Rin Shibuya has no interest in idols. The aloof daughter of a florist, she refuses the Producer’s business card four times during The Idolmaster Cinderella Girls premiere episode, though it’s insinuated she rejects him many more times offscreen as well. Circumstances, of course, force her to accept the card – we wouldn’t have a TV show otherwise – and in his awkward recruitment pitch, the Producer fumbles out a pointed question.
More specifically, he asks Rin if she has anything in her life that she’s passionate about, something “that moves her.” Unable to give the Producer a concrete reply, it’s not until she meets the newly-signed Uzuki Shimamura that Rin develops a curiosity for what the fulfilling life could look like; an excitement prophesied in Uzuki’s radiant smile that convinces Rin to give idol work a chance. The Producer frames it as a trial run, an opportunity for her to see something she’s never seen before.
I think the Cinderella Girls’ writers intended Rin to operate as a self-insert in these scenes for the skeptical audience members new to the idol genre; or, at least, I found a parallel between Rin’s recruitment and my own early forays into a category I had previously yet to explore. As many of my followers on twitter already know, I spent a good portion of the previous year immersing myself in a genre I’d mostly overlooked for the past six years – or so I thought. As it turns out, I actually watched my first idol anime back in the spring of 2015. I can say this with reasonable certainty because I remember watching the second and third seasons of the program in question as they aired that season. Cinderella Girls was airing at the time, coincidentally, but that’s not the show that I’m talking about.
I might be the only person you know who faithfully watched Miss Monochrome, but at the time it never quite registered in my head as a bona fide idol show. It’s a parody, a comedy short that follows the plucky android idol, Miss Monochrome herself, through her offbeat rise to stardom after her adopted maid, Mana, runs off with her inheritance (a whopping 19.3 billion yen, a number the show loves to recall as a running gag). Miss Monochrome is such an upbeat, naive robot that she never quite comprehends the situation, but this is her charm and where the show draws its punchlines. Her best friend, after all, is a goddamn Roomba.
I bring up Miss Monochrome for two reasons. The first is that I want to foreground just how garrulous this post is going to get, and what better way to do so than to reminisce on that silly idol short series I watched nearly half a decade ago? More importantly, I mention Miss Monochrome to highlight the surprising diversity this genre of anime has to offer. Everyone has heard of Love Live and Idolmaster – and I will cover such prominent entries shortly – but there’s room enough for parody, action, science fiction, and much much more. The rest of this post is a semi-chronological reflection of my year spent tackling the big names in the genre, yes, but I also hope to convince you through these scribbles to go and see for yourself what all idol anime can do. If you have reservations about the genre, I ask you to put them to the side for the moment, buckle up, and, as you follow me along, see if we can’t find something that catches your interest. I’m nowhere near as persuasive as Uzuki, but I’ll try to at least be as enthusiastic! Many of the things we come to love dearly tend to be total surprises, things we never expected to fall for. Six years ago, I never thought I’d be into idol anime, much less anime, so I think we ought to keep ourselves open to new horizons.
The Idolmaster (2011)
- Favorite Ship: Makoto x Yukiho
- Favorite Idols: Chihaya Kisaragi, Miki Hoshi, Yayoi Takatsuki
- Favorite Song: “Yakusoku” (ep. 20)
Live tweets: https://twitter.com/DanielsansLions/status/963691567402844160
The Idolmaster and I got off to a pitiful start. Between the perturbingly voyeuristic “documentary” premiere episode and the blatant sexual harassment of Chihaya and Haruka in episode four, I very nearly dropped Idolmaster before it’d gotten its legs under itself. The Idolmaster stands out in my mind as the most inconsistent of the idol shows I watched in 2018, but those opening episodes were mediocre at their best and foul at their worst. It didn’t help that the Producer – ostensibly the series’ protagonist and around whom the perspective is grounded – lacked any magnetism or definable internal arc as a character, a problem that continued throughout the show’s running. By the end of episode five, I was confused and left wondering if cutesy gags were all that the genre had to offer.
