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The Idol Paradox

Image result for anime idols

I think no genre betrayed my expectations quite as thoroughly as the idol genre. You see, I was late to watch 2011’s The Idolmaster because as much praise as the series received, it was about idols, and that was one industry I had no interest in. It takes a talented (or at least good-looking) individual and builds a cult of personality around them. Whatever performances those individuals give might be of value, but the real money the industry craves is not in a single CD sold so that somebody can listen to a song. It is in the dozens of CDs and paraphernalia that one person will buy to show their support for their idol of choice. And as the idol in question is simultaneously a normal human being and a product to be marketed and sold, there is a naturally duplicitous element to the idol trade. The images of idols are created to contain only what is pleasing to the audience, while in reality the idol might smoke, have a significant other and hold controversial views. If the truth behind the mask comes to light, there is inevitable outrage at the “betrayal”.

I dislike the idea of that masquerade, as do many otaku. Yes, there is that very real irony of anime characters being idealised far more than any real-life idols are. But here the non-existence of those 2D characters becomes an advantage – they do not live double lives. If one of them so happens to be a forever-cheerful, angelic existence, then that is who they are, unrealistic though that kind of character might seem. Anime characters neither betray the audience, nor are they ever forced to lie or hide inconvenient facts(*1). Which is why there exists a significant divide between the idol and anime fan subcultures, despite both being seen as similar from the outside and described with the shared label of otaku.

So I avoided watching idol anime for a long while, expecting those titles to be about outwardly perfect characters showing off their perfectness to an imaginary audience, all while laying the foundation for an excessive amount of merchandise to be sold to the newly-ensnared fans. Basically, the real-life idol industry as-is except with the difficulties and expenditures of finding and raising a worthy idol-candidate taken out of the equation. And certainly, that is one way to look at what the genre is. In an entry from way back, illogicalzen argues that anime idols are most often a powered up version of their real-life counterparts. While the idealisation of real-life idols mostly plays out on the stage and through interviews and the like, anime idols can take it a step further, showing off perfect and pure personal lives. Indeed, the vanilla anime-idol represents that kind of ideal: a kind and humble soul filled with dreams and a pure love for singing and dancing. For those characters, the idea that it is all just a job, that they can be back to being themselves after forcing a fake smile for a few hours, is entirely alien.

That said, the anime idol also manages to be the very antithesis of their real-life counterpart. While the audience of a real-life idol mostly comes in contact with a finished product, the anime idol is most often a diamond in the rough. In their raw states, those would-be idols can be clumsy, devastatingly shy, or otherwise unfit for being a target of mass admiration. Their growth into somebody worthy of the coveted idol title is a long and arduous journey, and that journey will usually take up the bulk of a series’s runtime. The live performances, so important for real-life idols, return as a high-point, but only take up as little as a few percent of the total screen-time. Even then, the significance of those moments is completely different. One of the great achievements of The Idolmaster is that the viewer naturally slips into the perspective of a producer: when the idols struggle through a last-minute choreography change or come face to face with debilitating trauma, the emotional payoff is not primarily in the beauty of the dance and songs presented, but in the pride and relief that they pulled it off without a hitch, bringing them one step closer to their dreams.

This difference in focus allows idol anime to touch upon topics which might be no-go for a real-life idol. One striking image is that of anime idols with their oxygen masks on in-between musical numbers – a raw admission of how far they are pushing themselves that never quite makes for a simply cute picture. The same goes for internal conflicts and dealing with hiccups without letting the audience know that something is off.

But more importantly, our ability to learn of the anime idols as individual people and come to like them despite their shortcomings means that anime idols can afford to exhibit personality traits unbefitting their real-life counterparts. Last week’s money-grubber list contained Cinderella Girls’ Futaba Anzu, a girl who is in the industry for the money, period. She also happens to be a huge sloth, and were there a surefire way for her to win the lottery and get rich that way, she would likely be quitting the idol industry asap. The same show also features Maekawa Miku, a serious and studious girl with a firm belief about what an idol should be, who strives to give that image justice even if it is far removed from her everyday persona. It is a kind of duality which would seem dishonest were we not privy to Miku’s personal thoughts and moments. In AKB0048, several members of the titular idol group realise that one way to the top is to push everyone down the stairs, and several episodes of the show revolve around the dilemma of taking or not taking that path. In Wake Up Girls, one of the main characters freely admits that the whole idol thing is a stepping stone towards a different career path they actually want to pursue. A focal point of Girlish Number is the frustration of voice actors confronted with the realities of their dream industry. Increasingly, anime idols are allowed to be and feel like imperfect human beings.

All things considered, the transition into 2D represents an opportunity either to further idealise an idol, or humanise them. If the genre continues to thrive, it will be interesting which path it chooses to take. At the same time, the anime industry seems to have found a way around the issue of idol distrust by increasingly turning their seiyuu into quasi-idols. But that is another topic altogether.

(*1) In rare cases, character development can be seen as a form of betrayal by some extremist fans. Famously, one Kannagi character caused an outrage and book-burning after a past love interest of theirs was revealed. Still, this kind of occurrence is more of a curiosity than a common thing in the anime fandom.

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