In 2015, Gainax was already no longer the studio that had been responsible for Gunbuster, Neon Genesis Evangelion, FLCL, Diebuster, and Gurren Lagann. A multi-stage exodus had sapped the studio of much of its most promising talent over the years, and many of its best and brightest had left--whether to Studio Khara with Anno, Studio TRIGGER with Imaishi, or those who ended up at Production IG or even A-1 Pictures--there was not a whole lot of Gainax left in Gainax by this point. Still, a studio is a studio, and there is romance to the notion of an anime studio (or any production group; record label, video game developer, movie studio, etc.) as an entity somehow bigger than any of its constituent personnel. Wish Upon The Pleiades, then, can be seen as Gainax’s swan song in a way. It was the studio’s last major TV production, and now, with Gainax Fukushima being spun off into its own studio (GainaCo.), it seems like the Gainax name may well end here for all intents and purposes. It is also the sole series directorial credit of Shouji Saeki, a man who had previously worked on FLCL as well as a bundle of Gainax’s more divisive fare (This Ugly Yet Beautiful World, He Is My Master, Medaka Box). Letting a touch of the air out of all this romantic notion is that Pleiades is also a collaborative effort. Not with any other anime studio, but with Subaru, the car manufacturer.
What follows is an honestly sort of surreal show, not out of any deliberate artistic drive but more because of the sheer strangeness that comes from juxtaposing what is at its core a very straightforward magical girl show with some very peculiar design elements, some of which one imagines were mandated by Subaru (the most prominent of these are our girls’ staves, which have engines and, at times, actual car grills and displays). The protagonist, notably, is also named Subaru. But again, at its heart Pleiades is a pretty simple magical girl show that stripped of its weirder elements could probably pass just fine for genuine children’s TV a good chunk of the time. The most notable exception being a brazen viewership grab in a swimsuit episode early on, the only time the show ever comes within a hundred feet of cheesecake-style fanservice. It’s downright offputting, actually, and it is, thankfully, an anomaly in the series.
On the other side of things, swimsuits aside, that weirdness is what makes Pleiades what it is. The series revolves around Subaru, a pink-haired, good-natured girl, and her four friends Aoi, Hikaru, Nanako, and Itsuki--color coded blue, yellow, purple, and black respectively. At the start of the series Subaru discovers that Aoi is part of a magical girl group seeking fragments of the engine of a crashed spaceship (said ship belonging to The Pleiadian, a mascot character drawn like a teal cartoon octopus, and the one who bestows our girls with their magic), adding Subaru to their group after some tension, the five continue their quest blocked only by the mysterious ‘Horned Cape’, a villainous magical boy(!) who just so happens to resemble a boy that Subaru sometimes encounters in a mysterious greenhouse-like room that sometimes appears in her school.
The visuals can be surprisingly pretty and at times even inventive.The fourth episode for instance finds the cast visiting the Moon. It’s also Hikaru’s focus episode, and attention is paid to her somewhat strained relationship with her parents (her mother an astronomer and her father a concert pianist), at the episode’s climax. Her parents see a note that she’s scribbled on their household whiteboard, saying that she’s left to the moon. Her father, saying he’s never had a reason to doubt his little girl, decides to play a piano piece at her mother’s observatory. It’s charming on its own, but what really sells the “magic” of the moment is indeed the visual element. That piano concert is represented like this;
There are other examples, such as a scene in the fifth episode where Itsuki recounts the plot of a play being done in a style probably best compared to paper animation.
The only thing that occasionally undercuts this is Pleiades’ propensity to use CGI models of the girls for distance shots--especially while they’re flying. It undercuts the show’s arguable strongest element and gives the impression of a series made on very tight deadlines. Still, the visuals on the whole give off a vibe of low-budget wonder. Akin to mid-century BBC sci-fi shows, perhaps, or within its own medium, 90s TV anime. The soundtrack deserves a shout out too, and might actually beat out the visuals overall. In particular, Minato’s theme--a pumping organ tune--is simply fantastic, cackling with a cartoonish menace that really sells the kid’s otherwise somewhat underwhelming villainous presence.
The show’s final act comes close to making up for any prior shortcomings. It’s true that here the story does start revolve somewhat around Minato--which might initially (and understandably) remind viewers of Gainax’ tendency to sideline female characters in favor of a dark and brooding boy. Here though, the dynamic is different. Subaru’s relationship with Minato, which begins as friendship and blossoms into romance, saves both of them.
It may be simple applicability, rather than anything intentional, but it’s hard not to read the series’ final episode as both a eulogy for the studio whose end this marks, and a defense of the medium in general. Our heroines retrieve the final engine fragment from the depths of a black hole, and in doing so, travel back in time to the far past. It appears at first to be following the long tradition of the “Gainax ending”, a left-turn swerve that ends a series on an ambiguous note, as many of the studio’s most famous works did. However, if it can be called that, it’s a much more optimistic take on the device than any of its predecessors used.
Four billion years in the past, at the dawn of life on Earth, Minato closes the show with a speech about potential, the infinite possibilities in life, and in general it’s hard to capture the impact of this without just reproducing it in its entirety. Suffice it to say, it’s probably the best-written scene in the entirety of Pleiades. The five girls, presented with the opportunity to go anywhere in the history of all life they choose, all choose to restart the middle school year that brought them together, each one adding a small alteration (one, amusingly, wishes for better hair). After a short nap that becomes a four billion year timeskip, the series’ final moments are Subaru, attending middle school for the “first” time, meeting all her old friends again, each with their wish granted.
And that was it for Studio Gainax.
It may be strange to bring the studio’s legacy up so much, when, again, most of the folks who worked on Pleiades were not among the most storied or well-known employees of the studio. And true enough, viewed purely as a love letter to the magical girl genre, the show works just as well. However, if Pleiades proves anything, it’s that everyone has a story to tell, and there is talent everywhere, even in the under-acknowledged nooks and crannies of one of the world’s most renowned studios. Pleiades is far from perfect, and indeed it falls in the unluckiest category of anime series, the good but overlooked, but it makes a great case that everyone who worked on it will be just fine. After all, the moral of the series is that there’s no sense in being trapped in the past, not when there’s so much future to look forward to.
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