Luckily, episode six marked a turnaround. Aside from effectively laying the groundwork for character drama in future episodes, episode six offered a knockout example of the genre’s trademark spectacle: the performance scene. It’s hard to qualify exactly what it is about these scenes that captivates me since I’m not particularly a dance enthusiast or a lover of the kind of bubblegum pop compositions that (unfairly?) define the idol soundscape; if anything, it’s probably due to my admiration for the animation itself, and what these performances mean in the context of the narratives they take place in (a quick glance at my favorite song for each anime listed here supports this latter assertion). Yukiho’s performance scene in episode three left me ambivalent, but Ryuuguu Komachi’s debut concert ignited something. In the episode, it’s fitting that 765’s group watch of the premiere of “Smoky Thrill” inspires the rest of the cast to reach new heights; it’s hard to not be energized. This is what idol anime can do. The following episodes went on to deliver superb character-focused chapters, succeeding at both heartfelt family drama in Yayoi’s episode and silly hijinks in Azusa’s. The Idolmaster had hit its stride and I was having fun with it.
What sets The Idolmaster apart from its competition, in my mind, has everything to do with the direction and creative control of Atsushi Nishigori, who co-directed and co-wrote the series composition with Noriko Takao. Takao, known for her directorial and storyboarding work on many Kyoto Animation productions, would later tackle Cinderella Girls without Nishigori – but we’ll come back to that later. As for Nishigori, last year’s Darling in the Franxx solidified my impression of him as a stunning animator and a mediocre writer, which allowed me to better understand my issues with The Idolmaster. It’s also worth mentioning here that Touko Machida scripted those off-putting first four episodes, so who knows? I might be crucifying the wrong person here.
The Idolmaster, to me, frolics like no other idol show, and that’s where Nishigori’s directorial talents cut through the distractions. You can see it in Makoto’s smeary action scenes in episode eight, in Yayoi and Iori’s cute pouts, the smug faces of Miki, Ami, and Mami as they put the Producer through the ringer; and, of course, you can find it in the lively character animation and choreography of its unmatched concert scenes. These characters charm, and much of that is due to Nishigori’s touch on the designs. Of all the idol shows I watched last year, The Idolmaster still has my favorite all-around cast despite the fact that there’s less interaction between the idols themselves than in the other idol shows I watched (this is Love Live’s strength, which I’ll talk about in a minute). And if The Idolmaster is inconsistent, then it benefits from reaching some of the highest of highs; in fact, episode twenty of the series remains my favorite episode out of all the idol shows I watched last year, and Chihaya Kisaragi still crests the top of my cross-franchise idol rankings board. The TV series’ finale arc gives a non-answer to the problems it raises concerning Haruka’s internal development – her fear of change, as well as her role as a leader – but the movie comes behind the TV finale and addresses that evasion with a smile-inducing two-hour romp. Overall, The Idolmaster is a series that suffers from missteps and questionable priorities, but it never fails at being enjoyable. If you’re looking for something popcorn, then The Idolmaster may be your best start.
Love Live! School Idol Project (2013)
- Favorite Idols: Nozomi Tojo, Nico Yazawa, Honoka Kousaka
- Favorite Ship: Eli x Nozomi
- Favorite Song: “Snow Halation” (Season two, ep. 9)
Live Tweets: https://twitter.com/DanielsansLions/status/972795683400028161
Love Live is an anime about wearing your heart on your sleeve and trying your damnedest to move mountains, to enact miracles. When I reflect on Love Live, what stirs me the most is its unflinching belief, from beginning to end, in the joy of active gratitude: Love Live asks you to recognize your family, whether found or blood, and to love them unconditionally by becoming nothing less than your best self. It’s easily one of the more ridiculous idol shows I came across last year – the comedy of Love Live is so goofy you can’t help but smirk, and the premise is something you kinda just have to roll with at times – but it’s also one of the most sincere shows I’ve ever watched. Ever. μ’s is, as explicitly stated, “a story achieved together,” and it’s this faith in community that makes Love Live transcendent.
