The iDOLM@STER franchise originally started as a series of video games, back in 2007 it received an anime with a complete re-imagining of the characters as mecha pilots, in the form of Idolm@ster Xenoglossia. However I’m here to talk about A-1 Pictures more direct adaptation of the game, with which the minds of Gainax’s Nishigori Atsushi and Kyoto Animation’s Takao Noriko brought something special to the series as it returned to television once more in 2011.
This post is not really going to take the place of a formal review or analysis, but more of a space for me to cover both what I found interesting and noteworthy about The Idolmaster, and also what I felt were some key issues that hampered the series. While it serves to organise my own disparate thoughts on this series, I know there’s some of you out there who are also very keen to know what I feel about this beloved title. Without further ado, let’s get RE@DY, and also L@DY to talk about some idols!
The thing I that stood out to me, that I loved most about Idolmaster was the sheer variety it has on offer. That comes as no surprise as the show has a fairly large cast, 765 Production is comprised not only of a troupe of twelve lead idols, there are also producers and other members of staff that take central roles in the story. This lends itself very well to Idolmaster’s episodic style, where it dips into a wide variety of tones and styles, from contemplative vignettes focused on a single character to hectic ensemble episodes that can take the form of solemn drama or frenetic (and often ridiculous!) comedy.
Whatever it attempts, Idolmaster fully commits its resources to deliver its desired genre outcome. Not only does it possess a vast slew of episode directors and storyboard artists, but the show takes great care to carefully tailor its visual execution and animation to fit each undertaking. This is one of the aspects in which the show can really stretch the talent of its production staff, to deliver incredibly fluid, well composed and choreographed dance performances, or carefully detailed character acting that breathes minute tics of facial expression to life, in order to sell some very powerful dramatic moments.
There are some particularly noteworthy episodes I want to highlight as examples of how the show’s breadth of styles and it’s mastery over them works to build it as an experience greater than the sum of its parts. It is because these are the episodes that form emotional anchors for particular characters that take place during a certain stage in their journey, that continue to inform us of their character in future (as in the case of some of the early episodes), or that work as a payoff to something the show had been building up to in the background for a while.
Early on in the show, the prissy rich girl Iori takes the spotlight, who we’ve seen thus far as overtly concerned with her self-image and maintaining a sense of superiority over those around her. Upon visiting the hectic, chaotic home of fellow idol Yayoi, older sister to many siblings, house work and child care second nature to her, Iori is forced to challenge the assumptions of the world she has grown up in as a sheltered only-child. Learning how hard it is for her friends, and appreciating struggles other than her own, we see her attempts at humility, teamwork and empathy grow over the course of the series.
The Producer, who manages and organises 765 Pro’s team of idols in addition to providing emotional support, is an extremely central character to the story of Idolmaster. While he found it initially difficult to relate to, and earn the trust of the idols working with him, he eventually becomes a natural at his role, becoming an inexhaustible fountain of compassion for these insecure adolescents. However, the show is not ignorant of his own plight, as one who has to take responsibility for and manage the schedules and performance-readiness of twelve idols simultaneously, stress and fatigue are a given. It’s when he learns to trust the girls own abilities and give them a bit of independence with which to pick up the slack, a more manageable workload is achieved, this time with less unproductive fretting and uncertainty, allowing him to become a more effective producer.
When the Producer’s peer, Ritsuko, takes the initiative to form her own project, the idol subunit Ryuuguu Komachi, consisting of Iori, Azusa and Ami, the remaining idols try very hard to hide their discontent with Producer, who has yet to truly show tangible success to them. This is particularly difficult on the keen and talented Miki, who’s hungry, almost impatient for her hard work to be recognised and rewarded. When seeing the girls in Ryuuguu Komachi flourishing, she feels left behind, unknowingly, Producer has had a burden placed on him that he is unable to reciprocate.
This conflict almost results in Miki quitting 765 Production, when this invalidation causes her motivation to falter. Without clear goals and rewards to justify the extra effort she usually puts in, Miki becomes directionless and apathetic. As someone who could have taken life easily, reflecting upon the life of a duck “who can float even when it’s asleep”, Miki makes it her pride to instead challenge herself and do as much as possible to improve herself and stretch her talent to the limit. In the upcoming concert, 765 Pro is forced to stall for time as the “main attraction” of Ryuuguu Komachi are going to be late, when given the opportunity to go the extra mile and push herself to the brink, Miki makes no hesitation. When the chance, in her own words, “to sparkle and make her heart pound with excitement” manifests in front of her, there’s absolutely nothing that can stand in Hoshii Miki’s way.
Speaking of scrutiny, while I’ve been singing sparkles and rainbows in praise of Idolmaster’s strengths, I’m also here to voice some of my more pressing complaints with certain elements of the show. With a series of such sprawling ambition and a broad lens focusing on such a large cast, it’s inevitable that there are going to be some rough edges that don’t reflect off that light too well.
