Still here? Great! Let’s continue. As I mentioned in Part 1, fictional anime idols fall generally into one of two types: grounded, realistic idols, or fantastical, magical idols. Let’s examine the former first.
Take 12 cute girls, give them a producer and an agency to work for, dress them up in some nice outfits, then throw a bunch of problems into their path and see what happens. What I just briefly described is the basic premise behind the first Idolm@ster anime.
Idolm@ster as a franchise encompasses pretty much everything I listed in Part 1. There’s console games, a couple of anime seasons and associated movies, mobile games, portable/handheld games (on the Sony PSP, for example), and so on. It’s an enormously popular franchise in Japan and beyond.
So much so that it not only has the original Idolm@ster, which featured 12 main girls and a supporting cast, but also a spin-off called Cinderella Girls which introduced another dozen or more girls in a new continuity, though the same overall world (there are events and things where the characters from both interact and team up/rival each other).
Then there came Million Live, which currently has several hundred fictional idols associated with it. Did I mention that Idolm@ster is massively popular? Because it’s massively popular.
More recently, there’s yet another new Idolm@ster spin-off called Shiny Colours which also introduces more new girls. Bandai Namco loves to milk that idol goodness for all it’s worth, but hey, it means I get a never ending stream of new content to enjoy, so I’m not complaining.
Idolm@ster epitomises the grounded idol genre. There are plenty of fancy outfits in the show—naturally a common feature of idols in general—but there are no fantastical technologies in play and the girls are largely pretty normal people. Albeit, in some cases you might get a bit of Chuunibyou in the form of a character like Cinderella Girls’ Ranko.
Then there are the magical idols. These fictional settings are normally typified by some form of magical-like technology or system that allows the girls to transform into their outfits instantly, or gives them some special feature or other that regular people don’t have.
The major player in this arena of idoldom is Aikatsu, which fairly well popularised this new idol genre. While grounded idol shows such as Idolm@ster are normally aimed squarely at an adult audience, magical idols tend to appeal more to young girls, though they’re also super popular with adults.
In grounded idol shows, there’s normally more of a mature, adult flavour to everything. There are more serious dramatic moments, the characters argue and fall out more, and there can be some pretty weighty plot arcs up and to including characters dealing with tragedy and the deaths of loved-ones. They’re always pretty upbeat, but tempered by real drama and conflict.
Magical idol shows, by contrast, are often light and fluffy and low-conflict. There are exceptions to this, most-especially the Pretty Rhythm franchise, all three seasons of which had some fairly serious conflict, but in general you’ll be looking at stories involving silly shenanigans and light-hearted fun.
CG vs Traditional Dance Animation
Ah, now we get to a main point of contention among idol anime fans. There are traditional animation purists out there who despise computer-generated… well, anything really. And in a lot of cases I can actually agree, because a lot of studios are using CG to cut corners and crank out low-effort garbage for a quick buck. But there are plenty of legitimate uses for CG, and idol dance routines are one of the main ones.
Idolm@ster favours traditional 2D animation for its dance sequences, which severely limits what they can do. It looks nice, and some people absolutely prefer it to CG, but personally I’m a fan of CG over traditional for this. While CG can ruin a show through overuse, incompetent use, being used for shortcuts that end up looking awful, and many other reasons, it’s also the #1 reason for Aikatsu’s meteoric growth.
What CG did was allow idol shows to go nuts with their live events and music. Two minutes of hand (or computer) drawn animation of a decent enough quality to look good can take ages and cost a fortune. But CG allows for a two minute, well choreographed dance sequence to accompany a piece of music for relatively minimal cost, and still look fantastic.
In fact, I’d argue it can look better than 2D simply because it lets you work with real dancers and motion capture, which in turn allows for natural dance choreography. Aikatsu’s first season is pretty infamous for having terrible CG, mostly because it was 2012 and they were still getting the hang of things.
But its second season onward got a serious upgrade and I consider it to be the gold standard for idol shows now. In Part 3, we’ll take a look at the differences between traditional and CG dance routines, and explore some of my favourite songs and performances. Because if there’s one thing idol shows do right, it’s the music.