In addition to its emotional and thematic backbone, Love Live succeeds at presenting a narrative with thrust – from the opening scenes of the premiere, we’re thrown into the problem at hand, which is the closing of the school, and – more importantly – we’re made to understand why that matters to our characters. Honoka, Umi, and Kotori joke that the only thing Otonokizaka High has going for it as a school is its “history,” which isn’t very attractive to prospective students who understandably care more about test scores, commute time, and extracurricular activities than some vague sense of shared memories – but Love Live does embrace the value of lived spaces, and it recognizes the undefinable ties we all have with place. When Honoka returns home, she finds her mother flipping through a yearbook reminiscing on her own time at Otonokizaka, back when Mrs. Kousaka held the honor of serving as student council president. She leaves Honoka with the album, and, as Honoka combs through images of her mother’s and the students’ of yesteryear’s youth set against the backdrop of familiar hallways and auditoriums, both Honoka and the audience feel the full weight of what the school’s closure means, what is being lost. It’s a scene that never fails to move me, and these sentiments only increase throughout the show as the girls of μ bond and imprint their own history onto the school. By the end of the series, you too will get rheumy when you hear “Daisuki, banzai.”
But to return to the matter of Love Live’s pacing – Jukki Hanada’s full talents as a writer display themselves in the show’s brisk gags, poignant character moments, and straightforward plotting driven by charismatic and likable personalities. Hanada is a seasoned industry veteran, and you may be familiar with his work on last year’s A Place Further Than the Universe, but his resume extends to K-On, Hibike Euphonium, Princess Jellyfish, Steins;Gate, Bloom Into You, Garden of Sinners, etc. My nitpicks with Love Live are few but echo worn criticisms that the show’s detractors readily point out: there are moments throughout the show where suspension of disbelief is strained, especially in the second season. There’s the matter of uneven characterization (an issue that plagues just about every other anime on this list, to be frank) along with a plentitude of subtext worth discoursing over (Nozomi, I love you, but please stop sexually assaulting your friends). Otherwise, Love Live is a scriptwriter’s aspiration penned by one of the best in the business: the strengths I mentioned earlier make the anime extremely binge-able.
I’d be remiss here to omit Love Live’s visual merits. The anime gets flak for its inclusion of computer-generated character models in its performance scenes, but I think these complaints are unfair. Since Land of the Lustrous, I’ve had to re-evaluate my attitude toward CG anime; upon rewatching many of Love Live’s concert scenes, I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for their efficiency and detail. While it’s true that the CG and 2D portions blend roughly, the motion itself is clean and captivating. The character animation itself is praiseworthy; in fact, when Love Live skips the CG in its smaller performance scenes (such as A-RISE’s in the second season’s third episode, or the trio performance segments in the movie) Love Live can even compete with Idolmaster’s fluid concert scenes. Aside from its performance set pieces, Love Live boasts competent direction from Takahiko Kyogoku, whose snappy storyboards I missed when I followed up with Love Live Sunshine. Many of Love Live’s gags are visual and simply would not have succeeded without the sharpness exemplified in the series’ direction. Lastly, if you’re into shipping, Love Live has plenty of content you’re going to like; this goes for Sunshine too (maybe more so, actually). Of course, you don’t have to engage with it on that level if you don’t want to.
You may hear some folks call Love Live “anime High School Musical”; I honestly don’t think it’s a bad comparison, and it may be an indicator of your own potential affinity to the series. If you can revel in Love Live’s perky jokes and indulge in its often-treacly drama, you will love this anime. I really enjoyed Love Live. I fell in love with it from the outset and I keep finding reasons to love it. If it’s not the outright best show on this list, it’s for damn sure the most uplifting.
Aikatsu Friends! (2018)
- Favorite Idols: Mio Minato, Maika Chouno
- Favorite Ship: None
- Favorite Song: “Believe it!” (ep. 2)
I didn’t stick with Aikatsu Friends! for too long, but even so, I could recognize the charm that makes Aikatsu one of the most enduring idol franchises in the medium. Aikatsu is a kids’ show, and it’s full of the same earnestness you’ll find in similar kids’ shows such as Hugtto! Precure. You can expect a good deal of wholesomeness, bright pastels, and character designs sprung straight out of a party-sized tub of Neapolitan ice cream.
