Review of Carole & Tuesday (2019)
Seen in 2020.
Over the course of a year, three talented girls in their mid teens debut as pop musicians on Mars. One’s a gene-edited overachiever, one’s an orphan and one’s the daughter of a politician running for election to the highest office on the planet. The political campaign, guided by specialized AI systems, turns ugly.
A prestige production by Watanabe Shinichirō, famous for Cowboy Bebop (1998), Samurai Champloo (2004) and Space Dandy (2014). As usual with him, it’s a stylish, sometimes awkward and superficial mix of genres with some comparatively realistic character designs.
The political level of the narrative is mostly kept on the margins and still isn’t strong enough to justify its presence. For unexamined reasons, there is a stream of immigrants and/or refugees from Earth to Mars. Still more strangely, there’s an unspecified ethnic dimension to this trend, because it is an allegory of Trumpism. Valerie, the campaigning politician, drifts into nativism and separatism and then makes a complete about-face when she learns that her ruthless advisor Jerry staged a terrorist bombing à la Putin’s 1999 apartment bombings. In the finale, a Band Aid-style paean to motherhood deflates all that tension and the politician gets ready to run again, her heart evidently pure as the driven snow. It’s an insincere attempt to inject tension without the necessary worldbuilding, exposition and characterization.
Other real-world correspondences add to the sense of superficiality. Among these are 2019-style social-media influencer Pyotr running in an X Factor-style reality TV talent show for far too many episodes, and numerous real brands like Instagram, the (Mars) Grammies, The Guardian and even the SXSW festival, now held on Mars. It’s a conservative vision of the future, marked by the way in which the writers deliberately fail to relate the Martian calendar to any real calendar. It’s Martian year 0049, coming up on 50 years since the founding with no trace whatsoever of the difficulties of settlement. Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) similarly covers the year “0079” because the Japanese like to use ○ (maru, circle, zero) as a placeholder and, in that case, a mask: 0079 is 1979. 0049, of course, is not 2019; the writers couldn’t even get failure right.
Like the political layer, the economic layer is bad. The unit of currency is the Woolong, implying a link to Bebop. EDM DJ Ertegun, who seems to be patterned after JJ in Yuri on Ice (2016), is reduced to a net worth of zero Woolongs at one point. He’s not in debt, is not losing money and can still perform, and the record industry is still doing just as well as it did in Japan in 2019—presumably paying royalties—yet Ertegun cannot even borrow instruments, as if an empty account were the same thing as destitution.
Running through the political campaign and Ertegun’s fleeting career is the spectre of AI. It’s not Spotify-style AI disrupting the music industry or actually changing society like Cambridge Analytica, but AI on the pattern of Lil Miquela, autotune, subverted sousveillance, hackable self-driving cars and stereotypical anthropomorphized robot pets and crappy servants: Bits and pieces of the late 2010s with traditional comic-relief characters. The use of cryptocurrencies and He Jiankui’s illegal human gene-editing (the mysterious Zeeman producing Tao, the cool Case-like hacker music producer) follow the same pattern. Carole and Tuesday as characters represent a regression to pro-human, anti-technological comfort.
The music in this integrated musical is all bad. The notion expressed in episode 23, that musical self-expression is hampered by Valerie, may be a nod to music-industry self-censorship for the Chinese market, but it’s nonsensical on the diegetic level. Carole and Tuesday’s response has none of Beck’s punk attitude; they leave that to a couple of otherwise marginal black rappers named Skip and Ezekiel, no less, who are worse than the rappers in Devilman: Crybaby (2018). Other minor characters poke a little fun at spectacles in pop music, and the record business is exploitative of its starlets, but there is nothing in here as funny as Phantom of the Paradise (1974).
The sexual politics are more surprising as SF. One dying Ziggy Stardust-style pop star named Desmond (Yamadera Kōichi!) explains that radiation is turning Martians intersex. Intradiegetically, absolutely nobody seems to have a problem with exposing themselves to this radiation. Its relationship to intersex people on Earth is not examined in any way. Add to this some grotesque non-binary mermaids, the violently deranged lesbian Cybelle and Angela’s abusive androgynous “mother”. It’s both a deficit of realism and, at the same time, bland and colourless compared to the sexual politics of earlier Japanese SF like Ōhara’s “Girl” (1985). Again, it’s Watanabe struggling to follow trends, not thinking things through.
The visuals are OK and the main characters are not bad, but the flaws run deeper than the strengths. I surmise that Carole & Tuesday is more of a children’s show than Watanabe’s earlier hits, perhaps targeting an audience around age 15.