The Most Infamous Moé Anime (Lucky Star) - Anime Alphabet
A show that I grew to love as a cult classic, whose history has gotten a little muddy.
(This post was written as a script for the edited video above, which provides a more complete experience of the post’s subject. This video also contains unscripted interview sections notated in the text below. This text version is just for easier reference and comprehension for anyone in need.)
Lucky Star is one of the most fascinating animated experiments of the late 2000s. If Seinfeld was a show about nothing, Lucky Star is somehow about even less than that--a show where most episodes don’t have any unifying plot, and most of the scenes sort of meander between punchlines as the characters naturalistically go about their everyday lives. The tone shifts pretty hard from early episodes into later ones to become more exciting and forthrightly entertaining, with even some emotional beats and surprising plot evolutions in the later episodes, but none of that left quite the mark on culture that the very first episode’s infamous first half did with its long, pointless, meandering discussion of how the main characters enjoy various snacks.
In spite of its reputation, I think it would be a huge stretch to consider Lucky Star particularly revolutionary, or even all that influential. It wasn’t a huge success initially, and was in fact so lukewarm at first that its original director was quickly fired after four episodes, and the show changed focus going forward. Lucky Star was a lot more heavily discussed in the West, but not so much out of love, as out of representing the moment when a totally pointless piece of moe trash finally made it close enough to the mainstream of online anime fandom, that fans of manly anime started feeling threatened to the point of open warfare against moe fans. In the end, the cuteness won because the Japanese fandom doesn’t really care about what the West thinks, and was already high up on the moe wave by the time Lucky Star hit, and was only about to crest it a couple of years later when director Yamakan figured out what he was doing for a brief moment over at A-1 Pictures--but we can get into all that later.
Most of the influence Lucky Star did have piggybacked off of the enormous influence and success of Kyoto Animation’s previous work from a year before, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Haruhi was an overnight sensation that made its titular protagonist into the most popular anime character in the world for a couple of years; and in turn did the same for her voice actress, Hirano Aya-san. Casting Hirano-san as the otaku protagonist of Lucky Star, Izumi Konata, and then acknowledging Konata as a fan of Haruhi was a brilliant way to connect her directly to the audience that was already in love with that show--and it drove a lot of the initial discussion and attention toward the show, even if a lot of that ended up being negative. People wanted Haruhi Season 2 very badly, and getting a show that makes references to it and uses its leading voice actress for twenty-six episodes of aimless gag comedy in a different genre, when there wasn’t even a second season of Haruhi announced yet, was taken as a slap in the face by a lot of that show’s fans--and it wouldn’t be the last time KyoAni made them feel that way.
While Lucky Star director Yamakan was not the director of Haruhi, I think his unique role as a series organizer and choreographer of the famous ending dance played a massive role in the show’s ability to succeed. The Hare Hare Yukai dance was a viral meme around the world for a solid two years, and decisions like broadcasting the episodes out of order and starting with a mysterious student film adapting a later light novel story, as well as creating a sort of light-ARG website and other unique release gimmicks made Haruhi feel like this huge multimedia experiment and cultural event. It’s not a surprise that Yamakan tried to go for a similarly weird approach to structuring and marketing Lucky Star, and the opening theme song dance did successfully transcend into meme status--but it was also heavily derided at the time for riding on the success of the Hare Hare Yukai, and for being a much more hyperactive, over-the-top song which many listeners found unpalatably denpa.
I am a general appreciator of Lucky Star, and some of its gimmicks are some of my favorite things about the show. Every episode has another ED, for instance--the first half is all the girls doing karaoke of classic songs including obscure anime openings, and the second half is all the hilarious voice actor and radio personality Shiraishi Minoru doing a capella renditions of songs from what would eventually become his weird ass album, of which I may have been the biggest fan on Earth. Shiraishi and his co-host Kogami Akira also run the Lucky Channel segment at the end of each episode--which is basically an animated adaptation of a radio show that already existed and was sort of tacked onto Lucky Star as a cross-promotional gimmick thanks to Shiraishi Minori having played a minor character in Haruhi that became a meme for how he sings the line “wa wa wa wasuermono,” loosely meaning “forgot something.” These segments comment on the main show while telling their own weird, contained narrative that gets more fleshed out as the series goes, and ends up being one of its most memorable aspects.
