The Idol Phenomenon in Japan and Anime
“Magazines, radio, above all television: in whatever direction one turns, the barely (and thus ambiguously) pubescent woman is there both to promote products and purchase them, to excite the consumer and herself be thrilled by the flurry of goods and services that circulate like toys around her.” – John Whittier Treat (1993, as cited in Galbraith & Karlin, 2012).
Jpop is a broad term that refers to Japanese pop music, or even popular Japanese music (Covington, 2014). As much fun as a catchy, silly pop song is, a more interesting phenomenon in Japan is the idea of “idol pop”, music by pop idols, sometimes called aidoru. They are distinguished from normal pop singers since they are a product of recruitment agencies and have a large focus on promotion. Although idols can exist and function outside of an agency, the most successful ones have a contract with a company (Galbraith & Karlin, 2012).
In its humble beginnings it nurtured boy bands, but nowadays the trend favors females (Covington, 2014). The mounting popularity of aidoru has coincided with similar ‘cute’ media in Japan like manga, anime, K-pop and hot spots for these forms of entertainment like in Akihabara and Shibuya. The trend of adorableness has even spawned its own set of Japanese buzzwords to define sexy-cute, classy-cute and trendy-cute (Galbraith & Karlin, 2012).
Nakamori argued that the phenomenon has grown to such an extent that idols are the main face of Japanese culture. In recent years this phenomenon has gained the interest of scholars for their profitability, as Japan is one of the world’s top media consumers. CDs for these idol groups sell even when file sharing and music rental services are at an all time high (Calbraith & Karlin, 2012), indicating that the success and over-saturation of idols may be a strike of marketing brilliance. This article aims to examine the history of idols, their function and their integration into anime.
1971 is considered the beginning of the boom with the first idol group Sannin Musume (Kimura, 2007, as cited in Galbraith & Karlin, 2012). The first idol group recruitment agency was Johny & Associates in 1963 and these were aimed toward males as well as females (Covington, 2014). The timing was perfect since half of Japanese households had a television in the 1960s. One popular all-male group called Arashi made their start with this company in 1999 and are still going strong (Covington, 2014). Another hit male idol boy band is SMAP who are also still producing hit singles after their debut, matching the success of the Backstreet Boys but managing to stay big for longer (Bennett, 2012).
From the 70s the output of artists was rapid. In the 80’s there were so many idol groups making debuts in Japan that the decade is often referred to as the “Golden age of Idols”, with the artists staying relevant by making numerous television, commercial and movie appearances. It is through idol groups that music was used for television theme songs and in short TV commercials (Stevens, 2011, as cited in Galbraith & Karlin, 2012), an advertising technique which has crossed over into anime as well. In the West some of these marketing tactics were used for the Spice Girls, Girls Aloud and Britney Spears (Campion, 2005), so the thinking behind it is not as alien as one may think. With the careful placement of idols that infiltrate every aspect of the media, Japan’s entertainment industry can be seen as more than the sum of its parts. The concepts of celebrities, spectacle and music all link together and influence each other in a circular pattern, only emphasized further by idol appearances being over analysed by news programs in a political comedy type fashion.
Since the mid 90s the popularity of idols exploded and hasn’t slowed down, with Tokyo holding their first idol festival in 2010. For the dual relationship between idols and advertising this decade has been labelled as “hyper-capitalist” (Galbraith & Karlin, 2012). Below is one of the more colorful and creative AKB48 videos which could be a giant product placement for eating more vegetables. It is a prime example of the group’s identifying features – lots of attractive young girls wearing cute clothes, dancing happily and singing to bubblegum pop similar to Billie Piper, S Club 7 or Hilary Duff.
Producer Yasushi Akimoto was inspired to form the gigantic over 130 member female group AKB48 out of the idea “idols you can meet”. The large number of members means the subgroups can perform in multiple areas at once (Covington, 2014), the name being derived from their beginnings in Akihabara. They have been going strong since 2005, although their existence isn’t just confined to a CD or their songs playing over the radio. AK48 is “integrated into the everyday life of Japan today”, with their personalities appearing in commercials, news segments, as hosts of television shows, on advertisements in trains and magazine covers (Galbraith & Karlin, 2012). They are an inescapable encounter in a Japanese person’s day.
