Show By Rock Review

Cyan Hijirikawa has always regarded herself as nothing more than an ordinary girl in a mediocre world. She has great talent and skill at playing the guitar, but can never muster up the the courage to join her school’s light music club. However, after she decides to play her favourite rhythm game, she is suddenly sucked in and finds herself in a new world called Midi City, where music reigns supreme. Not all music is pure though, and an evil plan is in motion to engulf the whole city in darkness.

Adapted from the iOS and Android rhythm game developed by Geechs in conjunction with Sanrio, Show by Rock is a disappointing effort from the usually great studio Bones, that, whilst far from awful, is underwhelming at best, especially when compared to the studio’s prior work.  

At its heart, Show by Rock is attempting to be a music-based comedy show, and the reason I wasn’t a huge fan of it is because it isn’t particularly great at being either. Comedy, of course, is incredibly subjective, so whilst some may get a kick out of the humour here, it did absolutely nothing for me. I’m not sure I could put a fine point on what made the jokes fall flat, I’m usually quite the fan of physical comedy, which is essentially the show’s bread and butter, but I could count on one hand the amount of times I even so much as smirked, never mind laughed, throughout the 12 episodes, which is a huge sticking point in a comedy anime.

I could probably excuse the lackluster comedy if the series worked well as a pure music series, but even then it’s just plain mediocre. Take away the techno-fantasy setting, and you’ve got a paint-by-numbers plot that seems to lack any real momentum. There’s rarely anything interesting happening story-wise, as a typical episode mostly consists of the bands playing gigs or songwriting, with some melodramatic character stuff thrown in here and there. The whole fantasy element to the plot rears its head on occasion, but mostly stays in the background, as more focus is placed on the whole band thing instead, at least until the last couple of episodes. I feel that some kind of split between band show and action show might have worked better, or at least made it a little bit more interesting and fresh. This is teased a little bit in Episode 1, when we see Cyan defeat a monster with music, but this is something we don’t really see again until over halfway through. The one thing I will say is that I was never really bored at any point, and in a general sense it’s fairly entertaining, but it all just feels rather hollow, the kind of thing you’ll forget almost as soon as you’ve seen it.

As you might expect, the music itself plays a very important role and it’s yet another area that Show by Rock just fails to deliver on. Although it may be a little unfair to compare to other, much more popular shows, the only other music anime I’ve really seen are the KyoAni classic K-On and the global mega-hit Love Live! School Idol Project, which are both series I adore. Of course, there are a multitude of reasons why I love both of those, but the music is definitely part of it, with there being some genuinely great and catchy tracks that have worked their way into my regular music rotation. Even off the top of my head I could hum you some ‘Fuwa Fuwa Time’ or ‘Snow Halation’, but there’s nothing anywhere near that quality in Show by Rock. It’s all just kind of bland and none of it stands out as being something I’d really want to hear again.

One huge misstep in the music department is that Funimation decided to dub over all the music with English voice actors and it doesn’t work at all. Going back to the other shows I mentioned earlier, both of those have really good dubs, and I think part of the reason why they’re good is that they switch to the Japanese voice actors whenever there’s music. It’s fairly obvious that songs written in Japanese are probably going to sound better in the original language, but I guess the folks over at Funimation thought otherwise. Either way, the English lyrics are just plain cringe-inducing, and whilst the voice actresses are pretty good at singing, it just doesn’t sound right. I think a nice option would have been a choice between the English dub with English songs and English dub with Japanese songs, but sadly such an option is lacking.  

The choice to dub over all the songs in English, making it a less than preferable language choice, is made all the more disappointing by the fact that this actually isn’t a bad dub, music aside. Funimation pulled in some pretty great voice actors such as Caitlin Glass (Maki from Love Live!), Monica Rial (Tsubaki from Soul Eater), Alexis Tipton (Musubi from Sekirei) and Vic Mignogna (Edward from Fullmetal Alchemist) to name a few, and they’re all excellent here, with the possible exception of Monica Rial’s occasionally annoyingly high-pitched turn as Moa, so it just makes it all the more sad that the changes to the music hurts what is otherwise a very solid dub.

Despite having some issues with the insert songs performed by the bands, I thought the background soundtrack from composer Yasuharu Yakanashi was actually pretty good, being quite rock-infused, as you might expect from the show’s name. As for the OP, ‘Seishun wa Non-Stop!’,and ED, ‘Have a nice MUSIC!!’, they are both performed by the in-universe band formed by our protagonists, Plasmagica. I have mixed feelings about both because, whilst I generally can’t stand either of them in English, the Japanese versions are actually pretty enjoyable.

