When it was time to debut, I was both anticipating and dreading the first episode of AKB0048. I usually choose less than a handful of anime series to follow a year, allowing me to be extremely picky about the budget and quality of shows that get put out each season. Despite being a fan of both anime and AKB, I couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to get excited about this project.
I think my thoughts on this venture were in sync with a lot of anime enthusiasts: bewildered, confused, and dismissive. Anything based on real pop stars don’t belong in anime, does it? The announcement of a Justin Bieber: The Animated Series would likely create the same heavy sigh and shaking of the head by the defenders of integrity in Japanese animation. Uncertainty plagued this release since it was first announced, and the premise left people scratching their heads. Now that the first episode is out, I feel that a lot of these issues have been resolved. It’s an AKB anime… that’s not really an AKB anime.
The universe AKB0048 takes place in is sure to turn a few heads. The setting takes place in the future(Stellar Year 0048) where space travel is the norm, and humanity is in the midst of colonizing new planets to call home. The first episode establishes what a normal colony-in-the-making is like— dull, heavily industrial, and stifling.
The most striking aspect of this colony(and I assume others) is that it is largely anti-entertainment, as far as to consider it a felony. The idea of suppressing human qualities certainly calls back to classic science fiction themes, but the series seems light-hearted and no where near as dystopian or dark as the likes of Brave New World or 1984. There have been mentions of activists protesting for entertainment, so it doesn’t seem like a totalitarian regime that crushes free-speech and rules with an iron fist; exposition even revealed that they do allow some limited entertainment. I see it the same way USA views marijuana or graffiti– largely against the law, but with extremely limited exceptions(this is just speculation from what I gathered in the first episode).
How the pop group AKB exists in the future is another curious element of AKB0048, especially if you’re familiar the actual group in its current form. You’ll hear popular names of AKB members that exist today: Mayuyu, Sasshi, and Takamina just to name a few, but they are not quite the same members as you know them. In AKB0048’s universe, member names are now handed down from generation to generation as titles onto successors. I’m assuming they hand names down to research students that they feel embodies the spirit and personality of the graduating members; which explains the changes in voice and appearance of AKB members, despite the familiar names and personalities.
It’s also important to note that in this anti-entertainment world, AKB are now something like freedom fighters, performing rogue, impromptu concerts to unprecedented masses of closet fans. Lest the anti-fun police manage to crash the party, AKB members have melee combat, weapons and giant mech robots(called Guardian Angels) at their arsenal when the situation gets hairy. Is that too weird for you? Get over it man, this isn’t your great-great-great-grandfather’s AKB!
Another aspect I was happy about was that AKB itself was not at the forefront of the story. It instead, focuses on a group of characters who wish to become members. The show’s primary characters are a group of girls who have witnessed an underground AKB concert as young children, and were heavily affected by the performance and spectacle of this “illegal entertainment”. It has been four long years since that concert and the girls, now in junior high school, quietly nurtured their fandom all this time until they received information that AKB is calling for new trainees. They all resolve to audition for AKB0048 and thus sets the stage for what’s the come.
This is a lot of strange information to take in, even for an anime series. The opinion on AKB0048 at this point seems heavily divided, and a lot of it depends on whether or not you accept this premise. It does require leaps in logic to swallow the information given, but I’m on the cautiously optimistic side of the tracks.
Considering the mixed jumble of a premise, the really pleasant surprise was how cohesive and robust the production was. Just like story and characters, a well developed visual style goes a long way. The animation is handled by Satelight, known for titles like the Hellsing OVA, Fairy Tail, and Macross Frontier. At the helm is Kawamori Shoji, the father of Macross and Escaflowne, as well as being on the design team for nearly every other notable mech show out there. A surprising amount of staff seemed to have roots in the Macross series as well. Throw in more animation and art directors with solid pedigrees, and it’s looking like a real tv show.
Lackluster animation isn’t devastating to a series, but it’s enough to kill my buzz. Thankfully that wasn’t the case here. It’s not at all flashy, but the quality is very apparent, and more than sufficient in the opening episode. The backgrounds are meticulously detailed and lavish, more than some high budgeted productions. I mean, these are almost film quality backgrounds. The studio responsible for background art, KEStudio, also worked on Last Exile, Black Rock Shooter and Accel World; all of which were of high quality, and they’ve done especially beautiful work here.
I didn’t even find the CG that detrimental to the overall look because I didn’t think that it completely clashed with the highly detailed environment. In fact, I… I think I like it. When idols are performing on a spaceship platform with giant three-dimensional holograms being projected into the sky, the CG provides a hyperreal, larger-than-life feel and the proper spectacle needed for impact. The editing switches between the drawings and 3D models, bridging the two superficially disparate mediums. There’s room for improvement, but I didn’t think it was a lost cause.
There’s still important things that the show needs to expand on to really let the viewer know what the tone and genre of this series really is. Judging from the first episode, the themes and elements of AKB0048 seem like a bunch of spitfire ideas corked to a board without string to tie it all together. It has mechs and sci fi elements, but it also deals with joining an idol group, among other seemingly scattered ideas. If they somehow manage to merge them successfully and continue with the same level of visual quality throughout, I’d go as far as to say that this is the best AKB side project to date. It’s an oddball show that has yet to show what its true colors are, and sometimes that’s enough to keep my interest level up.
Despite my praises I keep in mind that it’s just the first episode. Where it’s currently set up, literally anything can happen. I’m excited about the potential development of AKB0048, but there’s plenty of areas where it could utterly fail. Also, this isn’t something with very wide appeal. No one asked for this weird-but-strangely-charming mecha science fiction series featuring moe-blobs and pop stars, but if you’re feeling a little experimental, give it a shot. If you could buy into Gurren Lagann, there’s little excuse to bash this one for its unwieldy premise. It’s simply a different world than ours. Different circumstance, different time, and a different AKB.
As an avid follower of (too)many television shows, animated and not, most of them aggressively vie for my attention, often utilizing dramatic gravitas or a sugar-induced rush. The end of AKB0048’s first episode simply sets up for another blank slate of an episode for which I have no tangible expectations for yet. Much like another anime that premiered this season (Tsuritama), it’s one that doesn’t compel you to watch the next installment with a sense of urgency or expectation, but simply invites the adventurous to come along for the ride. It’s not for everyone (I honestly still don’t know if it’s for me), but it’s premieres like this that actually get me excited about what comes next.