I think it is of dire importance to note Lucky Star’s relationship to audio dramas and radio programs, which are aspects of otaku culture that tend to go almost completely unacknowledged by most of the non-Japanese fanbase simply because it’s difficult to subtitle an audio-only medium--and there has never seemed to be a ton of interest or effort made to translate most of this ancillary content. I’ve made the comparison in the past between these conversational comedies about cute girls doing cute things, and the appeal of podcasts and let’s plays wherein the main point is just appreciating the charisma of the performers and watching them interact. Lucky Star has superb, inviting and soothing visual design, with a lovely color palette, tons of amazing outfits, and adorable character designs which make it an easy sensory experience--but the main thrust of it is really about the voice acting. Lucky Star feels definitionally like something meant to be left on in the background and just sort of casually absorbed as part of the atmosphere. Hell, there’s a scene in the show itself wherein Konata is watching Haruhi in the background while posting on message boards, and it’s obviously meant to be a mirror-moment for the viewer.
Again, I don’t want to overstate the specialness of Lucky Star’s meta-ness. Self-referential otaku media goes all the way back to GAINAX’s Otaku no Video from 1991, and was going strong around the time of this show’s release, not too long after the likes of Genshiken and, again, Haruhi. Cute girls had been doing cute things like this since at least Azumanga Daioh, and the first season of Hidamari Sketch went to air a season before Lucky Star and was my favorite of the two, continuing on for four seasons and a bunch of OVAs.
While I maintain Lucky Star is still one of the best and most unique shows in the genre, I also think it’s understandable that Kyoto Animation stepping things up to a whole other level with K-On! and then later with Dragon Maid, that Lucky Star hasn’t held up as the pinnacle of even what the studio has done with the genre. I think most of us who feel a special connection to Lucky Star do so because we connect with at least a couple of the characters on a special level, or were at the place in the time it happened. Most likely, those characters are Konata and Kagami, and most likely you also used to ship them like I did. Okay, maybe I’m projecting.
It’s actually kinda hard to understate just how weird the first four episodes directed by Yamakan really are; and I’m not the only person out there who’s very curious to know how the whole show would’ve turned out had he stayed in charge, even if I’m still happy with a lot of what comes after his direct involvement in the show. It’s always kind of muddy to understand exactly how much could’ve changed between the pre-production and writing phases, and the actual production phase of the show, and it certainly doesn’t feel like a sudden gear-shift in episode five--but by episode ten, there’s a very noticeable difference in the tone and flow of the series to more of a conventional four-panel gag comic adaptation pacing, and less of the free-form, naturalistic conversational approach of Yamakan’s episodes.
The conversations in these episodes feel the most like real conversations of any I think I’ve ever seen in media, to an extent that is deliberately frustrating, especially in the first episode which Yamakan handled personally. There’s even a bit where someone joins the conversation, and a character re-explains the context of the conversation to get them involved. It’s not quite on the level of realistic diction, and the actors are very much performing to sound pleasant and cute on top of whatever other emotions are being expressed in the dialog, but the flow of the conversation and the way that the characters and their personalities bounce off of one-another feels decisively real. I think in fact it’s so real that most viewers completely took that aspect of it for granted in the first episode and were immediately bored with it. “Why are they just having a conversation that I would have with my friends?” I don’t think this is a question a lot of you will find relatable anymore post-pandemic, but as a shut-in through high school who met my best friend, another hikkikomori, because he brought a Japanese Lucky Star promotional book to school, I also found that question unrelatable even back then. I did not have friends with which I was having these kinds of conversations.
