As anyone in the industry knows, if you want to attract female fans the most surefire method is two (it must be two, not one or three) exclamation points in your title. And I don’t think there’s much question that Love Stage!! is going to do quite well with that demographic, but will it have any crossover appeal with male anime fans who aren’t into shounen-ai – and should it? I think the answer to the second question is certainly “yes”, but I’m not going to hazard a guess about the first.
As I’ve said many times about anime, always trust the pedigree. And for me, there was one big reason why this show was on my radar (that’s the second J.C. Staff series today I’ve said that about) – Kasai Kenichi. Best known for Hachimitsu to Clover and Nodame Cantabile, Kasai-sensei has a long and varied track record of outstanding work (including the first season of Major). I admit my initial reaction when I saw him attached to this series was a bit of a shocked one, but I realize that’s my own prejudice talking. I’d be lying if I said I’d likely have previewed Love Stage (as with Haikyuu, I refuse to type out the damn exclamation points every time) if Kasai wasn’t on-board, but that it was as good as it was is no surprise given that he is.
This show is definitely a good old-fashioned shounen-ai, which is a term we don’t hear much these days. I think the best definition is something like a shoujo romance except with two male leads, and that’s very much the feel of this premiere. Though many hostile viewers will group Love Stage and any shounen-ai under the BL umbrella, make no mistake, those terms are far from interchangeable. I haven’t read this manga – I know it’s very well-reviewed – but I don’t believe this is a BL series in the sense of centering around sex between guys. It’s a romantic comedy with same-sex subtext (and not necessarily just same-sex, or subtext) and while that’s surely going to be enough to turn a lot of viewers off, it shouldn’t be. While shounen-ai isn’t a genre I tend to favor, good comedy and good romance is a good thing in any form.
So far, the focus in Love Stage is on the comedy side of the equation. The premiere works because it’s just plain funny, very over-the-top and absurd. The family at the center of Love Stage is a group of old-school showbiz eccentrics, starting with 18 year-old otaku college student Sena Izumi (Yonaga Tsubasa). He’s shy and totally disinterested in following his family into the business, much to their dismay – he’r rather obsess over his favorite anime/manga “Magical Girl LalaLulu” and chase his dream of becoming a mangaka (his horrific art skills are a wellspring of many laughs in the episode, including the “LalaLulu” mangaka telling him the best part of his black-and-white sketch was “the coloring”). Father Seiya (Okiayu Ryotarou) is a former stage actor now president of his own agency; mother Nagisa (Oohara Sayaka) is a successful actor and a classic spoiled drama queen. And big brother Shougo (DAIGO) is the vocalist of the boffo rock band Crusherz. Rounding out the household is manager Sagara Rei (Hirakawa Daisuke), blunt, responsible, and seemingly quite paternal towards Izumi.
All of those actors camp it up big-time, and that’s exactly what’s required by the script – this is a story that isn’t aiming for realism. Things get even sillier when an offer to film a 10th Anniversary follow-up to a commercial the family starred in arrives – one which found the 8 year-old Izumi posing as a girl and apparently winning the heart of co-star Ichijou Ryouma, now a successful model and actor played by Eguchi Takuya. His condition to appear is that all of the original cast reassemble, which is fine for Nagisa as she’s desperate to be reunited with Ichijou, but not so much with Izumi – who’d rather die than appear on camera again (after wetting himself the first time, who can blame him?). To get him to agree Rei has Shougo bribe him with an alarm clock featuring a personalized greeting from the star of “LalaLulu”. And with Ichijou’s help Izumi even manages once again to make it through the shooting – though the final moment in the commercial comes as something of a shock.
In a sense, I suppose the first episode is the easy part – at least as it applies to appealing to people who don’t normally follow this sort of series. The one real warning bell in the premiere for me is the sense that Love Stage could come off as a bit cruel towards Izumi. I really don’t want to see him portrayed mainly as a helpless innocent being manipulated – romantically and otherwise – by the cannier and more forceful people all around him, which would get old pretty fast. That may not happen, though, and apart from that worry there’s not too much else here not to like – apart from the elephant in the room, which will of course drive off a good chunk of potential viewers by default. My hope is that Love Stage will continue to focus mostly on the comedy side of the equation, because it’s that which it proves most adept at in the premiere.