Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Hikaru in the Light!
Hikaru Ogino's best friend Ran became an idol two years ago, but Hikaru's content with just singing the oldies her grandfather loves while cleaning the family bathhouse. But when Ran, who was just one of many girls in a large idol group, decides to “graduate” and attempt the auditions for Girls in the Light, a competition to find truly talented performers, she convinces Hikaru to try it, too. Is Hikaru ready to stand in the light, or is she really nothing more than “the bathhouse girl?”
Hikaru in the Light! is translated by Dan Luffey and lettered by Barri Shrager.
Japan's idol industry has a problem. No, it's probably not the one you think it is; according to M. Hayama, a producer in Mai Matsuda's manga series Hikaru in the Light!, the real issue isn't an exploitative culture, the sexualization of children, an unhealthy work/life balance, or any of the other potential answers you may have had to the question. Instead, he believes the industry has simply become oversaturated with “normal” girls. These girls, he posits, bring nothing more than bland charm to the stage, and that's hampering Japan's pop music on the international stage. Hayama's train of thought is that the industry needs to stop promoting the idea that anyone can be an idol and instead focus on the truly talented ones, the girls who shine with their own light and can hold their own against the best girl (and boy) bands the rest of the world has to offer.
If this immediately rubs you the wrong way, it's probably meant to. While he does show much more depth as a character almost the moment we see him again after his first appearance, Hayama is deliberately trying to rile up Japan's music scene from his very first entry on the page. It's not that he has anything against the type of idol being mass-produced in the story's world, but rather that he believes that the industry can do better if it focuses on nurturing ambitious and talented performers, and that's the point where the story really gets started.
Hikaru in the Light! is an idol competition tale, and while its initial description and unfolding feels a little like Blue Lock but for girl idols, it's actually a bit more grounded than it wants to let on in its opening chapters. The main focus of these first six chapters is bringing protagonist Hikaru to the point where she's ready to fully embrace what she's doing, and that's an interesting journey to follow. When we first meet her, she's a fourteen-year-old helping her grandfather out at the family bathhouse. He has an old turntable and an apparently vast collection of western records from the 1970s, and Hikaru has gotten in the habit of singing oldies while she mops the floors. She's so good that Grandpa's friends all come to just sit in the office and listen to her, and he jokes (without joking) that he's going to start charging admission to her “concerts.” Hikaru's mildly embarrassed by this, but mostly she just really enjoys singing, and she's got some complicated feelings about performing as a professional.
Mostly these come from her best friend Ran, who two years ago debuted as a member of a fifty-member idol group that aimed for a “school festival everyone can participate in” feel. Ran's very ambitious, and while she initially asked Hikaru to come to auditions with her, there's a sense that maybe she was a bit relieved when her younger friend turned her down. But Ran's been having trouble standing out in the huge group, and when Hayama makes his pitch for the “Girls in the Light” competition, she resigns (“graduates”) and applies. Once again she asks Hikaru to join her, but this time her friend agrees – and Ran definitely has some mixed feelings about that.
The contrast between Ran and Hikaru is one of the most interesting aspects of these chapters. While they clearly both care about each other, Ran is fully aware of how competitive the world she's joining is, and given Hikaru's singing chops, she's nervous that her friend will beat her in the contest. She's nervous enough to want Hikaru there, but there's also a sense that she's hoping that Hikaru won't make it because she really is very stiff competition – in her mind at least. Hikaru, for her part, has no real conception of how talented she is, and her lack of public performance practice (she doesn't count the bathhouse) hobbles her in her own mind. Both girls show the immaturity we might expect of their ages (Ran is sixteen), and that really helps the story work; Hikaru in particular can go from turning her parents' objections to her trying out on their heads to naively making statements about how she's “done being naïve,” which feels like an incredibly real thing fourteen-year-olds do.
Matsuda's art is full of cute, round faces that she gets a lot of expression out of and a decent sense of movement. Dance scenes aren't quite as dynamic as they could be, but the point is definitely gotten across. Hayama's flamboyant look is perhaps treading a bit too close to stereotypes of gay men (and nothing indicates that he is beyond the coded language of his clothing), but his personality is quite grounded and he talks to the girls like someone who respects their intelligence, which is very reassuring given his position of power over them. Panels are particularly easy to follow, which is a definite plus, especially since this is a digital-only release on Azuki Manga's platform. That also means that you won't find a “volume one” labeled as such and as of this review there isn't one – the first six chapters, however, make up the first graphic novel of the original Japanese release.
While that may be frustrating for readers who aren't interested in yet another app or service, the story really is a good one. It blends the competition format with a more grounded idea of what a professional performer needs to be able to do in a way that really works, and Hikaru is a protagonist it's easy to get behind, making this an enjoyable read.
Overall : B
Story : B
Art : B-
+ More grounded idol competition story, Hikaru and Ran are both interesting characters. Hayama isn't the jerk he at first appears.
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