Introduction: “Gattai Girls” is a series of posts dedicated to looking at giant robot anime featuring prominent female characters due to their relative rarity within that genre.
Here, “prominent” is primarily defined by two traits. First, the female character has to be either a main character (as opposed to a sidekick or support character), or she has to be in a role which distinguishes her. Second, the female character has to actually pilot a giant robot, preferrably the main giant robot of the series she’s in.
For example, Aim for the Top! would qualify because of Noriko (main character, pilots the most important mecha of her show), while Vision of Escaflowne would not, because Hitomi does not engage in any combat despite being a main character, nor would Full Metal Panic! because the most prominent robot pilot, Melissa Mao, is not prominent enough.
At face value, Idolmaster: Xenoglossia is a perplexing title. Why in the world would the very first anime for The iDOLM@STER, a video game about managing Japanese idols, be a mecha series where the girls strive to save the Earth rather than give successful stage performances? When you get under the surface, though, it results in an even greater cognitive dissonance between the franchise’s origins as an idol sim franchise and this science fiction story ostensibly built on its foundation.
The confusion begins from the very basis of Xenoglossia. The premise is that high schooler Amami Haruka is unexpectedly recruited to potentially become one of the “Idolmasters,” pilots of world-defending robots called iDOLS. Outside of Xenoglossia, the name of the franchise refers to the player as an idol producer. That’s a simple enough change to accept given the story’s setting, but where the show throws the hardest curveballs is the portrayal of its characters.
Despite this being a franchise where fans support the actors who play their favorite idols, the entire voice cast was changed for Xenoglossia. It’s an extremely odd decision in hindsight, but what makes it all the more strange is that the changes don’t stop there: age, size, personality, and more are drastically altered to the point that many characters become almost unrecognizable. The best example is the character of Takatsuki Yayoi. In The iDOLM@STER proper, she’s a small and energetic girl in her early teens known for her high-pitched voice and signature squeal of excitement. In Xenoglossia, she’s noticeably taller and bustier, is the only actual conventional idol in the show, loves to wear mascot outfits), and is much more antagonistic towards Minase Iori.
I’m not a huge The iDOLM@STER fan, but I’ve watched the anime and have a decent idea of the core cast and their personalities. On some level, it’s impossible for me to fully divorce my preconceived notions, but this level of change is beyond rare. The closest example I can think of is the first Comic Party anime, where a high schooler got aged up and a middle schooler got aged down for seemingly no reason. It’s as if the creators of Xenoglossia just looked at some preliminary character sketches and just went their own way without regard for the source material.
Funnily enough, the only character who’s mostly like her original self is the franchise’s flagship heroine and Xenoglossia protagonist, Amami Haruka. Her personality remains optimistic and hard-working, though tinged here with a bit of self-doubt as to what she’s capable of. But when she’s surrounded by an endless parade of bizarre doppelgangers, something always feels a little off. If one can ignore that to a degree, the show gets more enjoyable.
In terms of Haruka or any other character’s portrayal as giant robot pilots, they’re never upstaged by any male characters swooping in to save the day; in fact, there aren’t any male pilots at all. Different characters struggle with different aspects of being Idolmasters, and much of the plot is built around striving to overcome those challenges. There’s also a great deal more nudity and sexual behavior (including possibly incest?!) than would be expected of something based on The iDOLM@STER—which might be a dealbreaker for those who strongly believe in the whole “idol purity” concept, but still feels kind of odd for even those of us who don’t.
The relationship between the Idolmasters and their iDOLS also arguably runs counter to “idol purity” because the way they talk about the robots makes them seem on some level like giant mechanical boyfriends—especially the main iDOL, Imber. The robots are shown to be sentient on some level, and the way some characters work to become worthy of and accepted by the mecha while others treat them like companions comes across more like romantic fiction at times. The entire setup of Xenoglossia is conducive to this, showing itself to be the kind of anime where the requisite to becoming Idolmasters has angst-filled drama baked in.
Idolmaster Xenoglossia we got could never be made today. It came out at a time when The iDOLM@STER was a much smaller deal, as evidenced by the fact that the girls are all based on their designs from the first game rather than the revised versions from The iDOLM@STER 2 that have since been codified. This early on, Xenoglossia followed in the fine (?) tradition of titles like Lunar Legend Tsukihime, where it was assumed that a fledgling idol manager franchise needed a boost in star power and storytelling from the anime industry. Now, the shoe’s on the other foot, and if they were to attempt this again, it’d be all but inevitable that the characters would adhere much more closely to their original selves. It’s a historical curiosity, indeed.