Jan 3, 2018
RiverRode (All reviews)
I don’t think highly of A-1 Pictures. There aren’t any particular people there who I think are at fault, but rather how the studio itself is managed has led to some rather lackluster projects. The typical A-1 anime isn’t particularly ambitious, and while it will be enough to entertain you while you’re watching it, it’s unlikely to leave a lasting impression. That said, I think A-1 has had some more interesting projects over the course of 2017, such as Demi-chan, Saekano Flat, and Fate Apocrypha. But sadly here we are at the end of the year, with a few projects that are the quality I’ve come to expect from this studio.

The iDOLM@STER SideM is the latest entry in the iM@S franchise, though this time, the idols are all male to cater to a female audience. There isn’t much of an overarching story present in this season, and it instead serves mainly just to introduce the characters. That said, every entry in the series prior to this point has continued for two cours, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see another season down the line, that would potentially bring up a greater conflict. But until then, I hope you like character introductions….

…because you’ll be seeing a lot of them. SideM has an expansive cast of 20 characters, and it takes the first 7 episodes to even introduce all of them. Similar to Cinderella Girls, SideM manages this cast by dividing it up into units, so that audiences can meet the cast a few members at a time and not be overwhelmed. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the same character archetypes are being recycled in each unit (I particularly dislike “Guy who can’t go two sentences without injecting broken English into his speech”), and little is done to characterize the cast beyond their most surface traits. It’s not like it would have been impossible to distinguish a bit more between characters in the same archetype. One detail that had the potential to be interesting was that most of the characters were adults that had had careers prior to debuting as idols – including a doctor, two soccer players, three teachers, and even a prince – and it would have been neat if that factored into their characterization instead of just being lipservice backstory. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is the producer, who, despite appearing the most since he serves as a mentor to all of the units, ends up being the least developed member of the cast. While it’s true that his development is secondary to that of the actual idols, previous entries in the franchise have demonstrated that it’s possible for the producer to have a compelling character arc in the background, and it’s a shame that this one ended up staying a blank slate.

Equally disappointing is the performance scenes, or rather, the absence of them. Almost every time that a performance is about to begin, the camera cuts away to focus in on another scene somewhere else. While this is an understandable move to lighten the load on the animators, it seems strange to have an idol show where the performances aren’t used for spectacle. And when the audience does get to see these performances, the camera either lingers close enough so that there’s never many characters in the shot at once, or far enough away so that the use of CG can be disguised. The choreography is unimpressive and the camerawork is uninspired, and the performances all end up feeling like missed opportunities.

And with so little focus on the performances, it’s only natural that the songs would suffer as well. When the camera isn’t even on the stage where a performance is happening, it’s not uncommon for the focus to instead be on a conversation in a separate scene, reducing the song to just background noise. In addition, the official subs also don’t bother to translate the lyrics, which seems to be standard practice at this point. It wouldn’t even have been hard; many of the songs weren’t original and were just taken from the SideM mobile game, so the translation team could have used the English lyrics that already existed courtesy of Project iM@S. It seems strange to say this about an idol anime, but the music basically feels like an afterthought.

With all of these issues, I had originally written SideM off as another cash-in about which no one on the production team actually cared. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. After finishing the show, I learned that much of the staff has been involved with iM@S since the beginning, and care about the franchise a lot. For example, there’s Kuroki Miyuki, one of the directors for SideM, who was a key animator for the original 2011 iM@S, and has been vocal about her love of the Jupiter boys. It was heartbreaking to learn that so much love had gone into this production, and that the end product had still turned out so lackluster. This team had been passionate about the project, but they weren’t given adequate time or resources to create their vision. Going back to the first paragraph, this is my problem with A-1 – that they view anime as a business more than as an artistic medium. There are definitely exceptions to this, but in general the studio seems to strive for acceptable rather than exceptional – projects that are just good enough that people will buy the physical releases. I hope to see more bold and interesting originals in the future, but A-1 Pictures simply isn’t the studio from which I expect them to come. There’s talent in the anime industry, and it needs to be given a chance.