The Intoxicating Lure of Idol Anime

by Nick Creamer,

I arrived an hour early, planning to grab lunch before the screening, but by the time I got there the line was already snaking up to the street and down the block. There's no real point in going to see a cartoon idol movie if you're not going to at least get a good seat, so I resigned myself to an hour of phone-surfing in line and popcorn for lunch. A few spots ahead of me, a girl in an orange wig and another in a purple one were talking about their film theory class; apparently neither of them were big fans of French New Wave. The line started building behind me and slowly consumed another block, a varied mass of college students and cosplayers and scattered fans of all ages. I felt vaguely unsure of how I'd gotten here; what had been the first step, and whether waiting to see this movie heralded some kind of strange milestone. How critically detached from your idol enjoyment can you be if you're sacrificing meals to see their tie-in movies?

After forty minutes of loitering, a theater employee began handing out idol swag - character codes for the Love Live! School Idol Festival mobile game, along with cardboard squares branded with one of Love Live!'s nine flagship idols. Any sense of detachment vanished as I inspected my card: Eli, the half-Russian ballet dancer, the last holdout against the formation of the idol group u's. In fan lore, Eli is more or less set in stone as one of the two “moms” of the group, along with her student council companion Nozomi. I looked to the cosplayer standing in front of me, who was staring down at a card emblazoned with Nozomi's signature sea-green eyes and mega-twintails.

Dangit, I wanted Nozomi.

The me of a few years ago would not have been standing in line to watch a movie about school idols. The me of a few years ago was “better” than idols - my tastes ran (and still run, on average) way more pretentious than that, towards shows like The Tatami Galaxy and Revolutionary Girl Utena. In contrast to those kinds of deeply self-critical works, Love Live! is all about a shining, immediate sincerity - it is a show about high school girls doing their best to succeed, and dangit, that is exactly what they are going to do. But of course, there's no such thing as total “sincerity” in media; everything is some level of construction. And idols, at first glance, are about as constructed of a phenomenon as you could imagine.

To be an idol isn't just to be a great singer and dancer; it is to be an entire self-contained persona. The character Nico in Love Live! points to this, with the fabricated nature of her “Nico Nico Nii” identity becoming a running joke in the show. In reality, Nico is short-tempered, calculating, and self-absorbed - the contrast between that and her sunny public disposition is used to make her the butt of all kinds of jokes. But Nico isn't wrong to create this persona - a consistent “public face” is actually just part of the idol job, and stories that more honestly engage with idols will often either directly interrogate this or just accept it as a sometimes difficult element of the profession. Idols have to “perform a self” at all times.

Old me would point to this as proof that idols are fake, and thus investment in idols is investment in something without meaning. What's more, idol shows might well represent the death of narrative itself, if Hiroki Azuma is to be believed. His infamous book Otaku: Japan's Database Animals proposed the theory that instead of embracing traditional “grand narratives,” new media consumers were investing themselves in a media “database,” a collection of narrative and trope-based odds and ends without much larger meaning. Thus instead of loving stories, we love characters with specific calculated attributes, we love certain narrative gimmicks, we love the toys surrounding our shows. Idol shows, which emphasize their characters as a broad collection of stars and almost encourage picking favorites or “collecting 'em all,” fit nicely into this theory. If you want to be cynical about idols, there's plenty of cynical theorizing to go around.

I'm a naturally cynical person, so all of that “idols are fake” and “people are drones” stuff sounded pretty good to me. Unfortunately, my very questionable social circles made avoiding the idols basically impossible. Every day on twitter, I'd see friends swapping fanart and complaining about LLSIF and telling jokes about which idol was in love with which other idol. Even before I ever watched an idol show, I felt weirdly familiar with the interior lives of characters like Honoka and Nozomi - I may have never seen them in a story, but they still already felt like fully realized characters to me. This without a doubt echoes the social reinterpretation end of Azuma's theories, where we all essentially participate in giving meaning to these loose narrative pieces through sharing and rewriting - but instead of seeing this as some kind of death of culture, I saw it as a bunch of friends having a lot of fun sharing some clearly resonant feelings. If idols were the death of art, what came after seemed like a pretty good time.

So I watched Love Live!, and yeah, I enjoyed it. It was light and silly, and some of its elements worked better than others, but it definitely wasn't bad - in fact, it was extremely well-composed. I ended up watching Love Live!'s first season twice, once for fun and once for review, and I actually enjoyed it far more the second time, when I was actively looking for elements to critique. If you address Love Live! as a Great Narrative, it's not going to hold up - if you engage with it as a very well-crafted sitcom, it shines. Love Live! being the “wrong kind of story” for old me means I likely would have missed these strengths not so long ago.

Now here I was, being shuffled into the theater in a long line of idol-condemned lost souls. The crowd only looked more diverse as I arrived at the seats; fans of all ages, a broad mix of men and women, all here to watch Honoka and her friends play one last time. I'd already seen this in the wide variety of people talking it up online, but it was nice to see more confirmation that Love Live! was a show with fairly universal appeal. Over by the entrance, a box containing the rest of the idol cards lay open, a crowd of hungry cosplayers snatching up spare idols like blue-wigged hyenas at a kill. I smiled briefly at the strangeness of the image… and then headed over to join them. I am a criminal-bear.