When I was sixteen, I’d grown facial hair I was literally too scared to try and shave even though I hated it and too embarrassed to ask my dad to teach me, and I was overweight and had nothing but shitty oversized clothes and long, unkempt hair that I didn’t know how to take care of, and I basically felt like shit all the time and didn’t want anyone to look at me ever if possible. I would wake up at four in the morning each day, watch three episodes of a show like Serial Experiments Lain or Haibane Renmei before school, and then come home from school and watch another three episodes before my little brother got home, then usually listen to music and write song lyrics on my computer all day while watching him play video games and thinking about how shitty everything is until I fell asleep.
When I found my way onto the Megatokyo forums around the end of 2006, I saw tons and tons of hype for Haruhi on there and ended up checking it out and instantly boarding the hype train as it became tied as my favorite anime ever with Evangelion that I’d seen six months prior. As I got deeper involved in the site early in 2007, I discovered the concept of fansubbed, currently-airing anime, and started watching the scant translations of Hidamari Sketch, Gakuen Utopia Manabi Straight, and Nodame Cantabile, all for the chance at experiencing the relationships I was supposed to be having with real people in high school and couldn’t. I didn’t understand my trans identity yet and was extremely secretive about the fact that I was watching shows with only girl characters, because I didn’t know how to answer for why I was so interested in those kinds of shows. Nonetheless, the genre of cute girls doing cute things was an immediate fixation of mine--and even though I actually dropped Lucky Star after twelve episodes while it was airing because I thought it was boring, I ended up rewatching it multiple times with my aforementioned best friend in the coming years and falling in love with it the more I understood its sense of humor and all the cultural references it makes which I hadn’t at first thanks to my lack of exposure to Japanese pop media.
Because the scenes in Lucky Star flow with such naturalism, they tend to cover a lot of ground, with tons of distinct little character moments that only really mean as much as you are intrigued with them. The dynamic of the early episodes is mostly thus: Konata is constantly questioning the logic of the world around her and overthinking things, Kagami is usually playing defense for the way things are and trying to counter Konata’s logic, and Tsukasa acts as a sort of control; a turbo-normie who doesn’t particularly think about or question anything, and isn’t really equipped to counter either of the others’ arguments. Miyuki is a control in another way, in that she comes off as not really needing to think about stuff because she’s so overwhelmingly intelligent that she understands everything implicitly. She can very easily settle an argument that revolves around information, but rarely has any kind of strong actual opinions on matters.
How each of these characters is uniquely fleshed out comes mostly through examining the particular differences in how they interact with the world around them. Boiling that idea down to its core is what gives us the infamous opening conversation about the best way to eat a chocolate coronet and everything that follows. I think the conversation about how each person passive-aggressively reacts to making sure they get enough meat for themselves during a group hot grill is maybe the most uniquely intriguing way to establish the girls’ personalities. It’s a situation we can all relate to, and it’s not even so much that they all feel differently about it as that they act on their instincts differently to different results. It’s not even as important really that the characters are consistent in their behaviors, as they throw plenty of curveballs along the way to really stand out as unique people, but more so that all of the reactions and behaviors are true enough to life that we can understand the characters in their situations.
Again, the power in all of this really relies on how much you care to spend time with these characters. It really is a friendship simulator in the early episodes, with some moments that maybe could cause you to laugh out loud; but mostly that doesn’t even seem to be one of its aims until the comedy director takes hold after episode five. Even though it wears the guise of being a show for male otaku, it’s hard for me not to think that Yamakan was going out of his way to make something he thought girls would relate to and want to watch--a feat the ladies at KyoAni would actually accomplish with K-On, Free and Violet Evergarden later, among others--and also that guys who want to completely disappear into a world of cutesy feminine interaction, whatever their motivations may be, could blissfully disappear into the dulcet tones of its comfy soundtrack and sweetly-voiced girls.
