This season at Sea Slugs, I’ve been covering the new Yamakan/Machida affair Wake Up, Girls!, an idol cartoon with a cynical, finger-wagging twist. I recently thought, boy, I’d probably appreciate this more if I knew what the “usual” idol cartoons were all about. As a bonus, I figured maybe I’d be able to foist my Actually Correct opinions on some folks in the never-ending War on Waifus. So I delved into the anime version of mother of all idol franchises, The Idolm@ster.
I was inadequately prepared for what happened.
A semi-ironic, detached participation in the idol ranking exercise became a little too involved and not detached enough, and then I realized just how arbitrary it felt to me — because I was officially a fan of pretty much the entire cast. Cue an Azuma quote on “chara-moe” here, because in the space of 25 episodes, most of the large cast is honestly not well-developed outside of their core moe attributes. Yayoi is poor and hardworking, Iori’s a rich brat with a giant forehead, Asuza is a ditzy heartthrob — you get the picture. But while chara-moe-driven anime doesn’t necessarily need to be well put together, it can be hard to do well. Given a successful enough implementation, crossover appeal is possible.
At the end of the day, though, a 12-idol cast, plus the Producer and Kotori, plus the 961 rivalry, doesn’t leave a ton of room for… anything. So Idolm@aster borrowed a few tried-and-true methods from the harem genre to achieve a tighter story. But it did so on its own terms, which in some cases were fairly unique.
Facing facts here, it seems fairly improbable you’d get an anime with such a large cast where there’s no falling back on the standard archetypes. I’m sure it’s possible, but in a few decades of precedent there aren’t too many examples coming to mind readily. They’re useful, I suppose. Where harems go wrong is if the girls are written totally by-the-book — and here I’m using “written” very liberally — because it’s hard to get invested in a character with nothing unique, that is, human about them. Fortunately, even without the romantic side of things, Idolm@ster builds on these in some distinctive and charming ways.
Sure, Iori’s the rich ojousama, but the tired way of portraying this non-character is with a facade of sweetness concealing a devilish villainy. Iori is not quite devious enough for that, so her facade doesn’t make it past the stage — but thankfully she doesn’t have a real high level of villainy either, and uses her connections for justice rather than evil. Makoto’s tomboy character is taken to an extreme that should be ridiculous, but in the end her willingness to go with the flow and resign herself to her princely fate makes her a bit of a sad portrait even as it increases her charm points. Contrast this with your standard kendo-master tall girl with a fondness for kittycats. Even Azusa, the world’s cutest Mister Magoo, somehow manages to evoke a stoic bittersweetness in her fans who wax about it in ways that you’re unlikely to hear from, say, fans of Clannad‘s Kyou. But that’s a different post, by a different author (paging SeHNNG.)
An easy trick to get things rolling in a harem, whether large or small, is to give a girl an episode. This is always going to work, and stokes the fires for fans of any given character. But the twist here is that the game-player stand-in, the faceless insert character so generic he doesn’t even have a name, doesn’t always figure into the episodes. In the case of Miki, her awkward crush lends itself to the format in a more traditional way, but characters like Yayoi make due without Producer’s presence at all. In some cases, as in Haruka and especially Makoto, he’s only a foil — a reflector necessary in order to view certain traits about the character. The nearly-universally-loved Makoto carts Producer along in her typically boyish way, but only to experience her hidden desire to be treated like a princess. It’s a good technique that in the best cases allows him to shine (as when he takes a punch) while still managing to maintain his viewer-insert status.
The other key method recognizable from some harem anime is a gradual increase in focus on a few key characters at the expense of others.
It’s always a risky move in game adaptations, more so in the romantic visual novels like the garbage Key puts out. Sometimes as a writer you have to insert traits or backstory that weren’t present in the original game in order to get some meat on the bones. And no matter who you choose to focus on, you’ll alienate some fans of other characters.
That said, it’s worked for some of the best harem anime, and it works here as well. Without a romantic format, the increased focus on Haruka and Chihaya (and to a lesser degree, Miki) could have easily been replicated across the other girls, but it’d require quadruple the episode count. So a choice was made, and it was a good one. Haruka saving and, conversely, being saved by Chihaya gave these two characters a “glue” role, which went to the heart of the strength-through-togetherness theme of the show. And in service to pacing and (a form of) believability, it put the heart of the cartoon into a couple of lovingly crafted characters instead of distributing it too thinly.
Ultimately, the Idolm@ster anime was structured to be very harem-like, and that worked for it. But by varying the formula enough and leaving the traditional romantic elements out, it gives us a great way to have a Waifu War of the best moe caliber while still enjoying a character-driven story of friendship and music.