The second show I watched in my descent into idol hell was Shōnen Hollywood, one of my very first assignments for ANN. Having this show be a contractual obligation actually helped me enjoy it, weirdly enough. I'm naturally prone to anxiety and fears that I'm “wasting my life” by watching random media, but if I'm not actively weighing the value of entertainment (like, say, because I'm watching it for a job), I can fully commit to whatever I'm watching, and find things to celebrate even in very flawed shows.

Not that that's a dig against Shōnen Hollywood. “Cute boys form a low-rent idol group” ended up completely surprising me, turning out to be a smart, melancholy story that actually engaged with some of the harsher realities of idol culture. Instead of either condemning the media fabrication of idoldom or ignoring it altogether, it treated being an idol as what it is - a job, one that is sometimes thankless or demeaning, but one that comes with its own known set of expectations, challenges, and rewards. Shōnen Hollywood emphasized the pragmatic realities of showbiz without stepping over into outright condemning idol culture, offering a nuanced perspective that actually broadened my own perception of the craft.

That perspective was at the front of my mind as the movie began. Instead of jumping directly into the anime, we started off with a message from the voice actresses themselves, each playing to character type. The crowd gasped and laughed as the actress-characters played out classic gags and rivalries, and the actresses laughed as well, telling the audience that “this will be the best film ever.” I wondered how invested these professionals were in these roles, remembering some recent internet drama centered on how much fans liked not just these characters, but the actresses emotionally and financially tied to them. I remembered Perfect Blue, the Satoshi Kon film about an idol pursued to the point of breakdown after she decides to hang up her old character. I then remembered Satoshi Kon is kind of a huge pessimist, and reached down for my popcorn.

Of course, if you want to make a psychological thriller in the anime medium, idols are a pretty good topic to focus on. There's a long tradition of anime merging idols with its other genre interests, perhaps best exemplified by the Macross series, where brave singers and spaceships collide (hopefully not literally). But I've yet to see any Macross, unfortunately, and so my own introduction to this genre-crashing trend came from a series a bit less venerable: Symphogear.

It'd be difficult to honestly describe Symphogear as an “idol show.” Yes, it involves a whole lot of girls singing, but that singing is really just a vehicle for other things - namely those same girls summoning giant swords or gatling guns in order to blow up monsters, each other, and possibly the moon. Symphogear is a lot of fun, but like Love Live! and Shōnen Hollywood before it, it also taught me something new: idols aren't necessarily destiny. No, not in the Azuma sense, we're still all doomed to walk the database forever - I mean that “idol” can actually be no more than flavoring, like “steampunk.” There's no real fundamental difference between Symphogear and a show like JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, or Gurren Lagann - their heart and Fighting Spirit are in exactly the same place. Meaning that if you can get past the initial stigma of idol shows, you don't just open up one new genre - you find there's more stories in every genre to enjoy.

Of course, Love Live! itself is straight school idol goodness injected directly to the vein, and the Love Live! movie kept up that tradition. Watching that film in that theater was something else; I don't think I've ever watched a movie in the way that crowd watched Love Live! Every joke got a full house of laughs, every song ended in cheers and applause, and every emotional moment earned a contented “d'awww” from our collected idol diehards. If what defines idols really is the communal experience of sharing them, then that movie exemplified idols - not the movie itself, but the experience of watching it with other fans, embracing that shared passion. Regardless of the “realness” of idols themselves, that shared passion is very real, something of real emotional power, something that brings people together. And sometimes that passion people bring to these experiences can feed right back into the idols themselves.

The latest show I've watched in my idol adventure, one finished just days before I went to see the Love Live! movie, was one I probably should have gotten to right at the beginning - The Idolmaster itself, the first symbol of recent idol-anime culture. The Idolmaster doesn't wholly embrace sitcom storytelling like Love Live!, deeply interrogate idol culture like Shōnen Hollywood, or blow up the moon like Symphogear - the Idolmaster is simply, classically excellent. Beautifully directed, full of lush character animation, and brought to life through a bevy of engaging vignettes, the Idolmaster exemplifies passionate, talented creators putting their all into an anime production. On core staff alone, the Idolmaster reads like some kind of lost Gainax classic; but in spite of that pedigree, it's a show I never would have found or appreciated if I hadn't shed my bias against the superficial elements I once considered fabricated or trashy. Watching the Idolmaster felt like a final, knowing smirk of the idol genre staring back at me; it's a classic hiding in idol's clothes, waiting patiently to be discovered.

The Love Live! movie was not a classic. It was fun, but not terribly memorable - it retread too many jokes from the series and failed to do enough new things, falling perhaps a bit too far into making old fans happy. And yet, for any failings the film may have, my experience of the movie was wonderful - seeing that crowd, meeting old fictional friends, hearing new songs on a big screen. I left the theater content, technicolored wigs dispersing as I awkwardly considered the implications of me being able to think “that was fun, but it's clearly a lesser entry in the Love Live! canon.” I think I'm stuck here, now - stuck in this idol hell, stuck with the songs and the dancing and the friends who won't shut up about which idols are clearly married and which ones might as well be.

I think I'm okay with that.

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