I loved the 2015 series of this franchise (Cinderella Girls), so I went back and watched this earlier season from 2011. It's okay. I liked it. It's not as good, but that's encouraging in its own way because it means the franchise has been going from strength to strength. However I'd recommend Cinderella Girls to anyone, even though it's an idol show, whereas this earlier take on the concept isn't quite as impressive.
What is THE iDOLM@STER? Answer: it's a mega-hit Bandai Namco video game series that's been running since 2005 and has over 200 characters. You play a producer who's trying to turn lots of teenage girls into vapid media scum, ahem, idols. Its anime incarnations include:
1. Idolmaster: Xenoglossia (2007) 26 episodes, an alt-universe version where the girls are mecha pilots
2. The Idolmaster (2011) what I'm reviewing here, plus some OVAs
3. Puchimas! Petit Idolmaster (2013) 64 episodes, internet series
4. The Idolmaster Movie: Beyond the Brilliant Future! (2014)
5. Puchimas!! Puchi Puchi Idolmaster (2014) 74 episodes, internet series
6. The Idolmaster Cinderella Girls (2015) 26 episodes, awesome
7. Cinderella Girls Gekijou (2017) I can't wait
Of the two series I've seen so far, both have basically the same format. There's a male producer and lots of young girls, who have a huge variation of personalities, obsessions, motivations, etc. Presumably that's from the game. The shows start with our heroes as nobodies scraping around for work, but gradually they get more and more jobs until a significant problem towards the end of the show is everyone being so busy that they don't have time to meet up any more.
ws have a crisis around the halfway point with a regular wanting to quit. Both shows introduce a villain in the second half. Every girl will get an episode focusing on them. These patterns aren't hard to spot.
Having a format isn't bad, though. It's flexible, with lots of room for interesting stories about all sorts of characters. I particularly like its ensemble nature, with lots of different personality types bouncing off each other, making you laugh and keeping the show fresh and bubbly. It's risky having a cast this huge, yes, but they've turned it into their greatest strength and they've got enough episodes to make it work.
That said, there's a bunch of stuff that wasn't as good in 2011.
Firstly, I preferred the Cinderella Girls cast. This isn't a bash on their 2011 predecessors and I'm fond of both, but 2015 had a better producer and a bigger, more entertaining line-up. Partly as a result, I also think it worked a little better as an ensemble. Haruka ends up being the 2011 show's main character, but she's comparatively bland and doesn't have much to her beyond "nice", "trips over a lot" and "wants to be with everyone". Yukiho's shy, but that doesn't last long and afterwards she's mostly just another generic girl.
Secondly, the villain. The 2011's villain is called Kuroi, which translates as black and as in English can imply that he's dark or evil, c.f. black-hearted, black ops, etc. In other words, his name's Mr Evil. His company is thus called Evil Productions. His office has black roses and he plays board games (othello, go, chess) with only black pieces. In short, he's a cartoon. 2015's Mishiro was a genuine threat to our heroines, representing the very real kind of upper management who are enforcing a clear but alarming idea of where they want the company to go. She wasn't evil. She was very good at her job, but with blind spots. Kuroi (i.e. Mr Evil), on the other hand, is a Saturday morning cartoon baddie who'd be twirling his moustache if he had one. He means nothing and he doesn't matter.
What's more, our heroes could have taken him down whenever they liked, by getting Iori to pull some strings. This is said explicitly in ep.14. However they don't want to "lower themselves to his level", which again makes him less of a serious threat.
Thirdly, the show occasionally launches into fantasy. If it were like that throughout, it would be fine. However it's not a kiddie show and it's set in the real world. Nonetheless the pet-loving Hibiki owns a mouse, a hamster, a gerbil, a parrot, a rabbit, a cat, a dog, a pig, a flying squirrel, a snake and a reasonably large crocodile. These all live together, with no cages. Predatory reptiles spend every day side-by-side with their prey and not eating them. Furthermore Hibiki can talk to her hamster, as if she were Dr Dolittle. This is a brainy hamster. It follows human speech, understands everything that's happening around it and will react passionately to events. It can explain the concept and background of their new TV show to Hibiki when she'd been getting confused.
If you think that's silly, though, you'll laugh until you cry at the Hibiki-centre episode (ep.16).
