At the start of the 21st century, an interplanetary war broke out. Earth's ecosystem was severely damaged, and humanity was forced to flee the planet. On several planets of this new society, things that ‘disturb the heart’ like music and art are forbidden. That is, until AKB0048 is resurrected...
Shoji Kawamori might be the smartest guy in the room. I mean, if you had designed the Valkyries in Macross, helped create the look of the Autobots in Transformers and then come back to resurrect Macross for a new generation, you'd be done creatively, right? So, if a Japanese record company came to you with a bag of cash and said "Turn these singing slaves of ours into something we can market to anime otaku" what would you do? Well, if you had just come off of Macross Frontier, a show where humanity fights against an alien aggressor by using a combination of fighter jets and singing, I imagine your first thought wouldn't have been "Well, how about we make the show about a similar group of young slaves, er- I mean singers, who live in a future where singing and entertainment are banned and the government will imprison you or simply shoot you in the face for being an entertainer." But this is Kawamori's world, we just live in it.
Growing up on the industrial planet Lancastar, the four girls in question: Nagisa, Chieri, Yuka and Orine all witness an illegal concert by AKB0048 held in a quarry. The anti-entertainment forces, the DES, try to stop it and AKB0048 defeat them while continuing the concert. Their minds made up on the spot, the girls decide to try out for the band when they are older. Sure enough, a few years later and they all submit their applications and get into the first round of auditions. From there, they go to the home of the band, Akibastar, and start to train to be members of the band. Now, if this sounds like a mixture of Robin Hood and Star Wars, that's because it is. By making these girls into some sort of mashup between Templar Knights, the Rebel Alliance and American Idol, Kawamori is trying to have his cake and eat it. Trouble is, he succeeds in doing so. The show's unrelenting pace and endless scenes of the girls triumphing over weight issues, bitchy comments from the older members of the trainees and old fashioned stage fright distract you from commenting that the idea of being arrested for being too happy and artistic is just plain silly. Nagisa is one of the worst leads I have ever seen in an anime with her rampant stage jitters and lack of self-confidence but compared to Chieri who swings between wanting the stage all to herself and needing her friends around her, Nagisa is a great lead. The rest of the quartet are nice but have only two or three chances to shine. No, this show is about Nagisa and Chieri, simple as that. We know this because we are told on multiple occasions that the little magical light fairies that surround AKB0048's concert, called Kirara, only truly shine in the presence of an idol. Guess which two trainees one particular Kirara shines brightly around and of the two, which one that Kirara shines more often on? Did I mention that these light fairies normally live in a cave under the band's HQ in a kind of Jedi temple/Dune Freman water trap? Oh, well consider this a blessing because that doesn't scratch the surface of the complexity Kawamori puts into this show.
Any other show, the creators would have just taken the money and run. That is, taken the bundle of cash and then done the least amount of work possible. Not our boy, Kawamori, oh no. He puts in 110% on every episode. From the band members having heart shaped light reflections in their hair to the terraformed domes of Akibastar, Kawamori seems to not want the criticism of the show to include the words "lazy world building". One particular thing of interest is the idea that the band doesn't have a main leader, here called a centre nova, because the last girl who was in the lead "shone" so brightly that she vanished on stage during a concert. I swear to Christ they describe this girl as some kind of female J-Pop version of Anakin Skywalker the level of power she possessed. You catch yourself trying not to say "Was she dissolved by the Midi-chlorians!!!?" So now, Nagisa and Chieri are setting themselves up to be vanished or uplifted or some such nonsense when the series comes to an end. The main villains, the DES, are treated like some cross between the Nazi SS and a World War II Panzer brigade. They turn up to shoot AKB0048 members and arrest concert goers and that's about it really. I don't where their hidden evil lair is, who "they" are or what they do in their spare time when they are not trying to shoot 13 year olds in the face in the name of galactic harmony. What I am trying to get across here is the sheer weight of stuff going in the show that Kawamori has lashed onto this media behemoth trying to put his spin on it all. If we don't get a sing-off with Nagisa and Chieri trying to save the galaxy from those dastardly DES, there's no justice in the world.
You might think I don't like this show and nothing could be further from the truth. I am willfully watching this and halfway through the second season because there is something about the way in which Kawamori ties all of this together and still finds time to Fame style moments in the band's practice room with the girl's choreographer tearing them a new one when they fluff their moves. Ol' Shoji really knows how to pull the wool over your eyes and give you a twenty first century anime version of a magician's trick. He adds things as he goes along like the mics doubling as reverse lightsabers or the band's true leader as being a kind of cave dwelling deity to make you ask what is going on here exactly? With so much going on, the show becomes a fantasy series more than science fiction and gives itself ground rules but not hard facts and science. This way, we can't accuse it of not making sense precisely because we knew going in that it didn't make any sense. Performance wise, the actors all hit their marks. That's all I can really say as the show revolves around them performing on a giant floating platform shaped like a bird while powered mech fire anti-aircraft ammo at them. Whether they hit any kind of emotional timbre with their performances seems superfluous.
It's hard to be impartial when the show is based on the group AKB48, a musical concept I find disturbing at best and terrifying at worst. The band, and I use the word lightly here, is made of around eighty or so girls ranging from thirteen to around the twenty year old mark. They perform in concerts and on albums and singles as a group with roughly 40 or so members (hence the 48 in the name) taking an active part in the songs. The music they create should loosely be described as bubblegum pop. Now, this might all be dandy except the band's producers and record company treat the band like North Korean sweatshop workers, watching their every move in public, handling all their speaking engagements and carefully cultivate a sexually ambiguous image of the band for their target demographic, namely young girls and otaku. Add to this a system of promotion and demotion within the groups based on how they behave which would make Joseph Stalin blush at the level of paranoia and fear the girls go through and you have arrived at the most happy looking, nightmare fuel, manufactured band imaginable. So when I read that some of AKB48's members voiced characters in the show, I take it to mean they were given the choice of aiding the production willingly or electing the way of pain. I like to think when unpleasant things like that crop up, Kawamori takes the Victor Frankenstein approach of not caring where Igor gets the bodies from.
This does cloud my ability to like the show wholeheartedly as I constantly have to remind myself of the people who are fronting the cash for the show. Having said that, if I knew where the cash came from for all of my mass media entertainment I probably wouldn't watch, play or read anything ever again. Whatever you want to say about the origins of the show, the concept in action is only doing what every anime wants to do: tell its story and keep and grow its audience. By adding an almost George Lucas level of complexity to what is nothing more than a record company's tax write off, Kawamori elevates the story from mere anime flotsam to all out fantasy epic. That the show's main creator has managed to do this without dragging him into the quagmire is a testament to his skill as a creator. As I said before: Shoji Kawamori might be the smartest guy in the room.