When I was first taught about "idols" as a child, we knew them as false gods. Then I started watching anime and I realized it's practically the same thing for Japan.
*Original review of the first 50 episodes follows. For an overview of the rest, scroll down*
Aikatsu! follows the idol trend of the past few years. These are shows about cute young girls singing and dancing that look like they're for young girls but are actually for grown men, only this time around it actually is for young girls (it has some periphery demographic, though). It follows a group of middle school friends led by Hoshimiya Ichigo learning to become idols at Starlight Academy through various "idol activities."
But what are "idol activities?"
Singing and dancing are definitely involved and, as one would expect, are the primary concern. But that's not all, oh no. Aikatsu! delves much further into the idol world than that which we see on the stage at concerts (and probably further than reality). These girls take long runs, chop down giant trees, scale mountains with their bare hands, and navigate trap-ridden haunted houses. I'm not even exaggerating here, all of those things literally happen in the show. It's no thriller, but there are a few surprising times where you wonder where these girls get the strength and courage to face these obstacles.
But being an idol isn't all about training your body, either. Being an idol is also an image and representation. When you become popular, you get fans, and you need to be sure you don't let those fans down; this fact is not ignored. There is a certain episode in which Ichigo becomes overly worried about making a good signature and being able to do it fast when it comes time for her to meet fans and sign things for them. The problem is that she forgets the "meet fans" part, and only focuses on the signing, a fact that is soon brought to her attention by a friend, making her realize that she had been letting fans down who not only wanted to get a signature, but also to simply see her face and talk to her a bit.
Further, there's an image to maintain. This is a fine line that could have easily fallen into the territory of shaming non-perfect body types, and even arguably toes the line at best. When Christmas break comes and it's time for Ichigo to go home for a couple weeks, she can't resist her mother's cooking; she eats and eats and gets...big. The people around her are disappointed with her, but not because of her new shape; it is because of how she let herself go, how she allowed herself to be lazy and leave her idol activities at the door step when she came in.
At 50 episodes, there's a lot of time to develop story and characters. As one might guess from the above, most of the story is episodic, but there is still a certain continuation to everything. New idols are introduced and have bigger roles in subsequent episodes, a lesson learned in one episode will continue to be put into practice throughout the show, and as our girls get ever more popular both in the academy and in the outside world, things get busier. There are times where we might see a string of slice-of-life episodes followed by a slightly more dramatic story arc, but these never come too suddenly to feel out of place. They start reasonably and end well, with the possible exception of one near the end where it seems as though idol units begin to grow on trees and the viewers are left wondering who belongs where and what this sub-group, should they actually exist, is even doing.
Lead protagonist is Hoshimiya Ichigo, with main support Kiriya Aoi and Shibuki Ran. Ichigo is a cheerful girl, always happy, but not always very smart. She decides she wants to do something and she goes and does it, no hesitation. Sometimes things work out great. Other times they don't. She doesn't take these moments for granted, but she doesn't let them get her down; she bounces back, taking what she's learned and applying it for the future. She's the kind of character who just attracts other people to her.
But she wouldn't be able to do that without such great friends. First up is Aoi, her childhood friend who showed Ichigo her first idol concert that made both want to be idols and convinced them to apply for Starlight Academy. Aoi is the "idol professor." She knows everything about idols. No, really. Everything. She's also an idol herself and Ichigo's #1 fan and as such, knows how to keep the peppy blonde in check...while occasionally succumbing to the craziness herself.
And then there's Ran, the most mature member of the trio. She is first introduced as being popular around the academy for her cold, no-smile demeanor, having a confidence built up due to having years of entertainment experience under her belt before having even entered Starlight Academy. Getting her to warm up to Ichigo and Aoi was not easy, but when she finally allowed them to break the ice with her, we see what is really a very calm and caring personality and an irreplaceable source of confidence, even if she is sometimes the one who needs it the most.
But there are a lot of characters here. Kanzaki Mizuki, the aloof and mysterious upperclassman and most popular idol at the academy who only very rarely shows a more emotional side (but don't worry, she does) is the most prominent support. She is the endgame, the goal everyone else is trying to reach, but a rival that always moving ever forward. A lot about her is left in mystery, but we're also given a lot of tidbits that show her to not be the 100% perfect being she's made out to be, and she never lets up, considering that, while she provides motivation for others, those behind her are also what motivates her to keep going.
But again, there are a lot of characters, many of whom don't really get a chance to be fully realized. The extra idols with recurring parts, which include Otome, Yurika, Shion, Sakura, and Kaede, largely fall into this group. All of them at least an episode or two dedicated to their development, but afterwards they occasionally may make things feel too crowded and will largely stick to their base personality for the rest of the show without ever really being focused on again. It's a bit of a shame, but it was a trade-off for the extra focus on the show's main group.
However, the show doesn't ignore any characters. There are multiple side characters who could easily have been left by the wayside but get their time in the spotlight, such as dance instructor Johnny Bepp (who, yes, does play a pirate in one episode) and Ichigo's mother, father, and little brother. These sessions are largely abrupt, but short and sweet. They really help to develop the relationships all around, giving all the characters more depth, all while not sacrificing the main focus of the show.
