「輝きの向こう側へ!」 (Kagayaki no Mukougawa e!)
“To the Other Side of the Light!”
Let’s make something clear: I know next to nothing about the IDOLM@STER franchise. I gather that it’s a big thing in Japan, but I’ve never played simulation games, and I’ve never really gotten into pop music, so the entire concept of THE IDOLM@STER was a bit alien to me. I mean, seriously? There’s an idol industry? They mass produce young girls flaunting themselves in entirely superficial ways? I couldn’t help but be cynical going into the original anime, especially considering that it was a show based on a game—Hollywood does movies based on games so well, right? To this day I still have no idea whether THE IDOLM@STER was faithful adaptation of the game, but I’m of the opinion that adaptations should be able to stand on their own anyway, and boy, did THE IDOLM@STER take a stand, to the point of being Divine favourite slice of life of 2011. To be direct: it proved me wrong completely, and I’m glad for that. This movie, Kagayaki no Mukougawa e!, is a direct extension of the anime series and builds on all the good things it had built—namely, a diverse and likeable cast that we’ve soaked in for 25 or so episodes. Those wishing to get the most out of this movie should watch the original series first, or otherwise be familiar with the characters beforehand—the really are the backbone of the entire thing.
So the entire cast is back—even some secondary faces you might recognise—and it’s a comforting feeling to see them still more or less as they were, like the nostalgic taste of home cooking. At the same time, growth is central theme of THE IDOLM@STER and this movie is insistent on reminding us how the girls have matured, especially on the part of our main heroine Amami Haruka (still voiced by Nakamura Eiko; all original seiyuu reprise their roles), freshly promoted from ad hoc leader to official leader. But the whole ‘aim towards Top Idol’ thing was the overarching driver of the original anime (nebulous MacGuffin though it was) and now that Haruka has won the Whatever Award it leaves us to wonder what else they can do her. The answer, apparently, is to throw a bunch of new characters at her. The newbies serve to contrast our veterans and create a cyclical narrative where our old guard must pave the way for the new (and, if I can be allowed to be cynical again for a moment, to bridge a new series). They also addresses one of the elephants in the room that the anime only deals with in passing: for a bunch of rivals in direct competition with each other, 765PRO sure is chummy. I expected the idol industry to be more fake smiles and cutthroat backstabbing. Y’know, like actual showbiz. It does serve to highlight Haruka’s life philosophy—unrelenting goodwill to all mankind, or something like that—and this conflict of ideals turns Kagayaki no Mukougawa e! into strange version of Saving Private Ryan, where no man or idol is left behind. But while a war movie may make you question whether it was all worth it, THE IDOLM@STER‘s brand of triumphant optimism says, ‘Hell yes, definitely’.
The Prodigal Son in question is Yabuki Kana (Kido Ibuki), more or less the face of the scrub team. She’s by far the most developed of the backup dancers, but that’s not actually saying all that much. It’s a natural problem of introducing so many new characters in your movie and making them fight for screentime with an established main cast. The lack of development does hurt the narrative. The strength of the original anime was that although the drama was not necessarily the most sophisticated, the characters were well done (and done over two cours instead of just two hours). The drama doesn’t have to overblown, viewers just need to be more sensitive to the characters. The new characters of Kagayaki no Mukougawa e! still remain new; I don’t really know who these people are. I went through the movie in fair detail and I still can’t put the seven’s names to their faces (and, to be honest, had to check my notes again to make sure there were actually seven of them). The lack of connection between character and viewer makes some of the conflict feel artificial (if they’re only looking for backup dancers, why did they choose someone who expressly has no confidence in dancing?). Kana’s weight problem was done relatively well, though, even if, frankly, she doesn’t look that bad. (
For a hobbit No, no I didn’t mean that. I’m really sorry.). I would have liked a serious discussion on body image and the effect of celebrity standards, but eating disorders are discussed so rarely in anime that I was happy to have any mention of it at all. I do need to give props to A-1 Pictures and director Nishigori Atsushi for attention to detail. I was thinking, every time we saw Kana snacking, whether an idol could afford to snack that much. When I saw Kana’s room I noted that it didn’t look like the room of a healthy person. I kicked myself for being too cynical to see it all as a potential plot point. So Kana earned some empathy from me there, but even if she didn’t I’d still feel empathy for Haruka’s empathy, so all in all the narrative will still work out.
