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It suddenly looks like we have a bunch of anime about idols to watch. If you have the fortune of living in Japan, you might find advertisements for a ton of (mostly) cute girls dressed in every possible color. Perhaps they have almost the same face… or maybe they all dress in the same clothes but have very different poses and gestures. Sometimes they look so alike that you can feel overwhelmed. And when you listen to the songs! Well, perhaps one or two are cute, but a dozen of them feel almost like they are the same. So, what is happening? Did Japan become an anime factory that spits out the same thing again, and again? Well… it is a little bit more complex than that.
For beginners, what is an idol? In present days, an idol is a public person who sings, dances, acts, and has certain influence on normal people. That is why the “idoru” are such an important part of Japan’s image. And of course this is reflected in anime. That is why we sometimes ask ourselves, is idol anime too focused on entertainment? With all those perfect faces and bodies singing the same type of music and showing cute poses, is idol anime the worse type of superficial entertainment? Let’s see if we can find out.
The birth of Japanese idols
Let’s go back to the end of the Second World War, shall we? Japan decided to rebuild their country, starting with the creation of their entertainment industry. It was the epoque of the beautiful stars who appeared on the black and white movies. Entertainment in those days was focused solely on innocent looking female heroines who also danced and sang alluding towards the distant Hollywood great muses.
It might sound shallow, but this was an era without autotune. And well, just watch those documentaries of the epoque to check out the special effects for the singing shows (there almost were none). One of the greatest idols from these times, Hibari Misora, didn’t even have a high-pitched voice. This woman kept singing and performing almost until the last days of her life, when she was a full grown granny. And her public kept faithful to her, as she was a symbol of how Japan was capable of rising despite the devastation.
Anyway, it was a French series called Idoru wo sagase (on its Japanese broadcast) that triggered the advent of the teenage cute idols. But the movement needed a national face. Thus, a “girl from Yokosuka” called Momoe Yamaguchi became a star. Momoe had a low and husky voice, plus a serious demeanour despite being a young girl, a trend that was followed by many stars. Probably the most similar idols to what we are used to see today are a duo called Pink Lady, who sang funny heartwarming tunes in the seventies.
But how was all of this reflected in anime? Well, the era of the legendary first stars of Japan was the inspiration behind Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress. Here we can see how idols started young in a great variety of works tinted with nostalgia and nationalism. So, lack of soul? Recovering from defeat and inspiring people to do the same does not seem soul lacking.
On the other side, we can look at one of the most famous anime girls of the seventies: Cutey Honey. Notice that she is not even a real human; Honey is an android. This would become important later. Anyway, when Honey transforms, she becomes a sort of rock star complete with microphone. Nevertheless, we can notice that singing on itself was not so important in the anime. It was a prop, an accessory more than anything else… although it laid the foundations for all the anime musical merchandising that would become expected in later decades.
The middle ages
The eighties and nineties were the peak of the Jpop idol era in Japan. Just listening to the songs brings up memories of the funky American beats but with an Asian flavor. More and more teenagers hoping to have a place in the competitive world of stardom entered the scene. Companies with structured programs to train idols were formed too. Even manga magazines were sponsoring singing contests to find new stars, pointing to a convergence that would later become more prominent.
First we had famous stars boosting an anime with their music, like Kazumasa Oda did with Hashire Melos! in 1981 or X Japan with X in 1996. But in general, you can imagine what the industry pointed at. Prefabricated formulas, elaborated costumes, higher pitched voices, cuteness overload, happy tunes… That reminds us of THE idol of those days in anime.
Surely you have heard of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross? Released in 1982, it introduced us to Lynn Minmay, the lovely girl who aided the war with her voice and presence. Minmay has become the mother of most of the idols who appear in Mecha anime. Stars like her were central to the plot, so attention was paid to their personality, their movements and their songs, of course. Although sweet and upbeat, the music’s intention was to inspire the allies and morally defeat the enemy.
Actually, Macross became the platform for the debut of Lynn Minmay’s voice actress, Mari Ijima, who was still active at least until 2014. This path of being introduced in an anime first and then making a professional debut was followed by idols such as Maaya Sakamoto in 1996’s Escaflowne. The musical styles also diversified during the nineties, including rock, Visual-kei, Rythm & Blues, and others. This was reflected on the variety of anime that had idols as protagonists. For example, we had the magical girl Fancy Lala (1988), who was a little girl who could transform into a teenage idol. On the other side of spectrum, we have bitter and heavily sexualized slices of life like Kaikan Phrase (1999). These type of animes made stardom look as something cool and desirable.
