When reading the synopsis and viewing the picture for this show it leaves an implication that it isn’t trying to be anything ambitious and merely be another cash-in on the moé franchise of the anime industry. The aim to make the viewer feel adoration toward its characters is not the problem in and of itself so much as the sheer volume of the cast creating issues with screen time. And with the story, animation, and music all being quite good, the large cast is perhaps the only major weakness this anime suffers from.
Part of the reason the large cast hurts the series is the method the narrative uses to characterize or develop everyone. While the spotlight episode approach highlights the personality, gimmick, or problems of the idol of the week, for most of the characters it is the only time to be truly seen by the viewer. Now if one were to assume that all thirteen or so characters each has a dedicated following, then the unbalanced exposure inevitably raises the question of why someone who likes a particular character should keep watching if two or more of his or her favorites are not present. Worse still, much of the development is wasted or artificially dictated as many of the reasons for starting a spotlight episode are never addressed again while the story arcs of others could only have happened due to the chronological events of the narrative instead of being moved by the cast itself. One could make the case for the aforementioned problems as a natural side-effect of having a few main characters and a whole host of side characters, which is true. However even among those whom the show usually focuses on outside of the spotlight episodes, this group typically cycles between a few of the cast members. The iDOLM@STER doesn’t have enough focus to call anyone its main character or characters and it doesn’t spread its attention to everyone enough to be called an ensemble.
But if one is able to look past the wasted development and shafted characters, he or she might possibly find that to be the only problem with this show. The story itself might be familiar to some viewers but the sincerity in which the idols pursue their dream and the semi-realistic nature of their progress is uncommon to say the least. Some characters move from rehearsal to live performances faster than others, but nobody progresses from amateur to professional within the span of a single episode or even two or three. The fact that the most naturally gifted of the idols is not the first one to be drafted into a more independent trope highlights the reality of how even those with innate talent must hone his or her skill and avoid being complacent. Slowly but surely the thirteen idols come into their own and all of them become independent by the end of the series and there’s no noticeable jump from the lively 765 Pro, which indicates their beginning, to a vacant vicinity, which indicates them having gained the experience needed to move past that point; it’s a very subtle approach presented by a seemingly transparent narrative and it’s all the more impressive considering the thirteen different tracks of progress present.
And as the idols gradually improve and are able to perform in more and more concerts, the anime is able to showcase a stronger example of visuals. The offstage animation isn’t lazy in places it shouldn’t be, and that same effort for the scenes where not much happens is carried over into the scenes where a lot happens, which are the performances. The concerts are nothing short of an excellent visual presentation, with very visible, constantly active choreography where the movements aren’t reduced to blurbs seen from the view of a camera that weaves above and around the stage and between the characters. A-1 Pictures shows some serious effort here as it could have left the varied character designs entice the viewer into watching, but it seems the studio decided not to let the anime hinge on a single element.
Of course an anime with a premise such as this one wouldn’t be complete without music, something which the show constantly keeps in mind. This is where The iDOLM@STER is at its best; every concert has a new song to sing, every idol has her own personal theme, every episode introduces a new tune. Every character song captures the personality of the idol it belongs to, whether it is the mischievous duo of Ami and Mami or the ever serious Chihaya, and retains its quality if only for the character associated with it. And with thirteen different idols it is almost a guarantee that someone will find a theme to like. The non-character tunes aren’t any less impressive either, as they summarize the general mood of each episode as the ending credits appear on the screen; there’s never a case of the music contradicting the mood, but it is guilty of consistently and thoroughly complementing the tone.
It would be a fair assumption to say that most of the people who would watch a show like this only have an interest in the characters, but unfortunately the development methods, screen time distribution, and prodigious size of the cast itself doesn’t make it the best show for an attractive character to entice the viewer. But if one is willing to look past that and watch it for its realistic and honest take on becoming and being an idol, he or she will find The iDOLM@STER to be a very solid choice.