The Hills are Alive, with the Sound of AI

I remember one scene in the second season of Mob Psycho 100 (review available here) that made me point at the screen and say “LOL”. Well, I didn’t actually say the word “LOL”, because that’d make me sound like Gollum, but you get the point. At one point, Mob’s fraudulent (and very internet-savvy) mentor Reigen is dealing with a surge of online hate and trolling directed at him. He attempts (and fails) to do so via the tried-and-tested method of creating burner accounts to say positive things about himself. And then he utters the classic line, “I need to contain this and ensure I don’t become an even bigger meme.”


What made me laugh so much at that was how contemporary it was. It was at that point that I realised that anime exists in a sort of parallel reality, largely free from real-world trends. That dialogue was the first time I’d seen memes be referenced in an anime, despite memes being around for well over a decade (and despite anime and manga being such a significant contributor of memes). There does appear to be some sort of barrier that prevents culture in anime from evolving at the same pace as culture in the real world.


And then Carole and Tuesday came along to smash that barrier in style.


Probably committed the ultimate sin: kneeling

In many ways, 2019’s Carole and Tuesday was the perfect anime to sign off the previous decade. I would go a step further and say that if I had to pick one TV show to represent 2019, it’d be Carole and Tuesday. It is aggressively contemporary. You think autotune is what’s ruining the music industry? You noob, says Carole and Tuesday. In Carole and Tuesday’s future, set on a terraformed Mars, people don’t even make music anymore. By that, I don’t mean that there’s no music at all; far from it. All music is now made by AI. Why search far and wide for the next Lady Gaga, when you can simply have a deep learning network analyse her music and create from it a familiar yet distinct sound?


But if this sounds like dystopian cyberpunk, then it’s time to disappoint you. Carole and Tuesday envisions a bright, diverse future, not unlike the world of Cowboy Bebop, or our own. There’s references to The X Factor, Ellen, Vogue’s 73 Questions, Banksy, and perhaps the greatest East-meets-West mashup of pop culture references ever: “PPA-Biebs”. It’s all very much in the now, using a futuristic sci-fi world to comment on our own.


That strategic misspelling isn't fooling anyone

And thrust into this futuristic world are our titular protagonists. Tuesday is a soft-spoken rich girl, who uncharacteristically flees her home in the night to pursue her musical dreams, with nothing but a guitar...and an automated electronic suitcase. Carole is a street-smart keyboardist from Alba City (the Martian equivalent of NYC), working thankless part-time jobs to make ends meet. When these two amateurs meet by chance on a bridge, and connect with each other’s music, it sets off a chain of events poised to change music history.


"Run away, ruuuun away from the pain"

These first few episodes are absolutely magical. The shy awkwardness of the air between these unexpected acquaintances, and the way that translates into their out-of-tune first jam session, slowly giving way to a beautifully in-sync harmony. The sudden inspiration and stomp-clap rhythm of an impromptu song composition while the pair wait for their clothes at a public laundry. The “I’m afraid to hurt you” hesitance of two fast friends who are still in the process of opening up to each other. These are moments that will stick with me for a while. Where Kids on the Slope excelled at portraying male friendship, Carole and Tuesday highlights female friendship like few other anime. The ever-growing bond between these two is the highlight of the show. As their friendship progresses, so too does their music, going from simplistic ‘emo-pop’ compositions to genuinely heartfelt indie music.


The protagonists, on the run again

And I say indie music because Carole and Tuesday is a love letter to the indie work ethic. It shows the soullessness of a world where flesh-and-blood people are taken out of the equation when it comes to making music, where numbers come first, where people loudly proclaim that “facts are more important than your feelings”. It shows the organic growth of a pair of amateur musicians, from viral Youtube self-marketing, to small-scale pub & restaurant performances, to contests, to eventually going pro with concerts and albums. It emphasizes the fact that the credit for all of this goes to the artists themselves: it’s their sound, their hard work, their determination and drive to create art. And not the whims of some suit sitting in an air-conditioned office.


Nor does Carole and Tuesday naively play dumb about this hard-to-ignore aspect of the industry either. It explores the corporate side of music through Carole and Tuesday’s rival Angela, a former model trying to market herself seriously as a pop star. Where Carole and Tuesday jump for joy at even the slightest hint of success, Angela finds it hard to get excited at anything, even as she goes from milestone to milestone. When she hears her own music, she is unsure of whether it’s her own voice or AI doing the singing for her. Her struggles — of obtaining greatness, but at what cost — are quite engaging and relevant.