Morning Musume is AKB48’s closest competitor, started in 1997 and is the second highest on Oricon’s music chart, according to Wikipedia. Other idol groups are nearly indistinguishable from normal pop artists, like Perfume who is made up of three members or Momoiro Clover Z who are well known for the Sailor Moon Crystal theme song, or more recently, Babymetal. They don’t have to be in a group either. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu is a solo artist who started as a fashion blogger. Her aim is to make fun of the idol genre altogether (Covington, 2014). Even though Hamburgirl Z group is bordering on hilarious with each member representing an ingredient on a burger (Mami, 2015), perhaps the strangest idol group of all is KBG84 that is made entirely of the elderly (Phro, 2015).
Up Front Promotion is another company that holds auditions for aspiring idol performers, that can be anywhere between 7 years old and 20, although the turn over rate is very high and many of the girls don’t last long. When an AKB48 idol member hits 25 years old they are replaced by a younger member. The recruitment process has a mixture of judges and a voting system, similar to The Voice or American Idol (Covington, 2014).
Jimusho or those who work in agencies have multiple roles like teaching their idols singing, dancing, theatre, and organizing television, commercial and film appearances. The fact that idols are recycled through a big brand name means that children can grow up with them and remain fans for life, allowing them to be drawn to the group out of nostalgia purposes as well (Galbraith & Karlin, 2012). This is brilliantly displayed in 桜の栞 by AKB48, with many comments re-mincing on the idol members earlier years.
The fans themselves have developed a nasty stereotype of being obsessive and even crazy, like the extremes of fandom in the West but possibly more widespread. However, the industry thrives on creating these kinds of fans. In 2011 an event was hosted where fans were able to shake hands with their favorite idols on the condition they bought a CD. With every additional handshake, another copy of a CD needed to be purchased. However, pathological cases of fans are littered over the internet, one being a 24 year old man who sabotaged a hand shaking event by wielding a chain saw. In South Korea and Japan, idols sign a contract that says they must keep their relationships completely secret, perhaps to give the illusion of being innocent and available, so many choose to not date altogether (Airi, 2013). It isn’t just the idols that have the high potential of being treated disrespectfully. Sometimes the company’s marketing ploys are brought to unfair, scam-like heights. “Supporters”, as they like to call themselves, were outraged when tickets for an Arashi concert didn’t even guarantee them a seat, and they had to pay an additional fee for the ticket to be refunded if they didn’t get in (Galbraith & Karlin, 2012).
What does the anime genre of ‘moe’ and idols have in common? Not only did AKB48 start off aiming their songs toward anime fans by dressing up in sailor suits and cat ears (The Eternal Student, 2013), but both have young and cute girls. This is not dismissing the squealing fans for the male idol groups though. Their appeal may be similar to what draws fans to the pop groups in the first place. According to Yaiko Shimizu from Asian Pop Shock, “I think, for some Japanese fans who are attracted to the ‘cuteness’ of male idols, a lot of the appeal has to do with the implied openness and sensitivity that’s presented as being a part of that kind of persona. While a cute idol can still be masculine – think Arashi’s Sho Sakurai – he’s not someone who’s likely to be perceived as threatening. It makes these idols safe, comfortable love objects, particularly since they’re generally considered out of reach.”
Moe has multiple meanings depending on the context (ANNCast, 2013), although psychiatrist Sato defines it as a “quasi-love for a fictional character” (Hornyak, 2014). There are varying opinions on the subject which Galbraith highlights in an interview with Otaku USA on his book The Moe Manifesto,”Affection for fictional characters was a something to be stated, shared, something political. I remember these guys passing out fliers in Akihabara. Half of them were dressed like Haruhi Suzumiya – many of them guys, by the way – and the other half were dressed up in the helmet, dark glasses and face towel that marks the student radical in Japan. They were just sort of playing around, but also saying these radical things. Like, no censorship of manga, regardless of content, or no to the three-dimensional, so-called “real” world.”
