The school idol phenomenon is fertile ground for anime. If you’re not familiar with the genre, it’s a simple enough idea: some school girls get together to form a group of singers, who overcome various obstacles and hardships to become a famous pop group. I’m just starting to dip my toes into the genre with the fabulous Love Live!, and I like what I see, but ironically the first series I’ve completed (until I can watch the second season) is a parody of the genre, where the girls are all dead.
It’s a quirky idea, and as fun as it sounds. You know you are in for something very different when the first episode starts with a girl who is all excited about life, heading out for school, only to get killed in slow motion by a passing truck. Her subsequent awakening and her horror at encountering zombies and realising she is dead as well is a visual treat, but after that the shocks and scares are all dispensed with, and this becomes an inspirational comedy series.
Over the course of the 12 episodes we explore the back stories of most of the zombie girls who form the idol group (in case you’re wondering, it’s called Franchouchou, and they go undetected as zombies by covering their scars with makeup). This is the big strength of the series, because it’s a vehicle to examining all kinds of real-life issues. One of the girls, for example, was a former idol who was killed on stage by lightening, and faces a similar danger at one of their concerts, which becomes a way of examining fears and worries, and overcoming them. One of the girls was a member of a gang, her way of life got her killed, and now the daughter of her best friend is heading down the same path in life. The big climax of the series is a great storyline in which one of the girls loses her recent memory and regains her memories of her past, only to realise that everything she has tried to do in life has been a terrible failure. How can she overcome that feeling of being somehow cursed, and will she bring the other girls down with her?
The best storyline of the series is one I can’t discuss without a major spoiler, so you have been warned. One of the best characters is Lily Hoshikawa, the smallest and youngest-looking of the girls. When it’s her turn to have her back story examined, that happens because her dad shows up. Imagine the shock of seeing a dead child apparently alive again, years after she died, apparently unchanged. But there’s a massive revelation: Lily died of a heart attack due to an enormous amount of distress she was experiencing. You see, Lily was born a boy, and the horror of entering puberty was more than her heart could stand. It’s not just that her life choices had obviously been accepted happily by her father and actually celebrated by encouraging her to be an apparently female actress that is such an inspirational aspect of all this, it’s also the reaction of the other girls in Franchouchou when they find out. The moment is dispensed with in seconds, with a quick comment to the effect of nobody caring what’s in her pants, and then everybody moves on and never mentions it again. It’s just not even remotely an issue for anyone. I adore the series for that.
My favourite character is there almost entirely for comedy: Tae Yamada, the only member of the group who never regains her human consciousness and remains zombified. She is absolutely hilarious and you really have to try to keep an eye on the background of shots, because she’s always doing something funny.
There are issues with this series that detracted from the enjoyment, for me. The girls’ producer, and the man who resurrected the girls, is occasionally funny but more often annoying, and the same thing applies to the disturbingly bullying attitude he tends to take towards the girls. I love the occasional moments where one of them takes violent revenge on him, because he’s a fairly unpleasant character most of the time. The dub actors sing English versions of the songs, and there should be some kind of a law against that, so I had to switch back and forth between dub and sub whenever there was singing, including the opening and closing songs (the end credits song is absolutely beautiful). The worst thing about this series is the use of CGI. It doesn’t generally bother me, and I get that it’s really the only way to achieve the fluid movement necessary for dance sequences, but it looks cheap, as if we are switching to old computer game animation for the performances, and there’s something disturbingly soulless about those computerised anime eyes. If you look at Love! Live!, which I have been watching at the same time, you’ll find the same kind of switch to CGI for the songs, but done much more effectively. Presumably this is simply a matter of how much money is thrown at those scenes, so I hope things improve for the second season, after the success of the first. Obviously it goes without saying that this is cosmetic, and if there’s one thing this series teaches us it’s that what’s beneath the surface is the most important thing. The girls in Franchouchou have determination, courage, bravery and camaraderie, and every member of the group is important. How fabulous that a strong candidate for the best ever school idol anime is the one with a group of zombies. That level of quirky inventiveness sums up the appeal of anime rather well. RP