With few exceptions, the musical subgenre of anime tends to focus on high school girls breaking into the weird world of J-pop – an umbrella term for a genre best described as bubblegum pop. This is not a phenomenon exclusive to anime; Japan’s music industry is rife with companies that scout young men and women and put them into groups that will churn out inoffensive, by-the-numbers pop hits.
It’s surprising to see an anime like "Carole & Tuesday" (directed by Shinichiro Watanabe of "Cowboy Bebop" fame) which is all about music but actually takes music seriously. It’s not a platform to sell a pop group, nor is it drowning in the shallow end of the emotional pool. Where most anime about music only find conflict in weak rivalries or overcoming the singular character flaw that defines said character, "Carole & Tuesday" takes what initially appears a generic story and fleshes it out in dynamic and often very real ways.
Carole is an orphaned, street-wise girl living in a Martian metropolis a la New York City. Tuesday is a rich girl who has been cooped up in her family’s mansion and decides to run away from home with her guitar because that’s what her hero, Cyndi Lauper, did. She meets Carole, playing piano on a bridge, and the two instantly hit it off with their love for music. Tuesday moves in with Carole, they play music together, get a manager, and slowly work up the ranks to become one of Mars' top bands.
Did I mention this is a sci-fi series? Strangely enough "Carole & Tuesday" is set on Mars in the near future and includes a lot of science fiction elements that are implemented extremely well into every facet of the story and background. It’s rare for a science fiction series to feel so familiar but "Carole & Tuesday"’s more futuristic elements reflect the 21st century in more than enough ways to make it a comfortable world to get lost in.
Among the most interesting pieces of science in the show is an AI that can pump out a pop hit unfailingly. Utilizing a database of all the pop hits of the past, it crafts music for Carole and Tuesday’s rival, a superficial yet endearing girl named Angela. The music Angela sings in the show is exactly what you’d expect to hear from something created by an AI with hackneyed metaphors and the genericism of radio-ready pop.
I want to focus on the music because this series shines on the musical front more than any other. Utilizing the talents of a myriad of actual musicians such as bassist Thundercat and rapper Denzel Curry, "Carole & Tuesday" revels in showcasing the musical chops of all the musician characters it introduces. Most anime will cheaply skip over any opposing acts other than the main rival. But "Carole & Tuesday" has a level of care put into it that is beyond what was probably necessary. Every musical act has a different genre associated with him or her and the series celebrates the wacky nature of the music industry as well as the diversity of it. Rap, country, pop, metal, electronic – nearly every genre possible is represented.
Another aspect of the series that was surprising was how easily it could vacillate between bizarre comedy to too-real drama. There’s an episode that’s basically "American Idol" where we get to watch the horrible acts embarrass themselves for the judges – and then there’s an episode where Angela, a child star forced into singing because of her mother’s wishes, becomes a drug addict. There are no pulled punches when it comes to the realities of the music world and the cutthroat, drug-addled, and sometimes depressing nature of being a musician.
But among all these disparate elements (not even getting into Mars election focusing on a refugee crisis, loads of nods to 70s and 80s music, and genetically altered babies) there is the central core of our protagonist duo Carole and Tuesday. Two wholly likable characters that begin as archetypes you've seen before and become more and more three-dimensional the further into the series you get.
This series was released to Netflix last year but I spent the past couple weeks watching it as an escape from the barrage of COVID-19 news. It’s the exact series I needed at this time, managing to hit all the right notes and leaving a smile on my face. It's a show for music lovers of all denominations (though this is definitely not a children’s show despite outward appearances). Even those who aren’t fans of anime will find something to appreciate from this unique love letter to music.
"Carole & Tuesday" can be watched on Netflix.
FINAL VERDICT: 3.75 out of 4 Stars