Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Episodes 1-25 Streaming
765 Productions have a lot of idol talent, but not a whole lot else. Currently managing the careers of twelve young idols, the studio has so far failed to gain much attention for any of them, but the team is keeping their spirits up and working hard to pursue their dreams. Making it as an idol takes talent, luck, and a whole lot of hustle, and there are never any guarantees - fortunately, it looks like the girls of 765 Pro will soon have a new producer on the job, ready to help make them stars just as soon as he actually figures out how to be a producer.
The Idolmaster is based on a rhythm/”raising” game, where you take the role of a producer of a new idol or group of idols as they attempt to make it in the idealized but still fairly dog-eat-dog world of professional idoldom. This game premise makes it a pretty convenient property for anime adaptation - there's a simple underdog story template and a set of endearing established characters, but almost no actual story to speak of, meaning the anime is largely free to create its own narrative. The only real restriction is making sure you make use of those original characters - thirteen main idols, plus whatever other characters you need to pull an actual story together. That's a lot of protagonists to introduce, but perhaps by keeping the focus small initially and building up to the overall cast, things could remain focused while still eventually providing some spotlight time to the entire team.
The Idolmaster doesn't do that. It throws you in at the deep end, using the framing device of a documentary about the new idols to introduce you to the entire cast within the first episode. A choice like that would normally cause confusion or emotional disconnect, but Idolmaster somehow gets away with it. Though the documentary trick helps, the main reason this works is the cast itself - immediately defined through broad but compelling character strokes, the idols of 765 Productions form the first hook dragging you into an energetic and richly rewarding collection of stories.
There's Haruka, the first character you meet, whose constant enthusiasm and dedication to others makes her the rock of 765 Productions. Chihaya, Haruka's soft-spoken friend, whose solemn expressions hide dark secrets. Ami and Mami, the trolling twins. Hibiki, who can apparently communicate with her million pets. Makoto, who has a conflicted relationship with her own tomboy image. Takane, who loves ramen and is also possibly from the moon. And so on, and so on. All of Idolmaster's stars have immediately discernible broad personalities, but through the series of vignettes that make up a great portion of Idolmaster's narrative, each of these characters is given texture and nuance both through individual character exploration and the ways they bounce off the others.
These small stories are one of Idolmaster's great strengths. Though the overall narrative is essentially “new producer and his team of idols attempt to find success in spite of many setbacks,” most of the show is dedicated to smaller episodic stories, that generally use a small group of characters to either explore someone's emotional motivations, tackle an interesting element of the professional idol process, or simply riff on some fun genre idea. Not all of these small adventures are equally strong, but the best are wonderful slices of adventure. There's one episode where the oldest idol Azusa gets lost while in a bridal costume, prompting a runaway bride mixup, a duel between Makoto and a yakuza thug on a market rooftop, and a climactic scene where Azusa is chased by half the town as she runs to save a marriage between an oil magnate and shipping baron's daughter. Other episodes tell much smaller stories, like when basically-a-princess Iori visits her fellow idol Yayoi's very modest home, a story that ends with both of them to learning to better rely on those who care about them. There's a murder mystery episode and an idol track meet and a visit to the beach, all naturally threaded with scenes that either humanize the various characters or push them forward towards greater stardom.
Much of what makes these stories work is the fact that the cast has great internal chemistry. This doesn't just mean they're all friends - there are rivalries and tensions in the group, and some characters feel more comfortable together than others. The strength of Idolmaster's characters is that virtually any small group of the main cast will have a very different dynamic than any other small group, meaning an episode can put Iori with Makoto and have a completely different type of story than when Iori is with Yayoi, or with the twins. Not every member of the cast is rich enough to support this kind of mix-and-match storytelling (Azusa's a bit one-note, and Yukiho not much better), but enough of this cast is layered and dynamic that almost all the chosen group pairings end up being dramatic winners. Focus episodes become constant unexpected gifts - you'll be waiting for a new episode about one of your favorite characters, and end up accidentally discovering a new favorite along the way.
