There was once a time I kept the notion of idols firmly at arm’s length, reluctant to delve into a contentious realm designed with artificiality in mind – yet watching the 2011 smash hit The Idolmaster proved to be an eye-opening experience. How strange it is, that I could have missed out on one of the more charming shows had I slavishly adhered to those naïve preconceptions of mine. As I quickly became acquainted with its supplementary material I found myself incorporating the more catchy numbers into workout routines, cooing over game footage, and even slowly warming up to the possibility of watching the accompanying live performances, despite all those initial reservations. However The Idolmaster is a multimedia franchise which goes beyond the thrilling sphere of 765Pro, which led me eagerly settling into watching its 2015 spiritual successor: The Idolmaster: Cinderella Girls.
A lustrous veil of artificiality surrounds the series, but draw it aside and witness vacuous go-getters fashioned with quirky, disposable traits in order to make them stand out amidst a mercilessly competitive market where fictional idols have become comfortable genre staples. They are designed with the less discerning consumer in mind, ostentatious personalities a means of convincing to spend just a little more in hopes of potentially snagging an in-game exclusive of their most recent darling. Before watching Deremas’ premiere I admittedly hadn’t much to go on besides ‘Hotel Moonside’ being an absolute banger, and that several characters would be considered positive role models through asserting ownership of a mode of femininity otherwise disparaged or perceived as frivolous in the wider community, leading to a reclaiming of sorts where the female fanbase is concerned. As was the case with the girls of 765Pro I imagined coming to adore each and every one of these newer 346Pro starlets, cheering them on as they climb the steps to idoldom in dainty glass shoes. It wasn’t long before the dream shattered once focus shifted beyond the New Generations sub-unit, however – where all I could see took the form of traits upon traits upon traits. An incomprehensible chuunibyou spouting off worn clichés, a pale imitation of Yukiho with nervous tics more sugary sweet than sympathetic, a cat imitator that knows how to play the fame game but nevertheless is of the impression that she’s the rival in a classic shoujo. Confusion quickly settled in.
In recent years anime’s business model has grown exponentially revelatory to those interested in the production side of things, with many adaptations gracing our screens produced in hopes of raising awareness for the source material; possibly earning revenue through merchandise and live events. Given that it’s a business first and foremost it wouldn’t be fair to condemn the suit-clad bigwigs steering studios through choppy waters, but sometimes when watching an episode or two you just get the feeling that something is amiss. With the original Animas its spectacular team had several years’ worth of rich and varied supplementary material to draw on, not merely reserved to the impressive number of games across several consoles; their passion swelling through each sequence swirling with fluidity, each focus episode outstanding in its own right. Deremas had no means of comparing from the beginning, the anime noticeably drawing on comparatively scant material, resulting in an almost frantic digging for narrative scraps. Unlike Animas’ immeasurable love its spiritual successor proves to be a vapid affair, deliberately engineered and everything I feared the original would be. There are more characters than you know what to do with, each hurled at the audience with assumed familiarity.
Evocative of the zeitgeist’s increasingly profitable model, Deremas is by no means a product designed with potential purveyors spending hours down at the arcade, ushering their chosen darling into the glittering spotlight. In order to combat the overwhelming tide of piracy mobile properties encourage consumers to spend money in hopes of unlocking exclusive in-game goods, or getting ever-closer to an anticipated pull during a timed event. Representative of the franchise’s contemporary struggles, the anime is rather suggestively more business-orientated with 346Pro a cog in a larger corporation as opposed to scrappy underdogs fighting their way to the top. The girls are divided into sub-units as quickly as possible, hurriedly churning out singles within a vicious market where the next sensation is always lying in wait. As is the case with those timed events, the anime likewise incorporates this sense of urgency. This unfortunately results in not being offered enough time to get to know the characters, them foisted upon the viewer with little breathing room as the cinematography consistently emphasizes a clock’s ticking, never far from view. While meant to echo the Cinderella motif running through the series, it nevertheless reminds us of how little time they have. There is always another brighter and shinier idol franchise ready to claim the spotlight, and this curiously frantic undercurrent only serves to widen the gulf between both Idolmaster generations.
With each second passing it only widens and widens as you’re left with another episode bereft of substantial characterization or charm. Midnight strikes, and the spell is broken. You can’t help but wonder if there was even a trace of magic present to begin with, the fantastical trimmings fading into the night. That said, in the first nine episodes there have been respectable attempts at capturing what made the original series such an enchanting experience. The fourth is a documentary meant to evoke Animas’ unforgettable premiere, serving as a means of getting to know the distant 346Pro. Unlike their progenitors’ infectious chaos however, there’s a curiously systematic note pervading each introduction as Rin & co. make the rounds. The most recent episode I’ve seen is an enjoyable variety show romp, in no small part to the charismatic Anzu and Sachiko who would be right at home in the original cast with their electrifying banter. If only that applied to the rest of them.
In spite of those commendable endeavours Deremas’ narrative is structural chaos, failing to capture the imaginations of viewers not already invested in its particular brand of idoldom. I would say that it’s difficult to care about a group disbanding when they have only been together for an episode or two, but The Idolmaster: Kagayaki no Mukougawa e! managed to essentially achieve such a feat, earning genuine pangs of sympathy as Kana drifted away from her group. Deremas’ breaking-up-the-band equivalent takes place several episodes into its runtime. When Rin is alone within a saturated office following Mio’s departure, I couldn’t help but remember the poignancy in which the weight of 765Pro’s absence was all too keenly felt when a similar scene involved Haruka towards the end of Animas’ run. Given that we have spent such little time with Rin & co. I admittedly found it something of a struggle to stay in any way invested –Uzuki stepping on crushed glass the last straw (why show that when a more effective visual metaphor took place at the end of the previous episode, once Mio left? a retread with Uzuki outside of the imagined dreamscape is just too much).
Catching me off guard however, the one dimension which has proven to be consistently engaging is the emotionally distant Producer struggling to communicate effectively, unable to escort the princesses to the ball. This leads to a fascinating forging of sisterhood as the girls are ostensibly only able to rely on each other in the midst of corporate demands. With his stilted social skills, he doesn’t hesitate to offer each of them platitudinous clichés as to why they were chosen, praising their smiles even when unwaveringly sullen. This extends to Producer’s prickly relationship with Rin, unique in its distant yet captivating complexity. When she confronts him regarding his inability to offer substantial aid it’s all blocking emphasizing the emotional strain, framing only the speaking character while rarely showing both; tension tangible. Even while the rest of the cast lags far behind, their rapport is nevertheless one which harbours the potential to facilitate great emotional growth, and it is the one aspect which I am looking forward seeing come to fruition.
With only nine episodes seen, surely there’s still time before midnight… Where I can only hope that the magic well and truly kicks in.
Before it’s too late.