Friday, 30 December 2011

アイドルマスター/ The iDOLM@STER

Honestly, I expected to hate The iDOLM@STER. I didn’t know much about it before I saw it – it was based on some fanservicey game full of cute girls that seemed to be part dress-up doll and part visual novel; it had catchy songs like the one that kicks off Kumikyoku Nico Nico Douga; Hatsune Miku was going to show up in the second game as DLC; and its characters had already been in a weird-looking mecha anime which hadn’t gone down well called Xenoglossia.

I thought it came too late. I thought it was very much part of the moéblob fad, which really came to an end with the backlash against K-On. The world, I thought, had moved on from anime about the ordinary daily lives of cute girls, and the likes of Nichijou and the anime of Shaft were pushing us back towards off-kilter surrealism. The Idolm@ster would be too late, too obviously fanservicey, too dumb and too ordinary, I decided. And then I started actually watching it.

I understood it was manipulating me very easily, chewing me up and spitting me out. I understood the characters are from stock and the storylines are very familiar. But oh lord, I adored it.

In the game, you play the role of the producer in an all-female idol talent agency, 765 Pro (765 pronounced ‘Namuko’). As the screen shows what the producer sees, he never appears, is never named and generally it’s all engineered so that the player imagines himself in the role. There are almost no other males in the story, certainly none threatening – a faceless older man as the company’s president, and vague shapeless people doing wota-gei with their glowsticks for audience members. These girls have very little contact with their fans, and don’t go off smoking, drinking and having casual sex. They’re perfect little angels with different personality quirks, and they only have eyes for the player. The anime can’t sustain this, so gives the producer a body – a nice inoffensive bespectacled design – but his name remains ‘Producer-san’. It actually works well, and he’s identifiable yet non-threatening as a proxy. And the girls are incredibly cute – they seem so obvious at first, from the athletic wildchild to the spoilt little madam, but through various episodes showing them interact or one at a time, they endeared themselves to me, and I found myself unable to stop myself loving them all. The writers know exactly what they’re doing, and each girl gets developed just enough for it to matter to the viewer if they’re happy.

It helps that the show is very visually appealing. It resembled the art style of aforementioned K-On, via the lovely fluid cuteness of A-1’s feature film Welcome to the Space Show, making this look somewhere between KyoAni and movie-Madhouse, no bad place to be and certainly better than Kuroshitsuji, the only other A-1 series I’ve seen thus far.

Predictably, it was the cute tomboy that I liked the most, especially as she only wanted to be a pretty girl who could pull off frilly dresses – Makoto was adorable. Then I loved stuck-up but sweet-natured Iori and the childish twins Ami and Mami. This was largely an episodic series, following the girls progressing from unknown to successful, occasionally coming into conflict with the evil president of 961 (‘Kuroi’) Pro who uses underhanded tactics to push his (also cute) boyband. Other plotlines involve things like a wedding shoot getting mixed up with a real wedding (and numerous other farcical things), the sad past of one of the more serious girls coming out and our main girl Haruka getting sad that the idols are drifting apart. There was also one particularly fun episode in which involves the girls putting on a variety show. This not only involved cute things like Makoto trying to put on girly dresses and being totally rejected, but an awesome little mecha pastiche for which they actually got Imaishi Hiroyuki (of Gurren Lagann) in to do the storyboards and do justice to the fandom favourite evil Haruka. Chuck in obscure references to silly things the voice actresses have done in their shows and you have an episode pandering to fans – yet still very funny, cute and still pretty witty.

After I finished the series I watched the little OVA that was included in the Live for You! game, animated by small studio Actas, responsible for Moetan. The art came over as pretty ugly, reminding me of a more frequently off-model Peto-Peto-san, but it was nice having the little extra vignette. It even made me realize that I’m now keen enough on these characters that I’ll enjoy watching Xenoglossia just imagining that they’re little actors. I’m so easily manipulated by cuteness…

There’s sure to be more – at the end we glimpsed new characters, including the only trap I ever took an instant dislike to.

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