Thursday 25 June 2015

Anime REVIEW: Wish Upon the Pleiades

Wish Upon the Pleiades

Not so long ago Gainax were among the kings of the anime world. Boasting the likes of Gunbuster, Nadia, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gurren Lagann and more, you weren't likely to find an anime fan who wasn't familiar with at least one thing on their rather impressive resume. And if they weren't, then they were likely to have seen something influenced by the studio's distinct sense of spectacle. However in recent years the once legendary studio isn't quite what it used to be, with many of it's staff having moved elsewhere - be it Hideaki Anno's Studio Khara, Hiroyuki Imaishi's Studio Trigger or another studio. Since then Gainax's offerings have been slim, and what they have put out has either been met to rather mixed reception or been less than stellar. But in 2015 Gainax returned to the scene with a brand new original series, expanded from a series of shorts produced in 2011 in association with automaker Subaru. With a series of Youtube shorts, a 12-episode series and a movie project in the works, is Wish Upon the Pleiades (Houkago no Pleiades) exactly what the studio needed to return to glory?

About the extent of car product placement there is

Wish Upon the Pleiades follows Subaru, a stargazing high school girl who one day stumbles into a magical garden while trying to get into her school's university. After meeting a mysterious boy named Minato there, Subaru leaves only to stumble across another magic room - this time containing a group of magical girls and a small squishy alien. Among these magical girls is Aoi, Subaru's childhood friend who grew apart from her due to the reasons neither seem to be able to agree upon. The alien introduces himself as the Pleiadian, and explains that he has gathered these girls to help him retrieve fragments of his spaceship's engine. Seeing potential in Subaru, she joins the group in attempting the collect the fragments that have scattered across the cosmos.

However the girls soon find out they aren't the only ones looking for the fragments, as they cross path with a mysterious boy with powers of his very own. As the girls' friendships grow during their adventures together, they learn more about space, their magical powers and the various potentials each of them hold across parallel worlds.

The Pleiadian
So squishy~

As mentioned earlier, Wish Upon the Pleiades started life in 2011 as a four-part series of Youtube shorts, with each episode around five to seven minutes in length. As you can expect this meant these shorts were largely style over substance, offering pleasing visuals but simply lacking the runtime for any meaningful story. That said, the makings of a good plot were certainly there and it's no surprise to see many of the ideas from these shorts coming to fruition in the full-length series. The first episode itself expands upon the Subaru's first encounters with Minato, the Pleidian and the gang of other girls (Aoi, Itsuki, Hikaru and Nanako), before the episodes eventually progress into brand new adventures and plot strands. So while watching the original web shorts is by no means essential to the enjoyment or understanding of Wish Upon the Pleiades, it is interesting to see how far the idea has progressed since 2011.

Though many of Gainax's big names have left the studio to pursue other ventures, there are still a few familiar names kicking around on Wish Upon the Pleiades - with many of them having played their part on some of the studio's more well-known titles. But even with that in mind Wish Upon the Pleiades lacks a certain something that makes it quite obviously Gainax, and it's this lack of identity that makes the show feel like that it could have come out of any anime studio. Visually there's actually little to complain about, with the show hitting all the right notes for a bright and colourful magical girl series. But magical girls is a flooded genre as it is, and without this distinct trademark there isn't much to help it stand out from the crowd no matter how good it looks.

Unless there's some sort of magic involved, this is not a secret identity

A similar thing could be said for the story, which takes a bit too long to get off the ground to leave a truly remarkable note. While the cast of girls is strong (especially together), most of them only have one episode dedicated to them. The story is mainly about Subaru and the mysterious surrounding Minato, with her relationship with Aoi also playing something of a key part in things (however his actually feels more fleshed out in the shorts than it does here). When romance comes into play it's always expected that one character is going to receive more fleshing out than the others, but to do so in a show that plays up its team dynamic so well is a huge shame. Minato's background provides intrigue, but all the reveals are crammed into the last three episodes rather than neatly sprinkled throughout the course of the whole thing. Which makes the last few episodes all the more rewarding for those who have sat through everything so far, but the earlier ones a bit forgettable in the grand scheme of things.

However there are a few traces of the old Gainax still kicking around in this show, and surprisingly it's the handling of space travel and sci-fi concepts that made Gunbuster so engaging rather than the rather distinct type of fanservice the studio is notoriously known for. Though it may have the air of a simple item-quest magical girl series, Wish Upon the Pleiades pays heavy attention to the idea of parallel universes and limitless potential, with plenty of astrophysics thrown in for good measure and even an episode focusing around my favourite element of space travel - time dilation. Throw in an ending that's actually somewhat bittersweet and you have a series that in retrospect may not sound that detached from it's peers after all.

The Pleiadian Spaceship
Yeah, that's a Gainax spaceship alright

If Wish Upon the Pleiades has proved anything it's that there is definitely still light in Gainax yet, but it still has a ways to go to rekindle that spark that made its older shows so unforgettable. Wish Upon the Pleiades has all the makings of a good series - likeable characters, good art, an interesting plot, but fails to provide anything more than a thrill while watching. If the success of a series can be measured on how much you think about it or how it leaves you wanting more, then Pleiades wouldn't be considered that much of a success at all. Nevertheless it's an enjoyable magical girl adventure, and hopefully a promising sign that Gainax will be able to build from the ground up to be something great once again.

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