when I got to the brilliant rendition of Kibou ni Tsuite. (Surprisingly, the CG looks extremely decent in this episode, although it could’ve been the saturation.) The visual quality of the show has quite honestly never been higher, as Satelight displays an impressively balanced mix of keyframe and rotoscope animation in the performance amidst the overtly saturated backdrop of the Lancaster concert venue.
In a way this episode encapsulates what makes AKB0048 entertaining for me at its most basic level, Kawamori’s predisposition for the Hoot and Hooray. The performances are very much a part of this, but let’s not forget the spectacle of the repeatedly ludicrous, yet ridiculously entertaining clashes between the teenage idols, wotas and DES, an aspect which has by now become an integral part of the series’ identity. The best part of it has always been how little it took itself seriously, and this last episode continues the tradition in grand fashion. Almost none of that character drama I’ve raved about for the last few weeks is present, but you know what? This was a perfectly fine way for the show to wrap up. Sure, the questions to the hanging plot threads still linger in my mind, but as conclusions go, I liked that instead of trying to rush inconclusive answers for our many questions, AKB0048 brought us full circle with an episode that has the Kenkyuuseis now performing in the very place of the idols we saw in the very first episode. It is an episode that also serves as a reminder that AKB0048, for all that’s been said and done, is a show that can entertain on multiple levels.
Of course, with the knowledge of a continuation (be it second season, OVA, or movie) secured, the episode takes the liberty of thrusting onto us a number of wild developments, like the disembodied voice of the former Maeda Atsuko speaking to 00, S-Quad declaring a new Center Nova amidst the Kenkyuuseis, and to my great surprise, Takamina regaining her position in the Succession Kiraras’ eyes. It’s thankful that amidst all this setup for the next arc in the story, most of the immediate issues were neatly resolved, the most prominent being Nagisa’s voiceless situation. However, I did feel that the way they went about it was less than ideal, as having her meet her parents seemed to undo all that her arc stood for, the sacrifices made for her sake, even if she did come out of it with a stronger conviction. Also, where was poor Megu during the entire episode!? Being the one character to get the shaft this badly, I do hope that she emerges as part of the main cast in the continuation, since her character has been one of the most interesting and underused in the story.
While being somewhat unclear, the episode also tries to pin down what exactly the “idol spirit” means here, which is roughly explained as the desire to give a good, worthy performance despite adversity. It’s a simple and perhaps trite answer, yes, but as a beginning to what could potentially be an exploration of the concept in the continuation, it feels like a good starting point.
ED3: 「虹の列車」 (Niji no Ressha) by AKB48
Sell-out. Product tie-in. Cash cow. The definition of “Pandering”. There’s a lot of animosity attached to AKB0048, and to be frank, I too approached a good portion of the show as a cynic rather than as an ideal, unbiased watcher. There was a great temptation for the team to just kick back and let the brand name take up responsibilities for the sales, while delivering the bare minimums of a serviceable story built purely on the hijinks of idols, interspersed with inserts of fan-favorite songs, and I think everyone saw that possibility, even expected it. The AKB brand is huge in Japan, big enough that it seemed like it was possible for the anime to sell decently so long as it pandered to fans at the lowest common denominator. It certainly didn’t help these impressions that the designs were so very reminiscent of various moé archetypes, to the extent of characters having hearts symbols emblazoned into their very beings. For me personally, I wasn’t a fan of the group, and in fact used to regard them as another one of the music industry’s endlessly generic pop groups. I was thus, prior to its airing, firmly in the camp that dismissed the show.
So in retrospect, it’s amusing how well the show has won me over across its run, to the point where I am absolutely giddy at the confirmed prospects of a continuation. At its most basic, AKB0048 was pure popcorn entertainment, encapsulated by the hijinks of the 00 girls as they go about their idol lives. And I guess the reason I found it so much more enjoyable than it rightly should’ve been was mainly because it wasn’t just your typical slice-of-idol-life stuff, as equal parts were fueled by the spectacle of the 00 vs DES conflict – which saw some of the most enjoyably silly fights I’ve had the chance to see – and also by the animated replications of AKB48’s performances, jazzed up with Kawamori and Satelight’s signature flair for combining brilliant visuals and music together.