What I like about Aikatsu Friends! is that, in the world of the story, there’s a huge weight placed on a potential idol’s choice of performing partner. Naturally, an idol unit – known as a “Friends Unit” – needs enough chemistry between its members to maintain a unified brand while also highlighting the merits of either individual. Most of the first cour revolves around the courtship of the main duo, Aine Yuuki and Mio Minato. Mio, an experienced and well-respected cool-type idol, meets Aine by chance and develops an interest in her extraverted personality. Mio asks Aine to form a unit with her, and from there, Aine does her best to learn as much as she can at her idol academy (it’s a kids show, there can be an idol high school, mmkay?) meeting all kinds of creators, coordinators, and performers as she works to become an artist worthy of pairing with Mio. Meanwhile, Mio herself picks up a few life lessons from Aine’s cheery outlook. If you like stories about people who push each other to improve and don’t mind a bit of confetti-splattered decadence, give Aikatsu Friends a try!
Love Live! Sunshine!! (2016)
- Favorite Idols: Yoshiko Tsushima (Yohane!), Mari Ohara, Riko Sakurauchi
- Favorite Ship: Riko x Yohane
- Favorite Song: “Awaken the Power” (Season two, ep. 9)
Live tweets: https://twitter.com/DanielsansLions/status/977121029007998976
If the original Love Live is a show about creating miracles, then Love Live Sunshine is an anime about finding value in the absence of miracles. Much of the first season refers to the original Love Live in both playful and structural ways, but the sum total of that indulgence is that, especially in the first season, Sunshine hardly forms its own identity except in strong character moments – I’m thinking specifically of Riko’s steady path to overcoming her anxieties, as well as Mari and Kanan’s reunion near the end of the first season. Unfortunately, Chika still comes across to me as a boring protagonist. She’s “the normal monster,” which is exactly the kind of lead needed for a sequel to Love Live considering Honoka’s cosmic personality, who quite literally commands the weather in one episode; the issue is that Chika’s character arc is much too vague and suspended for most of the series. Chika desires a rich life. She’s the uninteresting, friendly daughter of an innkeeper, and she loves school idols. Self-actualization is a relatable and wonderful subject to build a character around, but Chika lacks a definition of what that looks like. She muses to herself as she and her friends conquer the Love Live competition, “Ah, I wonder if this is the feeling I’m after,” and never realizes the obvious until the end of the show, when her mom and the audience jointly sigh, “Baka Chika.” It doesn’t give her room to struggle – aside from trying to master a cartwheel double-backflip sequence in one episode – or allow her to continually renegotiate her idea of self-fulfillment over the course of the series. Chika’s internal conflict lacks the grounding or psychological urgency that makes similar protagonists (such as Tatami Galaxy’s nameless hero) much more compelling. Luckily, other Aquors members pick up the slack, and season two fleshes out the rest of its cast with character focus episodes that bring out the best of Love Live’s and Jukki Hanada’s trademark blend of tomfoolery and heartfelt emotion. Ruby’s multi-episode arc near the tail end of season two especially impressed me; by paralleling her and Dia’s relationship as siblings to that of Leah and Sarah’s, Ruby transforms from a relatively flat uwu doll into an active, empathetic protagonist.
Season two, on the whole, emerges from the original Love Live’s shadow with a singular plot decision that veers the trajectory of the entire series, a plot twist I regard as one of the best I’ve encountered in a TV anime sequel. If you’re anywhere adjacent to the Love Live Sunshine fandom online, you probably already know what I’m talking about, but I’ll keep my lips sealed if you haven’t. It’s a creative choice that brings Sunshine a little closer to earth than its predecessor, a choice that emphasizes the carpe diem, pro-community themes that both unite and separate Sunshine from the original series. It’s a move that saves the show, in my opinion, because it permits the story to center itself on the things that matter most to our characters. We get to watch these beautiful scenes of assertion: declarations of love, proclamations of unity and thanksgiving. The Love Live competition itself becomes secondary to the drama of nine girls attempting to close the door on the happiest days of their lives yet.
