Success, and drama, are fueled by tears.
I’m sure I’ve already told the story of how, before I was lured into watching the first IDOLM@STER series, I didn’t really have much respect for the idol industry, and by extension anime about idols. To me, it sounded at worst like cynical exploitation of young girls (strut for our amusement, ladies) and at best vapid frippery (y’know, pop music), and neither direction offered a very flattering image. So it’s a continual surprise to me that I enjoy the IDOLM@STER animes so much, and still without any knowledge of the games or larger franchise.
To be clear, the idol industry as presented in Cinderella Girls is still, when one gets down to it, vapid frippery, but it is presented in absolutely the most positive way possible. In fact, the frippery is arguably the point. It’s not frivolous, it’s innocent fun; it’s not superficial, it’s personality. Sure, it still handwaves over some of the more sordid aspects of the industry (is it alright to be so keen about sexualising yourself as a minor? Discuss!) but no other idol anime, to my knowledge (admitting that I haven’t watched all of them) have ever subjected itself to such examination before. Appropriately, the antagonist of Cinderella Girls, brought into play for this second half, is not a giant ham villain like Kuroi of the original series, but simply a representative of the serious music business angle from which I, in the past, would have gladly stood and sneered at THE IDOLM@STER. And Executive Producer Mishiro isn’t exactly ‘wrong’, not completely a strawman—she simply is not operating under the pure-hearted idealism as the rest of Cinderella Girls. The message isn’t that life is a fairy tale—that would have been far too saccharine for the 21st century—but that one should believe in the fairy tale anyway. Positivity is good for you! And in the end, it wins! Woo!
The other upgrade compared to the first series is that Cinderella Girl cast is even larger. Or perhaps it’s not really an upgrade, because I definitely had trouble keeping track of all the faces, especially since they shuffled groupings around this season. This is probably not a big problem for those familiar with the source game, but an anime-only viewer like me is probably not going to be able to recognise them all, let alone come to care for them all. While the first season went a way to develop the core members of the Cinderella Project, but even then it’s hard to keep them all close, and the greater role of ‘peripheral’ 346 Productions employees didn’t help. The competition for screen time was fierce, and only terse development was allowed for any given member of the supporting cast. I suppose they sort of made it work—it wasn’t really important to remember who was whom, just the role they played within the context of any given scene—but it does mean that many characters were one-note. And from that, we needed to create drama! Fortunately, it was on the whole fairly grounded, believable conflicts but still a bit reliant on the usual poor communication to stir things ups. And some of the problems these characters face are downright silly (want to be a rocker, but you can’t play a guitar? You poseur), but that’s forgivable because, again, the silliness is the point. Rather than frowning on these idiosyncrasies like the Executive Producer aiming for serious showbiz, Cinderella Girls applauds them. That artificial cat persona? Someone works really to maintain that. There is a charm to the silliness, and the silliness is important to somebody.
Thus the greatest fairy tale of Cinderella Girls: the one about individuality. You may already know that Japan is a highly collectivist society, and when teenagers emerge into the adult world they’re expected to have all individuality stamped out of them. Dream of being a ‘salaryman’, don’t rock any boats, and your company will take care of you. The highly corporate structure of 346 Productions represents that, and its idols are a generation of Japanese youth that struggle with finding an avenue for self-expression. And, lo, individuality stands triumphant! It may just be in an anime, which has always been more open to such ideas (anime as art and all that), but a win is a win. Looking at Cinderella Girls from this angle, the role of the extended cast becomes clearer: the seniors are the bridges between the adolescents of the Cinderella Project and the adult world of corporate show business (and also, following in your senior’s example is totally the Japanese way to do things). And all the different idols is a celebration of the myriad people that deserve their five minutes of stardom. They’ve sure spun a lot from what was originally just a social network game where you collect lots of idols. Considering what they had to work with, I’m impressed. Yes, sure, THE IDOLM@STER: Cinderella Girls is still not the most sophisticated fare, but it really has managed to draw out a lot more depth from the idol ‘genre’ than I really thought possible. Beyond the usual feel-good fare (and there’s nothing wrong with that, of course), it has spun the entire idol industry into something remarkably positive with its introspection on what exactly gives it charm. That’s some brilliant apologia; it’s not vapid frippery, it’s vapid frippery that celebrates self-expression. We really can all afford to be less serious and just indulge in adolescence again.
As always with the IDOLM@STER animes, they really could have phoned it in with this one and just rode on the franchise’s domestic popularity. But someone obviously put a lot of work into making the anime something more, even without sacrificing the unconquerable idealism underpinning it. I could perhaps write more about the Cinderella metaphor, or what a great character the Producer was, or maybe get into the technical analysis about whether the drama was effectively executed. But I’ve gone on long enough already, and I think that the most appropriate thing is to salute the effort. Was the message not that, in the end, it’s about heart? It definitely shows in Cinderella Girls.