765 Production is a struggling idol company, so a new guy, Producer, is hired to make its young idols names in Japan again. But it's a long climb to the top for our young heroines. Can they do it?
I was vaguely aware of the iDOLM@STER franchise prior to watching THE iDOLMASTER, but it wasn't until the anime was announced that I started to notice it. Typically I don't pay much attention to video game-based anime, much less idol shows, but I heard the games were actually pretty decent. I also remembered the mixed opinions spinoff series iDOLM@STER XENOGLOSSIA got 5 years back. So when I heard this new show was going to be much more faithful to the original games, even getting the same voice actresses from the game, I approached with caution at watching it. "This is probably the closest I'll get to playing the games", I thought to myself, so I checked it out.
The original iDOLM@STER game (and its then recent sequel) plays like a cross between a music game and dating sim. You, a nameless male producer, try to manage a gaggle of cute girls on their way to becoming famous idols, each girl wanting to do so for her own personal reason. Animation production company A-1 Pictures doesn't hide this concept very much; many of the plots involve Producer interacting with the girls, or the girls amongst themselves, and the growth in their relationships encountered throughout. Even the first episode, which is shot more like a documentary than an anime, lures you into thinking you'll never see Producer's face in the series, and then they do.
With a large main cast of 12 cute girls (plus female manager Ritsuko) running around, there's at least one character in THE iDOLMASTER for people to like. The downside is they're all archetypes you've seen before: the crybaby, the energetic/mischievous twins, pampered rich girl, tomboy who wants to be more girly, the brooding girl with a sad past, the big-breasted "older sister" type, the foreigner, and the klutz. To be perfectly honest, I almost dropped THE iDOLMASTER at one point because I had a hard time caring whose cast I've seen in almost every anime series before.
Fortunately, THE iDOLMASTER somehow still works despite its unoriginal cast. This is thanks to the screenwriters' peppering episodes with interesting pair-ups, cute, inoffensive pop songs, and a variety of cute costumes, a few specific to each girl. But THE iDOLMASTER truly shines through when the writers get into the nitty gritty of a character's personality. For example, its chief heroine Haruka is always around and interacting with everyone, her butting into situations becoming a plot point she considerers a flaw near the end of the series. Hibiki, an energetic girl who loves (and owns many) animals, has to deal with unruly pets when her idol work keeps her from spending time with them. One of the twins, Mami, has to deal with her twin sister Ami being partially absent from her life when she joins a new, standalone three-girl group. Situations like these are when THE iDOLMASTER distances itself from many other braindead idol anime shows and makes the characters more than requisite archetypes. By the end I felt like a learned a lot about all these girls, and each one grew a bit as a character (unlike in K-On!, where the girls seemed to get dumber over time).
THE iDOLMASTER is also a rare idol show that shows a somewhat realistic view of the Japanese idol industry. It's not all flash, glamor, and singing; there's highs to go with the lows, and they can get pretty damn low. The 765 girls don't start off in decent productions - they play bit roles in commercials and cooking programs. And sometimes they find themselves in lackluster positions, like dressing up as fruit, or forced to partake in a sleazy cooking show where the camera is constantly zoomed in on poor Haruka's panties whenever she falls. 765 Production starts off the series in the red, and it's mainly through a combination of luck and tough work that the company gets beyond that. Or they would, if not for an evil bastard getting in their way.
You see, THE iDOLMASTER does indeed have a villain in-between all the cute pop idol antics; 961, which is owned (and named after phoentically) by an evil man named Takao Kuroi. Voiced with gusto by Takehito Koyasu, he is not above lying to his own pop group (Jupiter), as well as cheating, stealing, and directly sabotaging 765's efforts, to make their lives as miserable as possible. Even in the series' final episode, when everything is wrapped up all nice and neat, he still has the last laugh (literally) in the last 5 minutes of the series. And, much like Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget, you never see Kuroi's face ever. I kept expecting him to just pull out a big chair and stroke a cat at any moment; it would be the only way to make Kuroi even more over-the-top.
Of course THE iDOLMASTER has plenty of visual eye candy, too. A-1 Pictures stuck very close to the look of the original iDOLM@STER games when designing the girls for the anime, and honestly I prefer how they look in the anime over the games. Whereas in the games the girls are cell-shaded and same-looking except for hair, clothes, and voice, the anime has them animated and moving in gorgeous 2-D art (though their faces tend to float, like in every other A-1 Pictures anime). Thanks to each girl having her color scheme, it makes it easier than it looks to remember them, despite the dozen or so characters. The animation isn't too impressive for scenes of the girls' daily lives, but goes up quite a few notches when it's time for the girls to sing and dance. The series even has individual ending themes and montages every episode for the girls, a very nice touch. While Haruka does remain the heroine of the franchise, most of the girls get a decent amount of air time, too. The series does not play favorites with its cast, and I liked that. (Though Haruka is shown quite a bit in the last third of the series.)
There isn't much more I can say about THE iDOLMASTER. The characters, as familiar as they are, a lot of fun, it looks good, the songs are kind of catchy, and it can be really funny at times when it wants to be. Along with Persona 4 The Animation, THE iDOLMASTER is making me have second thoughts on the possibilities of reviewing more video game anime in the future if they're as good as this. A-1 Pictures put their all into this series, and it shows from start to finish. If you're looking for a cute little series about a group of young idols trying their hardest to make it big, then check out THE iDOLMASTER.
A cute little idol series about a group of girls giving it their all. Those repulsed by J-Pop can ignore it completely, or at least knock off a star or two. — Tim Jones
Recommended Audience: Mild fan service (i.e. hot springs) and, like mentioned earlier, an episode where the cameramen purposely zoom in on Haruka's panties when she falls. Nothing else of note, really.
Version(s) Viewed: crunchyroll.com stream, Japanese with English subtitles
Review Status: Full (25/25)
The iDOLMASTER © 2011 NBGI / PROJECT iM@S
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