And for sure, I was having fun, god forbid the DES stop me from that! But make no mistake; this superfluous entertainment isn’t all there is to AKB0048. The bulk of the show is driven by its character drama of the struggles idols face as part of 00, and this was executed with a genuine sincerity one would not have probably expected out of the show. I was truly surprised by the amount of depth certain characters gained over the course of the show, without the developments feeling particularly contrived at all. For all that’s been said about the voice acting cast which mostly comprised of industry newbies handpicked from AKB48’s repertoire of performers, they have carried the anime along surprising well, breathing some truly believable emotions into the characters we see and hitting the right notes on some of the show’s more sentimental moments. But what I thought was particularly smart about the writing was that most of the drama is framed in developments that relates to the Japanese pop industry. What would’ve otherwise been an above-average psychological drama on a group of girls wanting to be idols transforms itself into a meta-documentary of the realities in the idol business, touching on the themes of adversity, competition and the personal hardships faced by every individual in such a career.
It’s hard to believe that this came from Kawamori and Okada, two of the industry’s most eccentric personalities, because it some ways, AKB0048 represents one of their most straight-laced efforts in the drama and developments. Their trademark is obvious, with the tendency for loud exaggerations to prove their points, but the characters at least represent some of the most down-to-earth in term of emotional development, without the wild tangents we’re so used to seeing from them. Plus, despite the outlandish nature of the setting, the drama can at times feel surprisingly grounded.
I guess, in some ways, AKB0048 is still very much a work that panders to the AKB fan. There is a sense of the immense respect paid to AKB48 throughout the anime, and while admirable, very little is given to the questioning of this pervasive, religious-like worship of the group and their anime counterpart. Here’s the thing though; I’ve never quite seen fanservice being used in such a smart, context-aware manner. AKB0048 draws inspiration from the history and the workings of the group for their meta-documentary, and through the smokes and mirrors of its premise, actually gives us audience a look into the nature of one of the most prolific groups of the Japanese music industry. For fans, there is the gratification of seeing the numerous, smartly placed references to the group and its members as the show places the idol group on its pedestals. Meanwhile non-fans like me get the exposé on the life of a prospective idol in the business like I’ve mentioned above, and I can’t quite argue with the way it was executed here. I’d especially like to make a note of the Takamina-Kanata arc, my favorite in the entire show, as the stand out which brilliantly captured the paradoxical nature of competition within the group, playing on the contrast between teamwork and individual success while integrating this idea into an extremely sentimental character arc for two aforementioned idols.
Now the show isn’t without its flaws of course, the most glaring one being that there will come a point in the show where your tolerance of its sillier moments will be tested. It is a fine line between silly entertaining and just plain silly that the show treads, as I’ve complained about before in my earlier posts, most prominently in episode 5 and 10. How well you can take the wackiness so inherent to the nature of the show is thus something that will undoubtedly affect your overall enjoyment. One of my other gripes with the show was the way DES was persistently portrayed as a central antagonist when they are in fact mainly used as a plot device to further along the character drama, and they never could develop past that role. While it certainly became the least of my concerns the further I got into the series, their inconsistent portrayal, from ruthlessly efficient to clumsily incompetent, remains one of the weakest links in AKB0048.
Bottomline here? AKB0048 is a work that proves it can entertain while giving a relatively thought-provoking look at the harshness of the idol business, as well as the regimental nature of the AKB48 group. Kudos to Kawamori and Okada, who made this anime far greater than what it might’ve been, and gave me what has been one of the biggest surprises of the spring season.
Folks, it’s been a one hell of a season – to me, the best in years – and AKB0048 wraps it up in glorious fashion. I immensely enjoyed watching this show, and you can bet that I’ll be there for the continuation in 2013. Onwards to next stage!