Know Your Meme (2010) adds that the moe genre deals with cute characters, while Okada Toshio says the rising of moe can be blamed on men in their 30’s who grew up watching Neon Genesis Evangelion. More than that, they have adopted spending habits similar to young girls who fill their rooms up with all things adorable and innocent. The 80’s was a time where more consumer goods were aimed toward otaku and it is unclear if it coinciding of the idol golden age is related or coincidence. Most fans of moe claim that their consumption of the material is out of a protective instinct, but ‘nurturing’ dating simulator games that involve a relationship with a moe character turning sexual tell a different story (Galbraith, 2009).
There is a lot of cross over of the moe genre and the idol anime genre. ANNCast (2013) like to point to K-On! (2009) for the beginning of anime with a more cutesy-than-usual art style. This show centers on a group of girls who play music as part of their school club, so while K-On! focuses on a group of budding musicians it is not an idol anime. Where did it come from? Funnily enough, the idol genre seems to include anime centered around the music industry, possibly because the idol and entertainment industry are so intertwined. For example, earlier this year Japanese fans got to vote on their favorite Top 16 Idol anime with 80’s hits Super Dimension Fortress Macross and Magical Angel Creamy Mami ranking top of the list (Schley, 2015). However, these relate to individual artists and not a group.
When most Western anime fans think of idol anime more recent series come to mind that include an entire group of idols. These shows are basically soap operas which tend to focus around what it means to be part of that industry. Funnily enough, the sports anime Basquash (2009) had a group of three side characters who were part of an idol group, but it was not the main part of the story. The series’ focused solely on a large group of idols seemed to have come later. AKB0048 is a 2012 series based in the future about – who would have thought? – the monster idol group of AKB48, including their songs. According to The Nihon Review, as ridiculous as the sci-fi premise is it is played “straight enough that it somehow works”. Beyond the craziness of AKB0048, Wake Up, Girls! shows the darker side of the idol industry and has been praised for its characterization (Kazar, 2014). It is receiving a second season.
Love Live! School Idol Project (2013) and The Idolm@ster are incredibly popular, so much so that the Love Live film received a film screening in Australia this year. Love Live! is available on legal streaming sites and introduces the premise in a way that eases the unassuming viewer into the world of idols. The main character knows very little about the topic until she discovers a school that teaches on how to be one.
Variations on these types of schools do exist. A very expensive, elite school for athletes and artists is Horikoshi Gakuen in Tokyo. Many famous idols have attended this school although they are escorted by bodyguards on campus. The classes are divided into University (‘mainstream curriculum’), sport and art which includes music and idols (Sofiana, 2012). According to Blah! Since I Know blog their entertainment course is called TRAIT, and a new rule from 2010 meant that these students must be accompanied everywhere by a teacher even if they already have bodyguards and are not allowed to communicate with other students. There are also strict rules on uniform, personal presentation and dating. Thankfully, there are plenty of other art schools in Japan that are not as prestigious as that one (Sofiana, 2012).
Idolm@ster takes time to investigate the character’s conflicts and challenges with their stage personality and real self, something which is very important to building characters (Smit, 2015). In this way the characters in an idol anime are shown with more respect and care than the blatant walking advertisements of real life idols. Songs aside, it is fortunate that the score for these series are quite high although the artwork and animation can leave a lot to be desired. In Love Live! the use of 3D animation is considered distracting (Creamer, 2015). Wake Up, Girls! has the most mature visual aesthetic as far as coloring and character design work goes. In the first episode writing keep to the point and the main character’s energy helps add an upbeat quality to scenes. Perhaps because of its length Love Live‘s direction and writing is strong and could contribute to the series success compared to idol series that came before it (Creamer, 2015).
The idol phenomenon in Japan has became such a major part of Japanese culture that it infiltrates and feeds off every aspect of the entertainment industry, similar to how Agent Smiths can make themselves appear at any point in the Matrix. It isn’t exactly surprising that given their heightened popularity in the past couple of years that more anime that center around idol groups have been coming out. Anime therefore is added into the continuous, circular stream of media aimed to promote product, although the animated series have an opportunity to showcase the darker and more serious aspects of idol life, which could make them more valuable than a concert depending on one’s reasons for engaging in that material.
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