On a more technical note, Sunshine takes the original series’ CG performance sections and pushes them forward to the next step. The character models offend slightly less in this iteration, so if the only thing this comes down to is the effect of the TV show on your physical eyeballs, then Sunshine may be your best entry into the Love Live franchise. I’ll also add that, since Sunshine rips so much of its plot straight from the original, whichever you watch second will come across diluted. Sunshine is a serviceable story about fantastic characters and livable wisdom in my opinion, but I did watch the original iteration first. Most fans of the series I know on twitter will contend that Sunshine is the better; take my criticisms with a grain of salt.
Key the Metal Idol (1994)
IdolsCharacters: Sakura Kuriyagawa, Hikaru Tsurugi
- Favorite Ship: None
- Favorite Song: “In the Night” by Sario Kijima (OP)
When android Tokiko Mima (nicknamed “Key”) loses her grandfather and creator, Dr. Murao Mima, she loses the only person in the world who knows how to build and install her replacement batteries. Faced with the prospect of draining out like an iPhone with a broken port, the doctor leaves her with a breadcrumb of hope: if she can make thirty-thousand friends before her power expires, she’ll be able to become “a real girl.” Key leaves the doctor’s secluded mountain home and heads for the city, where she encounters a conspiracy in the making that involves the show business, spirit goo, covert military experiments, cults, and unmanned robot super soldiers. Key also encounters her former childhood friend, Sakura, who takes the doll-like Key under her wing.
If you think the premise above sounds weird, whoo boy – you haven’t even scratched the surface. I think Key is a great entry point into idol and idol-adjacent anime for the old-head crowd. Key’s influence can be found in works such as Serial Experiments Lain, Boogiepop Phantom, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Ghost in the Shell, although I don’t quite think it matches any of those aforementioned works in terms of depth or cogency. Fans of the 90s sci-fi/mystery aesthetic will certainly appreciate Key’s direction though.
What Key offers that makes it unique in the context of idol shows, aside from the obvious genre classification, is its scathing critique of the entertainment industry. Without giving too much away, there are downright brutal scenes of how young women are taken advantage of – and subsequently thrown away – by exploitative men at every level. The corporatists use their pop idols as lab rats; lauded producer Hikaru Tsurugi evokes characters like J.K Simmons’ nightmare jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (Whiplash 2014) in his pursuit of artistic perfection; in one scene, low-level “talent scouts” attempt to coerce Key – whose robotic form explicitly resembles a 13-year-old’s body – into a pornographic photo shoot (she is thankfully saved when Sakura’s timely pizza delivery run turns rescue operation). Perfect Blue is the only other work I can think of that compares to Key in its pessimistic depiction of the idol industry, though Perfect Blue’s thematic scope doesn’t also include a ham-fisted condemnation of the military-industrial complex, nor does its climax involve as many teleological ramifications. By the way – if you haven’t seen Perfect Blue, you should do that before watching anything else on this list.
Personally, I couldn’t get too invested in Key the Metal Idol, and I’d sometimes catch myself dozing off when I should have been on the edge of my seat. In my defense, those final two episodes are each two-hour-long features, the penultimate one serving as the most grueling exposition-dump I’ve ever sat through. Yes, you read that correctly. Episode fourteen is a two-hour info-dump necessary to retroactively understand the events of the previous 13 episodes. That’s how patient you’ll have to be when watching this series.
Now, I don’t want anyone to be put off by my rough experience with Key – there’s a lot to dissect in this show, and it will reward those who study it closely. Alternatively, as much as Key wants to be impenetrable, it’s also just kinda cool as fuck to look at. You can, like me, passively watch it and still walk away satisfied thanks to its striking atmosphere; just don’t expect to keep up with the plot or reap anything significant if you go about it that way.
One last note on Key: the OP and ED straight groove.
The Idolmaster Cinderella Girls (2015)
- Favorite Idols: Rin Shibuya, Nao Kamiya, Mika Jougasaki
- Favorite Ship: None
- Favorite Song: “Trancing Pulse” (ep. 22)
I want to begin my discussion of Cinderella Girls with its music – not its insert songs, but its background music. When comparing idol shows, we often talk about the characters, the performances, ships, animation, the plot, the presence or absence of CG, etc; overshadowed by the insert songs performed by the “idols” themselves, the BGM rarely finds its way into discussions. Cinderella Girls‘ background music distinguishes itself though, and I can’t imagine the restrained direction of the anime succeeding without it. A far cry from the weepy, theatrical fanfare of other idol anime BGMs, the Cinderella Girls soundtrack reflects our characters’ timorous first steps into the world of the stage. The sound is subdued, full of trepidation, and echoes these princesses’ modest beginnings. These melodies embody the fragile allure of Cinderella’s glass slipper: wishes are obtainable, but they’re also fleeting – the clock could strike midnight at any time. We’re not presented with nobility, but rather a pumpkin patch of ordinary girls wearing the dress as best they can.