I don’t think Lucky Star would’ve been anywhere near as popular as it got to be, even outside Japan, if it hadn’t shifted gears after those early episodes. As much as I appreciate what Yamakan was trying to do, it seems like he didn’t actually satisfy the audiences he was aiming for. In the second episode, Konata complains about the fact that an anime is being made of a manga she likes which changed the voice cast from the drama CD adaptations. Maybe this was intended as a concession to Lucky Star fans who’d already heard Hirohashi Ryou-san voicing Konata, along with the rest of the completely different cast of the 2005 drama CD; but it probably felt more like adding insult to injury, when Hirano-san was so obviously cast to capitalize on the success of Haruhi. Having said that, I doubt there would’ve been a greenlight for this adaptation of what in my opinion is an incredibly mid-tier manga from 2003 if not for Hirano-san’s attachment--so for me and many others, this rounded up as a win. Still, it wasn’t good for the initial reaction to the series--nor was having Konata complain about Haruhi on 2channel in episode four. Yamakan was playing into the meta in too much of a contentious way that a lot of fans found alarming, especially in a world without a second season of Haruhi--and even more especially in a world still without a third proper season of Full Metal Panic.
A lot of the unique flourishes that make Lucky Star lovable to me are partly so because they are my only light tastes of whole universes of otaku culture I barely know about. Having been a fan of Genshiken before Lucky Star, and being deep into otaku media throughout the late 2000s, it wasn’t necessarily revelatory to me outside of those couple of aspects that weren’t really touched on by other anime, and so those influences remain one of my favorite things about this show, even though to people who are actually fans of drama CDs and idol or voice-actor driven radio programs, some of the metatextual stuff might seem passe, or even strike as insulting. The next anime to incorporate those aspects of the culture heavily and to get meta about the industry side of things without insulting the fans would be Sore ga Seiyuu, which I would also pretty easily recommend to most fans of Lucky Star.
I can only speculate about the exact reasons for Yamakan’s exile from Lucky Star, but if I had to guess, it’s because he seems like kind of an unlikeable, unstable cunt. Granted I love the guy and saw his panel at Otakon one year where he dressed and acted like the hottest shit on Earth, only to go reputationally to hell after a string of not only failed original projects, but more pertinently a consistent tendency to make controversial statements about the fans, the industry, and other creators every chance he gets. Suffice it to say, I think KyoAni was probably raring for the opportunity to drop this douchebag, even if he might have been a marketing genius, because he brings a toxic reputation to everything he touches.
Yamakan was replaced by the late great Takemoto Yasuhiko-san, who’d already directed on Haruhi and the hilarious Fullmetal Panic Fumoffu, and would go on to direct Amagi Brilliant Park, Hyouka, and the first season of Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid before his murder at the hands of an arsonist who attacked Kyoto Animation and killed a large number of employees in 2019. Takemoto-san was a comedic genius and powerhouse storyboard artist and animation director whose influence over modern anime probably hasn’t really been understood yet. He is a legend in the making and will never be forgotten, including for his excellent work over the rest of this series in turning it into more of an Azumanga Daioh or Pani Poni Dash-esque slice-of-life gag comedy.
While I’m on the subject of Pani Poni, I think it’s fascinating how Lucky Star kind of accomplished for Westerners what the US distributors of that show had seemingly set out to do much harder and failed. You see, Japanese comedies have always struggled with American audiences, unless they come off SO weird and left-field that audiences are amused that such a thing found a way to exist. American anime distributor ADV had hit it big with two shows like that around the turn of the millennium: namely, Quack Experimental Anime Excel Saga, and Azumanga Daioh. As such, when 2005’s Pani Poni Dash from studio SHAFT basically combined the concepts of both of those shows into one, they jumped on it and pushed it hard as the next big anime comedy--and, well, suffice it to say that fewer of you have probably seen Pani Poni than have seen Lucky Star, even now.
