The following may contain spoilers for Listeners.
Director / Hiroaki Ando
Screenplay / Dai Satou
Production / MAPPA
Release Date / April 3, 2020
Around the middle of last year, I stumbled upon Listeners, a mecha anime with musical themes and references all over. It also gave me some Eureka Seven vibes thanks to our main protagonists so I got curious. But not curious enough to watch all 12-episodes right then and there. It took me a while but I finally got to finish the entire series and yeah, there’s no need to rush watching this. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not often you get a mix of music and mecha in one. Plus, the plot and premise is something you’ll get curious about. But if you want my quick thoughts on this series, then don’t get curious too much as it leaves a lot to be desired. I’ll save the details for later but for now, let’s enter a world of people with auxiliary ports, amplifiers turning to robots, and the mandatory romance as we dive in to Listeners.
Before we go further, I just want to clarify that I’m not the most knowledgeable in contemporary music. I can identify prominent references, but I definitely missed some as well.
Listeners starts in the run-down town of Liverchester where we find our protagonist Echo Rec who always dreams of becoming a Player. In this world, entities dubbed as the Earless are attacking humanity and it’s up to the Players to defend by piloting mecha called Equipments though connecting to an auxiliary port on their bodies. This is also where Echo finds Mu, a female Player who has no memory of who she is, other than having a vacuum tube of a pendant similar to that of Jimi Stonefree, a legendary Player who kickstarted and technically caused the current state of the world. Thus beings their quest of looking for Jimi in hopes of learning more about Mu. With a unique premise and concept of mixing music and mecha (yes, Macross did it way earlier but that’s more of an idol analogue), Listeners sets off to a promising start.
The series has a lot of colorful characters, most of which are homages to real world musical icons. Personally, the musical aesthetic is probably the strongest aspect of the show. But also exposes a missed opportunity, more on that later. The usual banter between Echo and Mu, the classic timid male and spunky female combo, is there as expected, but the supporting characters add a lot to the mix. Nir (for Nirvana, and is modeled after Kurt Cobain) is one of the more notable ones. She initially appears to be a typical villain-of-the-week deal but becomes a more important player in the story. Get it… Player? Moving on. Other characters highlighted in succeeding episodes include Bilin and Kevin Valentine, Roz, and Denka (who is an obvious homage to Prince). I won’t get into the details of how they factor into the story, but you’ll immediately know that they’re not just one-offs. Then there’s the Noise Sisters and how they don’t make much sense.
The animation is a good combination of traditional 2D for the characters and 3D for the mecha and some background imagery. This is pretty much expected for a modern series. The combat between various Equipments and the Earless is clunky and definitely not dynamic. I personally think is an more of an artistic choice and less of an animation issue. The Equipments as robots also have a steampunk aesthetic which isn’t what you’d expect from something that transforms from an amplifier but it sort of works. Speaking of Equipments, as unique as their designs are, don’t expect great combat sequences coming out of them. Almost all Equipment battles, are just simple punches here and there, and mostly flashes of light with beam spamming.
Let’s not forget the soundtrack from a composer going by the name L!th!um. I imagine the name is an homage to the Nirvana song. It’s not Cowboy Bebop level good but it does set the mood for each episode. Not to mention that each episode has its own unique ending song, each performed by Rie Takahashi who voices Mu.
With only 12 episodes, the series has to juggle between world-building, moving the plot, and developing characters. It does a good job in bringing in other important characters despite their short introductions. Pacing is mixed and you could divide the series into two, with the first 8 episodes as set up and the last 4 as climax. I do like how both Echo and Nir each got entire episodes (with the latter after her first appearance) to basically establish their resolve during the series’ last act. Unfortunately, Mu got the short end of the stick and didn’t have much progression. She was mostly brainwashed during the latter third of the series and had her origins unceremoniously dropped right there and then, not to mention the lack of motivation.
On that note, the world-building in Listeners isn’t good. It’s framed along the search for Jimi Stonefree along with a good chunk of exposition in episode 10. Basically, the Earless just appeared out of nowhere and a war with the humans broke out, leading to Project Freedom, Jimi’s disappearance, and the appearance of Mu. Oh by the way, Mu is actually an Earless, who then referred to themselves as “Listeners”, and took the likeness of Jimi Stonefree. Not the most shocking of twists but I admit not seeing it a mile away so that’s a good thing, I guess? And of course, thanks to Echo, Mu, understanding, and the power of love, humans and the Listeners established peace and coexisted with each other.
I think this is also a good point to mention that while Listeners appears to be a show with music deep into its story, it’s actually just an aesthetic. It has the visual references, or how the world has lost the art of music thanks to the Earless attacks. But looking at the bigger picture, the main theme of the show isn’t really about music. You can basically change the musical elements, and replace the Earless with another set of monsters, and the story would still work. While the visuals and themes of Listeners are unique, it is still very much a generic mecha series underneath.
Overall, Listeners is okay and still enjoyable. It has an interesting concept though at the end of the day, all those references contributed only to the show’s aesthetic, not so much with the plot. I’m inclined to think the 12 episode runtime wasn’t enough but then again, what more could they add with more episodes? If you’re a fan of both mecha and contemporary music, then you’ll be delighted with the homages but like I mentioned earlier, Listeners leaves a lot more to be desired.