Streams: HIDIVE on Wednesdays
Debut Rating: 5 (of 5)
EDIT: Also see here for an official music video linked to the debut, though it should be watched after watching the debut since it is spoilery.
Wow. I read the first volume of the source manga a week before, so I knew all of the twists and turns that were coming in this movie-length debut and knew that the whole thing would adapt well to anime form. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for how much of a punch the content would have, or how effective and involved its themes would come across in this format. It gets my highest recommendation, though that comes with a caveat: if you decide to check it out, you must commit to watching the whole 82 minutes, and preferably in one sitting. Drop out early on this one based on any assumptions you might make and you are likely to completely misjudge what it actually is.
That’s because the first volume of the source manga (which this debut adapts in its entirety) is, in some senses, one of the biggest bait-and-switches TV series anime has ever seen, and it takes nearly all of that 82 minutes to accomplish that. All of the advertising for the series has promoted it as the story of up-and-coming idol Ai Hoshino (center above), and the first episode certainly is that. It shows how she rises from small-time to getting acting gigs to becoming a star big enough to earn her group a dome performance. . . all while secretly raising twins she gave birth to at age 16, while she was on medical leave. (She gets away with this by them being passed off as the children of her manager and his wife.) Meanwhile, a rural doctor who’s a fan of hers becomes her attending physician and vows to make sure she safely gives birth when she declares that she plans to keep the kids in the hope of experiencing the family she never had. But he gets stabbed to death by an obsessive fan of Ai’s as she goes into labor and then reincarnates as one of her twins. And he’s not the only one, either.
That’s the first massive twist, and it isn’t the last. I’m revealing it here because it’s crucial to understanding anything else going on here and because the first few minutes of the movie does everything it can to hint that the story is going in that direction. From that point on, Ai’s kids – Aquamarine and Ruby – mostly take center stage, though Ai still has her feature moments, too. This is also the point where the story irrevocably establishes that it isn’t actually an idol series even if it is about an idol. While there are some light-hearted moments, the underlying structure is a more serious, analytical look at the cold practicalities behind the entertainment industry. I don’t mean that in the seedy sense, either, although something seedy clearly happened at some point; Ai’s pregnancy was not a virgin conception, after all. It considers realities like how little most performers earn, how hard it can be for group idols to break out solo, what kinds of actors productions have and what purposes they play, the generally cynical attitudes at the foundation of it all, and so forth, all while offering salient points like how delivering what the director really wants ultimately trumps actually acting well.
But for all of the events that transpire in this content, and the emotion gut-punch that hits at one certain point, the thematic elements here strike just as strongly. The biting recurring theme of the show is that, at its core, the idol industry (and, by extrapolation, entertainment in general) is all about lies. The images that idols portray, and the pandering to fans, is all a lie, but most fans instinctively (if not necessarily consciously) accept that and play along with it. So an idol who does not know love is not a problem as long as she can project that she does and get the fans to buy into it. Smartly, the writing also acknowledges that this isn’t foolproof; fans will pick up on it when the image an idol projects, or her smile, does not feel genuine enough. And Ai is the biggest liar of them all, since she’s also lying to cover up the existence of her kids. She’s so wrapped up in lies that, as cheery as she is, she’s afraid to say “I love you” to her kids for fear that she will acknowledge that as being every bit as much of a lie as when she sings lyrics laced with that phrase. And then of course there are the obsessive fans, who become aberrations by being unable to accept the contract of lies on which all of the industry is predicated, and thus cannot be part of the true spirit of the fan/idol interaction.
And that’s why this debut is supremely ironic. The series is about lies, but the direction it initially seems to be going is a lie, too, and that reset hits more than once. Very little pitched about the series in advertisements is any more truthful than the images projected by the idols in it, and while hints about the big late plot twist are dropped much earlier, the real path will not show itself until only a couple of minutes before the credits roll. (But do stick around for a rather emotional epilogue!) Even after the big twist lands, there’s another awaiting about the motivational direction of one of the characters who will be the series’ co-protagonist going forward, and that puts a very, very different spin on a story which may still continue to be about breaking into the entertainment industry. I can safely guarantee that this protagonist’s motivation is quite different than that of any more stereotypical would-be performer.
Aside from its main themes and twists, this debut also did a lot of other thing well. As much as Ai comes across as a genki girl-type, she has distinct desires and motivations as a girl looking to find love in lies, and the nature of the second twin, while very gimmicky, also has its own deeper angles. The production also works the emotional elements well and packs in some sharp, symbolism-rich imagery, such as a recurring theme of a shining star in the sky being equated to Ai. The stars literally in Ai’s eyes may seem cheesy at first, but they also pack meaning as the story progresses and her backstory is explored a bit more. After using a silent soundtrack for much of the movie’s running time, the somber piano numbers deliver hard towards the end.
If there are any slight complaints here, it’s that one key scene runs on a little too long and some of the foundational logic is a bit shaky. But I will forgive that in light of how well the rest of this is done. The rest of the series may or may not hold up, but for my money, this is a superior adaptation of its equivalent source material and on of the strongest debuts in years.
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