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What Is Idol Anime?

by Mercedez Clewis & Jacki Jing,

When you hear the phrase “Idol Anime”, what do you think? From my perspective, you probably think of a combination of three things: high pitched voices, AKB48, and lots and lots of dancing. And… you're not exactly wrong: a lot of idol musicians are sopranos and mezzo-sopranos. There's also a heck ton of dancing: always synced upbeat, Eurobeat inspired songs with a good dash of Japanese musicality and definitely at that pleasant 120 to 160 bpm range that fans of the genre love so much. However, thinking of idol anime in that way limits the genre, both fictionally and in real-life, and forces it into a very specific, niche box. And while that box can be helpful, it limits idol culture, which while definitely niche, is still a multi-billion yen industry that's steadily influencing the world, especially when it comes to anime.

Currently, idol anime are sprawling franchises, spread across multiple forms of media in a very literal mixed media approach. This, of course, includes mobile games, which are all the rage globally, as well as anime, manga, mass-produced toys and collectables, and in Japan, live, staged events with a mix of cosplayers and voice actors personifying the 2D characters in reality.

We could go all the way back to the 1980s when Japan's economic bubble gave way to a plethora of anime, and of course, to the glut of idol singer series that followed. In fact, we could look to July 1, 1983, a Friday, and to the premiere of Creamy Mami, which similarly employed a mixed media approach, which subsequently helped to launch Takako Ohta's, the voice of Yu Morisawa/Creamy Mami's, career. We really could start there. Alternatively, we could hop into the 2000s, to 2001's Chance Pop Session and 2004's Kirarin Revolution. We could talk about Nana Mizuki (Symphogear's Tsubasa Kazanari), Aya Hirano (The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya's Haruhi Suzumiya), Yui Horie (IDOLM@STER: XENOGLOSSIA's Yukiho Hagiwara), and Koharu Kusumi (Kirarin Revolution's Kirari Tsukishima).

If you're a fan, this isn't news: as the saying goes, if you know, you know. But for many anime fans observing idol anime from outside, it might seem like all flash and… well, no substance. However, as idol anime grows in influence with every season, I think it's important to revisit, or at least examine, what idol anime is exactly, and why it's more than that one genre your friend is waaaaaay into.

Where I'd like to start, at least in terms of 21st century idol anime, is with the 2010s, which gives the best feel for how idol anime as a concept, and in execution, is made today, and really, how we got here. And if we're going to start in the 2010s, there's no better place to start with 2010's idol anime is Love Live!, which is arguably one of the most successful female-centric idol franchises in existence, and definitely a personal favorite of mine.

Love Live!, at least the first iteration, Love Live! School Idol Project, tells the story of a group of nine girls who become high school idols to save their school from an imminent shut down due to a lack of applications. Initially, the girls of muse (stylized as μ's, and pronounced “muse”) aren't all friends: in fact, from an anime-only perspective, it takes a moment for them to even become acquaintances, which is where a lot of the emotional “magic” of the series—and the franchise as a whole—happens. All of this is spread over two seasons, at least in terms of the anime, with subsequent groups like Love Live! Sunshine's Aqours, Love Live! Nijigasaki's Nijigasaki High School Idol Club, and of course, Love Live! Superstar!!'s Liella!—coming over the past decade and some change. And mind you, this is anime only: this doesn't include the additional nine other units included in the mobile game and other franchise materials.

Part of the enjoyment of Love Live! is the sheer abundance of joy, which is tucked into every nook and cranny of the anime. Even in the show's most tearful, heartfelt moments, there's joy in all things Love Live!, especially in the music and the tight bonds of friendship between the girls of each idol group and unit. That joy is what makes the franchise so good.

Even today, in 2021, you can still see the ripple effects of Love Live!, and that's not just because Summer 2021 launched Love Live! Superstar!!, which offers up school idol group Liella!, a banger of an idol unit second only to Love Live's μ's. You can see it in Zombie Land Saga Revenge, which, while more of a riff on a lot of tropes, still leans on exploring what it means to be an idol and what it means to exist in idol anime. You've got Winter 2021's Idoly Pride—another personal favorite of mine—which looks at the industry, something that Love Live!, in all its musical splendor, has and most likely… never will do. Look to last year and you've got Winter 2020's 22/7, Spring 2021's IDOLiSH7 Second Beat! (a stellar example of male idols), the somewhat lackluster Summer 2020 Lapis Re:LiGHTs, and of course, the Winter 2020 slam-dunk rap idol franchise Hypnosis Mic. All of these are multimedia franchises, each with their own niche.

All of that brings up to the example I'd like to lean into today: Winter 2021's Idoly Pride (stylized as the all-caps IDOLY PRIDE) which combines a lot of the “greatest hits” of the idol anime genre. In fact, one could argue that Love Live! walked so series like Idoly Pride could fly, though I mean no disservice to Love Live!, as it's still one of the most influential 21st century idol franchises to date.

