“I believe in everyone!”
In the grand scheme of things, the 2010s are only just over. In every artform, at every level of discourse, there are discussions to be had and evaluations to be made. What defined the New ’10s, now that they’re in the rear view? Perhaps more importantly, what deserves to be taken into the future? 2011’s The Idolm@ster turns ten next year, but it remains the gold standard by which nearly every other idol anime since has been judged. If it’s not the best idol anime, it can feel, especially at its heights, like the only one that truly matters.
The first interesting thing about Idolm@ster is how unselfconsciously normal it is. This is an idol anime with zero gimmicks, perhaps simply due to being from a time where you just didn’t need one. (Being adapted from an already-popular IP probably helped too.) Instead you have a large cast of characters, a shared dream of stardom among them, and some snappy sugary J-pop to soundtrack it all.
Despite these simple and few ingredients (and the aforementioned size of the cast), Idolm@ster never really feels like a marketing tool, even though on some level it is. The earnest, unfiltered look into the lives of twelve girls who are, at the start of the show, working-class entertainers conveys a kind of honesty more associated with rock documentaries than it is the idol industry.
This is not to say that The Idolm@ster is realistic–that would be absurd. Rather, it has a kind of focused idealism. The Idolm@ster does not depict so much the realities of becoming an idol (though they’re an influence on it), but rather the dream of becoming one. The series imagines a world where the truism that hard work and dedication can lead even the most humble of person to fame and fortune is not just true, but provable. This is an important distinction, because for all the mundanities it does depict, especially in its forehalf, The Idolm@ster is interested less in being about idols than it is being about people who want to become idols. It is a series, at its best moments, of character study, which elevates it above idol anime that come off as simply trying to sell something.
In an impressive feat of economy, over its 24 episodes nearly every member of its cast (including a few who aren’t members of the core 765 Pro group) gets at least one focus episode, a few get full-blown arcs. Chihaya’s, where she comes to terms with the death of her brother and learns to sing for herself, is probably the best, but several others are also very strong. This includes Haruka’s, also something of a broad-reaching arc for the group itself, which concludes the series. Not all of them quite get the screentime–or the consideration–they deserve, and The Idolm@ster‘s few flaws are always somehow tied to this. Makoto’s abbreviated story never reaches any satisfying conclusion; the gap between the masculine way she is sold to her audience and the feminine way she wants to actually present herself is never properly addressed, and it is the series’ sole serious misstep.
Importantly though not a single character feels like anything less than a fully-fledged person. Even those with somewhat silly personalities (such as Hibiki and her affinity for animals) have layers to them, and the show is keen to show off its writing in this regard. Haruka’s aforementioned show-concluding arc takes a sledgehammer to her surface personality as a hardworking ‘good girl’, only to build it back up with a healthy dose of magical realism (present in a few of the show’s strongest moments) in the penultimate episode.
But of course, as with everything, technique is only as valuable as the resonance it creates. The thing with The Idolm@ster is that even though, statistically speaking, most people watching it are not, and will never be, idols, it is shockingly easy to relate to what these girls go through. I suspect what connects with whom varies somewhat, but, going back to that character writing; every character’s motivation is simple, concrete, and dead-easy to get your head around. That means that when you see them struggle, you can put yourself in their shoes.
I love, for instance, Zombieland Saga, but most people are not (say) undead biker-delinquents, and struggles that stem from being one require a lot more levels of abstraction to really hit the audience in the heart. By contrast, and to return to my earlier examples, things like Haruka’s fear that her friend group is drifting apart, Mikki’s simple desire to be the center of attention, and Chihaya’s near-compulsive need to keep singing are all things that will touch different kinds of people in a very immediate and personal way. I write about anime because I love doing it, and I often find myself internally debating whether or not doing it just because of that is okay. Chihaya sings, as she eventually comes to terms with, because she loves doing it, and struggles with whether or not that’s okay. We are, by any reasonable metric, vastly different people, but The Idolm@ster‘s strength of craft is such that I can see myself in someone who is fundamentally very little like me because when she bares her soul at the climax of her focus arc, belting out “Nemuri Hime” acapella, I feel it in mine. What is art even for, if not that?
And that, ultimately, is what I intend to reflect here. This is a show that gets it. The appeal of a lot of anime is that everyone, fundamentally, can sometimes use a glimpse of a world where pop music or some other silly thing really can save your soul, and getting there requires a deft touch and a subtle command of high emotion. And Idolm@ster is very emotional indeed.
So, nearly ten years later, it feels safe to say that we can–and should–bring it with us into the ’20s and beyond. This is the one almost every idol anime since is still vigorously copying notes off of, and it’s easy to see why. Something this focused on looking forward could only age amazingly. “Onward to a sparkling future”, as one of the show’s many songs would put it. Are you ready?
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