Pani Poni Dash was just way too weird. ADV added a feature which extensively notated all the Japanese cultural references, but a lot of the show just legitimately didn’t make sense if you didn’t know that stuff already--even moreso than Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei to come later from the same staff. Excel Saga made a lot of references, but it was much more broad with its genre and style parodies, and mostly referenced other nerdy media that was recognizable to its audience. Lucky Star is closer to Pani Poni in that it references all kinds of cultural stuff that’s likely to whiff with a lot of non-Japanese viewers, and it even has some bits that it acknowledges will be difficult to get even for its intended audience--but that wink and nod does a whole lot to at least let the audience know when they’re not supposed to get the joke, and the show is also way less dense with references or generally difficult to parse as compared to Pani Poni. That show is seriously unhinged, while Lucky Star is actually down-to-earth feeling even in comparison to Azumanga Daioh, which I also think is why it didn’t hit as hard here as that show did culturally in the short-term. I think the most important thing this show actually did for Westerners was just to be a lot of their introduction deeper into otaku culture--but it kind of doesn’t matter what your jumping-on point is, as long as you keep burrowing deeper.
Takemoto-san’s influence over Lucky Star can be felt especially prominently in episode six, which is the first one that he directed personally. By this I mean that Lucky Star had a team of episode directors and storyboard artists handling different episodes, and so each of them has a kind of unique feeling to it, even beyond the overall tonal shift between the four episodes guided by Yamakan’s direction, and the rest of the show under Takemoto. Episode six is a lot more exciting and over-the-top than previous ones, with shifts in animation style for an Initial D style parody, and lots of snazzy animation cuts. It feels almost exactly like the standard tonal space that Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid hangs in, and I could easily recommend that show to anyone that likes episodes like this from Lucky Star, or vice-versa. The next episode feels closer in tone and pacing to the ones before it, so again I don’t think the show immediately feels like it’s shifted gears hard, so much as like episode six was just especially fun because of being a beach episode--at least until around halfway, when it really starts to settle in that the show has made a definitive shift towards being more consistently funny.
Diving into the meat of the show’s center, I don’t want to run the risk of trying to over-explain a series that is mostly experiential. The outfits just keep getting better and better, and Kagami is in my opinion an absolute style icon and androgynous god. I want her and Tsukasa’s entire wardrobes, but maybe toned down a little to Earthen colors. Personally, I tend to think that the oversaturated instagram ad clothing style that looks like this show translates poorly to most real-life scenarios and realistically exists to wear and take selfies in bed next to string lights. When this video reaches twenty-five thousand views, just as the case with my Cardcaptor Sakura video, I will create a video ranking every single outfit in the show.
It may seem odd that I’ve tried to downplay Lucky Star’s status as a classic while including it in my series of videos on anime classics, but I felt the need to talk about it not only because it is a classic to me personally, but also because it is sort of reputationally classic to myself and my generation of anime fans. Back in 2014, I was the first midsize anime youtuber to sing the praises of shows like Lucky Star and K-On, and sparked a massive wave of people talking about and spreading those shows around, turning their reputational memory from something sort of derided in the popular consciousness of the anime sphere, to a more respectful perspective reflecting the status of these shows in Japan--which would be bolstered massively by sources like Sakuga blog covering Kyoto Animation extensively in the coming years.
When I asked my viewers what anime I should pick for the letter L, a lot of comments suggested that I practically “had to” pick Lucky Star because I was the right person to sing the importance of the show--but the reason that’s the case is that the show was specifically important mostly to people like me. While I’d gotten to understand the Japanese otaku experience to some degree from watching Genshiken and keeping up with bilingual bloggers and the like online, that show was meant to give a realistic experience and perspective on the otaku experience.
Lucky Star, instead, is a fantastical version of that experience. Konata is an audience stand-in for all intents and purposes, except that she happens to be the tiniest, most adorable little natural athlete in the world, and gets to spend all of her time hanging out with adorable twin shrine maidens and the beautiful Miyuki-chan. Beyond the far-flung fantastical power fantasies and sexual escapades of other anime shows, is there much else that the average otaku really wants out of life than what Konata has? I think the real power in Lucky Star is creating a comforting reflection of the self for the audience--a portrait of you divided from the incel qualities which are keeping you from having these kinds of friends in real life. Even the fact that she shares her voice with Haruhi, who already made a powerful audience stand-in character for a lot of viewers like me who saw ourselves in her instead of Kyon, adds to the layers of identification which all really merge when Konata goes to see her own voice actress perform as Haruhi in concert, and is so emotionally moved by the experience that she’s still in her feelings all the way home. That was the moment which really sold this show to me the first time I watched it through.
