Normally I don't review series I haven't watched to the end, yet I've seen only one episode of this one and even that wasn't from start to finish. Admittedly it was on a national holiday and so probably an extended edition with extra anime segments, but even so I'm not speaking from a position of great strength here. However there isn't a snowball's chance in hell of me watching all the episodes I missed, so this will have to do.
There's no convenient shorthand for describing this show to Westerners. It's supposedly a children's cooking show, but that's a fairly loose theme. I don't remember seeing many, y'know, recipes. Most of the time, this is a studio-bound TV show with a ten-year-old presenter (Haruka Fukuhara) talking straight to camera. She sings, she dances and she demonstrates basic food preparation. That's it. She has to carry the whole show, with no guests or co-stars unless you count the occasional waste of space who thinks he's a DJ and in no way resembles a human being. He's male, adult and would have improved the show by dying a violent bloody death. Him aside, though, we're here to spend time with Fukuhara and despite the show's best efforts I was impressed with her.
Fukuhara's problem is that she's been told to look at the camera and smile. This she does. All the time. She's cute, but she's also projecting no personality at all. This is a particular shame because the impression I got was of one of those earnestly adorable Japanese pre-pubescent girls who's almost certainly of the highest intelligence and even at her age could have been doing a proper presenting job. Even here she's still better than some of the bimbos (of either gender) that infest Japan's entertainment industry, repeatedly getting work as actors, singers and presenters despite the fact that they're to all intents and purposes mannequins. Haruka Fukuhara's nice. I enjoyed watching her. However she's clearly been given minimal direction in a production-line television environment that could reasonably be described as silly and vapid. There's one costume she wears that's the anime sugar-rush version of a Victorian ballgown. "Look, it's a dancing cake decoration," is what I said to Mum. It's not even human-shaped, instead turning Fukuhara into a cone. As far as I can see, it's been dreamed up by anime designers and thus looks daft on a live human. It's similar to the phenomenon of strange hair colours in anime (which work) giving rise to coloured wigs on actors (which don't).
That's half the show. The other half is anime, or more precisely the adventures of Fukuhara and her kitchen exploits. No, really.
It's hard to know where to begin with the problems here. Even their rather good title sequence ended up driving me nuts, since it lasts ninety seconds and it got played in full every time the show gave us a mini-episode. I think my eyes were bleeding after the third iteration. Tomoko learned its song's words. Nonetheless it's also the only thing I liked about these anime segments, which are far too short to allow more than perfunctory stabs at storytelling and seem entirely formulaic in their cast, concept and realisation. Fukuhara's parents are slightly queasifying, with a father who comes across almost like a boyfriend and a mother who's less mature than the children. There's a flamboyantly stupid male boss, who's basically yet another anime clone of Hanagata from Saber Marionette J. There's a bitch queen character, whom I haven't met but appears in the title sequence and stamps herself as yet another stereotype in less than a second of dialogue-free screen time.
Oddly enough, anime-Fukuhara has a flying invisible friend. It's blue, it's about the size of a guinea pig and I neither know nor care what it is, but its mission is to help Fukuhara prepare meals for her parents that you'd think had come from professional caterers. More precisely, it's invisible at least to Fukuhara's parents and by extension I'm guessing everyone except Fukuhara herself. The audience normally sees it too, but we're capable of getting point-of-view shots from other characters in which a bowl seems to be hanging in mid-air and mixing itself.
What I like least about all this is the fact that anime-Fukuhara doesn't resemble the real thing. It could as easily have been meant to be me. The face looks like that of every other super-cute kiddie anime character, with eyes half the size of her head and so on. It was Tomoko who first suggested that this might have been intended as an animated Fukuhara, on the grounds that she was dressed as the same aforementioned cake decoration. By this point we'd already watched two entire anime mini-episodes, by the way. Admittedly it's Fukuhara doing the voice, but even so I think I'd have been better-disposed towards the anime segments if they'd included even a token attempt at reminding us of the person this was supposed to be.
The character's name is either Main or Mine, by the way, depending on how you're choosing to transliterate the original Japanese. I've plumped for the latter since that's the one which will get pronounced correctly by a greater number of English speakers, but there's still a part of me that wants to be a purist and only refer to the series as "Cookin Idol Ai! Mai! Main!"
This is an almost worthless show, but watchable in a TV wallpaper kind of way. I like Haruka Fukuhara, although I don't even want to think about the otaku who will be even now writing rape-fantasy fanfic about her animated alter ego. It's also hard to object to the show's educational remit. It is being broadcast on NHK-Educational, after all. (NHK is publically funded and could be thought of as Japan's equivalent of the BBC.) It's a bit like Moegaku, but with cooking instead of languages. I'm not convinced that the show achieves much actual education, but at least cooking seems a more reasonable goal than trying to teach pre-teens English, French, Spanish, Korean and Chinese all in the same show.
FOOTNOTE: that was what I wrote on the most limited exposure to the source material in 2009. It was for instance possible that I'd misjudged the anime segments and that watching them all in sequence would reveal an original, emotionally brave story arc with unexpected depth. However two years later on a subsequent trip to Japan I found the show was not only still going, but had now become a franchise with merchandising like Cooking Idol tissues in grocery stores. Fukuhara is older and more confident, now clearly the show's host rather than a cute object at which a camera is being pointed, although she still hasn't got the hang yet of making a scripted reaction seem spontaneous. After seeing that, I wouldn't be surprised if the show kept running for decades.