I admire this show. I thought it was great. That's not a universal opinion, alas, but I think other people are sometimes bashing the qualities I like about it.
It's another high school music anime, but with a twist. Firstly, it's shoujo, i.e. for girls. You can tell by the art style, in which the big-eyed cast look like insects. You don't get too many shoujo anime these days, since they're not the most profitable target demographic. It's thus nice to see this show getting made at all, although obviously the important thing is how good it is.
It's based around romance, obviously. There's a girl and two guys. Which one will she choose? Well, that brings us to the thing I found most interesting about this show, i.e. its lead character. She's bracing. Another character calls her a monster in ep.12 and he's not even wrong. She could hardly be further away from the usual demure, sensitive shoujo heroine who dithers beautifully and can't decide what to do. Her name's Nino Arisugawa (aka. Alice) and she's got all the delicacy of a six-lane motorway pile-up. She doesn't listen to you. (That's not just my opinion. People shout at her about it.) She's tall, she's got a deep, hoarse voice and she often wears a half-mask like the Invisible Man. Sometimes her blunt insensitivity would even make me laugh. The boy she loves can deliver a brutal emotional kick in the stomach that you'd expect to have anyone rolling on the floor, coughing up blood... but Nino will be cheerful and even bizarrely happy!
I also like Saori Hayami's performance in the role. She's a little startling. She sounds tough. She's not snarling like a gangster or anything, but I really got a sense that this was a girl with a fierce, slightly dense self-will and a rougher strength than most shoujo heroines. She's like one of those ocean tankers that takes fifty miles to slow down or change course.
You could even argue that she's being coded as less feminine than one of the boys in her life, Yuzu. Admittedly Yuzu's temper and manner flag him clearly (and unattractively) as male, but he's also small to a degree that makes him self-conscious, cross-dresses as part of his band's stage act, is nicknamed "Eyelashes" by Momo and gets teased about a possible boys' love relationship in ep.8. On the other hand, though, Momo's a cold, rude dick who'll repeatedly shove away Nino as hurtfully as possible. (This just gets Nino going after him harder.)
This all stems from when they were children. Yuzu and Momo both had a close relationship with Nino, but both then got taken away from her. All have powerful memories of this that still drive (and twist) them today. Nino's been searching for years.
This is a rough story, not in the sense of being badly written (it's not) but in the sense of being a bit uncomfortable to watch. The three main characters all tell lies about who they love, but it's not the usual forehead-slapping romantic contrivance. It feels true to what these people are like, and slightly hurtful. There's a sense of danger... no, not of danger, but of characters who are nearer the edge than usual. The show's always close to startling you.
I love how the anime did the music. Nino's singing was always going to be its biggest challenge, because she's supposed to have an extraordinary voice that you can't stop listening to. That's vital for the story. That's easy to do in the original manga, obviously, but how should a real voice actor try to do that? Answer: Hayami isn't actually singing. She screeches, shrieks and sounds about as musical as the kitchen table getting pushed over. Nino/Alice sings for specific, powerful reasons, you see, and her feelings are so strong that she's capable of going berserk. This really comes across. It could have looked silly and rubbish in the actual episodes, but it's not. The Alice/Nino we see can be almost terrifying. I loved it. I can't remember another music-based anime that gives this much dramatic force to the performances and even the rehearsals. I'm not a great fan of the "let's make a band!" anime genre, to be honest, although I've seen lots of them... but this impressed me.
It's a cliche in this genre to talk about putting your feelings into your music, or for your lyrics to come straight from the heart. Here, for once, that's really true. Everyone's messed up in the head, frankly. Momo and Yuzu can't stop writing songs for Nino to sing, even when she's not there, they hate themselves for it and/or they're treating her like dirt. Nino's singing to reach Momo. They're still driven by childhood promises and people they've never stopped loving and thinking about, even though they haven't seen them for six years. It's amazing. What's driving Nino is so unpredictable that you'll be genuinely afraid that big relationship events might wreck her singing.
I'm pretty sure I've seen people complain that this anime has bad singing. Well... yes, exactly. (However I'm not going to lift a finger to defend the CGI shots in the live performance scenes.)
UPDATE IN 2021: I was rewatching this show after having recently seen Chihayafuru and was struck by the similarities between them. Both have a tall, dappy female protagonist (Nino/Chihaya) who's a genius at (singing/karuta) but is so focused on this that she's effectively a complete idiot. Social skills: minimal. Romantic awareness: zero. Cluelessness about their best friend being in love with them: bwahahahaha. (They also have similar bodies and hairstyles.) Both also have two close male childhood friends, one of whom (Yuzu/Taichi) is nicknamed Matsuge ("eyelashes") and works alongside our heroine all the time in their high school, while the glasses-wearing other (Momo/Arata) is by far the most successful member of the love triangle but had to move away years ago and doesn't hang out with them.
There are also huge differences between the shows, of course. The boys' personalities and motivations are completely different, while Chihayafuru has no equivalent of Mio. The shows still reminded me of each other, though, plus of course they're both excellent.
I shouldn't overstate my praise. This is still a shoujo anime about a girl, two boys and making music in bands. It's not Reservoir Dogs. It's quite funny and I'd happily recommend it to ordinary people. However it also had enough of an edge to make me slightly hesitant about putting on the next episode. The story's got spikes. You sort of assume that people are going to get hurt, while two of our three main characters have scary mothers. This manga also got a live-action movie and I'm quite excited to see that. It probably won't be as good as this anime, though.