It’s a good thing that Kana’s story didn’t sputter because, to me, it’s the central plot of Kagayaki no Mukougawa e!. Preparing for the arena concert may have been the overarching plot, but there was no question that it wouldn’t be a blast once Kana got her funk back. And what a blast it was! Philistine that I am, I wasn’t really sure what an arena concert was at first, but it turned out to just be a concert in an arena, which didn’t seem that big a deal until I was shown the size of the venue. Considering the size of the stage, the complexities of choreographing for that stage, and the intricacies working the camera to show off that choreography, I was quite impressed with the entire performance, and willing to forgive A-1 Pictures for finally buckling and breaking out the CGI, and needing product placement to pay for everything. I still don’t understand idol dance moves as more than coordinated fibrillation, but it looked very active, the song was appropriate as a finale piece, and everyone got some stage-time even if they had to photobomb for it. I felt it closed the story with a bang, even if I’m still wondering: aren’t the seats in the middle of the stage actually terrible? You’re too close to see everything and you’re constantly being rained on with confetti. Nagging questions aside, I went out of the big payoff feeling very satisfied.
Besides the main song and dance, there are other bits of entertainment to be found in this movie. Fans will notice ship-teasing in full effect. While Miki may consider Haruka her biggest rival, but what she actually needs to watch out for are Kotori sneak attacks. Tell me: is this not the face that launched a thousand ships? It’s still all innocent fun, though. Of course, Kotori sails her own ships at full steam, and those are more risque. The point is the comedy, though, and that’s still worth laughs when THE IDOLM@STER plays those cards. We can’t talk about comedy, though, without mentioning the opening parody trailer, which is without a doubt the best one to date. I laughed out loud when it went from Harry Potter horror to faux-sci-fi action, and laughed again at Magical Girl Chihaya. Every moment was gold. I loved the cheesy romance, the inappropriate casting, the stupid reveals, the silly attacks, the clichéd melodrama, the ham villain, the complete absurdity. If you want to do parody (unlike another show this season) you have to be at least this crazy. Though I don’t think I’d mind watching it played straight, either.
The parody trailer, pure fanservice though it may be, reveals one of the truths of storytelling. You can get a set of developed characters and throw them into any setting you can imagine and make a good story out of it. Such is the strength of THE IDOLM@STER, having invested into its characters and now being able to insert them into any scenario and just let them more or less write themselves. I’d watch idols as magical schoolgirls, or idols as sealed evil in a can, or as actions heroes, or yakuza, or giant mecha pilots, simply because I know the characters will amuse me (though, note the different between concept and execution; there are traumas we’d still all rather stay buried). I wonder if the staff just took the episode 26 fake-out about the Producer going to America and just ran with it; the actual drama was resolved mostly as an afterthought, but it did set characters into motion along the way. Whatever the case may be, I was reminded me of how I missed THE IDOLM@STER and its cast. Every time a good slice-of-life ends it’s like saying goodbye to dear friends (or at least friends you’re used to seeing every week). It’s a complex feeling, finding myself wishing fictional people luck for the future. I used to have a dream about being a performer too, but I gave that up a long time ago. It does my soul good to see people succeed after all their blood, sweat and tears. That’s the way the world ought to be.
As I mentioned before, there’s going to be a new IDOLM@STER anime in January, and this movie, in part, paves the way for that (I’m assuming that’s what this is all about). I’m not going to treat it strictly as a sequel, though, because it’s not the same cast; I hope I’ve emphasised enough that it’s the characters that define a slice of life. And I have no idea what Cinderella Girls is either. But it may happen that an anime about idols may unexpectedly surprise me, once again.
ED: 「虹色ミラクル」 (Nijiiro Miracle) by 765PRO ALLSTARS