Truth be told, it’s hard for me to watch Houkago no Pleiades without a heavy heart, and that’s because of what it isn’t rather than what it is. Among the things it isn’t is terrible – the show is pretty competent on the whole, and not wholly lacking in charm – but it also isn’t anything recognizably Gainax. And as a huge and unrepentant Gainax fanboy resigned to likely never seeing the studio rise to its former heights, that’s a sad thing indeed.
We get at least one pseudo-Gainax show every season these days, it seems – that’s how hugely influential the studio is. Their progeny have largely scattered to the winds, and sometimes their involvement manifests positively (as with Dansai Bunri no Crime Edge or Kyousougiga) though usually, the shows that try and capture the Gainax cool just end up being posers. As for the studio itself, it rarely produces anything new these days and even more rarely anything of interest. Gainax has just opened a new studio in still-recovering Fukushima, and perhaps that signals that they intend to try and become relevant again – but most of the talent is gone, and there’s no sign yet that their long, slow decline will be reversed.
Houkago no Pleiades first surfaced as a thoroughly mediocre ONA a few years ago and then seemed to languish in development hell. Maybe the only way Gainax can get a show produced these days is to abjectly make a commercial like this but even with Subaru’s backing it still took 4 years for the TV series to see the light of day. The premiere is better than the ONA was, but thoroughly unremarkable – a cute girls mahou shoujo with astronomy themes that’s very much by the book. The animation and art is merely tolerable, and to my eye I don’t see anything that would have told me this was a Gainax series if I hadn’t already known – and given that no studio has had such a recognizable visual style (except debatably SHAFT) that’s not a positive turn.
Pleiades is directed by Saeki Shouji, who’s really the last of the greatest generation left at Gainax. He was one of the directors on FLCL, which I consider one of the top anime of all-time in any format, and worked on Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. But it seems that there was “something in the air” at the old Gainax, because take the creative out of that environment (and I include the current Gainax in that “outside” area) and the magic seems to dissipate. I’ve even been generally unimpressed with the post-Gainax work of even stars like Imaishi Hiroyuki. Gainax is just a name now, just a building – and it seems that when the old Gainax disappeared it look most of its mojo with it.
What Houkago no Pleiades is more than anything to me is forgettable – and that’s the last think I ever wanted a Gainax anime to be. It seems thoroughly unexceptional and safe, very much in the industry mainstream. Even if I had a lower anticipation level here than for any Gainax show, that still leaves me gutted. Nothing stands out here – not the music, or the backgrounds, of the story – and the characters apart from the MC Subaru and her bad-boy foil Minato make no impression whatsoever. Can this really be the same director as FLCL – is it even possible to go from a series that daring and fearless and relentlessly creative to something this bland? Houkago no Pleiades is the living proof that it is – and though it certainly isn’t the worst series I’ve watched this season, it’s probably the most disheartening.
Mikagura Gakuen Kumiyoku – 01
Oh, the irony that it should be this series paired up with Pleiades – because Mikagura School Suite is way, way more like a traditional Gainax series than the actual Gainax show is.
These were definitely two flat-out flyer shows for me going into the season, but that’s where the similarity ended. I knew exactly why I was giving Pleiades a shot – it was a Gainax show. With Mikagura I honestly had no firm idea, except that I kind of liked the art and something about it struck me as potentially interesting. Apart from that it could hardly have been more of a mystery – an anime based on a LN about a bunch of Vocaloid characters from Nico Nico Douga? OK, why not – though the last series that came out of a roughly similar background was a bit of a… complete disaster. But thankfully, it’s Dogakobo working on this one, not SHAFT.
That premiere was a trip, that’s for sure. It was a bit of a mess, and the humor was along the lines of quantity over quality. But the theory isn’t completely without merit – if you throw as many darts as this episode tossed, some of them are going to hit the board, and you might get a triple-20 or a bullseye once in a while. It’s also an interesting twist on tropism, because here we have the typical oversexed main character who lusts after every girl enrolling in a new boarding school – except the MC here is a girl. She’s Ichinomiya Eruna (Kimura Juri, fresh off a big splash in Shirobako) and she’s a complete idiot. She doesn’t study, she’s abusive, she’s obsessed with dating sims and just a general pain in the ass. But an amusing one, at least some of the time.
The entire episode is basically a comic opera, with jokes taking the place of sung dialogue – there’s almost no straight material anywhere in the piece. When we get to the school we’re introduced to a bunch of weird characters in machine-gun fashion and crazier and crazier stuff starts to happen – it starts with the “club battles” and builds from there. And there’s a flying cat (Matsuoka Yoshitsugu) that talks (ending all sentences with “-ryui”) which Eruna dubs Bimii – though that’s not his real name – whose presence seems to strike no one at the school as abnormal. Eruna’s focus is on the bijin granddaughter of the chairman, Mikagura Seisa (Oonishi Saori) whose picture on the brochure convinced her to apply in the first place.
I don’t really know what’s behind the weirdness here, or how seriously the show plans to take any of the plot and characters arcs – there’s obviously a magic component, and a very weird battle school dynamic (if you’re not in a club, they starve you, keep you from taking real showers and make you sleep in the hallway). The entertainment value in the premiere comes in the energy and silliness rather than any of that conceptual stuff – indeed, there’s something rather thrown together and light novel-y about the premise. But it does it well – this premiere works as pure entertainment, and it has a very interesting (and yes, Gainax-like) look and style. Iwasaki Tarou is a good director – though he could hardly have picked a bigger change from Isshuukan Friends – and Mikagura Gakuen Kamiyoku is, for a week at least, genuinely interesting and fun.