It's a highly successful multimedia franchise, currently perhaps second only to Aikatsu in the anime idol sub-genre. It was co-developed by ASCII Media Works' Dengeki G's magazine, music label Lantis and anime studio Sunrise and it includes short stories, music videos and CDs, live stage performances by the voice cast, anime and manga. Here I'm just reviewing the anime's first season.
It's nice. I liked it. The finale's a bit dubious, but it's a funny, charming show.
Otonokizaka High School is going to close. Japan's declining birthrate means it doesn't have enough applicants. However its current students are quite fond of it, so one of them (Honoka) sets out on a mission to boost its popularity, attract lots of applicants in the coming year's intake and single-handedly keep it open.
Honoka is an airhead. She's a comedy character. She has her own understanding of, for instance, the phrase "60% chance of rain". She's so scatterbrained, in fact, that this becomes a major source of drama towards the end of the season, when she develops self-awareness and becomes insecure about her many flaws. However she's also a very pushy airhead, with a genius for dragging people along with her through sheer force of personality. She's lovely. This anime tells the story of Honoka's idol group (called "Muse" and written with the Greek letter "mu"), formed in the teeth of opposition from all sides and improbably succeeding in its goals.
This isn't a groundbreaking show, but it does what it does very well. Firstly, I like the fact that it's school-based instead of being just an idol show. These girls aren't professionals. They're just schoolgirls and they've got a concrete reason for what they're doing. They're not devoting their professional lives to being vapid pop bimbos, but instead are trying to keep their school open. As it happens, that's more reminiscent of sports anime. That's a good reason. I can get behind that.
Secondly, the show isn't chickening out with its obstacles. It's still a light-hearted, fluffy exercise in making the audience feel good for 25 minutes, but that doesn't mean it's planning on making things easy for its heroines. The first and most obvious one is their own personalities. Honoka's organisational skills aren't the best, to put it mildly, and her friends can be airheaded too. Honoka signs up herself and her two best friends to put on a live concert without yet having practiced any singing or dancing. It takes them quite some time to realise that it might help to choose a song. I laughed at Umi's tearful reaction in ep.9. "I'm so moved. Someone with sense has finally joined!"
These comedic character flaws get serious towards the end of the series, while in addition the girls have to deal with a sceptical headmaster and a downright hostile student council president. Triumphs can turn to disaster. Disagreements and fallings-out aren't just superficial. Going into the last episode, it genuinely looked as if everything had fallen apart.
Thirdly, the girls themselves are all likeable, distinctive and well used. The show has a large cast, with an eventual line-up of nine girls (as is shown throughout in the opening and closing credits). That's a lot, but they don't blur into each other except perhaps a little with the two first years, Rin and Hanayo. Even they have very clear character traits, though. It's just that they're junior members and followers rather than leaders, so they're not pulling scenes very often. Of the others, though, we always know exactly who's who, what their purpose in the story is and what their problems are. Umi is shy, serious-minded and (astonishingly for a Japanese anime schoolgirl) self-conscious about skirt length. Even she admits that being best friends with Honoka is for her a lifelong trial. She's the songwriter. Of the others...
Honoka is the group's brilliant idiot leader, obviously. Eli is the group's choreographer and implacable foe, while Nozomi is her matronly and benevolently manipulative best friend. (Nozomi also likes threatening to squeeze other people's boobs.) Kotori is the costume designer and, surprisingly, the one with the most story upheavals, despite apparently being an easy-going nice girl who always agrees with Honoka. Rin is the tomboy and Hanayo is her idol-maniac best friend. Maki is the stand-offish one who finds it almost painful to unbend and relax with the others. She's the group's composer, but her super-rich family expect her to abandon frivolities like music so that one day she can take over the running of a hospital.
And finally there's Nico. Oooooh, Nico. She's brilliant. A total spaz and probably a nightmare to work with, but a joy to watch. She's a third-year with the maturity of a newborn kitten, she's modelled herself after all the most cringeworthy traits of idols. She acts like a celebrity, e.g. wearing a mask and sunglasses to go outside. She tries to be super-cutesy and artery-blockingly sweet, while actually being an irritable brat. She's a know-all who knows nothing. She's not prominent enough to be the star of this ensemble show, but she consistently delivers goofy laughs and boosts the entertainment levels.
It's a pleasant, very enjoyable show. However it's not without quirks.
The main one is the message of the finale. We've had the third years talking about how they have to start thinking about their futures and one of the characters about to go off and do something life-changing for the sake of her intended career. What happens in the end, though? They ditch all that to sing and dance in their school club! Um. Was that really best? The season's theme could uncharitably be described as "be selfish and short-sighted, in order to do anything you want". (A nicer and more accurate way of putting it would be "acknowledge your own feelings".) Admittedly that finale saves the girls from a a painful non-farewell, but that doesn't mean they're necessarily doing the right thing. Oh, and the school's headmistress had earlier laid down a highly questionable judgement that the show never calls her out on.
A much lesser bugbear is Eli being quarter-Russian, which the show flags up by giving her an occasional catchphrase of "khorosho". This means "good". I've forgotten almost all my Russian, but at least I remember that. Anyway, Eli will say "khorosho" to describe any situation at all, whether good, bad or annoying. She's not being ironic. It's just blind word-brandishing. You get the impression that she could see her family decapitated in front of her and the scriptwriters would still make her say "khorosho".
Oh, and the OVA episode is odd. I quite like the way it goes off on its own mad tangent, but this involves multiple dream sequences, rubber reality and one of the girls regressing to infancy. It then ends with a big song and dance number. The end. Eh?
To be honest, I'd heard how successful this show has been and so went in half-expecting to be blown away. That was a mistake. I wouldn't say it's anything extraordinary, really. It's just thoroughly well done, nice and likeable. I'm fond of all the characters and I thought the show did a strong, solid job of telling a reasonably familiar story. I'll definitely be continuing with season two.