Idolmaster's overall plot is split into two halves by the first half's last episode performance, an event that breaks 765's team out into larger stardom. Because of this, the two halves end up having very distinct tones - in the first half, their team is an unsuccessful but close-knit family, while in the second, their very success means they're beginning to drift apart. At its best, the show is able to harness the inherent drama of its central career-focused thread to speak to something universal in the ways its characters pursue their dreams. At its worst, it hangs too much focus on either underwritten personal drama or contrived career troubles. Unfortunately, these writing issues are largely concentrated in the show's later acts, where a combination of an absurd “villain” (a nefarious idol producer from 765's president's past) and a couple of undercooked personal stories take a little of the shine off the show's overall effect. But in general, Idolmaster is very good at hitting its dramatic marks.
One reason the drama lands successfully, even when the storytelling isn't quite selling it, is that The Idolmaster is one of the most beautiful television anime in recent memory. The show features dynamic direction, beautiful shot composition, lush color work, evocative and purposeful lighting, and absolutely stellar animation. This isn't actually that surprising, if you take a look at the show's supergroup-level team - the staff is full of Gainax expats (including director Atsushi Nishigori, who also handles series composition and character design), and a couple of the standout episodes are also directed by Noriko Takao, a former Kyoto Animation star who'd later go on to take the directorial reigns for Cinderella Girls. Even Masaki Yuasa's frequent collaborator Akitoshi Yokoyama directs an episode, the standout Ritsuko-focused story from the second half.
This absurd buffet of directorial and animation talent mean Idolmaster maintains an incredibly high level of overall visual quality while also dipping into different visual personalities for individual episodes. The style of animation and mood of the direction often shift, but instead of making the show feel disjointed, these shifts play off the diversity of the narrative vignettes to make Idolmaster feel like a linked but broadly focused animation cornucopia, an idol-focused Space Dandy. The mystery episode embraces ominous shadows and evocative environmental closeups, the Ritsuko episode is full of unique expressions and beautifully symmetrical compositions, etcetera. Even when the dramatically heavier episodes are exceeding their storytelling reach, those weaknesses are handily buoyed by the incredible direction and shot composition, which smartly adopt a more poignant, subdued affectation for the final stretch. The use of light and color, the placement of characters in the frame, the restless but confident direction - all of Idolmaster's aesthetic elements come together to make it one of the most visually rewarding television shows I've seen.
And seriously, the animation deserves another round of applause. Idolmaster is as good as TV animation gets, far better than most anime would lead you to expect. Every character has vivid body language, and almost every scene is full of lushly animated movement and fluid expressions. Every performance soars with beautifully realized, traditionally animated dancing - no ugly CG models here, it's all the painstakingly created but oh-so-worth-it traditional stuff. More than any other single strength of this generally impressive show, the animation is a constant delight, making this show a must-see for any fan of animation as an art form and a strong recommendation for anyone interested in seeing just how much animation itself can elevate characterization and drama.
Idolmaster's music is also excellent. Obviously the majority of the soundtrack is idol music, so you have to have some appreciation or at least tolerance for the genre, but within that field, the songs still end up being nicely diverse in style. Nearly every episode breaks into a character song at some point, letting each of the characters show off their voice and style, and every single ending song is different, each set to a unique montage illustrating the life of one of the characters. I didn't like every song, and am not really a fan of idol music in the first place, but even still there were a few tracks I found myself humming along to. And what non-idol music exists is also used well, generally setting scenes through understated piano tracks and occasionally cutting out to let the characters themselves carry the drama.
Overall, Idolmaster is a tremendous feat, a work of labor and love that demonstrates great personality and gorgeous craft. It's a show I'd enjoy for the love of pure beautiful animation even if the stories weren't diverse and fun and endearing, even if the characters didn't pop off the screen. I've watched and enjoyed a fair number of idol shows now, varying from Love Live to Shounen Hollywood to Symphogear, but I don't think I've been as fully won over by any of them as I was by Idolmaster. It is a great show.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B+
Animation : A+
Art : A
Music : A
+ Absolutely gorgeous, stunningly consistent art and animation. An endless array of diverse idol songs. Endearing cast and engaging episodic adventures.
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