Nevertheless, we also have the other side of the story. Anime like Macross Plus (1995) and Perfect blue (1997) warned us about the dark side of being an idol. On Macross Plus, an experimental software is installed on the virtual idol known as Sharon Apple, thus supplying her with emotions. And the result was not a happy one. This is an example of having too much heart (emotions) but lacking of soul (morals), although the overall story is excellent, we must recognize that. As for Perfect blue, this is a psychological journey on the consequences of the pressure put on idols. This anime asks controversial but necessary questions about the anime world, so we can not say it lacks a soul.
With the change of millennium, new technologies took the lead in the entertainment scene. Internet and dispositives like Apple’s ipod made possible to listen to music and watch videos everywhere. Social Networking Sites like MySpace and YouTube focused on music and videos, helping both veteran and new artists to have more control on their content distribution. This means that the big companies have less influence on who becomes an idol.
We could say we have three tendencies here. On one side, the rich diversity of musical proposals reflected in idols such as Shena Ringo, One Ok Rock and Versailles offers us a wide variety of options for all tastes and ages. On the other hand, 2005 testified the birth of the idol group with the Record Guiness of greatest number of members. Born in Akihabara’s Maid Cafes and with a rotating member system, AKB48 came to invade us with the sugary, innocent looking and cute J-pop we associate with the term “idol”. Not that they were the first ones, but they have become the quintessential idol group.
Technology has also aided idols in other ways. Now to use autotune is common, and the special effects have evolved to make of the concerts a whole visual experience. Artists like Perfume have proved that a futuristic look and feel combined with the innocent idols concept is not a bad idea… but the next step goes even beyond that. The fever for “artificial” idols which was suggested by Cutey Honey and foreseen in Macross Plus became true with the development of the Vocaloid technology in Spain. Later acquired by Yamaha, Vocaloid 2 was released in Japan on 2007 hand in hand with Hatsune Miku, whose voice was supplied by a real idol and anime seiyuu called Saki Fujita.
In the realm of anime, we have even more realistic slides of life with a wide variety of musical styles like Nana (2006) or Kids on the Slope (2012), which are superb stories with well developed characters. We also have more acceptance of marginalized communities, even overseas. The anime Gravitation (2000) is a good example. Gravitation is the story of Shuichi, who formed a band called Bad Luck. Just when he is passing through a period of no inspiration, he meets the novelist Eiri Yuki. And you can imagine what happened there (yaoi at first sight).
AKB48 have their own anime, released in 2012. The premise about music becoming illegal is interesting, although we have a LOT of fan service sprinkled here and there. We also have weird juxtapositions of 2D and 3D like in Sekkou boys (2016), or a Vocaloid based character with her own companion anime (Miss Monochrome, released in 2013). Thus, we can see that the line between what is virtual and what is real is blurrier than ever.
Lack of authenticity?
After this whirlwind tour through the history of Japanese idols and idol anime, we are able to see some archetypes for the plots:
- The competition for stardom anime.
- The band/group adventures anime.
- The idol among other different types of characters.
- The warrior idol.
- Or a combination.
We also can see that the last decade has more idol anime than ever before, also catering towards female otakus (yei!). Although it might look like this is a matter of quantity over quality, a closer look will reveal to us a harsh but ultimately positive truth: if the music and/or the anime does not have enough quality, passion and soul invested on it, it will eventually fade away. We otakus sometimes watch anime to have fun and relax, thus the cute and upbeat music and visuals can be uplifting. But when we need something with more substance, there also are several options out there.
Let’s remember that true idols leave their mark. There are stars linked to anime who have had absolutely successful and long careers like SMAP (Saint Seiya) and Yumi Matsutoya (The wind rises). So, Idol anime might look like it lacks a soul sometimes, but it has helped propel or reaffirm talented people in stardom. In the realms of anime, an example of good quality that comes to mind is White album, released in 2009. The premise looks pretty common (girls in a competition towards stardom), but they have good voices and the music is well developed. If such anime resists the test of time and has enough quality and passion invested on it, it will become a classic. A great anime with idols is never forgotten (Again, remember Macross). And if not, well… we all have our guilty pleasures.
Which are your favorite Idol animes? What is your opinion about these type of animes? Are they more into the heart or into the soul? Don’t forget that we are open to all your comments and questions. See you soon!