Thank god this show exists. When Cinderella Girls came out and was collectively tossed into the fire by many [email protected] fans, me included, I was afraid that was how Idolmaster's legacy in animation was going to end. It felt like an insanely long wait to hear about a new [email protected] animation project. But SideM was announced, and my doubts were quickly washed away the more I saw of it.
The touches of care A-1 Pictures has shown for SideM are in all the details. The art looks like the original series again. Cinderella Girls's muted palette is gone, and SideM looks very vibrant. We have reoccurring characters from the original series in the main cast to welcome back old viewers. We as an audience and the original series were not forgotten about. And the show takes itself seriously again. There's still plenty of laughs sprinkled in, but this show managed to actually have a message and a heart.
You'd think that's basic storytelling, but it's funny how Cinderella Girls proved how easily that goes wrong. I'm only beating up on Cinderella Girls because I cannot stress enough how much a breath of fresh air this was as an Idolmaster fan.
Unfortunately, SideM is only 14 episodes, unlike its two predecessors' 25 episodes. If you want to count the live-action iD[email protected] with 24 forty-minute episodes, then the odds are even more stacked against SideM. Yet, it turned out stronger than I could have hoped for.
"Episode 0" is a double-length special that opens on Jupiter struggling to find a new agency after their fallout in the first series. They were three misled boys with good intentions and are now trying to prove their worth with integrity. Putting these support characters from the first series upfront couldn't have been a better choice. Touma, Shouta, and Hokuto are funnier than they've ever been. Loads of wit and sight gags especially ensue as they encounter the president of 315 Productions, Takashi Saitou.
Saitou is the best president of any Idolmaster adaption to date. This man is everywhere you don't expect. He's funny, loud, rambunctious, and talks with an accent that's like a samurai on crack. Opening the show on these four characters already lets you know you're in for a treat.
From there, the show takes a step back to get new audiences acquainted. Teru Tendo is the perspective character for any newcomers. He has a strong introduction as he's tricked into signing his contract while drunk. He tried to be a lawyer before, but was never any good at it, and just decides to roll with the punches of whatever this idol stuff is he's gotten himself into. But other than a fun "episode 1," seriously anime has to stop doing this, he doesn't hold up for the rest of the series. He's not bad, but he's the main face of the show and yet gets delegated to the background.
The peers in his unit, Kaoru and Tsubasa aren't much better. Kaoru is the best character of the three. He distinctly has an obsession with money to fund research on the disease that killed his sister. It's a good motive, and it makes sense why he tends to escalate tension in the group when things aren't going well; but something about his arc doesn't hit the emotions it's going for. Meanwhile, Tsubasa... he's there. I think he's supposed to be the guy that calms Teru and Kaoru down when they get worked up, but he doesn't do a good job at it.
There's a lot more going on though in these 14 episodes. Every Idolmaster series has a large ensemble cast and each one struggles with balancing them all out. [email protected] had the easiest time thanks to its length, but even it missed out on developing one character in the core group. SideM has the same problems, but it did manage to pull off a creative workaround.
Rather than the usual route of dedicated character episodes, SideM develops everyone in their respective units. These hit for the most part, but we'll touch on what feels missed out too.
S.E.M.—made of Michio, Jiro, and Rui—were the first group to win me over. Their gimmick is pretty simple, but effective. They're middle-aged men needing to dress in goofy costumes and appeal to teenagers. I think everyone can agree on how often they hate it when their parents try to sound cool, but the humor on display with these guys really hit the mark. I was thoroughly impressed with how often I wanted them to be back on screen.
W is made of twin brothers. Get it? Double... you... Because they're the same. Why, Japan? Anyway, they were okay. They came in halfway and their introduction was solid.
Beit... cricket noises
The real stars for me were the members of High Joker. These five teens had the greatest chemistry of all and I was so excited to see their arc be several episodes long. The show-stealers are Shiki and Jun. Shiki is the newest member of the band—yes, band, not idols—and Jun was the biggest nay-sayer to letting Shiki join. Jun has his reasons that were fully convincing on why he'd be hesitant. However, Shiki's arc of proving himself to Jun and the band as a whole really paid off in an emotional climax. Their moment was the single closest event to bring me to tears as the original and KR could. And while they are still technically idols who need to perform with the rest of 315Pro, on their own, they perform as a rock band. This is nice since it's a different kind of music that you typically don't get in idol shows.
Unfortunately, another drawback to SideM is the animation. Now, trust me, it's still good compared to its peers in this genre; however, The [email protected] and Cinderella Girls could proudly boast they never used CG in their (foreground) animation. Idolmaster was always the best series for pretty, well-animated, fully 2D dance numbers and music videos. SideM can't say that. Its budget has taken a clear hit. While it does try to hide its CG by only using it at certain angles and in certain lighting, it's still noticeable when in motion.
The other problem that rears its ugly head is the afterimages. I thought this was a cheap animation trick we abandoned early last decade, but the show also tries to disguise choppy frames with awful afterimage effects that really take me out of the moment.
Considering the upcoming Million Live will not be produced by A-1 Pictures and is fully CG, I fear the days of Idolmaster's sakuga dances to be a thing of the past. They still produce amazing music videos for the franchise as a whole—the latest music video, "[email protected]," is stunningly gorgeous; but I think any serialized animation won't be receiving such treatment for a while.
But I'll trade it for worthwhile stories in this charming universe. As far as animated ventures are concerned, we are once again at a net positive. It's not as good as the original (or KR), but A-1 made the best out of what they have. And they even sprinkled in cameos of characters from the SideM game that were excluded. We once again have a series that fans and newcomers can enjoy alike. But it's especially a treat for those who want to see the next chapter for Jupiter and [email protected] as a whole.