So Hang High, Soft Star: The Idolmaster: Cinderella Girls and Embracing Idiosyncrasies

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“I want to believe that I can shine too, because I hate the way things are now.”

To say I didn’t hold a positive opinion of The Idolmaster: Cinderella Girls’ first cour would be putting it lightly, its first nine episodes lolloping down the mobage track with assumed familiarity, not once pausing to allow the viewer to process the merciless onslaught of names hurriedly flung at them. I disparaged its business-orientated model; my head sent reeling at the cold approach designed with churning unit after unit in mind, evocative of its mobage origins struggling to thrive in a cutthroat industry where idol games are a dime a dozen. DereMas was a far cry from the warmth I’d experienced with its predecessor, The Idolmaster. Being perfectly honest, I was reluctant to press on.

But I’m glad I did.

DereMas’ second cour draws back the curtain on its haphazard fairy tale stylings with Mishiro, a foreboding figure reminiscent of a wicked stepmother with turquoise gems, all sharp angles and muted tones. Her arrival as director of 346Pro thrusts the company into a proverbial midnight with the episode’s opening sequence emphasizing ticking clocks – “time waits for no one”, she says. Churning out unit after unit couldn’t possibly be sustainable, and Mishiro breaks the spell by calling for immediate, tangible results. Although Producer possesses a more passionate stance through wishing to see the girls become princesses in their own time, as far as Mishiro’s narrative is concerned, fairy tales have no place in a business-orientated sphere. She looks down on his desire to hold the equivalent of a ball, viewing it as something fantastical; conjuring the girls’ smiles away into plumes of ethereal smoke. Such seismic pressures threaten to disrupt the Cinderella Project entirely as CDs for up-and-coming units get shelved, resources focused on those deserving of gracing the upper echelons of the castle that is 346Pro. It’s all emphasis on sleek products guaranteed to be a hit such as the charismatic powerhouse, Kaede (even though she’s a real darling with a penchant for alcohol and puns). With every diva approached it seems as the chimes ring heavier and heavier – but is it too late for these everygirls and their dreams?

Mishiro’s corporate reshuffling serves as a direct response to the first cour’s structural chaos, thrusting the viewer into this revolving door of starlets, as if to imply that we were intimately acquainted with all their idiosyncrasies from having spent hours bathed in the shimmer of Starlight Stage. As if the core members of the Cinderella Project weren’t enough to keep track of new idols were being introduced seemingly every few minutes which inevitably lead to their supposed talents being called into question. Unlike 765Pro’s vivaciousness 346Pro’s troped-up trimmings simply weren’t enough to command one’s attention, and given the lukewarm reception to DereMas as a whole that seems to be the case for many. With the girls’ lack of star power they amounted to nameless, faceless scullery maids lurking in the grubbier corners of the castle, gazing after the Cinderella girls longingly. How could they possibly compete with their ‘just good enough’ personas, average vocal registers, semi-identifiable quirks designed to stand out amongst the hundred or so darlings strewn about Starlight Stage’s myriad turrets? Despite Mishiro being painted as an adversarial force, callous in the face of dreams fading, I couldn’t help but agree with her. And so the clock ticked on.

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As the wicked stepmother draws a veil over the would-be princesses, it becomes difficult to sympathise with those everygirls. Beyond their worries however, what does prove to be unexpectedly affecting are the character idols left with little alternative but to reconstruct their goofy images from the ground up. Those enjoying significant popularity with gaudy manzai routines and larger-than-life personas lurk in 346Pro’s halls, adrift. Out of joint with contemporaneity, positions are precarious as they’re faced with the prospect of changing who they are in order to adhere to commercial demands. Variety shows are out, singing is in. Gimmicky weather corners are the first to go, but what – or indeed, who – is next…? Enter Abe Nana, eternally seventeen with a spacey demeanour, hailing from Planet Usamin. She is absurdity personified, a worn Akiba idol deliberately manufactured with an anime character in mind, essentially a walking commercial with her IOSYS character song a nonsensical denpa piece. As with most of the other idols I expected to dislike her, but as was the case with Yukiho’s touching focus episode in the original Idolmaster Nana’s situation provided an excellent argument for tropes scorned. Our bunny girl is older than she lets on, weariness palpable as her mother nags about quittin’ the whole rabbit gig and just gettin’ married already. The hyperactive façade from earlier with an audience cheering Nana on is nowhere to be found when she’s alone in a changing room, ruminating over whether she should try something different. Rabbit ears are sadly left abandoned, suggestive of how the entertainment industry has quietly shifted while Nana and all the other character idols stood still, essentially living snapshots of eras past.