And what is the main focus of the show? What do you think is the main focus of a show about idols? Music!
Oh, we're definitely treated to music in this show. Every single episode climaxes in a concert scene. It's not a different song every episode, but it is changed up enough that by the time you begin to grow tired of a song, they start using a new one. Also, the first ED, Calendar Girl, is amazing and actually well portrays the show's eventual theme. Overall, though, while even Aikatsu!, like others of its kind, may seem to occasionally throw in more songs to advertise new singles, it never really feels out of place within the context of the show because most of what the characters are doing are related to their job as idols and leads up to the eventual musical piece.
But speaking of those concerts and advertising...there are some weird things going on.
One can't write a review of Aikatsu! without mentioning the forbidden fruit of commercial anime: cards. Aikatsu! too wants to sell you some cards. In the show, these cards are their outfits and are...generated?...in the Aikatsu machine for the concerts. Yeah, it's weird, but it doesn't tiptoe around it. Much effort is spent on matching up each member's outfit with everyone else and getting new cards for new outfits to fit a different occasion, including the special "premium" cards that are only given to the most worthy of idols. At the end of the day, it's hard to say if this was purely an advertisement gimmick, a legitimate-if-strange part of the story, or something in between.
There's also this thing they do during concerts called "special appeal." It's hard to even describe what these are since it really isn't grounded in reality at all, but it's this mid-concert thing that typically only takes a few seconds to do and ranges from spinning around wildly to shooting a heart with an arrow. They're supposed to be these things that make a concert and performer more impressive in some way, but it's never made clear what the actual purpose of them is or why they exist at all. There's even an episode focused on them, but all we really learn is that most idols can only do 1 per concert while Mizuki can pull off 3. Around the halfway point of the show they're never really brought up again, but they still appear in the concerts.
Things are very pretty (and pink) in Aikatsu! land, but a little rough around the edges. Character designs are distinct and animation is typically fluid, but at the forefront of every episode's concert is a sequence of re-used animation where the girls are inserting their Aikatsu cards into the Aikatsu machine. The concert scenes are all in CGI, which can be a bit daunting next to the 2d animation of the rest of the show (which sometimes even appears for the audience during concerts). A quick eye can see commonly re-used background characters, not really a problem in most cases since I also see the same people every day at school, but the worst offender is a particular scene where the headmistress is addressing an assembly of girls and the two halves, hair color aside, are mirrored, like each girl has a twin sitting in the same position but on the other side of the room.
At the end of the day, Aikatsu! is just a happy show. Its run time is used very well, as it doesn't have to crank out material before its inevitable end and viewers are given plenty of time to get attached to the characters without having to leave them so soon. Certain episodes later on in the show really wouldn't have even worked without the kind of run time this show had; the impact they made just wouldn't be the same in a short series.
Aikatsu! is also not for everyone. It is a kid's show and even fans who usually like idol shows such as Love Live and Idolm@ster may not be able to get the same enjoyment from this one. Feel free to judge this one by its cover; if a group of young girls in frilly dresses over a pink background doesn't seem like your kind of show, don't watch it. But if you do like this kind of stuff, or just feel like giving it a shot, you ought to like what you come in for.
***The rest of it***
And then there was more. And more. And then a little bit more. But I'll make this quick.
Season 2 of Aikatsu, episodes 51-101, aka the dark ages of Aikatsu. Dream Academy, a rival school, is introduced, and with it the most frustrating time for Aikatsu fans. The new characters are poorly developed and seem to be way too talented right out the gate. Where the first season was fine with having characters lose, suddenly we see a bunch of ties happening. There are, however, good episodes in all this. Oozora Akari is introduced midway through and is immediately lovable, overturning everything bad in the rest of the season. Basically, any episode that doesn't have a great focus on Dream Academy characters is at least decent.
Season 3 of Aikatsu, episodes 102-153 (somewhere around there, anyway), the Akari generation. There is a new protagonist, and while the old cast is still around, they are now side characters. The producers seem to have realized that everyone hated Dream Academy and more or less dropped them from the show entirely (they appear maybe 3 or 4 more times for the remaining duration of the show). The show goes back to its roots and, despite having a few more rough patches than before, is once again the Aikatsu we know and love (if you've gotten this far, you must love it).
Season 4 of Aikatsu, episodes 154-end, the...actually, it's just more of the Akari generation. Which is good! They didn't fall into the season 2 pitfall for the climax. And the actual climax itself was pretty great, being a story arc that lasted longer than any other since the one that capped off the first season and was a great way to end the series.
Season 1, the first 50 episodes (and the movie, which was amazing), remains my favorite era of Aikatsu, but the last year and a half were certainly a worthy addition. At its best, Aikatsu was lovable, heartwarming, and maybe even a little tear-jerking. At its worst, I was shouting "NO! NO! NO!" at the screen in frustration. It had its ups and downs, but in the end it's become a series very close to my heart. I will miss the girls of Starlight Academy.