The overt metaphor aside, this is the magic of Cinderella Girls. It’s telling that the show opens not with a performance by the main troupe, but with obscured snapshots of our hopeful leads admiring the dazzling, established members of 346 Productions as they give their concert. When compared to these other branch divisions of 346, it seems like a mistake that our story orbits around the unpolished upstarts we’re formally introduced to in the second episode rather than the older idols who are far more commanding, but that’s exactly the intention. Cinderella Girls is an underdog story about normal girls in a normal world becoming stars. It’s a classic rise to the top plotline that seems almost mundane compared to the premises of the other shows on this list, but the beauty of Cinderella Girls is that it truly does believe in its humility; by embracing the quiet struggle of the meek, its climaxes soar even higher.
Cinderella Girls reminds me of Shirobako in that, while it never provides a completely accurate depiction, it does at least attempt to portray both the joys and realities of working in an ultra-competitive, specialized, and demanding entertainment industry. Cinderella Girls takes a grounded approach without indulging in the critical pessimism of the industry that you see in works like Key the Metal Idol or Perfect Blue. Rather than a predatory fan or a manipulative producer, the villain of Cinderella Girls is a new director who values the bottom line and brand prestige above all else, running opposite the Producer’s emphasis on individuality and passion. There’s a sense of realism, but it’s only there for immersion, which brings me to think that Cinderella Girls, in its traditional dramatic presentation, is palatable not just to folks who are new to idol anime, but also folks new to anime, period.
Remember earlier when I brought up Noriko Takao? Well let’s also not fail to mention Megumi Kuono, whose cuts make up a healthy portion of the highlights from this anime. Visually, I think Cinderella Girls tops this list. The original Idolmaster can match its character animation, but not quite the sum of its background art, lighting, and methodical direction. Cinderella Girls is possibly the most KyoAni anime I’ve encountered that’s not produced by Kyoto Animation. There’s even a heavy reliance on lower body shots as a framing device throughout the show thanks to the glass slipper motif. Yamada fans, I know you all watched that idol parody episode in Beyond the Boundary – Cinderella Girls is your entrance to the universe of idols!
One thing Cinderella Girls does that I appreciate is that it addresses nearly every structural issue I took with the original Idolmaster series, core differences that can be summed up by a comparison of the two shows’ Producers. The Idolmaster’s Producer lacks an internal conflict; his development is entirely external and can be envisioned as a positive graph where X is time spent learning about and understanding the 765 girls’ personalities, talents, and hangups and Y is the commercial success of 765 Productions. The Producer is hardly a character, but rather a dressed-up avatar based on the player/character in the original game. Cinderella Girls does not make this mistake. 346’s Producer is not the single determiner of every idol’s character arc, nor does he monopolize screen time or even dominate the scenes that he participates in. Cinderella Girls understands who its audience came to see, and allows the girls themselves to push each other into their personal revelations; the Producer is but one of four/five actors involved in the central narrative of the anime. Most importantly, THIS PRODUCER HAS A CHARACTER ARC IN BOTH SEASONS. It’s wonderful stuff when characters are, well, written. Not even well-written, just written at all. And this Producer is gap moe defined. He’s a lumbering giant with paltry social skills, and though he’s a hard worker he often has trouble communicating on the same level with his artists – this is comically and viscerally portrayed in both his physical height and inadequate speech. One of my favorite scenes in the series comes when The Producer finally does, both metaphorically and literally, come down to the girls’ level. In the second season, with his communication issues behind him, the Producer struggles with his own professional shortcomings as his artistic ideals clash with the new Director’s, often putting the girls both inside and outside his division in tough spots. Admittedly, his role isn’t as gripping in the second season as it is in the first, but he’s still treated as a character instead of a self-insert.
