There are certain accepted truths in respective fandoms that one simply does not challenge, lest they draw the ire of nearly every other fan. In 2011, The Idolm@ster was brought to the small screen – sorry, 2007 Xenoglossia, it just wasn’t your time – creating an entirely new subset of Idolm@ster fans who were introduced to the franchise through the anime, rather than the game. This naturally gave rise to a battleground upon which favorites were declared, championed, and to this day are consistently fought for in a never-ending “best girl” war.
Naturally, this didn’t end with The Idolm@ster. For the franchise as a whole, the anime Idolm@ster cast is only the beginning – and had already expanded the game cast beyond the original ten girls to include the 961/Project Fairy idols – and delving into the games or fandom around that time led to the girls of 346 Productions, or the Cinderella Girls. When the 2015 Cinderella Girls anime aired, it was met with inevitable dismay and found lacking to the 2011 anime. Many dropped the series after the first few episodes, as these new girls couldn’t compete with their tried and true favorites.
It is commonly accepted that Cinderella Girls is inferior to The Idolm@ster, a statement that I wholeheartedly disagree with. A viewer who sticks with Cinderella Girls to the end is rewarded far beyond any emotional gratification that the 2011 anime provides.
While I love the Idolm@ster anime – it introduced me to the franchise, after all – it has a glaring and obvious weakness towards the end of the series. Following the resolution of Chihaya Kisaragi’s narrative, Haruka Amami takes the figurative center stage. Her story begins strong, but ultimately drifts into a marshmallow saccharine ending that supports Haruka’s selfishness while also calling other 765 Production idols self-centered for following their own paths and projects.
Haruka has a mental breakdown due to a lack of identity when the agency as a whole becomes more popular, and individuals go their own separate ways. In spite of excelling at her own current project – a drama where she earns the lead role over fellow 765 idol Miki Hoshii – Haruka is constantly hung up on the fact that it’s only fun being an idol if everyone is together. Instead of allowing her to truly overcome her own self-doubt and be content with the friends she has made, regardless of proximity both figurative and literal, The Idolm@ster rewards Haruka’s selfishness. Miki retracts her valid criticism of Haruka’s thought process, and the anime ends with all 13 idols happily performing and picnicking together.
The Idolm@ster Cinderella Girls follows the tried and true formula of the original Idolm@ster anime, and with a bloated cast and less distinct characters it primarily fails until the waning episodes of the first season. Shifting focus from the standard harem elements, Cinderella Girls pits the personality-driven methods of a surly-looking but soft-hearted Producer against the sleeker, corporate values of 346 Production Executive Director Mishiro.
Were this the original Idolm@ster series, Producer’s more emotional approach would win out against the vile machinations of Director Mishiro. However, Cinderella Girls chooses to highlight both methods, leaving it up to audience interpretation as to whether one is better than the other.
“We’re not on the same wavelength. I focus on the castle. Ash-covered dreams are most important to you. We’re as far apart as ever.”
-Director Mishiro to Producer, The Idolm@ster Cinderella Girls, Episode 25
Director Mishiro’s production style is characterized by the castle, meaning the overarching high standards of the entire company – Mishiro Entertainment is is a large corporation and 346 Productions is but one subdivision – while Producer’s style is the Cinderella herself, pre-transformation. Many of their disagreements revolve around Uzuki Shimamura, an average girl with a cute smile – the Cinderella Girls version of Haruka.
Uzuki suffers a similar breakdown to Haruka’s when her two unit counterparts in New Generations, Rin Shibuya and Mio Honda, are selected for other projects, or put New Generations aside for other things. In Mio’s case, she goes through her own respective self-doubt, but discovers a genuine love of acting in the process. Rin, who was initially hesitant to join Mishiro’s Triad Primus unit, blossoms into one of the Cinderella Project’s strongest idols. These girls don’t want to leave their original unit behind, but moving forward leads to invaluable experiences.
Through their final concert as a full group, Uzuki realizes that she’ll always have their friendship and New Generations, even while pursuing her own path of self-discovery without them. Most importantly, this requires no capitulation from Rin, Mio, or even Director Mishiro. The series doesn’t bend to the will of Uzuki, but still allows her to progress at her own pace. At the end, the Cinderella Project takes on new members, while the Cinderella Girls are shown happily in their respective side projects. Where The Idolm@ster short-changed Haruka, Cinderella Girls does right by Uzuki and 346 Productions, making it a more genuine series.