SILLY EPISODE BEGINS
Mr Evil is planning an Evil Pet Show. By implausible coincidence, Hibiki has an argument with her dog that morning. (She can talk to her dog too, as if it were a person. Even her fellow idols comment on this.) Mr Evil's sidekick has a chauffeur drive Hibiki into the middle of nowhere and leave her on the edge of a cliff. That's bad. The chauffeur drives off. Hibiki now manages to fall off that cliff, all by herself. Whoops, careless.
She's now stuck halfway down a cliff. Does she have her phone? Where's her phone? Please use your phone! Does the episode want to admit that mobile phones exist? No, of course not. You see, Hibiki's got to have a conversation with her hamster! "You want me to throw you up the cliff?" The hamster has a plan, slaps Hibiki and runs off to save the day!
Hibiki's now all alone. She can't climb up. She's stuck. However the hamster runs back to the agency all by itself (which would be some unknown number of miles) to find rescue! Hibiki's pets will save her! Soon all those animals have raced back to the clifftop and are looking down at her together. Yes, including the crocodile. Okay, yes, crocodiles can sprint faster than you'd think, but they're still hardly built for marathons.
The arrival of her pets means that Hibiki can now climb up the cliff. HOW!?? Don't ask. It's an emotional reunion, so of course she's now free. She even makes it back in time to finish the afternoon's shooting, which implies that she owns Flash the Supersonic Hamster, Charlie the Jogging Crocodile and other amazing pets. Oh, and Dr Evil's sidekick later gloats about his deeds where Hibiki's producer can hear him.
SILLY EPISODE ENDS
I like this show, but that was its bad episode. Ep.17 briefly irritated me with Makoto's behaviour, admittedly, but in the end I liked that episode too.
That said, though, ep.8 is discarding realism even more gleefully, but this time to glorious effect. It's a wedding farce episode with everyone chasing after the blissfully dozy Azusa. "How did I get in line for the ferris wheel rather than the taxi?" Makoto turns into a Hong Kong martial arts master and beats up bodyguards in Chinatown. A stampeding mob somehow acquires an elephant and an giraffe. A reluctant bride reveals herself to be hilariously shallow.
I was in awe. That episode was special.
Those are exceptions, though. Broadly speaking, this is a light-hearted, charming series about lots of friends working together to achieve their goals. There's some comparatively bittersweet material towards the end with Haruka, but of course it ends happily. The show doesn't have as much dramatic meat as Cinderella Girls, but it's still very likeable. Also, importantly, there are lots of characters to become fond of, even if the show doesn't quite succeed at keeping them all in the spotlight. Notable girls include:
CHIHAYA - serious to a fault and once nearly sinks a live TV performance because of this. Tragic backstory.
YAYOI - big orange hair, five younger siblings and no parents that we ever see. She's the surrogate mum.
IORI - rich bitch who loves talking about herself. "I don't know what it's like to be a common person." Enjoys petrifying the other girls with scary stories. However she thaws a lot and becomes a good friend.
MAKOTO - a handsome, cool girl who makes other girls swoon. (Makoto can be either a boys' or girls' name.) She'd love to wear girly dresses, but they wouldn't fit her image at all.
AMI & NAMI - hyperactive and occasionally dirty-minded twins. Totally mental. In ep.9, they role-play as Great Detectives to solve the Mystery of the Disappearing Pudding.
MIKI - so naturally gifted that she's grown up lazy and unmotivated. Can be trouble. However she's also fun and can be flirty with the Producer. In the season's second half, she takes this up several dozen notches, calling him "honey" and treating him as her boyfriend. (He's not playing along, but I wanted to see them get together. When Miki's older, of course. Apparently the games allow very mild romance-like storylines between the Producer and various girls, but the anime's chosen Miki.)
HIBIKI - Dr Dolittle
TAKANE - serene silver-haired princess. Can be a bit strange sometimes. She liked that frog costume in ep.4.
I enjoyed the show. It's good fun. It's more of a bits-and-pieces show than Cinderella Girls, its silly bits are less rare and its ending doesn't really mean much. However it's still a funny, kind-hearted show that I like a lot and want to watch more of, even though I generally avoid idol shows.