As well as music itself, a key element to making a great band anime comes from the band members themselves, but even then, Show by Rock’s cast is really nothing outstanding. Granted, the characters are probably the best thing about this show, perhaps barring the animation, but given I haven’t really had many nice things to say about it up to this point, that isn’t really saying a lot. The band consists of four members, Cyan, Chuchu, Moa and Retoree, and of the four, Chuchu is the only one I’d say is given any kind of depth, which comes in one of the best episodes of the series. The others are pretty fun to watch, but lack any kind of development at all, really. There are small things, such as Retoree wanting to make friends, and doing so via the band, but given she’s part of the band to begin with, and is already friends with the other band members before Cyan joins, it’s kind of moot. Then there’s Moa, who is an alien, a fact that is just about the only thing we learn about her, that genuinely adds nothing to either her character or the plot, and is never mentioned again after around the half-way point. That said, there is still some fun chemistry in the group, but everyone is just kind of forgettable.

If there is one thing I will give the series, it’s that it’s really good looking and well animated. Produced by Bones, who are responsible for hit shows such as Fullmetal Alchemist, Ouran Highschool Host Club and Soul Eater, Show by Rock is really colourful and vibrant, which is the kind of aesthetic that I tend to go for, although it might not be for everyone. An element of the art I instantly fell in love with was with Masaru Oshiro’s character designs, which are pretty unique and incredibly cute. Despite the fact that the animation is probably the strongest part of Show by Rock, even that comes with a caveat, this time being CGI. Now, for once, my complaint isn’t that the CGI looks bad, per se, in fact it’s actually quite high quality, but I don’t think it’s implemented well at all. Instead of blending the CGI with the traditional 2D animation, there are whole sequences rendered entirely in 3D, with a totally different art style to the rest of the series. It’s jarring and gives the show a pretty disjointed feeling, as it often switches back and forth from the CG to the 2D multiple times within an episode. Also, despite the quality of the CG, I actually think the character designs for the 3D sections, which feature anthropomorphic versions of the characters, are just plain ugly. 

Funimation UK’s release of Show by Rock is a no-frills affair, coming with a couple of audio commentaries and nothing more, even missing the usual clean opening and closing.  

In Summary

Whilst it can be fun sometimes, Show by Rock offers about as much depth in its story and characters as a puddle, and is largely just bland, forgettable and, ultimately, disposable.

Title: Show By Rock Season 1
Publisher: Funimation (via Anime Limited)
Genre: Music, Comedy
Studio: Bones
Type: TV Series
Original vintage: 2015
Format: Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack (Blu-Ray version reviewed)
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles and English dub audio
Age rating: 12
Running time: 300 minutes

Score: 5/10

Soul Eater NOT! Complete Series Collection

Soul Eater NOT

With the majority of anime being sorted into either “action” or “slice-of-life” boxes, it’s almost expected for fans to prefer one over the other. However, the clash of steel and tender heart-throbs need not be enemies, for they can share a profound resonance – an idea at the core of Soul Eater NOT.

Rather than being a continuation of Maka Albarn’s quest to transform her partner into the ultimate witch-hunting weapon, our return to the distinctive Death City turns back the clock a bit and heralds the start of a new, more personal journey that is enjoyable to franchise veterans and newcomers alike.

Tsugumi Harudori was an ordinary fourteen year old girl in love with love until her body started changing in ways not covered by the normal remit of puberty, prompting enrolment at a special school some may find familiar – after all, I doubt many girls have to worry about their limbs transforming into blades!

Unlike the more well-known students of Atsushi Ohkubo’s main series, our protagonist’s enrolment at the DWMA isn’t as part of the action-orientated EAT (Especially Advanced Talent) class, but rather, she learns from a curriculum dedicated to controlling her powers for day-to-day living known as NOT (Normally Overcome Target). There, she quickly becomes friends with the upper class Anya Hepburn and the incredibly forgetful Meme Tatane; two meisters who land the girl in love with love in an entirely different triangle to the one she was expecting!

