Review: ‘Wish upon the Pleiades’

Wish upon the Pleiades. Written and directed by Shōji Saeki. Studio Gainax, 2015. 12 episodes. Approximately 290 minutes. Not rated. Available on Crunchyroll.

It’s refreshing to see a magical girl series made as recently as 2015 that’s simple and sincere with no traces of so-called deconstruction or irony. The girls never discover that their familiar is conning them, nor that they’re really in hell. Nobody gets mind-raped. And though it does find a flimsy excuse for a swimsuit episode, it even manages to steer clear of the more grotesque side of anime cheesecake.

It also has nice middle cards.

Wish upon the Pleiades is a series with an odd history that caused me to miss it when it came out. Way back in 2011, Studio Gainax collaborated with the automobile manufacturer Subaru to make the oddest car advertisement of all time, a series of short YouTube videos having a lot to do with magical girls and nothing in particular to do with cars. In 2015, Gainax expanded this into a full, twelve-episode series. I heard of it in passing, but mistakenly believed it was just my usual anime provider picking up the series of shorts videos. I didn’t realized a full-length series had been made until a month or so back when someone directed me to it.

Our protagonist is a young girl, appropriately named Subaru, who’s starting middle school, where she unexpectedly reconnects with her childhood friend Aoi, with whom she’d had a falling-out over a misunderstanding. Subaru is a stargazing enthusiast and the sole member of the school’s astronomy club. Aoi introduces her to three other girls along with whom she’s obtained magical powers thanks to an alien from the Pleiades, who has enlisted the girls to find the missing pieces of his spaceship’s broken engine.

Because when your spaceship breaks down, you grant middle school girls magic powers. That’s anime logic.

McGuffin-hunting, magical girl-style.
McGuffin-hunting, magical girl-style.

Subaru quickly joins these magic-users, who hide their activities under the guise of the “cosplay research club.” Why they need to hide their activities is unclear, since they are conveniently invisible to mere mortals. In any case, they can fly using “driveshafts,” basically souped-up broomsticks that make car noises, each of which has a grille resembling that of a different model of Subaru.  Each of their quests for the missing engine fragments takes them farther from home, so first they are flying in the clouds, then in low orbit, then to the moon, and then deeper and deeper into space.

They're magical girls, and they can breathe in space.
They’re magical girls, and they can breathe in space.

Opposing them is a boy … well, they tell us he’s a boy, and we’ll just take their word for it, since this is one of those anime where everybody looks like a girl. Anyway, there’s a boy also seeking the engine fragments for his own purposes, and he bears an uncanny resemblance to Minato, a mysterious boy Subaru often meets in a magical greenhouse that she frequently finds when trying to enter the school’s observatory.

Dude looks like a lady.
Dude looks like a lady.

As the story progresses, each of these characters gets her backstory developed, though only Subaru’s and Minato’s are particularly important to the overarching plot. Minato’s tragic story is convoluted enough that I had to watch it twice to understand it.

The show contains slightly more physics than a typical magical girl story, though it’s unafraid to take liberties when it wants. It remembers time dilation when traveling near light speed, but it conveniently forgets time dilation in an episode involving a black hole. And, of course, space is noisy.

Like all magical girl shows, Wish upon the Pleiades is a coming-of-age story. The Pleiadian is able to grant the girls magical powers only because of their young age, because they are full of potential that has not yet been actualized. The aliens are also able to collect “crystallized potential,” which represents states of being that could have been but are not, and use them to power their spacecraft.  The show employs this partly as a metaphor for adulthood (the girls have to put aside the world of magic when they grow up and their potential becomes actualized), but it also uses it to set up the mind-screwy subplot surrounding Minato, which I won’t spoil.

Oh, I get it now. You can tell he's a boy because he's wearing pants.
Oh, I get it now. You can tell he’s a boy because he’s wearing pants.

Probably the show’s greatest asset is its scenery. The second half of each episode involves the girls flying to some new location, such a sun-drenched cloudscape, a stratosphere-high waterspout, the rings of Saturn, or the edge of the Solar System. The action is never energetic, but the visuals are always lush, and they are, apparently, the main point.

In terms of mood, Wish upon the Pleiades is sentimental and at times borders on maudlin, but it never becomes unbearable.

In space, no one can hear you wax nostalgic about the halcyon days of your youth.
In space, no one can hear you wax nostalgic about the halcyon days of your youth.

I’m not entirely satisfied with the ending, which is bittersweet, but forces an added, unnecessary layer of bittersweetness that undermines some of the established themes. While trying to avoid giving too much away, I’ll just say that a show about growing up really shouldn’t end by forcing the characters back to an earlier stage of life.

On the whole, I recommend this, though it would not go on my list of bests. It’s a competent, workmanlike series with likeable characters and a decent if not entirely engrossing storyline. But its main draw is the environmental designs, and at that it succeeds quite well.