Before he managed idols, perhaps the enigmatic Producer produced films instead. He certainly seems to have some prior experience, if the first episode of The Idolm@ster is any indicator.
Impossible to miss while watching The Idolm@ster are its production values, which are of incredibly high quality; the live performances and dance sequences are lovingly animated and seamless. However, recently while rewatching the first episode of the series, I was instead struck by how polished of a product a supposedly amateur cameraman had managed to whip together in the matter of a day or two. It’s unbelievable when one actually pays attention to how the premiere episode was filmed, so to speak.
When we turn our attention from the fluidity of the animation itself to the actual cinematography, the series reveals just how much thought has been put into its presentation. This is not a reference to the anicamera, although we’ll return to that later, but the physical camera that has been placed into Producer’s hands, giving a different weight to the array of angles and sequences that compose the episode.
The series chooses to deliver its first episode in a documentary style, where Producer films the girls in both their everyday and idol lives under the guise of being a cameraman. While it would make sense that an experienced filmmaker would know instinctively which shots to use, when to edit in visual beats and pillow shots, or how to frame each girl in a way that naturally reinforces their personality, the filmmaker in this case is the girls’ soon-to-be rookie producer with presumably no camera experience. Once one knows the reveal, it makes certain sequences a bit more difficult to accept. Consider the following:
This sequence marks the second time that we are introduced to Chihaya Kisaragi. Her initial introduction consists of her misinterpreting what Haruka Amami means by “memory” on an mp3 player. Immediately determining that she can’t understand what Haruka is talking about, she hands the mp3 player to Haruka, saying that it’s “out of her league.” Her face is off-center and her eyes are downcast. This, combined with the words that she is speaking, acquaints the viewer with Chihaya and her negative personality immediately.
Chihaya’s attitude is reinforced by the scene above which begins with her singing onstage to a small audience. The yellow spotlight of the stage marks the only time Chihaya will be seen in a warm color, and its brightness pales in comparison to the lighting chosen by the next performing act (as shown in subsequent scenes where Chihaya, followed by the viewer through the lens of Producer’s camera, watch an upbeat rock band perform to a much larger audience from the wings of the stage).
Each following shot in this sequence is similarly focused on presenting Chihaya to her viewers in a very specific manner. She is positioned off-center in relation to Producer’s camera, visibly uncomfortable. The aforementioned lighting is cool and hits her indirectly aside from when she is performing. When the camera chooses to zoom in, she is rarely facing forward and her head is at an angle as if she is shrinking away from Producer, and her audience by extension. Additionally, there are impeccably-timed visual beats when the camera cuts to show the rock band, and later some unplugged microphones, in between shots of Chihaya herself.
None of these shots break one’s suspension of disbelief and fully enter the realm of the anicamera specifically. The sequence is completely plausible from the handheld video camera that we are aware of as the solitary point of view. However, the quality of the angles, lighting, positioning, and visual timing (although one can also contribute this to the editing process) are all suspect coming from a supposedly amateur cameraman. Additionally, similar methods of visual narration are used throughout the entirety of the series, although the physical presence of the documentary viewpoint is only used in the first episode. For what purpose, then, was the introductory episode of The Idolm@ster, given such a specific framework? Why not simply show Producer touring the studio of 765 Productions, being introduced to the girls one by one while implementing similar visual sequences?
With only a limited amount of time to introduce a cast of thirteen idols (including former idol-turned-producer Ritsuko Akizuki), The Idolm@ster chooses a tried and true method of acquainting idols with their audience: the silent interview. The cameraman, in this case Producer, is further displaced from the events on screen as his questions are never heard by the viewer of the episode. They appear, unspoken, as single lines of white text on a black background, making him further removed from the girls, which brings them closer to their captive audience. The purpose is two-fold: it allows the viewer to observe the girls in a more natural and voyeuristic way, while also removing the personal presence of the cameraman, giving the audience the ability to become the spectator in his stead.
“You think so? Being positive is a sales point? I think I like the sound of the “sales” part, don’t you? It feels like I got a good deal! Then I’ll approach every day with a “sales” attitude!”
-Yayoi Takatsuki, The Idolm@ster, episode one.
Above all else, The Idolm@ster is trying to sell you on one of the thirteen girls in order to ensure that you’ll come back to watch the rest of the series. As noted here by 2DT and Yi, idol culture relies on reinforcing a personal connection between fan and idol. The silent interview allows the viewer to stand in and ask the idol personal questions while the documentary portion uses specific visual devices to encapsulate each of the idols’ personalities within the short amount of time allotted.
That being said, The Idolm@ster toes a fine line between gently prodding at idol culture while also reveling in it. Yayoi’s misunderstanding above of what her idol “sales point” is both charmingly naive, to appeal to would-be Yayoi fans, and just a bit cynical by implying that she requires one to sell herself as a product. The series continues to explore this throughout its run, although The Idolm@ster softens its negative commentary far more than the recent example of AKB0048.
Perhaps it is how The Idolm@ster manages to, albeit gently, poke at the culture it relies on to sell itself that the incongruous camerawork of Producer manages to be a fitting introduction to the series. It’s slick, well-composed, and just jarring enough for an attentive audience to notice.