While I’ve given honorable mention to a few of Idolmaster’s best characters above, I sadly can’t say the same nuance is given to the entire cast in equal measure. There are a few idols who don’t have much compelling personality or motivations to them beyond the broad sketches that comprise their design and central gimmick (Hibiki is one that falls into this trap).
However, in some cases the show seems self-aware of this, and aims to not place too much of a leverage on these characters to hold dramatic weight (In the case of the twins, Ami and Mami). Instead of fully realised people with a diverse variety of interests and traits as exemplified by the most resonant individuals in the show, a portion of The Idolmaster’s cast come off as very strict adherences to the archetype they embody.
There are, however, some examples of characters that the show puts to good use despite their less tangible depth.
Outside of specific character qualms, it is also important to touch on some specific, finicky issues that mar Idolmaster’s general writing competence. The show likes to indulge in placing some undue romantic subtext between the girls and their Producer. Sometimes this will take the form of something more ambiguous like them being flustered in his presence or fighting for his attention, but in other cases this takes the form of overt romantic framing and dates. It’s definitely a remnant left over from when this was a game, where the Producer acted as the player surrogate character.
Another thing that a fun, fluffy show like Idolmaster struggles with, is in how it instigates conflict and drama through the action of some very inappropriate antagonists. The greatest issue here, is that while the characters themselves are written quite acutely, having their weaknesses prodded invasively, directly and sans subtlety by external forces like this serves to diminish the dramatic potential of the material, and can often make the emotional resolution feel hollow.
Though there are some instances in the first half of the show where some overtly brusque antagonists and contrived events form the spine for the show’s attempts at drama, this problem really rears its head with the introduction of rival studio, 961 Productions.
Throughout the second half of the series, the meddling shenanigans of President Kuroi abet a lot of shady, over the top plans to smear 765 Pro and harm the careers of its idols. Let’s be frank here, 961 Pro’s existence is ludicrous, and the show treats them as somewhat of a ridiculous in-joke, but that causes a huge tonal disconnect when they are cast as the overarching shadow that represents the difficulties and challenges that come with being a professional idol in the public spotlight. Especially so when their ploys form the trigger for Idolmaster’s clumsy attempts at tackling some more sensitive character material, resulting in some of the series’ worst lows, with farcical and trite episodic plots dampening the momentum set by the terrific first cour finale.
The excessively evil cartoon villainy represented by 961 Pro and Kuroi makes for some hysterical moments, especially with the hammy voice acting. However, I can’t help but feel they’re a lazy, tone-deaf approach to instigating drama in a show that doesn’t really need to resort to such methods. President Kuroi feels more like a character straight out of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, and in the case of this series, that’s a very ill fit.
In its final stretch of episodes, The Idolmaster makes amends by channelling its full force of direction and production talent into laying a fine microscope on two of its most central characters, that have built a multi-faceted relationship over the course of the series, Chihaya and Haruka. Now I’ll admit, while the extra ambition and gravitas the series takes to land this climax causes it to stumble in a few departments, as some of the external factors mentioned above do hurt the poignancy of the character journeys, I did find these arcs to be incredibly powerful on the whole.
Throughout the series, Chihaya’s reserved and serious attitude belied her murky past. Trapped by the death of her younger brother and fractured family, she sought solace in song. Chihaya never truly opened up to the rest of 765 Pro, even her closest friend Haruka, so when the past comes back to bite her as a smear scandal, she ends up in psychological trauma, unable to sing. The by far strongest part of this arc was in how Chihaya responded by isolating herself.
Haruka’s optimism and desire to help, through the filter of the barrier Chihaya has placed around herself, came off as insensitivity. The way she lashed out at her well-intentioned friend particularly resonated with me. The reason Haruka’s words initially failed to connect, is that they didn’t really come from a place of true understanding, Haruka was in fact acting upon her own desires, to try and ease her own uncomfortability with the situation – “if we could sing together again, we’d all be so happy”
The final arc of the show flips the situation around to focus more directly on Haruka’s, and by extension, the cast of the show’s most growing, and inevitable conflict.
As 765 Pro reaches closer and closer to the sky, with fame and stardom just fingertips away, the once-familial nature of the studio office faded away as the idols find themselves drifting apart as popularity and acclaim fill their once-upon-a-time empty schedules. This puts Haruka, who herself is the most intimately reliant on the cosy family space of 765’s ethos, at a tug of war between what she thought was happiness, and the true reality of being an idol.
Idolmaster’s final episode finishes things off with a bang, the performance exhibits the show at its full potential, as we get a phenomenal animation showcase as 765 Production dance and sing their hearts out. It’s a sight to behold.
All in all, I greatly enjoyed The Idolmaster as a very enjoyable anime series bursting with energy, care, and heartfelt sincerity. It contains some lovable and endearing characters as well as ones whose story will definitely stick with me for a long time to come!