Idols in Anime – An Idealised Vision of Perfection
April 13, 2016 2 Comments
Every country has idols, those artists and boy or girl bands who are often portrayed as the ideal, the perfect incarnation of what it means to be human. Their public image attempts to show a clean personality, somebody without any character flaws or little vices that might bring them down to earth like mere mortals. However, Japan takes this portrayal of the ideal further than in the west, presenting a vision of perfection that we know must be fake, and selling a dream, and an image that people either aspire to, or covert. Japanese idols, especially female idols are often a jack-of-all-arts, singing, dancing, and acting, smiling constantly, and effectively doing as they are told by an army of producers, advertisers, and various assorted middlemen (and it is mostly men, although that is not to say the industry lacks women). Anybody who has had even a passing interesting in the Japanese idol industry will have noticed that almost everything they say or do is immediately transmitted to millions of fans through magazines, television, with the world of social media and the internet making the dissemination of this information that much quicker. What they say is carefully chosen by the people who created them, and their agencies, so that it never veers from the most conservative social morality: how wonderful it s to be Japanese, how glad they are for all the help from their senpai, and often how the would love to get married and raise a family. Interestingly, this strict social conservative message and public, while universally applied to Japanese idols, isn’t necessarily imposed on male idols in the way as it is for females.
This image of sweet innocence if very powerful, and when scandals do become public (and many tabloids will make sure that they do), the reactions are predictable, and to the west astonishingly cruel. When it was revealed in 2011 that Aya Hirano had been sleeping with members of her band, she was dismissed by her label Lantis, and seemed to disappear from the public eye, only to return later in more subdued roles, yet her fans didn’t quite forgive her. Another example is of AK48s ‘no boyfriends’ rule, and what happened to Minami Minegishi when she broke it. Her subsequent demotion, followed by her apology video in which she is seen with a shaved head and sobbing through her apology to the fans seems especially shocking to those in the west. The idol must go through a humiliating public apology, something like those self-criticism sessions in China during the Cultural Revolution, telling us how sorry they are, and how frightful the effects of their actions are. Only after this tearful demonstration of sincerity and good intentions can the wrath of the public-spirited media abate, and the idol in question can get back on with her job of singing, acting, and smiling. The anger and criticism heaped upon these poor entertainers appears to act as a form of catharsis, a cleansing, or purification of emotions for all concerned. The result is for the status quo of perfect entertainer to be washed clean of the corruption, and reinforce the socially conservative public image that all idols in Japan must maintain if they are to be successful.
Arguably these individuals (and there are more) biggest mistake was not that they happened to like boys/men (or indeed, girls/women), or want sex, or because they were being innately wicked. No, the problem was that they were not able to keep their private lives a secret, they caused embarrassment, and rocked the social boat, and because they happened to be single. Idols can remain single in a country that expects people to marry and have children before they reach their thirties because of socially conservative façade of a good, and diligent individual that they conform to. Nobody seems to care much about what people do in private, as long as they conform in public, especially when they have a specific image to maintain. In many ways idols in Japan fulfill the function of royalty; they are models of proprietary as well as entertainers, and their images are carefully created, and molded to fit the vision of perfect humans who represent the socially conservative ideal. This is not the same as suggesting that all idols lack distinct personality, but those personalities are often carefully created, or orchestrated to fit the public image that their agencies and managers wish to maintain. It is often only those who have been in the industry for a considerable amount of time who can finally open up and let their inner personality, the one hidden beneath the mask loose, although they have to exhibit exceptional tenacity, and willpower to do so. However, as the earlier examples highlight, once this vision, the façade of a perfect human has been removed, and these individuals are shown to be as human as everybody else, they are discarded, ready to be replaced by the next all singing, all smiling model of proprietary. There are idols, both male and female, who have managed to forge their careers without the imposition of such a façade, but they are comparatively few when compared to the vast legion of talento’s, all jostling each other for position and the opportunity to make their debut to an enthralled audience of idol fans, basking in their ethereal glory.
But what does all of this have to do with idol anime? Idols are one constant found in anime, with plenty of series focussing on female, and male idols in one form or another appearing almost every year. Some series are bizarre to say the least, such as Bakumatsu Rock, with idols transposed into the Bakumatsu period (1853-1867), right at the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and using the power of Rock and Roll to overthrow a corrupt dictatorship that uses the breainwashing powers of pop music to control the population. Uta no Prince-sama also presents an eclectic group of unrealistic, but also entertaining characters in their search for success and stardom, helped along by Haruka Nanami in her role as muse, councilor, and composer. In both cases the characters we are presented with are handsome, and despite numerous character eccentricities (along with a number of darker, and often more disruptive behaviour) exhibit elements of perfection. They are supposed to be characters to look up to, the handsome boyfriend who is simultaneously within arms reach, yet unattainable, a vision of perfection that remains eternal, never ageing, and unchanging. Even the more cynical (or perhaps we should call them more realistic) anime like Wake up Girls and Shounen Hollywood exhibit many of these themes, giving us glimpses of perfection intermingled with certain harsh realities of becoming an idol through smaller labels and relatively unknown groups. Because, despite the fanaticism surrounding well known idols such as AKB48, Momoiro Clover Z, Arashi, SMAP, and more recently μ’s, to name but a few, there are many other groups and artists out there attempting to make their mark. In fact, one of the central themes found in idol anime is the focus on achieving ones dreams, with groups of aspiring artists all focusing on debuting, and being successful, be it for personal gain, saving a school, or promoting their local area.
