This was one I really hadn’t planned to subject myself to, because I have a dislike for anything idol-related that goes much deeper than tastes in entertainment. But there are a few reasons why I gave it a shot. The most obvious is that there’s so little else of interest on this schedule. Then there’s the fact that a few normally lucid people I know recommended it (I can’t dismiss that factor – that’s what pushed me into White Album 2, though the buzz would have gotten me there sooner or later anyway).
Lastly, and probably most importantly, is the fact that I consider Yamamoto Yutaka to be a very talented director and it’s not like we get much from him. Does he have a big mouth? Yes, I wish he’d STFU about saving the anime industry and all the other silly things he says. But that doesn’t make every criticism he makes wrong, and it doesn’t deny his skills as a director. He has an interesting vision and a good sense of comic timing (though he doesn’t always display them), and just because I know it would piss so many people off I kind of root for him to have a big success again (I suppose it’s been since Kannagi that he’s had a show that didn’t tank).
To backtrack, that wasn’t exactly lastly – there’s also the fact that I had some hope that this might finally be the series that truly attacks the idol industry for the corrupt, exploitative and venal system that it is. I don’t like the music, sure – but that’s no big deal. What I hate about the idol industry is the way it perpetuates an unrealistic and distasteful stereotype of girls, exploits the girls who participate in it and makes millionaires (in Dollar value, not Yen) out of so many of the men (yes, and women) who do the exploiting. The rise of the idol craze is directly linked to the rise in anime that share its skewed perspective on girls, and it’s been a terrible thing for anime, popular music, and Japanese culture generally.
That makes the premiere (I refer here to the “Shichi-nin” OVA as well as the first TV episode) of Wake Up, Girls a kind of good news, bad news scenario. The bad news is that there’s nothing based on what we’ve seen so far to indicate that this is truly the long-overdue indictment of the industry I hoped it might be. It’s somewhat restrained and humanistic, but this is not something you can have both ways. If Yamamoto-sensei chooses to exploit the idol boom to try and help his struggling studio, Ordet, the fact that he does it with kid gloves is no free pass – you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem. Ultimately, Wake Up, Girls, by its own choice, is part of the problem.
The good news becomes sort of moot in that light, at least for me, but for the record WUG is actually a pretty good show. It features a mostly unknown cast and that, along with the inconsistent animation gives it a bit of a home movie quality. I don’t mind that, though, because it has a certain charm to it – especially considering it’s a story or a thrown-together idol group (the titular “Wake Up, Girls!”) in the Touhoku capital of Sendai that isn’t all especially brilliant or polished. The show also has an old-fashioned look that viewers of Yamamoto’s work will be quite familiar with, the 90’s style character designs moving in-front of naturalist backgrounds by the superb Art Director Tanaka Takanori. I find the combination quite pleasing visually – the whole enterprise falls in the naturalistic and unpolished vein, in a good way.
Make no mistake, this is nothing exceptional – certainly nothing that would justify further promoting a poisonous industry that exploits both its performers and its customers. But it is a pretty decent piece of character-driven anime, and by the standards of this season practically a gem. The OVA is clearly better than the first episode of the TV series, and there are some instances where the pacing feels a bit jerky. In addition it’s plagued by the same bane as many series with large casts, in that most of them fail to make enough of an impression to stand out as individuals. But Wake Up, Girls is, at the very least, not a cookie-cutter light-novel adaptation and it’s directed with far more style and wit (not many anime would work in both the Haiyore! Nyaruko-san OP and Citizen Kane) than most of its competitors this season. It’s just too bad it doesn’t seem to have the stomach to take on its subject in the way I suspect its director would like to, if he thought he could get away with it.