Two weeks before a concert at Yaon Hibiya auditorium (1987.8.26), while playing at the club Shinjuku Loft, lead vocalist To-Y (pron: to-o-i) of the band GASP is jumped by a rival, Aikawa Yoji. GASP is a upcoming band known for its violence, struggling to be noticed against the popularity of hotshot Aikawa, who's #1 on the charts and beloved by his fans. The Yaon Hibiya concert represents GASP's mainstream debut to break out of the small-time club scene, which is threatened by the schemes of Aikawa's manager, Ms. Kato of Koyama Productions. Kato wants To-Y to leave that "bunch of hoodlums," and sing independently for a major label.
Adding to the confusion is an unexplained character who manifests feline traits, named Niya. Niya presents herself as "To-Y's aijin" ("Niya, To-Y no aijin da yo!") to the consternation of Koishikawa Hiderou, who has interest in To-Y. Koishikawa, also known as "Sonoko-chan," is typed as a "okama" by Niya. A running motif is GASP, it's fans, and associates regarded as unusual by the mainstream public, as exemplified by their musical taste, dress, and Classic Coke-drinking, which only contributes to more difficulty in their struggle to be accepted.
TO-Y is something remarkable, something you don't see or maybe even can't see nowadays. TO-Y is an anime that captures the pop culture music movement that was present in 1987 in Tokyo. Every part of TO-Y oozes the musical zeitgeist of 1987. Within minutes you already know where and when this is.
TO-Y is the main singer of a band called GASP that represents the underground, the shibuya-kei, the harder rock style of the popular bands at the time. Whereas his rival, Aikawa Yoji represents the j-pop idol, the sell-out. Perhaps the B'z to TO-Y's Shonen Knife. Additionally, TO-Y has a friend who is the leader
of a visual-kei band, again perhaps an approximation of such a band as Malice Mizer, and TO-Y's sometimes girlfriend who is a popular singer herself. The plot is rather simplistic at best, however does contain some parts that feel quite prescient, such as a bands breakdown that was portrayed emotionally and convincingly.
TO-Y achieves an absolute grasp of this 1987 Tokyo music scene, primarily through its soundtrack, its choice of settings, and the paradox that the voice actors who are pictured singing do not actually sing. TO-Y's soundtrack is co-ordinated by Matsuura Masaya. He stitches together multiple eclectic artists such as gontiti, ZELDA, The Street Sliders, and Hajime Mizoguchi. This composition of different musical pieces manage to make the common montages that accompany the music actually a kinaesthetic rhythm- they stitch together the different musical elements to create a cohesive whole that not only evinces the music of the period, but creates a real rolling rhythm so the whole anime can play out like a quasi-music video (Matsuura Masaya is actually sometimes credited with creating the genre of rhythm-based games). This is a technique many other anime have tried but failed to do. It's also a significantly different technique than say Nodame Cantabile, which relies on character drama to give meaning to the music.
This music however, would be disarticulated without proper founding within the animation though. Dedicated background artists make sure that they get the scene, and the mise en scene, absolutely right. Everything in TO-Y feels like it is founded upon the very earth of Tokyo, like it's really happening (even though, to be blunt, the art and animation is not of a high quality). The combination of strong visuals and strong music very much makes TO-Y a hitter above its weight.
Referring back to the voice actors not singing, I think this is actually a quite sneaky and smart way to achieve their goal. By featuring songs that feature the character, yet without their singing, we revert to the belief of the anime and the character as a whole to stimulate our imagination of their singing. The characters are slightly stereotyped, but they are fashioned very rawly and powerfully. Thus we do have a belief in their singing, we can believe in its magnetism and appeal. Probably adding to this appeal of the characters is quite good character design by Onda Naoyuki- also the man responsible for the designs in Ergo Proxy and King of Thorn to name a few.
It probably should be noted that TO-Y is actually a manga adaptation, from an original work from Kamijou Atsushi. This perhaps explains the irregular feel of the anime- the production seems to have completely lacked a storyboard- some of the cuts are at time very jarring and some plot progression forced. This however does gel with the fractious nature of the plot and the music.
The one weakness of TO-Y is its characters. There are a few who get little more than cameos, whom do not receive back-story and whose motives stay unknown. At one point a character is suggested to have been planning to kill someone- yet as per his 2 minutes of screentime we have no idea why. Particularly poignant to this point however, is one of the main characters- Niya. Niya is a cat girl, whose background is never explained, but stays a nucleic character attached to TO-Y throughout the anime. While we are not really expecting anything too serious in such a upbeat OVA, it does detract from the overall quality of the anime. In many ways, we have to ask ourselves what would have changes if Niya had been removed.
In any case, TO-Y achieves what it sets out to do, like no other music-based anime I've ever seen. TO-Y simply put, captures a sub-culture. And presents it in a wholly enjoyable way.