What idol anime does is present us with a vision of how much hard work and effort can go into success in the Japanese entertainment industry. A significant number of episodes are used to focus on individual characters training and doing their best to improve, alongside scenes and episodes that focus on the group, as they grow ever closer. At the centre of these training episodes is the importance of hard work, and group effort. Even when a series may introduce a number of highly talented individuals (such as the entire cast of Uta-Pri), they still follow a strict training regime in order to hone those very talents. All-female idol anime such as Love Live, Idolmaster, and Futsuu no Joshikousei ga [Locodol] Yatte Mita are especially good at presenting a group of high school girls as the female ideal. While all idol anime provide us with a vision of idols that exemplify the image of perfection and hard work that real life idols focus on portraying, all-female idol anime are often more explicit in their depictions. Mirroring reality, the characters are happy, carefree, and constantly expressing their hope to be the best, to be as good as their senpai, and to work hard for the benefit of society. The central cast of Love Live for example are focused on becoming school idols in order to save their high school from closure, whereas the case of Locodol become idols in order to promote their town and benefit the local economy. In fact, the very premise of Locodol is that Usami Nanako is supposed to be completely normal, and only becomes an idol because her uncle tricks her into agreeing, mistakenly believing that it was a simple weekend job. Kohinata Yukari on the other hand represents the beautiful and kind idol, whose public image is that of somebody always willing to help.
Between them, Nanako and Yukari represent one of the central elements of Japanese idols, the helpful, caring, and kind individual who selflessly showers praise on everybody they interact with, and will do everything they can to provide entertainment for their fans and in this case, community. Despite the occasional moment when individual characters express their wish to be a true star (Nico from Love Live for example), these characters are selfless in their devotion to helping others, and for the benefit of their community. The community-focused idol is a very powerful image, suggesting an individual, or group who are not after fame and riches, but instead wish to help all those who they meet and listen to their music. This selflessness is an essential part of the idol image; they cannot be selfish, or self-centered divas, as those characteristics run counter to the carefully constructed image of the caring and thoughtful idol whose only wish is to help everybody, as absurd as that might seem. Indeed, one of the central accusations often leveled at idols caught within the storm of a scandal, is how selfish they are being. By having a boyfriend, or perhaps simply doing something as simple as drinking beer can be perceived as the selfish act of somebody who does not care for their fans or community.
Another important aspect of idol anime is there structure, and the opportunity they offer to follow the central cast throughout their daily lives, and not just during public appearances. All idols and stars, be they from Japan, or any other country have to deal with the press and paparazzi following them around, there is often still an element of privacy in their lives, possibly guaranteed through force and private security, but nevertheless there. The carefully crafted persona of somebody who is always happy and smiling in public cannot exist at every hour of the day, so there has to be the opportunity, and a private space where it can be allowed to slip. The ‘scandals’ described earlier are likely the result of the individuals not being careful enough about their private lives, although there are also any number of conspiracy theories that can easily make sense of such ‘sudden’ revelations about infidelity or other un-idol like behaviour. These scandals exist for all stars, but those in the west are generally given far greater room for stupid acts, rants, and other misdemeanors.
They may be parodied on television and online, becoming the butt of jokes and other satirical elements, but their popularity rarely suffers from these out-bursts, unless they are especially egregious and lead to criminal prosecution. In contrast, Japanese idols do not necessarily have the same public/private split, and certainly do not have the same room for spontaneity or rebellious acts. The mask of the perfect individual must be maintained, perhaps only being allowed to slip when they are at home. In contrast, idol anime provide us the opportunity to follow budding idols throughout their entire school lives, both during public appearances, and the more private, intimate moments when they are interacting with their friends, family, and training. There is no need for the public image of perfection to be removed, so fans can follow these characters throughout the series, watching them work hard, be it at school, their home, or production company, all so that they can produce the best possible. In fact, the normality of these characters is often an essential selling point for individual series – we are meant to view them as normal school students who have decided to dedicate themselves to the improvement of their immediate area. This helps to explain the consistent use of the school space in anime, even if that school space may be somewhat more fantastical than normal, as is the case with Uta-Pri and the western style boarding school.
