22/7 might quietly be the strangest thing airing this season. That’s no mean feat in a strong winter season that also includes column favorite Magia Record, the “anime for anime nerds” antics of Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!, and whatever the heck In/Spectre is doing. 22/7‘s particular brand of oddness is less upfront and more conceptual. The show is an idol series in the “peppy girl group” genre popularized by things like The Idolmaster and Love Live! We wouldn’t be here talking about it if it was just a run-of-the-mill entry into the genre. More traditional examples tend to get their strength from ultimately small-scale personal stakes. That’s true here as well to a point, but things also have a stranger, even possibly supernatural edge.

Left to right: Akane, Jun, Reika, Miyako, Ayaka, Miu, Sakura. Not pictured: Nicole.
Ex Machina

The premise, such as it is, is fairly simple. Eight girls from across Japan are called on to form an idol group. Not by any talent agency, but by the government, who are operating on behalf of a mysterious machine called The Wall. A huge statue that spits out orders in the form of engraved metal cards. Details are scarce, and the show does not seem eager to explain itself at this relatively early juncture. The Wall is a very literal Plot Device, an object that gets the story moving. 

Our main character is Miu Takigawa. She’s shy, anxious, extremely introverted, and at story’s start is employed at a convenience store. In short; she’s a perfectly archetypal millennial. She works to support her sickly mother and her younger sister. So far straightforward.

Shortly after being approached by The Wall’s handlers in the first episode and initially rebuffing their offer, she is suddenly fired from her job. It’s not entirely clear if this is genuinely just coincidence or if The Wall somehow engineered the situation. Either way;suddenly unemployed, she reluctantly accepts the offer to join 22/7, The Wall’s idol group, despite saying how much she hates them. This dichotomy is what drives our plot.

Surface Tension

The biggest obstacle that Miu faces over the next few episodes, other than her own insecurities, is Nicole.

Pictured: Nicole.

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The Wall confusingly chooses Miu to be the center (lead position) of 22/7. This is despite her lack of singing or dancing ability. Most of the other girls, namely Nicole, seem infinitely more qualified. Nicole is the member of the group with the most actual passion for the industry. We’re dealing here with someone who really wants to be an idol and really wants to be good at it – Miu’s total opposite. This unfortunately manifests in being prickly and overly-blunt. When Miu’s picked for the center, Nicole’s as upset by the lead’s reserved personality as she is by her own failure to get the position.

Cherry Blossoms

The other member of 22/7 who’s been fleshed out so far is Sakura. Sakura is also quite interesting. She, like her voice actress Sally Amaki, is a fluently bilingual American-Japanese girl raised in Los Angeles. Sakura contrasts Nicole by being the member of the troupe most supportive of Miu. She also seems to have feelings for the center that might go well beyond simple professional friendship.

Technically the word she uses here does not solely have romantic connotations. Still, call it a hunch.

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Distortion

This might all seem rather…well, normal. To a point, the show seems to even try to play it that way. When Miu does manage to overcome her anxieties, the framing is the same as it’d be in most any other series like this. The fact of the matter though, is that there’s a dissonance here created by the existence of The Wall. It seems too deliberate to not be building up to something, but what that might be is anyone’s guess.

It is here where we note that 22/7 is no indie project. There is an attached actual idol group of the same name (all of whom voice their animated counterparts), funded by Yasushi Akimoto. This is the record producer behind several of Japan’s biggest idol groups, most notably AKB48 and Onyanko Club. We could write this evident dichotomy off as the series just having an oddball plot device if it didn’t seem aware of said dichotomy. But it does, keenly.

Case in point. The show undercuts what is traditionally a big emotional moment in the genre – the idols’ first concert. We see the concert, certainly, but it’s dubbed over with Miu’s internal monologue. Then, as she notices her mother (who she’s been lying to about still being employed at the convenience store) in the audience, an ominous drone drowns out the concert music entirely. Not long after, the concert is beset by a tech issue as the machine playing the backing track blows out.

Piano Man

Miu does save the concert, and that part is fairly typical for something like this. The way she does it, though, is rather un-idol-y. A piano backstage becomes a Chekhov’s Gun as she thinks to play the instrumental on it instead, letting the rest of her group do the singing work. She effectively abandons her role as the center, even as the show uses much of the same visual language that other idol anime would in this sort of circumstance.

On the other hand maybe the show is simply a quest to get us as many Very Good Miu Smiles as possible.

None of this is new to the genre, exactly. Again, things like The Idolmaster were pulling off effective emotional drama ten years ago. It’s the strange dissonance between how some things are portrayed and how others are that really pushes this into “what am I watching?” territory. This shouldn’t be taken as an indictment of the series – even if all of this is ultimately a red herring, the show is pretty good as-is just as an idol series. But it is very odd.

The post-credits scene of the most recent episode sees 22/7 discussing among themselves what The Wall might actually be. One suggests it’s some kind of AI using an “idol raising project algorithm.” Another just thinks there’s someone hidden inside it. Whatever the true answer is, it is an enduring mystery, and it’s hopefully one the show sheds some light on eventually.

Encore

I don’t normally try to think up ways a show could fail, but the only real way 22/7 could flunk out completely is by backing off into “The Wall is good, actually,” with no further elaboration. It’s a possibility, given the show’s pedigree. Plus, the fact that at the end of the day it still does have to promote the actual 22/7. Yet, I feel strangely confident that it won’t. Idol shows that make you think this much aren’t exactly common. We’re over a year out from Zombie Land Saga, after all. As is, 22/7 is recommendable on that basis alone. We can only hope it gets even better from here.

 

 

Jane Auman
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