The iDOLM@STER: Cinderella Girls Series Review

imas cinderella girls small edit

Wait, I complained about the existence of idol shows, but then I watched one? I am the scarlet fever that’s killing the industry.

Yeah, I know. It did help that it was so accessible, in a physical/digital sense, as it’s available for free on Daisuki. As it turns out, I did enjoy Cinderella Girls, which was a surprise. However, it was also a deeply flawed show, and the flaws continue to nag at me well after I finished watching it.

For those of you not much in the know about this show – and I was one of you once! – Cinderella Girls follows a group of young women and girls who have been recruited for the Cinderella Project, an entertainment effort that the agency 346 Production has undertaken. The action begins initially with Uzuki Shimamura, a girl seemingly impervious to negativity, when she is recruited for the project, allegedly for her brilliant smile. Quickly, Rin Shibuya, who is reluctant at first to become an idol, and the forceful Mio Honda are added to the cast, before we, and our original triplet, are dumped into the raging waters of the idol industry… by which I mean, the cast explodes to fourteen girls.

This latter piece is my big issue with the show, and it’s a problem that gets bigger as even more girls are added in the second season. Just as it feels like we’re finally getting reasons to care about almost all the girls, the show dumps several more into the mix. The show never has the time needed to flesh out this many characters; it ends up leaving us with characters one cannot care about as they never become anything more than cardboard cutouts. It also left me resentful when they did spend precious minutes on half-hearted stabs at eliciting audience sympathy for them, as it took time away from characters whom had been developed enough to catch one’s interest.

I mentioned above that the show didn’t have enough time to handle the massive cast it had, but it isn’t the only runtime problem. The big plot in the second season is that, uguu, the super-meanie new executive producer wants to nix the Cinderella Project, and to that end is peeling off our girls for additional different work as part of her initiative, Project Crone. (Cinderella vs. Crone? Really??? I rolled my eyes so hard at this that I’m lucky they didn’t pop right out of my head.) While having a story about teens and young adults growing and having to cope with change isn’t a bad thing, the timescale undermines a lot of its potential weight. Characters remark that it’s been six month since the Cinderella Project began, and for the viewer it’s been fourteen episodes. For comparison, if a teenager is in a school club, that club’s composition changes every year; ditto for classes. C’mon – being assigned to work with other people after six months is nothing! And even if the larger matter hanging over the cast – the Cinderella Project might be ended! – has more legitimacy conceptually, the show when this is first introduced simply hasn’t had enough time to give one a sense of potential loss.

I did say, though, that I overall enjoyed the show, which may at this point surprise you. And I did! I honestly did, even if the show flubbed some stuff badly. When the show did slow down and take the time to develop its characters, it handled them pretty well, and it was this that made me like the show. In particular, I was impressed with how the show presented two unbearable brats in the characters of cat-eared Miku and rock poser Riina, and then proceeded to make them genuinely compelling and sympathetic. Uzuki, too, was ultimately handled very well, as her can-do, everything’s sunny attitude is challenged in a way that the cutesy genki girl’s rarely is in this sort of show. (I never did manage to muster an interest in Kanako or Chieri, though.)

Because I genuinely liked most of the characters the show did spend time on (well, you know, before it flailed around with nonentities in the second season), I then in turn was able to get involved in a story that isn’t one I personally find compelling, i.e. the struggle for stardom. And I, too, felt like the show gave me a better sense of why a girl would ever want to be an idol anyway, albeit likely in part since it didn’t delve into the darker side beyond personal confidence crises the girls experienced (no sexual exploitation or stalking by fans going on in this one). It’s the story of the pursuit of fame in the idol industry that does grant that it takes both a lot of hard work and a strong sense of personal conviction to get anywhere… but in Uzuki’s story there’s the sense of triumph over one’s doubts and struggles. More generally there’s the experiential camaraderie of being in it not on one’s own but alongside other girls and women; even when their paths start to diverge work-wise, their friendships endure.

If anything, in Cinderella Girls, this aspect is given much more importance than fans are, for all that there’s talk about being there for one’s fans and impassioned declarations made about not betraying them. Instead of a sense of a zero-sum game, there’s much more a mentor thing going on from longtime idols to their newer juniors, especially as seen with Mika Jougasaki. No one’s panicking about the new girls stealing limelight, and not because the old hats are arrogantly sure it’d never happen; they genuinely show concern for and interest in girls like Miria and Mio. And I’m a big fan of this, although I’m sure a lot would argue that it isn’t realistic. There’s something nice about young women who are themselves quietly confident and from this position of confidence support their juniors.

So the cast and their relationships? That largely worked for me, even as the show as a whole had some big flaws. Speaking of flaws, much has been made of the show’s visuals, and its true – they get stunningly bad at points. I cared exactly 0% about the concert scenes, but these got hit particularly badly in the first season. Significant portions were apparently re-animated for the DVD/BR release, but it’s the broadcast version that is available for streaming on Daisuki (speaking which, I know a lot of people had to contend with broken subs on Daisuki’s stream when the show was airing, but either they’ve fixed it or it’s being broken depends on browser, as I didn’t encounter this). (It shouldn’t come as a shock that it hasn’t been licensed for a home release in R1.) It wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, but for more sensitive folks, it might be.

Oh, the music? Hmm. Good question. I don’t recall any of it except for the second OP (which I liked some of the visuals for), and a song that consisted entirely of Miku and Riina shouting, “Nyaa! Nyaa! Nyaa!” for two minutes (how could one forget such a thing?), mercifully in a lower register than Nyan.cat. But I’m not much one for idol music, and folks I know who do like it have been positive about the stuff in Cinderella Girls. (I’m just going to stay over here with my Snow Halation and LONELIEST BABY.) (Speaking of Love Live – Cinderella Girls is a muuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuch better show.)

In the end, I’m glad I watched Cinderella Girls, although I can’t see myself trying any of the other bits of the franchise (I saw Idolm@ster Xenoglossia years ago, for the record). Of course, since none of the various different Idolmaster games for consoles, handhelds, and phones are available outside of Japan, surely this will save me some frustration. Nor could I envision myself re-watching the show at some point. For idol fans, this should be right up your alley, but I’m sure you’ve already seen it anyway. For others, the show does offer a reasonably diverting tale of girls working hard, overcoming obstacles, and forming bonds with one another (some quite easily yurified!), although anyone with a strong allergy to idol shows should stay away.

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