The relationship between weapons and the meisters who wield them has always been an important backbone of the Soul Eater franchise, but is brought to the centre stage as of this spin-off, with partnerships often treated as outright romantic unions. Tsugumi’s struggle with choosing Anya or Meme as her meister consistently feels like a genuine love triangle – with Anya’s adorable jealous pouts being icing on the cake. My favourite example of this mingling of relationships, however, is the budding partnership of Jacqueline O’Lantern Dupre and Kim Diehl.

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Introduced as recurring characters in the original series, the unconventional pair are elevated to the supporting cast of Soul Eater NOT, which delves into the origins of their partnership. The two couldn’t be more mismatched; Jacqueline is a strait-laced, rule-abiding girl who finds herself drawn to Kim, a troublemaking tomboy referred to as “The Witch of the Girls’ Dorm”. Jacqueline’s attempts to get closer to Kim and form a partnership are treated exactly the same as romantic approaches, with strategies like cooking Kim’s favourite food – which of course, has hilarious results. Unlike other anime that simply tease their audiences with subtle winks and nods, Soul Eater NOT doesn’t hide from Jacqueline’s desire for closeness being more than professional (I mean, she does dream about kissing her) and handles it in a way that is, honestly, a delightful breath of fresh air. No one questions it or runs off screaming “girls can’t love girls!” – the others don’t hesitate to jump in and help without treating Jacqueline’s feelings any differently to other orientations.

It’s not difficult to see how Jacqueline fell for Kim though; after all, she quickly outshone the main cast to become my favourite character! Perhaps the quintessential application of the “tsundere” archetype, we are introduced to her as a feared bully, but through watching the actions of those closest to her and sharing a secret with Kim and Jacqueline, it became clear that there was more to the antisocial extortionist. Before I knew it, I was charmed by both her rough thorns and the sweet flower hidden amongst them.

Soul Eater NOT isn’t all about the budding relationships though and staying true to the franchise, there is a magical threat lurking in the shadows. This side of the story is slowly drip-fed away from our principle cast in the earlier episodes, before the floodgates are blown open, leading to a shocking mid-season twist.

Unfortunately, the later episodes fail to even match that dramatic high point, with the choreography of the final fight possibly being the worst I’ve ever seen in anime. The series effortlessly made the human element of Tsugumi’s shared partnership with Anya and Meme feel natural, but the same can’t be said of the practical side. I don’t think I need to explain how a villain standing still as two people figure out how to share a halberd isn’t exactly an energetic climax.

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Potential viewers accustomed to Soul Eater‘s unique, quirky visual style may be in for a surprise with the more pedestrian, cutesy styling of NOT – an aesthetic shift with both pros and cons for the returning cast. Losing her kinetic, cartoony designs and expressions robs Patty of her identifiable charm, but the extra care and attention given to Kim and Jacqueline’s more detailed designs help breathe new life into the characters. Some characters sit somewhere in the middle though, like Maka, who is largely unchanged aside from a cuter face.

In regards to the special features, Soul Eater NOT has the usual extras you would expect from a title Funimation released state-side: textless songs, audio commentaries of two episodes and trailers intended for other markets (the curse of shared masters). The lack of a Blu-ray release was lamented when Manga Entertainment first announced the license, but having both Japanese and U.S. on-disc trailers advertise high definition releases does feel like adding insult to injury at times! Another extra is the “Soul Eater Whoops!” blooper reel compilation that failed to get even a mild chuckle out of me. Is there actually anything funny about an actor tripping over their tongue or saying obviously staged “random” lines? Bloopers work in live-action properties because there are other people there to witness and react to screw ups, but when we know that western voice-over work is usually done in isolation, that illusion is shattered.

In a way, Soul Eater NOT is a lot like a visit to the series’ Deathbucks Café; you may be served by a cute waitress and see a couple of familiar faces during your stay, but you’ll need an acquired taste to stomach the bitter coffee. While still set in the city Tim Burton no doubt aspires to vacation in, the love affair with madness being replaced with togetherness may alienate some existing fans, but “different” doesn’t always have to mean “awful”, nor does it have to mean “amazing”. If you can tolerate moe or are new to the franchise, Soul Eater NOT is a fun and sweet series, even if it won’t make the same waves as the main show.

Title: Soul Eater NOT! Complete Series Collection
Publisher: Manga Entertainment
Genre: Action, Slice Of Life, Supernatural, Yuri
Studio: BONES
Type: TV Series
Original vintage: 2014
Format: DVD
Language options: Japanese audio with English subtitles and English dub audio
Age rating: 12
Running time: 300 minutes

Score: 7/10