Okay, let’s look at the Idolm@ster anime first. This show uses traditional animation techniques—albeit drawn on computers instead of cellulose—and favours 2D for its dance sequences. That’s not to say they don’t also use CG, because they do, mostly for backgrounds, but the actual characters are all 2D. We’ll look at the games later as well.
First up, from the final episode of the original Idolm@ster season, Ready & Change, which comprises the opening songs of both the first and second half of the season combined into one special track for this big season finale event. No Youtube for this, I’m afraid, Namco are complete asshats for copyright claims so it can sometimes be hard to find particular songs or performances from Namco-owned franchises like this (and Aikatsu, grrr).
[Idolm@ster] 765Pro performing Ready & Change!!
Hmm, not bad, not bad. Despite the limitations inherent in traditional animation, they do a really good job. You can do a lot with movie making techniques to get around technical—or budgetary—limitations, and this whole sequence shows that. Great shot composition, fluid motion, overall looks great.
However, you can also see where it struggles a bit to really put across what they clearly wanted to. The shots from a distance that show all the girls, certain sweeping shots where you have the CG background and the 2D girls being animated at different framerates… yeah, those parts definitely pull the overall performance down for me.
Next up, from the follow-up season of Idolm@ster, Cinderella Girls, a longer video because I’ve left in a substantial chunk of the preceding episode for context. This is again late in the season, a new idol unit has just recently been formed involving one of the main characters (Rin) and two others who were introduced later in the season (Nao and Karen), called Triad Primus.
[Idolm@ster Cinderella Girls] Rin, Karen, and Nao as new unit Triad Primus performing Trancing Pulse.
It’s their first time performing for real together, it’s their first time performing as a brand new and unknown unit, this is a big multi-idol, multi-unit event, and the nerves are hitting breaking point… at which point one of the other girls who’s due to go on next breaks down.
Because holy shit, can you imagine the sheer pressure coming from the other side of that curtain? The thousands of fans eager to enjoy more performances, yelling and cheering. The tense atmosphere as the various girls, some of whom are still pretty new to being idols, try and keep up their courage and determination. The knowledge that you need to perform, no matter how anxious you might be.
I’ve been involved with some big events like that, where there’s a stage and a huge audience, and yeah, I remember the terror of knowing you need to stand on that stage and perform as clear as day. It gets easier after the first time, but that’s the problem, for these girls it is the first time.
Additionally, this throws a wrench into the carefully planned order of performances, necessitating a last-minute change. Triad Primus now have to go on earlier than planned, because this is storytelling 101; always be putting roadblocks in the path of your characters.
Now let’s look at my favourite franchise in the whole wide world, Aikatsu.
Kicking off, we have a performance from season 3 of the original Aikatsu (there are, at the time of writing, three and a half seasons of the original show, two seasons of the follow-up, Aikatsu Stars, and two seasons of the follow-up to that one, Aikatsu Friends, and the new season has just been announced. It’s still a super popular franchise seven years after its initial inception).
[Aikatsu!] Juri, Rin, and Madoka as newly-formed unit Vanilla Chilli Pepper performing Chica x Chica.
I went with this particular performance first because it showcases the strengths of CG beautifully. First, the pre-performance scene where they change. Remember, this is magical idols now, so we have the Aikatsu System, a device where you can plug in Aikatsu Cards which contain the outfits you’ll be using for the performance. You can’t tell this is also an arcade game with a collectable card component, can you?
With that out of the way, the differences become immediately apparent. We have a complex and detailed stage, beautiful lighting effects, the depth of field/soft focus effect on the camera. But more than that, we have intricate choreography crafted to perfectly fit the Spanish theme of the song (though the stage is an Arabian theme for some odd reason; Japan’s weird like that sometimes, lol).
The one annoyance I have, mostly with Aikatsu specifically, is near the end of the performance. Where they come together holding hands and shoot off into the sky? That’s called a Special Appeal, and it’s basically just a game mechanic from the arcade game that was kept for the anime performances and integrated into the in-universe lore of the world. I wish they wouldn’t use them, but alas.
It should be clear by now that the above performance is simply not possible using traditional animation. Oh sure, you could do it, if you had effectively an unlimited budget and all the time in the world, but that’s just one episode. What are you going to do about next week’s episode? Or the one after? And we’re talking Aikatsu here, a show where each season is 50 Episodes, and every single one has a performance (sometimes two, or even three!).
Speaking of which, since the first Aikatsu has 178 episodes in total, I had a hell of a time figuring out what to show next. But I think I’ve decided, mostly because I love the reaction most people have to this particular song and its associated choreography and… uh, effects. Yes, effects. If you’ve ever wondered what being on LSD might be like, this is probably close.
[Aikatsu!] Kazesawa Sora performing Kira Pata Shining.
Unlike the previous performance, this is a different kind of audition known as a runway audition, or modelling audition. She’s modelling a new outfit by walking the runway… but it also has the awesome song and choreography. Honestly, this is something I love about Aikatsu, the way it integrates real world concepts in new ways.
A problem that CG does have is a certain degree of… disconnect. It’s no longer the same 2D characters from the rest of the episode, they’re 3D representations of those characters, and to some people that can be quite jarring. I don’t mind it personally, but it’s something to be aware of when considering these performances.
Still, the face close-ups in a performance like Triad Primus’s above put the emotion and intensity of a live performance across more clearly than a CG performance. The sweat on their faces, the facial expressions, and camera positioning really capture the essence of a live event, something CG can struggle with.
One major difference between Idolm@ster and other shows is that they fully integrate the story’s events into the performances. CG performances are normally two minutes of the girl/girls singing a song related to the episode’s story, but it’s very much a self-contained scene in most cases.
The performance of Triad Primus has additional weight, though, because of the last minute problem cropping up that needs dealing with, which then continues into and through the performance of the song itself. It has less impact here since you’re only watching a clip, but this is a pretty big moment in the show after the various struggles these girls have gone through in the episodes leading up to it.
On the other hand, the CG performances are a nice little self-contained bundle with a defined beginning and end and no interruptions, making them good for repeated watching or sharing by themselves. And looking at Sora’s performance, that’s not the sort of thing you can easily accomplish without CG.
So uh… yeah, I’m already at 1300 words and we haven’t even talked about the games yet. While I could happily and enthusiastically spend another few parts talking about idol subjects, things like how Pretty Rhythm combines figure skating and stage show rival battles, or why Aikatsu Stars’ first season is perfection on toast, or how a single idol can go from a kind of childish and lazy personality to an absolute professional who can bail her friends out of a pinch, or how Aikatsu did something different to its peers by having a dedicated idol unit for its songs instead of having the voice actresses sing them… maybe we’ll cut it there for now.
If you’d like to check out a few kickass songs from both Aikatsu and Idolm@ster, have a look at this page. And hey, if you’ve enjoyed my ramblings so far, maybe shoot me an email and let me know. I might be convinced to write a few more parts if there’s enough interest 🙂 Or if idols sound interesting and you’d like to know a good place to start, again, feel free to email, I’ll be happy to point you in the right direction.
In the final part of this introduction to idols, we’ll briefly look at the exception I mentioned in Part 1, then I’ll talk about my own idol setting and why you should read it 😉