Whenever a new season is announced, there’s always a rush among writers to cover as many series as possible, in hopes of discovering their next favorite show to cover. One can’t deny the excitement in this flurry of activity as preseason hopes are met, dashed, or exceeded; even those who take the cynical, “Everything this season is going to be terrible,” approach giddily throw themselves in with vigor, possibly with the glimmer of hope that they may be proven wrong.
It was with this same giddiness that I initially watched the first episode of The Idolm@ster, along with the curiosity that arose from this guest post on our blog by 2DT and Yi. The first episode was interesting enough (in particular its presentation, which is the focus of their discussion in the article linked above), but nothing reached out and grabbed me, compelling me to watch more. There were other series that had made a better case for continued viewing, and I wasn’t familiar with the Idolm@ster franchise at all, so it didn’t appear to be anything special.
One sleepless night and seven additional episodes later, I’m happy to have been proven wrong.
Based on a video game where one takes a prospective idol under their wing as her producer, the anime series The Idolm@ster follows the slumping studio 765 Productions, a new producer on staff, and its 13 idol candidates. It’s a series that, by design, invites the viewer to pick a favorite idol out of the 13 (much like they would choose their favorite in order to nurture their career in the game). The cynical part of me thinks that this is a ploy to sell even more merchandise, including the video games themselves, but the part of me that revels in the series admits that I’ve picked Miki Hoshii as my favorite of the group. Therein lies my conflict with The Idolm@ster, and it’s this conflict that makes the series so irresistible to watch.
In spite of the fact that the series is designed very specifically with the database animal in mind, it also manages to work in a few slight jabs at the idol industry while the viewer is compulsively ranking their favorite girls. On the outside of the shabby-looking building that houses the studio, among other things, the “765” on the studio window appears to have been written in duct tape. To the viewers’ and the new producer’s surprise, the girls’ first group job is at a remote county fair. The set-up for the inevitable beach episode is that the studio’s air conditioner breaks and the girls, who don’t have enough jobs to fill their time, end up taking a trip to the beach while the AC gets fixed; amidst the shots of the girls in colorful bathing suits, they ask each other why they don’t have more work. For every ploy by the series to sell more singles, games, and merchandise, there’s a small dig at the industry that’s making the producers of the series rich to begin with. The show also has obviously been given a big budget which, through the first eight episodes, has been put to good use.
It’s easy to tell that with such a popular franchise the production team wanted to put out a product that would not only draw in new viewers, but give little shout-outs to the existing fans as well. What was unexpected were those aforementioned jabs at the industry itself. The Idolm@ster is far from hard-hitting social commentary. Instead it’s the subtlety of shots that the series chooses to take which makes the commentary more insightful (and also occasionally more depressing) in its mundane portrayal of an idol’s life. The truly charming portions of the series are when it peels back the veneer of the girls’ selling points, and allows the audience to watch the characters when they’re technically off-camera. I was expecting to only be given one or two superficial tidbits about each character, in order to help with the choosing of a favorite; however, the characters that the show has chosen to focus on have been surprisingly well developed.
In the end it’s easy to recognize that I’m being manipulated by the series into liking it, but I’m liking it so much that I hardly care. I can’t decide whether it’s one of the most cynical series of the season, or simply the most marketable. Honestly, it’s more than likely a combination of the two. The most important thing to know about The Idolm@ster is that its a series that toes the line between these two extremes, and toes this line so beautifully that one can’t help but be swept up by its charm.