If there’s one thing I learned about all my years watching anime, is never judge a book by its cover. An anime might look so cute and good in preview pictures and promotional videos, but sometimes you just have too high expectations based on that initial impression that might lead to some disappointments when you start watching it. On the other hand, there are instances when you only have low expectations about a show, then get surprised about how good it turned out to be in the long run. Wait… if you were expecting me to say that The iDOLM@STER is one of those animes where you can have low expectations yet the anime delivered more, you’re wrong. The iDOLM@STER is one of those rarer gems, where even your highest expectations of what a cutesy, bishoujo, moe, harem-looking anime can ever be, will be exceeded, even devastated. At the very least, it was like that for me.
You see, when I went to the Tokyo Game Show in Japan way back in 2006, I got introduced to this certain dancing idol game for the arcades and XBOX 360. It featured anime-like 3D models… and they sing and dance! It was surprising at the time, because it was the first of its kind. I never knew of a 3D anime dancing game, even with my vast knowledge of visual novels and galge during that era. It was totally cute, and I was totally captivated. Some time later I saw them again, in the form of customized music videos. Apparently this Idolmaster thing was popular with fan-video makers. They super-impose the 3D dancing girls into just any song you can imagine, popular or otherwise. The popularity of these girls extended beyond the songs that were available to them in the game. It was the time when Nico Nico Douga started the modern doujin revolution, and along with Touhou Project and Vocaloid, The iDOLM@STER was and is widely considered as one of the great pillars of fan-made creativity in the video site. So big, it has a category of its own like those two, but it is a unique case because it’s primarily a corporate property by a games maker, while Touhou and Vocaloid are mostly driven by the fans themselves.
Personally, my IM@S fandom was mainly driven by these fan videos, whether custom made or the actual songs in the game. It’s cute girls dancing to various tunes that I like, and that’s where it all began for me. I never had the chance to play the game because it’s on a console I don’t own with a language I don’t know. Also, there was a certain hybrid bishoujo-mecha anime called Idolmaster Xenoglossia, and I never really cared about that either. That anime had mixed reviews from the get-go from both IM@S fans, Mai-HiME fans and mecha fans alike, and I never was able to survive beyond just a few episodes. And so there I was, the very moment the iDOLM@STER (this-time-not-alternate-universe) anime was announced, I was jumping with joy. Beyond only seeing their faces and only knowing their character from their songs, I would finally know what they’re about.
I had high expectations, maybe too high, but this anime delivered beyond that. It was, by and large, the best of what a moe~ anime can be for me. Cute girls doing cute things, but there’s more to it than that. Every episode featured a song or three from the game. Half the entire series are episodes featuring a single character out of the 12-plus. The dance animation sequences make you feel like the anime producers had unlimited budget. All of these aspects would have been enough to make me feel entertained about an anime like this. But despite the already-good aspects, it was able to reach something higher, something better, every episode. It was a story of a lesser-known idol management company called 765PRO, with its 12 girls aspiring to do the idol work thing. With the entry of the main male character, Producer, who conveniently has no actual name, the fate of these 12 girls started to change. As they get more and more popular, the anime itself gets better and better. I realized early that the 12 girls, who started out as exactly the archetype I imagined them to be… aren’t.
Sound confusing? I began to learn that there is something special about this anime that few other visual novels/galge related properties actually have: unique role-based character development. I have played a hundred visual novels and a thousand bishoujo character scenarios, and there is one undeniable pattern about it – that the main character directly affects the story for the girl, most of them are romance-related after all. While this is okay, there is little room for character development in other aspects of a girl’s life. The iDOLM@STER games and anime are unique in a way that the story focus for the girl is not directed at romance, but directed at the actual archetype of the girl themselves in the idol career setting. The anime takes a play on what kind of character she usually is, but attempts to break each character free from her character pattern. The results are interesting takes on trying to make the usual unusual. Granted, this kind of story didn’t happen for every girl in the series, but you will have the feeling that there is more to the girl than what she seems to be. Couple the character development with a story that actually works (from mediocrity to popularity and all the challenges along the way), and I could say that this anime is destined for greatness….
Well, not exactly. I’ll try to express this in two viewpoints. There is a viewpoint of the newcomer, and the viewpoint of the already-fan.
If there’s a major fault about this anime, it attempted to deliver too many girls, with too much variety, using their limited time. At only 25 episodes, trying to develop 12-14 girls is impossible, especially when you try to cater to fans new to the series. For me, an Idolmaster fan even before the anime existed, I was able to grasp all of them rather well. But I can only imagine a watcher new to Idolmaster, without any knowledge of the characters, nor the vast library of songs featured. All they see is a well-produced, superbly animated series, but may fail to empathize with many of the girls, especially those with only one episode under their belt. To top it off, each character episode is of a different theme. Some are pure comedy and madness, others are character type-driven. If you combine a girl that’s not your type, with an episode that’s not of your taste, that’s a deadly combination that may turn off first-timers. It would also take time to convert them, as the best episodes never come out until you have established many of them halfway through. If you aren’t hooked by the 6th episode, where the story starts moving and the animated dancing dares to amaze you, you might drop this right then and there.
But for a long-standing fan of the iDOLM@STER games, anime, music, or any other fan-related aspect of it, this anime is legendary. It caters to fans in a very special way, sometimes too much. The producers are well-aware of the fandom outside of the games, and they incorporate some of those references back to the anime. I’m not too keen on those stuff, but I know of various Haruka memes and jokes about Chihaya. There’s even a scene that mimics a comedic accident of the seiyuu themselves in a fan program of theirs. Game-canon fans are delighted to know that the Ryuuguu Komachi sub-group is a major factor in the anime story. DS gamers also would enjoy cameos for the three Dearly Stars idols. Fangirls (however few of them) might enjoy Jupiter appearances (the dreaded boyband). People who follow producers and names in the anime business would enjoy the variety of hat tips and homages from other anime, especially the Gainax references and Kyoto Animation drama similarities. Seiyuu fans would enjoy Kugimiya Rie having a big role and being pervasive throughout the anime as Iori. Music fans would happily give away their wallets to good remixes of existing songs as well as new ones. Scattered over each episode and at every ending, there’s at least two or more featured songs per episode, making the anime look like a musical extravaganza. All in all, whatever kind of iDOLM@STER fan you are, you are most probably served.
Sometimes I would tend to believe that an anime doesn’t achieve classic status until it has been tried, tested, and referenced, whether in a positive or negative way. The iDOLM@STER actually has potential to be remembered as one, but it’s only a “potential” (I think Puella Magi Madoka Magica is the same way). For newcomers, it’s either a sleeper-hit, or absolute trash. For fans, it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to the franchise. This kind of polarity might just be the ingredient of a so-called “anime classic”. Remember, the Evangelions and Haruhis of the industry never reached their peak easily – it had to face hype, scrutiny and debate over a long period, yet nowadays we frequently refer to them as the game-changers. As always, only time will tell. But for now, I highly recommend The iDOLM@STER as a prime watch. For me, it’s a watch, a rewatch, and a watch for all time.