In the double-feature of IDOLiSH7‘s anime debut, hapless newbie producer Tsumugi Takanashi books an outdoor venue that seats three-thousand for her rookie group, IDOLiSH7. Despite hard work handing out flyers, and trying her best to drum up interest, only nine people show up. Tsumugi tearfully apologizes, only to have all seven group members laugh and say that’s about how many people they expected.
This is where I fell in love with IDOLiSH7.
At times as unrealistic as its idol anime counterparts, IDOLiSH7 excels in nitty-gritty business details like venue sizes and whether your favs are truly best friends behind the pretty smiles. The answer to the latter question is no, but that doesn’t mean they can’t care about each other deeply as business partners working towards similar goals. After all, no one besides your group mates will understand just how hot that one guerrilla live was, or what it was like to perform to a crowd of only nine people (twelve if you include your own staff). IDOLiSH7 also explores what happens when one member or subunit is significantly more popular than the group, and is never afraid to show disagreements between members, even over small, seemingly insignificant things. Some of the conflicts are melodramatic, but most are grounded in a reality that actively chips away at the veneer of being an idol group, especially one under a smaller company.
As the boys of IDOLiSH7 grow in popularity, so does their fanbase. This too is shown in a surprisingly organic and realistic way, with details scattered throughout every episode that reflect not only the group’s growing fandom, but how those early fans converted others. A red-headed, pigtailed girl meets the boys early in their career at a small outdoor live show and attends their larger, rainy-day concert in the next episode. In a following episode, she tells her mom off for calling them unpopular. By the end of the series, she, her older sister, and her mom are all devoted IDOLiSH7 fans. The series makes a point to highlight every one of the nine total fans that show up at the group’s first concert, and nearly all of them are shown again, converting friends and family to the IDOLiSH7 fandom.
Other idol shows have shown organic growth in fandom, but it usually comes in the form of more, generally faceless people showing up to concerts. As The Idolm@ster progressed, fans began following Ryuuguu Komachi and then the rest, but individual, repeated fans were rarely shown. Most series simply show more fans showing up and larger venues, reflecting the fandom increase. Individual fan growth has previously been reserved for family members (Raichi Hoshimiya in Aikatsu! who begins as a Mizuki Kanzaki fan) or one random, but memorable fan (the glasses guy in Wake Up Girls!). IDOLiSH7 is different. The fans are part of the boys’ growth as much as Tsumugi, President Takanashi, and IDOLiSH7’s rivalry with fellow boy group TRIGGER. As we become more attached to the characters, so do their in-universe fans, whose faces we begin to recognize.
In the final episode of IDOLiSH7, the boys compete against TRIGGER in the Black and White song battle (taken from the real-life NHK Kōhaku Uta Gassen’s Red and White song battle). Before they take the stage, the MC asks them what they remember about their journey the most. Mitsuki Izumi sheepishly responds, “Performing a concert in an empty arena.” When a fan in the crowd responds, “I was there!” it bookends the entire series perfectly — a fan, surrounded by thousands at the largest Japanese concert of the year, who once was one of the original nine in an empty outdoor stadium watching what became her favorite group perform.