What The Idolm@ster SideM gets more than any other entry in the franchise (and how we talk about idol shows)

The opening moments of The Idolm@ster: SideM‘s seventh episode involve high school light music club turned idol group High x Joker’s Shiki Iseya trying to convince his fellow bandmates to film a promotional video. Jun Fuyumi reminds him that they have to request permission first. Haruna Wakazato and Hayato Akiyama quickly chime in.

“Because we are—”

“Idols~”

Cue disbelieving laughter.

Although the scene is a setup for what’s to come  — High x Joker fumbling through the making of their own PV — it’s also buoyant, guileless in a way that few idol shows are. By nature, anime idol television there to sell you the product of the idols themselves and their accompanying game or merchandise. This requires toeing the line between artifice and marketability. Err too heavily on the artificial in order to promote your idols, and would-be fans will walk away.

Fortunately, SideM is here to remind us that an idol show can be both genuine and marketable. SideM is just in time too, with all of the criticism that’s been heaped on idol shows —more specifically, male idol shows — as of late. Where The Idolm@ster (Anim@s) is now heralded as a surprising critical darling and The Idolm@ster Cinderella Girls (Derem@s) gained traction in its second half, SideM has failed to catch on in the west like its Idolm@ster brethren. SideM is easily accessible, but rarely discussed. It didn’t earn enough traction to be featured weekly on Anime News Network. Reddit and Twitter discussion have been well below what even the maligned first half of Derem@s mustered.

There are myriad reasons for this, and one glaringly obvious one, but it’s certainly not due to a lack of quality. Consider this my case for watching SideM.

Watching someone do something that they love is always a special treat, and an unfortunately rarer occasion in real life than it is in anime idol series. SideM gets this more than any other entry in the franchise. Nothing is more charming than watching people realize that they’re really really good at what they do. 

When I rewatched the original 2011 Anim@s for the first time, I noticed something odd about the documentary-style first episode. Everything was a bit too perfect. The man behind the camera, their new producer, somehow knew all of the right camera angles, expressed each 765 Production members personality through lighting, and had the perfect timing for every establishing/pillow shot.

It’s just artificial enough that it dips into the uncanny.  If this was truly a spontaneous, behind-the-scenes look, the video would have none of this, unless Producer somehow had moonlighted as a film director at his previous job. Instead, it would have resembled Shiki’s High x Joker PV.

Shiki’s PV has none of Anim@s‘ careful planning. His camerawork consists of mid-range, shoulder and face shots or upper body shots and nothing else. There are no interludes or establishing shots outside of one time where Hayato drops the video camera while filming and it captures Haruna’s juice box. The majority of what we see filmed is the boys goofing off and what is arguably their most artistic shot involves Shiki with an over-the-top intro and “Welcome” mis-spelled and corrected in English.

High x Joker’s first PV meeting is at a karaoke bar, while they think of ideas for their video. Should they film a concert? Haruna wants to do aerial shots from the sky. Shiki wants to go to Okinawa. Jun wants to bring them back to reality.

Their first brainstorm session is punctuated by the boys’ genuine reaction when they realize that their single “High Jump No Limit” is available to sing in karaoke bars. Wakazato holds out the tablet, trembling slightly in shock. Disbelief turns quickly into joy when they realize that yes, that’s their single. It’s this realization that SideM captures — oh yeah, we’re actually really good at singing, we make money off of it, and we’re becoming popular.

This isn’t to say that everything is unplanned. High x Joker’s PV idea is first approved by their producer who sagely says, “It’s perfect for this generation to send out the message yourself.” At a time when real life streams and various vlogging platforms allow anyone to upload a music video, allowing High x Joker to film their own PV fits in with current media trends perfectly. The release is calculated, but the video is straight from the hearts of the High x Joker members.

SideM‘s seventh episode and High x Joker’s PV become a microcosm for the series’ genuine nature. No other series could focus on a group of high school teachers quitting their jobs to become idols so they can reach more kids with their message and come across as charming as S.E.M. Of all subunits at 315 Production only Jupiter are traditional idols. The rest are former teachers, lawyers, doctors, princes of foreign countries, convenience-store clerks, florists, or a group of high school kids in a band.

Unlike Anim@s, which focused on a group of then-unknown idols, or Derem@s, which examines facets of the idol business characterized by Director Mishiro’s statement definition of “the castle” (overarching decisions of the production company including acting and commercial films). SideM peels back the curtain a bit more, and reminds us, above all else, that selling a product and showcasing raw passion aren’t mutually exclusive.

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