Listeners: Musical Mecha Anime's Premiere Isn't as Good as It Sounds

The spring 2020 anime season kicked off with some highly anticipated showsListenersan original series from the animation studio MAPPA, didn’t receive as much attention as other new anime, and it looks to stay an obscurity.

The musical mecha anime has an interesting premise, nice character design and input from some big names in the anime industry, but the premiere falls short where it matters.

Listeners is an original series by MAPPA. Historically, MAPPA could be described as a hit-or-miss studio, producing some great series (Terror in Resonance and Dororo come to mind), but also more disappointing titles. In the case of Listeners, some were quietly optimistic that this rock music anime could be the surprise hit of the season. Music and mecha aren’t two words you usually see together, so it seemed mildly innovative. Some people even got FLCL vibes from Listeners’ promotional videos, which boasted a charming aesthetic and some great character design. Among other big names announced for the production, the show would be written by Dai Sato, who worked on classics like Cowboy Bebop and Eureka Seven. 

The premise is an interesting one. Set in a steampunk dystopian setting, music has ceased to exist. Shadowy monsters known as “Earless” attack the music-deprived humans. Beings known as “Players” contain audio jacks on their bodies, and this allows them to pilot “Equipment” mecha when plugged into amps. The Players fight the Earless. Listeners‘ protagonist is Echo, a spunky, down-to-earth boy dreaming of bigger things. While rummaging through a junkyard, Echo stumbles upon Mu, a mysterious Player who has lost her memories. The two set out on an adventure to discover Mu’s past, fighting the Earless along the way.

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Despite all its promise, the premiere of Listeners was unimpressive. A combination of average animation, average direction and uninteresting characters stop the show from being something greater. Indeed, everything in Listeners is a little half-hearted. Echo and Mu lack clear motivation, working together for the sake of it. Their chemistry becomes tedious quickly.

Mecha anime usually have high stakes, but the frivolous, light-hearted approach Listeners is taking fails to grip the viewer. As such, the first episode’s emotional beats fail to land. This is a shame: Listeners’ dystopian backdrop and funky artwork beg for a different approach, but it seems that Dai Sato hasn’t been able to convey the wit or maturity of his previous work. Somehow, despite its unique qualities, Listeners feels generic.

Furthermore, the first episode revealed this anime was not as musically inclined as first thought. This could have been a more rock-focused equivalent to Carole & Tuesday, but instead it’s more of a traditional mecha anime with music flavouring than a true music-mecha hybrid. Music appears an afterthought so far, though this could change going forward. The soundtrack is enjoyable, but if viewers want music utilized well in anime, there are far better choices.

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There’s also the heavy use of CGI, something that often spoils anime. It looks like the show’s fight scenes will be entirely CG-animated, and while that should be expected from a modern mecha anime without a sky-high budget, the first episode’s ending battle really wasn’t anything to write home about. Mu transforms into her mecha form and clobbers the obscure-looking Earless with flashing green lights. It all looks very awkward, disrupting Listeners’ aesthetic.

A disappointing premiere does not mean viewers should completely write off Listeners. It has an interesting premise, great character design and some proven masterminds involved in its production. There’s every chance the next few episodes could spice up the MAPPA original, but there’s no reason to tune in just yet.

New episodes of Listener stream on FUNimation, Fridays at 1:00 PM EDT.

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Somehow, despite its unique qualities, the first episode of the new musical mecha anime Listeners feels generic.

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