Parallel or Together in the Idolmaster

It’d be easy for the Idolmaster movie to be a strict love letter to the fans, and barely a movie at all. The Love Live movie did that, which wasn’t really a surprise – Love Live’s always been a series in direct conversation with its fandom, and so the fact that its movie was basically just the cast doing their bits and then a bunch of cute performances seemed pretty appropriate. And The Idolmaster is a series with so many good moments that it’s essentially created its own robust vocabulary of character and narrative touchstones to reference. You could have a sequence of Iori and Yayoi being an awkward couple, an extended return to the Sunday game show, a bit where Hibiki and her dog conduct an interview with some grumpy antagonist, and there you go – ninety minutes achieved, checks are in the mail.

The Idolmaster

The Idolmaster doesn’t do this. It goes for broke with an extended dramatic narrative, trying to tell a self-contained story that still draws on the strengths of the series proper. It doesn’t really succeed in this; The Idolmaster is a messy movie, one that often seems to lose track of why the series was so good, and it doesn’t really offer the cathartic experience you might want from a series capstone. But it tries to go big, and in the context of a series like Idolmaster, I can certainly respect that ambition.

The main problem with the Idolmaster movie is that Idolmaster has never really been a drama. Though the show had some moments with emotional or dramatic bite, it was generally a series driven by fun character rapport and individually engaging episodic adventures. The plot beats were purposeful and efficient, all working in service of punchy little stories full of consistent new ideas. The conflict came almost incidentally, like when an unexpected delay forced the team to cover the gap in the first season’s finale – and when the show went for full-on character drama, like in the last set of episodes, it floundered. The team’s ragtag sympathetic nature emerged naturally from small details, not from an assumption of some major dramatic investment.

The Idolmaster

But the Idolmaster likely couldn’t get away with that now anyway, and that’s probably the first strange thing about this movie. In the second half of the original series, the show’s leads were already becoming stars – albums and interviews and performances and all of it. Now, in the wake of a successful television series, the cast has also become stars for the fans of the show, characters treated like returning champions by the film’s framing. In light of that, it often seems like the movie has a lot less to prove than the series. While the show constantly worked hard to keep things entertaining, the movie just assumes your investment – and because of that, a lot of it drags. There are long stretches of material that don’t even feel indulgent, they just feel slow.

But if Idolmaster the Movie sometimes feels like it’s already assumed your love, Idolmaster the Characters never do. The tension of their ambitions, and the way each of the film’s characters fight for success and recognition in their own ways, is the film’s saving grace.

The Idolmaster

Everyone wants to become an idol in the Idolmaster, or at least, everyone wants to succeed in some grand ambition. The film doesn’t treat its characters’ dreams like inevitabilities, or like theoretical, distant ideals you just hold in your heart. It treats them like they are – impossible career goals, wishes that require some kind of wild arrogance to even attempt. You have to be mad to want to be an idol, and the Idolmaster movie contrasts two specific styles of madness against each other, both in its original cast and in a pair of new idols too uncertain to truly live their philosophy.

The first, one articulated in part by the Producer and then championed at times by virtually everyone else, is the ideal of self-motivation. Don’t treat the future as the future – know that the only time you can impact is right now, and treat your every day as if you’re currently seizing hold of your dream. Maintain confidence in yourself, but also always seek to better yourself. Be ambitious, be driven, be hungry for your own greater self. And don’t look down on those around you; see the best in them, because their rivalry will make you better as well.

The Idolmaster

Miki is perhaps this philosophy’s greatest adherent in the original cast. Miki doesn’t really have close friends among her fellow idols; she shares the general camaraderie of the overall group, but most of her projects are solo ones, and she’s progressing on a unique career path all on her own. In the original series, she nearly quit the group when she wasn’t given a unique chance to shine; but at this point, she’s learned to tether her ambitions to a clear respect for her peers. When Haruka is feeling down, Miki reflects on how she wanted to be the leader, but accepted that the Producer chose Haruka – she’s not bitter, because she knows Haruka earned that choice. Miki is possibly the most talented member of the group, and pushes herself to the limit, but never begrudges the successes of others who’ve also earned success. Though a character like Iori embodies this philosophy to a lesser extent, saying she always sees her fellow idols as rivals, Miki lives this belief. It is her own dedication that makes her strong.

In contrast to Miki’s self-determination, the group overall often leans towards Haruka’s philosophy – what Miki agrees is a philosophy that’s “too soft for a professional,” a striving for a communal kind of success. In the series proper, Haruka was so determined to not leave her friends behind that she basically committed herself to sorting out Chihaya’s psychological issues. Near the end of the series, her fear that the whole group wouldn’t be able to get together again inspired all of her fellow idols. And now, when a new idol who tries to live her philosophy loses confidence due to pressure from an insecure girl more in line with Miki, Haruka nearly halts an entire show production just to get the girl practicing again.

The Idolmaster

Haruka’s choices aren’t framed as the “right ones” by the film, or even ones that inherently lead to greater success. The movie takes pains to acknowledge that Haruka’s choices are a kind of stubborn craziness, a regularly unprofessional choice, a selfishness. And beyond that, adherence to Haruka’s beliefs isn’t championed solely because she thinks it’s important; carrying others isn’t just nice, it means you will be carried in turn. Yukiho sees her need to help others as a kind of extended debt, the choice she wants to and must make in order to recompense for those who once helped her be strong. Not everyone has Miki’s temperament, and can totally motivate themselves towards success; for the rest of us, when we’re pursuing a hopeless dream, it’s only possible if we share the weight.

Most of Idolmaster’s characters don’t live at the extremes of these beliefs – in fact, the movie intentionally introduces two characters who do inhabit the extremes, which both drives the conflict and demonstrates how you can’t wholly rely on either others or yourself. Miki respects Haruka as a friend and rival, and would clearly sacrifice of herself for their overall success. Haruka relies on the strength of others, and admits that even her group philosophy is a very personal goal. Yukiho stresses the importance of pursuing your own desires even as you seek help from others, and Iori’s always willing to help her friends. Pursuing your dream is tough, and there isn’t one clear answer. Find strength in your rivals, steel your own nerves, and never take the future for granted; even with all that, for Idolmaster’s stars, the path to success is still a mystery. All they can do is look towards the horizon and hope there’s something beautiful on the other side.

The Idolmaster

So yes, this movie does have some thematic and character chops. Idolmaster is a great show with a great cast of characters, and I appreciate that this movie curved theme-heavy and put that all to work. It’s messy, but that’s life. Like its characters, the movie doesn’t take success for granted. It may fail, but it fails grandly, charging the stage and staring towards the lights.

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