The idolm@ster Anime Wants You to Believe in Idols, and Here’s Why You Should
You may be familiar with Japanese idols from an anime you watched or a YouTube video you saw. That unrelenting stream of Eurobeat bubblegum rushing out of your sound system, usually female … that would be them. In Japan, idol pop is more than a music genre, though; idols are a phenomenon. These are people, sometimes men, often girls, whose musical talent is not nearly as important to their job as their ability to maintain a persona that caters to their (potential) fans at all times. If they ever break the illusion of being young and, more importantly, available to their fans, the consequences can range from humiliation to outright blacklisting. The whole business can be pretty damn creepy, to be honest.
So you would be warranted to think that an anime about idols would be saccharine fanservice, exclusively made to let viewers spend time with their favorite girl and scrubbed clean of all the darkness that comes with the actual profession. In the case of The idolm@ster, though, you would also be wrong.
The idolm@ster is a 2010 anime based on a rhythm game/idol simulator of the same name. It also happens to be extraordinarily well-animated, directed, and drawn, thanks in large part to some of the people that worked at acclaimed studios Gainax (Evanglion, Diebuster) and Kyoto Animation (K-On!, Sound! Euphonium). What concerns us here, though, is how the series paints an optimistic picture of the idol industry, even as it acknowledges some of the difficulties inherent to it, by framing the character growth of each character as her growth as an idol.
From the start, The idolm@ster draws attention to the artificial. The first episode is set-up as a documentary of the studio to which our idols belong, 765 Productions. Every introduction in this episode—meaning every introduction, period—is explicitly done through the lens of a camera, the way most of their audience will come to meet them in the series itself.
The idolm@ster does not have to introduce all of its characters at once. It could have taken the time to introduce them one episode at a time or in groups. This way, we learn to identify the idols first and foremost as members of a group, even though they may not all work the same job at a time. Yet what makes the jam-packed first episode work is not what these characters have in common, but what sets them apart. Each of the girls falls into a certain type that makes it easy to distinguish them from the rest and allows the audience to pick favorites: Iori is a tiny princess, Makoto is the “cool” tomboy, twins Ami and Mami are a pair of pranksters, etc.
These types are not simply for our benefit but also function as the idols’ respective charm points: the marketable characteristic by virtue of which they appeal to their fans. Our implicit understanding of this is made explicit in the very next episode, which immediately creates nuance in the idols’ characters at the same time. This is because the idols, in some cases, have mixed feelings about their image. When the idols prepare to have new image photos taken—the pictures that will be their first impression on future jobs—Iori ropes the younger idols into dressing like grotesque parodies of womanhood in a misguided effort to appear mature. Iori’s get-up is not just wrong because it is unbelievably tacky (you would hope the rich would have better taste), but because, as the group’s new Producer makes clear, it isn’t a persona that comes naturally to her. In other words, these girls are best marketed as heightened versions of their authentic selves.
That’s easier on some than others, though. While Iori’s rejection of her own image is based on a misunderstanding of how she’s meant to appeal, Makoto kind of hates hers. She has always been sensitive of her “boyish” features and resents that her personality and handsome looks keep her from publicly participating in what is traditionally feminine. Again though, the Producer is able to let her accept that part of herself. Not because that public image is “who she really is,” but by suggesting that Makoto makes her female fans feel the way Makoto herself wants to feel: like a princess.
Other episodes show how the image presented by an idol hides the faults and troubles such a personality implies. Takane seems very comfortable being the mysterious, silver-haired beauty she’s marketed as, but she faces difficulties because of it. Since the other idols know so little about her, it’s much easier for them to believe a rumor about her leaving for another agency. When she acts reserved in response to their worries, they get all the more worked up. She actually has learn to distance herself from her image (i.e. being mysterious) in private to communicate better with her coworkers and friends.
Yukiho, in turn, is beloved for her shyness, but at the start of the series that same shyness is so inhibiting that she can’t even talk to men or stand on stage without panicking. She became an idol to get over that shyness, but it is almost so bad as to ruin her career before it starts. The series gets the worst of her issues out of the way as early as the third episode so she can function as a believable member of the group, but it is important to note that all her character development is framed through her work. In the third episode, she overcomes (or at least controls) her stage fright, her fear of dogs, and even her fear of men by giving an explosive performance. Later, she no longer worries about holding the others back after she improves her dancing, and when the idols hit the big time, every episode that she appears in shows her rehearsing for the lead in a play.