Cinderella Girls stands above the rest of the entries on this list as my favorite idol show. I’m also inclined to believe it’s the best idol show on this list, and those two signifiers rarely coincide in my appraisals. I will confess that I gravitate more toward subtle, precise dramas – josei anime, iyashikei, the standard KyoAni fare. If you’re anything like me, you will eat up Cinderella Girls. It’s an anime about celebrating “soot-covered dreams,” about realizing one’s passion in a capricious, capitalist world. If you’ve ever felt yourself at a crossroads as a creator – or a professional in any field! – Cinderella Girls will put a spell on you just the same as it did me.
Zombie Land Saga (2018)
- Favorite Idols: Saki Nikaido, Sakura Minamoto, Ai Mizuno
- Favorite Ship: Ai Mizuno x Junko Konno
- Favorite Song: “To My Dearest” (ep. 8)
Not everybody gets a second chance in life – some idols have to die to get one. After a truck collision kills Sakura Minamoto on impact, not only does she wake up a member of the horde, but she’s drafted into a startup idol group with a cohort of raised female celebrities and tasked with the revitalization of the hicks and sticks Saga prefecture. Her mad-doctor-producer seems belligerent, and her undead colleagues can only groan and limp aimlessly. What’s a dead gal to do with this situation?
As I mentioned before, idol parodies are more common than you’d think, but ZLS does so much more with the concept than just bust your gut with iconic rap battles and necromantic puns. After a riotous string of expository episodes, ZLS settles into the traditional idol series structure and begins to deliver on potent character drama, managing to do so without losing its irreverent tone. A popular criticism of the show I heard back while it was airing was, in fact, that its absurdity often gets in the way of its sincerity; to be honest though, I think that’s a boring way to engage with both this anime and life in general. The ridiculous and the meaningful go hand in hand all the time; for example, when I told my grandmother I would be moving away for grad school, she burst into tears in the most soap-opera fashion; neither of us could help but laugh at her cartoonish cry-attack, but that doesn’t mean that the full degree of her sorrow evaporated in the laughter. I know this because I couldn’t help but tear up as well. And this is the core appeal of ZLS beyond its ludicrous hook: life is brutal and fickle and finite, and even so, we sometimes have opportunities to reach out and become greater than ourselves, to beat back the ghosts of the past and make a play out of the bizarre hand we’ve been dealt. We don’t always get the chance to settle our accounts before we pass, but that’s the fantasy of ZLS. If you can act – even if you’re walking dead – you have the potential to change.
Speaking more to the bones and guts of the show, ZLS refuses to rot in place. Every episode brings something fresh to the table, some new bleeding heart or side-splitting gag, and even if it doesn’t quite maintain its momentum after the stunts it pulls in its opening episodes, the strength of its writing makes up for the drop-off. Like many other idol shows on my list, ZLS uses CG in some of its performance scenes, though only the first one in the third episode feels uncanny. The rest of the animation is nothing special: competent, although its character designs did secure a nomination in the Crunchyroll Awards.
I think Zombie Land Saga has the widest appeal of anything on this list, which is good because I want you suckers to fall for a stellar gateway idol anime, and ZLS could very well be the one. It will rope you in with laughter, then, next thing you realize, you’ll be crying over an absolute unit of a dad as his daughter who died of dysphoria sings him a farewell song. ZLS is more than just an exceptional idol show: it was one of the best comedies of 2018 and deserves recognition as a classic in both genres. If you want a taste of idol anime but aren’t quite ready to sink your teeth in, take a bite out of ZLS and see if it turns you.
And that’s the end of the list! I probably could have added several more idol-adjacent anime from last year, such as Uma Musume, but I wanted to keep this reflection as on-target as possible. I hope you were able to find something eye-catching about one of the shows I wrote on; there’s a lot of idol anime out there and I haven’t even scratched the surface! Look forward to me cry-tweeting about Side M or Aikatsu in the future.
To return to Rin and the opening paragraphs of the article though: I encourage you to lean into discomfort and break out of your normal range. Try something new, and you might find your world brightening up in front of your very eyes.