It’s a poignant moment where the weight of all that Nana and 346Pro are up against is keenly felt. Through a connection shared and reassurance from the delightful Miku however, Nana throws caution to the wind by asserting ownership of all that she is in the face of a callous corporate structure that cares little for individuality. The world may be cold to those who dream, but she glistened in all that clinquant grandeur while delivering a rousing performance of that goofy denpa tune. I at last felt sympathetic towards Producer & co.’s quiet (but nevertheless potent) defiance, that sixteenth episode providing the immersion I longed for, the reason to care about these dime a dozen mobage starlets. While there is certainly nothing contentious about the concept of idiosyncrasies in general, an entire industry built upon them, what’s key is execution. Heart. And up until Nana’s episode it is arguable whether DereMas succeeded through its providing the viewer with a glimpse into the everyday of these everygirls striving to be something special. Thankfully it marks a change, subsequent episodes splendidly showcasing the consequences of struggling against overwhelming pressures threatening to engulf one’s sense of self, such as what takes place with the Jougasaki siblings. Chipper gyaru Mika is told to tone down her flamboyant style when advertising a comparatively subdued cosmetics line aimed at a mature audience, fans muttering that she’s no longer one of them. Precocious Rika prefers trendy clothes beyond her years, yet is left feeling humiliated on a show where she is required to wear a uniform. Despite dissolution being framed in a negative manner initially, it facilitates emotional maturation with those involved striving to compromise.

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DereMas’ interrogative exploration of the idiosyncratic contingencies that define its cast culminates with Uzuki’s brooding self-examination into what renders her a marketable figure to the general public, struggling to sustain a smile while the castle crumbles and glass slippers shatter. How can Uzuki possibly thrive in an industry where smiles aren’t anything special, she wonders. It’s something that anyone can do, and so she lags behind as peers gradually shift focus to other pursuits and ascend the stairs to stardom despite that smile of hers leading to New Generations’ implementation. Individually Rin and Mio shine so brightly yet Uzuki is left succumbing to self-destructive inclinations, avoiding beneficial opportunities and emotionally isolating herself as the clock ticks mercilessly on. What good is her smile if New Generations, the apex of her starry-eyed dreams, disbands? Unlike the other characters that essentially made peace with the industry’s rejection of their respective idiosyncrasies, Uzuki is so immersed in conflictive rumination regarding what she can personally offer that Mishiro advises Producer to drop her entirely. She eventually suffers an emotional breakdown in a park surrounded by barren trees, contrasting sadly with the cherry blossoms that bloomed earlier that year where possibilities seemed endless. It’s quite a startlingly self-aware character arc and a testament to the second cour’s narrative prowess, blurring the often nebulous distinction between gimmick and girl.

Through standing still, listlessly observing to the clock’s every strike, Uzuki evades potentially constructive means of advancing her career and bettering herself as an individual. By eventually relying on the compassionate support of those that cherish her however, she is able to move forward and believe in the myriad possibilities that no doubt await. Uzuki’s existence does not begin and end with her smile which results in an immensely cathartic transcendence of the accursed gimmick-fuelled model. Even if her peers continue to ascend the stairs to stardom, reaching the upper echelons of the castle that is 346Pro, through believing in herself Uzuki possesses the potential to shine alongside them. Reflective of her growth, towards the end of her ‘S(mile)ING!’ performances she offers a genuine smile sans the restrictive pull of character-defining idiosyncrasies. Through that personal negotiation Uzuki is at last able to move on and shine brighter than before.

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