For the most parts these characters represent the perfect idols, figures that do not have boyfriends or girlfriends, the all-female groups especially do not go out drinking (they are all teenagers, so are below the legal age to drink in the first place), and can’t get into any scandals unless the writers were to decide otherwise. Furthermore, while homosexuality (or heterosexuality) is often implied (heavily or otherwise), we are never explicitly told that a character loves another, and is thus a blank slate for fans to overlay their own desires and interests. In doing so they can remain, like their real life counterparts, models of proprietary as well as entertainers, while maintaining the carefully created image that fits with Japan’s social conservative ideal. Anime idols are therefore enigmatic figures, conforming to social attitudes and ideals, while allowing the audience and fandom to take these basic characteristics and change them into something new and different. The fanaticism demonstrated by certain, more extreme fans may be very similar, but anime idols differ in the fandom’s ability to take the basic characters and mold them to fit specific needs, even desires (such as doujin), in ways that are arguably not possible with real life idols. This is perhaps the single most important aspect of anime idols, their adaptability, something that allows them to be the perfect idols, no matter what an individual fans interests, or fantasies are.
There are exceptions to this image of the perfect idol of course, with series like Macross Frontier, and Skip Beat representing a very different vision of the imperfect idol who is often jealous, spiteful, forceful, or even uncaring. They offer a different perspective on the Japanese idol image, with a clear divide between public persona’s, and private lives. In the case of Macross Frontier, it is especially illuminating to see Sheryl Nome freely switch between her ‘Galactic Fairy’ persona, the unattainable beauty who offers salvation through music, and her normal mannerisms, when she can be jealous, wilful, and far more realistic. This is a common theme found throughout the Macross franchise, as individual series idols often struggle reconcile their public image with their private insecurities and desires. Similarly, in Skip Beat there is a clear divide between the public image of the characters, and their actions when in private, with Ren and Sho representing the handsome male idols who maintain a carefully crafted image in public that helps to hide their own issues and insecurities. The biggest difference is found with Mogami Kyoko who can create superb personalities, seemingly at will, with the ability to maintain a perfect, sunny personality in public, but who hides a deep pit of resentment and anger that is often unleashed with comedic effects throughout the series. These series help to articulate the subtleties, and complexities of idols, aspects of their personality that are largely hidden so as to maintain the image of perfect proprietary.
Love Live adds another dimension to its depiction of idols, whereby μ’s are not only an anime idol group, but also one in real life (or at least were until recently). In doing so it is possible to market both the anime, assorted merchandise, alongside the various idols who are a part of the group simultaneously. This situation isn’t entirely unique, since idols, as the jack-of-all-trades, will also voice act, and even sing in a series, with other idol focused anime incorporating a multi-media component, while also using know figures to advertise the series or franchise. But, by creating a fictional idol group, that also happens to exist in real life, Love Live blurs the boundaries between dream and reality. There is a certain amount of irony in using real life idols to voice on-screen idols, as while the animated characters cannot be involved in scandals, their voice actors can. Naturally one can assume that the various companies involved in such a large multi-media project would already be aware of this, and will likely make sure that such incidents do not occur.
It does, however, demonstrate the central importance of idols with Japan’s entertainment industry, the jack-of-all-trades that is supposed to represent a highly manufactured version of perfection. It also further illustrates the complex nature of anime idols, because, despite their apparent perfection (even if it is highly conservative, and unrealistic), they are still voiced by seiyuu who themselves may be popular idols who sing, dance, and act. In this respect there is significant overlap between onscreen personas and characters, and the carefully crafted public image that many of Japan’s idols have created (or have been created for them by their labels, producers, and other backroom staff). This then raises some interesting questions about what might happen if any of the seiyuu who voice characters in series like Love Live, Idolmaster, and Uta-Pri, were to be involved in a scandal, manufactured or otherwise. Would this have a detrimental impact on the fandom’s attraction to, and perception of the series or character? And could such an event possibly make people reassess their attraction towards an anime idol, be they female, or male? Questions that have yet to be answered, and perhaps we might never see such an event occur, given the control that record labels, and management companies exert over the lives of those they employ and manage.
Ultimately, anime idols are part of a carefully crafted façade, a thin veneer of perfection used to project images of beautiful, happy people, the ideal citizens who cannot possibly be as perfect as their public image suggests, and everybody knows it. The fans know that the smiling image presented to them is merely this thin veneer, behind which real opinions, attitudes, and emotions are hidden, but it is this veneer that idol fans buy in to. This helps to explain why any scandal’s involving idols are given so much covered, and the penalties meted out are so harsh. These individuals have destroyed the façade and shown us the realities of being human, rather than the demigod who must be viewed as a vision of human perfection that cannot possibly exist in reality. Such scandals dispel the comfortable dream world that these individuals with their public personas inhabit, and as such they must be punished – and perhaps even publicly humiliated – so that they realise the importance of the image they portray. Anime idols help to plug the gaps, they are the vision without the reality, and can be used in any number of ways to enhance existing idols profiles, while also representing the unblemished ideal that many wish for. They also sit in a complex space between dreams and reality, presenting a vision of unattainable perfection, while also using the presence of well-known seiyuu, who are idols in their own right to voice these characters, thus grounding the series in reality. That idol-focused anime are so popular further emphasises the importance of idols to Japanese popular culture and broader society.