Saturday, 21 July 2012

Anime REVIEW: The Idolm@ster

Idols feel very much an Asian concept. Sure the West has pop stars and the like, but Japan's huge idol culture takes things to a whole different level. The Idolm@ster is a 25 (plus one recently released OVA) episode series based on the Namco game series of the same name, which sees you raise prospective idols to the height of fame. It's not the first Idolm@ster anime to be produced, but one that's far more faithful to the games (the first series, Idolmaster: Xenoglossia, was about mecha pilots...something I may need to investigate in the future!) and includes their original voice cast. It was made by A-1 pictures (responsible for the likes of Black Butler, Fairy Tail and AnoHana) and aired between July and December 2011.

The Idolm@ster main cast

The Idolm@ster follows the day to day life of production company 765 Pro and their twelve wannabe idols. With a brand new Producer in tow and the help of former-idol-turned producer Ritsuko, office clerk Kotori and President Takagi, the girls work toward fulfilling their dreams of stardom. The series charts their rise to fame, from the girls' humble beginnings putting on shows at town Summer Festivals to playing on a neon lit to screen to crowds of hundreds. However their life isn't always as glamorous as you might think, with them having to deal with busy schedules, rival companies and having (in some cases) their secret past brought up by paparazzi reporters.

With the daunting task of introducing such a huge concept, the first episode gets the series off to a very strong start. Taking the format of a Spinal Tap-style documentary, we are introduced to each of the girls and their dreams of becoming idols. At the end of the episode, it’s revealed that the camera man is in fact Producer (who is never properly named in the show, as this is the character you play as in the game), the man who has been hired to take these girls to do the top. When the following few episodes delve into standard moe hijinks, it does leave a bit of a sore taste and a longing for the whole show to take that format. But it’s a show you have to stick with, as much like the girls fame it builds upon itself and gets bigger as it goes on. The first half of the series sets up the bonds between the girls, while the latter half follows them after their rise to fame and not only deals with what they do, but the fallout as they slowly spend less and less time with each other due to increasing workloads. This is just one of The Idolm@aster’s emotional storylines, both of which take place at the very end of the show. But of course, they still make sure to go out on a high.

Producer and Ritsuko

With such a huge cast to play around with, it wouldn’t be surprising if some were forgotten while others hog all the limelight. But each and every one of the main characters receive a focus episode, and while obviously some take some centre stage more than others no one is left unnoticed. Each of the twelve girls brings a different element to the show – Haruka is the glue that holds them altogether, Iori is the tsundere, Ami and Mami are the comedy double-act, Takane is the mysterious one, Makoto the tomboy, Yayoi the poor kid with the heart of gold and so on. Despite being based on a nameless roleplay character, Producer also holds up well as the main support character for all of the girls, and you want him to succeed just as much as the girls.

Iori, Yayoi, Ami & Mami aim for the top!

That isn’t to say The Idolm@ster doesn’t make a few missteps along the way. The introduction of Ryuguu Komachi – a three piece unit consisting of Iori, Ami and Azusa is a bit of a muddled plot addition. At first it serves to show how three of them are getting more famous than the rest and the other girls’ subsequent emotions surrounding it, which does add a better sense of realism to the show. But following them all becoming equally famous, the point of them becomes a little lost and they seem to sink into non-existent. It also means Ami and Mami spend too much time separated, when they work brilliantly as a pair. Once the girls become famous, their run-ins with rival production company 961 Pro and their director Kuroi get a little bit ridiculous. The man does things that he could arguably be prosecuted for, but everyone seems to just treat them as annoying pranks. He does his job in that he’s an extremely unlikeable character, but the way everyone just shrugs him off is even more baffling and unlikeable.

On a more personal note, I felt far too much focus lands on Miki, who is shown to be “blazing ahead” of the rest of them. Being the “pretty blonde one”, it does lend itself to how the industry probably works, but it doesn’t help that she’s by far the most irritating character in the show and every time she speaks you just want her to shut up.

Girls on stage

Musically the show has so much on offer that it outstrips a lot of its competitors in the genre. Each episode has its own unique ending theme, and at least one (often more) insert track. Unfortunately unless the songs are especially on show during live concerts and the like, they become mostly lost in all that’s going on. Shows like K-On! used the songs more sparsely so that when they did appear you knew it was important, but here there’s so many of them they become a bit run of the mill. Undoubtedly The Idolm@ster is working on a far larger scale than K-On! ever did, but with songs as good as “Ready!!” and “Promise” you often wish it was more about the music sometimes.

Chihaya's story represents the darker side of The Idolm@ster

Despite a bit of a ropey start, The Idolm@ster really is a show that evolves as it goes on. It makes one of the best uses of a huge cast I’ve seen in an anime series, and you laugh and cry with each and every one of the girls of 765 Pro. It often places more focus on the characters than the actual music, but it makes it all the more of a richer experience and a more satisfying watch.

It isn't Beethoven, but it sure bounces.

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