Given that Lucky Star is comprised mostly of fairly disconnected scenes, there are certain moments from the show that had a lot more impact that anything else. Konata’s teacher taking home the Christmas cake is probably the first exposure most American fans had to that cultural joke, and the next episode’s trip to Comic Market, where Kagami discovers boys love for the first time and slowly begins her fujo descent, probably introduced a few ideas to a whole lot of fans. Anime Tenchou also appears in several episodes, being an obscure marketing character created by GAINAX to promote Animate in the 90s, which is probably the place where I first learned about animator Imaishi Hiroyuki, and bridged the gap between having been a fan of G Gundam years before, and learning about Blazing Transfer Student and Blue Blazes, all from the Anime Tenchou character designer. In this way, Lucky Star is like a rabbit hole whose walls are full of other rabbit holes.
In the second half, the show filters in the rest of its surprisingly large supporting cast. A few of these characters get more fleshed out than others, and I remember feeling surprised by how much I felt like the show could’ve kept going with all those new characters, but figured it probably wouldn’t after ending in a pretty finalizing way. Eventually, two of the characters did get a spinoff show, which I will make another video about, along with the manga and any other piece of Lucky Star tie-in media I can find in English when this video reaches fifty-thousand views. Probably the most memetically memorable of these characters ended up being the foreign-exchange student and anime otaku Patty, whose adorable broken Japanese also helped to win over the hearts of the non-Japanese audience.
In all honesty, I can’t imagine myself ever watching the entirety of Lucky Star in order in the way that I did the times that I marathoned it with my best friend in 2007 and 2009, or with my brother 2014, and just now for the sake of this video. I have talked about in the past how anime that exist for healing and relaxation don’t tend to appeal to me, as I am more comforted by constant, chaotic experiences like scrolling through my twitter feed retweeting every piece of cool art I see, or listening to loud music and watching anime sped-up at the same time, as a means of decompression, rather than slowing things down. All of the shows that ended up appealing to me in the genre were specifically the conversationally-fixated ones, because, as you may have noticed by now, I am not capable of shutting myself up. I struggled to have meaningful conversations for a very long time because my insecurity over my identity made it difficult for me to figure out my own intentions and what I wanted from interactions--but now that I don’t have those issues anymore, I feel like I can be more selective about what conversations I think are particularly interesting or engaging to return to. There are definitely cool scenes in this show that I can see individually returning to, or even just looking up “funniest lucky star moments” and watching a compilation or something. This is a show that deserves to come up when you’re scrolling youtube shorts just as much as family guy and rick and morty.
I think the lasting emotional impact of Lucky Star on its audience was made mostly possible by its pairs of more dramatic scenes in episodes twenty-two and twenty-four, coinciding also with the resolution of the Lucky Channel subplot. The ghost of Konata’s mother spectating her entire life, having died during Konata’s birth, can’t help but tug at the heartstrings, and stands out just for the fact that something which makes a lot of people cry was slipped into this otherwise very dry comedy series. The last episode also adds a certain sense of closure and finality to the story, giving the girls a big stage performance as the series closer, pulling a page from Haruhi’s book which Manabi Straight had also added to this genre not long beforehand, and which K-On was going to take above and beyond in both seasons. I can’t say that the emotional highs of Lucky Star come anywhere close to those of K-On, but in a way, that makes it much more of a throw-and-go type of experience than that show, which is better holistically.
The Lucky Star OVA is luckily the best of what the show has to offer, and on its own I can more easily see rewatching this one episode over and over than doing the rest of the series--but I’m going to wait to talk about that, and about the short spinoff ONA series Miyakawa-ke no Kuufuku, until this video reaches fifty-thousand views, as per the usual anime alphabet sequel bargain. Help me to reach that viewcount by sharing this video with anyone you think would be interested!