The idolm@ster thus frames being an idol as a job that can force important personal growth, not just by performing or understanding how they appear to others, but by embracing that image. Chihaya, the stoic songbird of the group, lost her younger brother when she was little and lives apart from her divorced parents. She became an idol out of duty to her brother, because he loved to hear her sing when he was alive, but she almost quits when vicious rumors confront her with her messy home life.
She returns to the fold through the encouragement of Haruka, who has been nothing but a relentless, if clumsy, dynamo of optimism throughout the series. Haruka reminds her that singing used to make Chihaya happy, and that was the reason her brother loved to watch her sing. It’s easy for us, the audience, to see: every time Chihaya sings solo, she’s backlit so that she appears to shine.
That’s not to say the life of an idol is suggested to be an entirely pleasant experience, either. I already mentioned how hurtful the rumor mill can be, but there are other difficulties facing the idols as well. For the first half of the series, the idols of 765 productions are essentially nobodies that are constantly low on funds and attention, having to scrape for every job they can find; in the second half, they get famous enough that the rabidity of the fans looks almost dangerous (though nothing actually dangerous or creepy is shown to happen, beyond an overly opportunistic camera man in one episode). There is always work to do, the work is usually demanding, and the idols have to do it all without ruining that image I’ve spent a thousand words writing about.
Yayoi and Hibiki, two girls that became idols to feed their large family (of pets, in Hibiki’s case), find that they finally have the money to do so once stardom arrives, but cannot give the attention their family deserves anymore. The talented Miki at one point worries that she will never get the chance to shine on stage when some of the other idols make it big before she does.
Yet the message of The idolm@ster is always a positive one in the end: that the life of an idol is worth all the hardships. There is always something to remind the idols of what they loved about idoldom. Ritsuko, former idol turned producer, is encouraged by her old fans when she has to fill in for an idol in the group she’s managing. From her perspective, we see how a small group of devoted fans with green glowsticks colors the whole room green to make it look like the entire audience is cheering her on.
In fact, these crises of faith, big and small, leave the idol in question stronger than they were before. Once Miki is properly motivated, she shows everyone that she is so much more than the airheaded, possibly lazy bombshell that she appeared to be at first. Simply put: she becomes the best of them. She is shown to be an incredible performer, a social butterfly, and unrelenting in the pursuit of her goals. Again, this is framed in terms of her job as an idol, as is the success she is awarded for her perseverance: toward the end of the series, commercials featuring the idols are constantly in the background, and Miki is in the most of them.
Even the biggest breakdown can be recovered from, according to The idolm@ster. Said breakdown befalls Haruka, the most upbeat of the group. Now that the idols are all famous, they each have an insane schedule, often apart from each other. Haruka, who enjoyed being together the most, struggles to find meaning in her work. Even as she puts her all into a part in a play, the seats where the audience would sit are both literally and figuratively empty to her. In the end though, she has faith that the people she has given her trust and support to up until now will be there for her, which they are. The fact that said support comes in the form of a ridiculously well-timed video commercial does little to take away from the moment.
The idolm@ster suggests that the support of ones coworkers and friends is what makes the job most manageable. However, the series plays with this message by drawing attention to its own nature as something artificial. Many of the scenes where the idols are together are scenes where they are on the job. The natural chemistry between the girls is then explicitly for the benefit of an audience. The very medium of animation makes it so that, even when the characters are “off duty,” we are still aware of them being carefully constructed to perform these moments of seeming authenticity.
Regardless, 765 Productions distances itself from other idol groups, in the series and in real life Japan, through its relation to the image of its idols. The decision to market idols based on their natural personalities is actually a very unusual one. The normal case is for the group to construct its image based on the whims of its producer and create the personas of its idols from there. The President of 765 tells his rival that he uses the methods he does because he trusts his idols. So while The idolm@ster invites us to believe that even its lacks of artifice are artificial, the fact that there is such a lack in the first place is important. The series often makes clever use of mirrors and monitors to fit several characters in a frame, but what is remarkable is that the image of the idol is not separated from her. Instead, we are asked to view the image in the frame like we would the person. We are asked to place our trust in the image, just as we are asked to place our trust in these idols, their struggles, their dreams. The idolm@ster wants us to believe that the image, although fabricated, is genuine.
Also, there’s an episode where Azusa, the only idol I haven’t mentioned, charms all of Tokyo, including its animals, while getting confused with an oil baron’s runaway bride, and then Makoto fights all the baron’s bodyguards while wearing a tux. “Give the series a try,” is what I’m saying.
Alexander Smit spent most of his philosophy major thinking about movies and food. You can find his writing on kantianbioethics.tumblr.com and his stream of consciousness on twitter.com/biod42.
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