"Ara ara"

If all of this makes Carole and Tuesday sound like a flawless masterpiece, it is time I corrected that perception. The first hiccup occurs when Carole and Tuesday enter an X Factor-esque reality TV music competition. Not only does this arc overstay its welcome (could've been a couple episodes shorter), it’s also mildly infuriating because the focus heavily shifts away from the protagonists and onto other contestants. Not all of these make for engaging viewing. Angela shines, as usual, but with the rest, you’re just left wondering “can I have Carole and Tuesday, already?” Nor is the music especially interesting in this segment, being fairly run-of-the-mill mainstream pop, outside of a few exceptions who get eliminated fairly early on (no I am not referring to the Mermaid Sisters).


The elephant in the room, however, is the anime’s second half (and particularly the final third). Here, the indie music themes take a backseat to political unrest, caused by the rise of conservative presidential nominee (and Tuesday’s mother) Valerie J Simmons (the J is only there for emphasis). Look, I know the makers only mean well, and we could all use a positive political statement or two in times like these. And it is not particularly out of place, or out of touch with reality (Mars ICE deporting illegal 'aliens' would’ve been funny if it weren’t so sadly real). But there is simply not enough time to properly explore these themes. What you end up with is a show of two halves that does not make the most of the themes in either half. Plus, Carole and Tuesday’s overall optimistic tone prevents it from making any particularly bold points on these political topics. While it never goes down the route of “friendship makes the world a better place”, it does not push things as far as it should have. Valerie, in particular, is let off rather easy. Not a good look, given her real world counterpart.


Well, at least they're honestly gesturing about what they represent

Perhaps this particular anime was the wrong place for a serious political subplot. Carole and Tuesday should’ve focused more strongly on the initial themes of the relevance of people in an automated industry, with maybe a political undercurrent. The latter third of the show felt like it could be an anime of its own if it wanted to, rather than being forced to share space with an otherwise happy-go-lucky story.


Carole and Tuesday is still a good anime though. The moments of magic more than make up for the lack of focus with the plot. The art is fantastic. The music is wonderful. And it is one of those works of fiction that has the potential to really influence people. Music really does change the world.





Scores


Art: A+. Such lovely colours! Carole and Tuesday employs a dynamic mood-setting colour palette, that can go from warm autumnal bronzes for a sunny outdoors scene to cool electric blues and greens to give that atmosphere to the city at night. The crayon-like colouring of the opening sequences is beautiful. The character designs are refreshingly diverse, with a great sense of fashion; I love Carole’s orange lipstick. Characters do lose detail at a distance, though, although this only really stands out because they are so detailed otherwise.


Animation: B+. Like with Kids on the Slope, motion capture is used to animate the musical performances. However, it is not Kids on the Slope levels of impressive; for one, the pop music they play demands far less physical proficiency than the jazz of the former show, so there is not as much ‘flexing’. The framerate is fine otherwise, although it can drop for some scenes.


Music: A+. The soundtrack captures a wide range of genres, from soft pop-rock, to operatic hip-hop, to trance, to whatever the Mermaid Sisters are. This is a soundtrack that will easily appeal to anyone, with something for everyone. I like how the two girls’ music isn’t the best: it accentuates their amateur status. Some performances from them, though, are pure magic that’ll make you smile. The first opening is a real sing-along bop.


Voice acting (Japanese): B. There's nothing wrong with the voice acting itself (aside from maybe Tuesday having a bit of a squeaky voice). But the problem arises when the music begins, since all songs are sung in English (by Western artists). This transition from Japanese to English can be a bit jarring.


Voice acting (English): B+. The dub solves the aforementioned issue, with Carole and Tuesday's voice actors sounding pretty close to the artists behind their singing voices. It is not without its problems, though. Some characters are an earsore, speaking in "anime dub English" with that awkward, stilted delivery. Jeannie Tirado as Carole is probably the standout here.


Story: B. In a future where all music is made by AI, two girls get together to make music, and make a difference. The plot can drag at times, and the show is a bit confused about what it wants to be. The final third gets lost in a political subplot. The show’s cheerful nature makes the political statements lack bite. Ends really well, though.


Characters: A. I love the two leads, but I should probably say three leads because Angela is a great character who often threatened to steal the limelight from the two main girls. The slow growth of the friendship between the two girls is great. Side characters are hit and miss: some don’t get enough attention, while others get more attention than necessary, detracting from the main cast.


Overall: B+

I debated over this grade for a while, but ultimately Carole and Tuesday has its fair share of flaws that prevent me from awarding it an A. Still, I really enjoyed my time with it, and its memorable moments are truly memorable.


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