For those who didn't check out one of the best anime of this pandemic-filled year, Idoly Pride focuses on three characters. Initially, it's the story of Mana Nagase, a rising high school idol superstar set to hold, and maintain, the top spot in the VENUS Program, a system of judging idols in-series. However, tragedy strikes, leaving the idol industry without one of its brightest stars in the entire business.

After that, the show shifts to follow Mana's younger sister Kotono, a new idol who manages to stick the landing in her audition, and moves into a dorm under Hoshimi Production, the same company that launched Mana's career. However, becoming an idol, even in her sister's stead, isn't an easy task. It's going to take blood, sweat, heaps of hard work, and tears if Kotono and her fellow idols are going to rise to the top and potentially even surpass Mana's legacy.

From that foundation, we get a show that details the story of three girls, actually: I know, surprise, right? But we're not just here for the late Mana Nagase, nor Kotono Nagase: we're also here for Sakura Kawasaki, a girl that can sing in a shockingly similar way to Mana. Naturally, that becomes a plot point, especially as the show tackles something a lot of idol anime tend to proverbially tango with but… might not delve too deep into because of other plot points: legacy.

It's this crucial plot point—a discussion of legacy, as well as grief, healing, and loss—that set Idoly Pride apart, even though its initial inclusion of a ghost (the late Mana Nagase) might throw viewers who are fans of the genre already. Stick with things because what you'll find is the idol anime genre at its best, depicting the story of Sunny Peace and Tempest Moon—the franchise's two main idol units—as they grow into their own under the shadow of Mana's stardom. Thankfully, the show handles all of this excellently, often wrangling tears from viewers because of its earnest, heartfelt nature.

There's definitely been series like Idoly Pride before: it's not doing something radically new to the idol anime genre. You can look to series like Symphogear with its fantastic magical girls meet sci-fi meet music to find a deep, thoughtful story that, while not explicitly about idols, still uses music as a vehicle to tell a story. If you want a more specific in-genre example, you can look to 2012's AKB0048, which is one of the most underrated idol anime of the 21st century and is a spectacular sci-fi idol anime that uses real-life AKB48, but like… if they were underground guerilla idols who used music radically to stage concerts around the galaxy.

It's awesome, but… back to Idoly Pride.

To me, Idoly Pride is the platonic ideal of modern idol anime, largely because it goes past the fun and joy of liking idols to tell a very specific story about legacy. It's not perfect, mind you, but… no series is, and honestly, part of the enjoyment of idol media is seeing the slight imperfection because it feels intensely, intimately real to life. It's also where I see this genre going: more stories about idols getting their start, which already exist, but more specifically, stories about idols moving through adversity and difficulty in ways that mirror reality. The foundation has already been laid by series like Love Live!, Zombie Land Saga, and AKB0048: it's just a matter of studios leaning into more authentic stories about the power of femininity and its utilization through music to tell stories that dip their toes into humanity even more.

It's easy to discount idol anime. It's even easier to dismiss fans of idol anime, though hopefully, now you'll give that notion a second thought. And, as a counterpoint, it's even easier to ignore the reality outside of idol anime series, to ignore the cruelty of the IRL idol industry and how it often misuses and mishandles idols. Doubly so because very few idol anime series ever tackle this issue because the ability to step into a world dominated by young women singing their hearts out feels good. After all, you'd never want Honoka from Love Live! to turn to the camera and say, “Gosh, this industry sure is fraught with misogyny and violence against marginalized genders, huh?” Well, okay, maybe I would, but I also understand that a series like Love Live! might not be the right platform for that conversation, despite it's overwhelming popularity. There's a time and a place, and… sometimes, Love Live!, a show that has a different, very powerful message, isn't that place, and well… that's okay.

And don't get me wrong: Love Live! Is a genuinely fantastic franchise. It reignited my love of idols in 2010, and has provided some straight up bangers of songs. I'm talking “Start:Dash” from episode 3 of the anime, which still makes me cry when I sing the song at karaoke. I'm talking episode 16 (episode 3 of the second season of Love Live!) insert song “Shocking Party” by A-RISE, which is a club banger. I'm also talking about Love Live! Nijigasaki's episode 1 insert song by Setsuna Yuki, “Chase”, which uses slick 3D animation in combination with Setsuna's slightly mezzo-soprano voice, a driving beat, and powerful, optimistic lyrics that combine a strong sense of hope with imagery of leaping and taking off to chase your dreams.

Whew, that was a lot of Love Live! passion, and while I'm only an anime-only viewer, you can probably see why I still think it has value, even if it doesn't ever dip into the real-life issues of the idol industry and the effect it has, especially on idol anime.

And perhaps, that's why I find it so important to consider the flipside of a series like Love Live! Which is a valuably optimistic show that gives young women a chance in an alternate version of Japan that's… not misogynistic. That is, perhaps, why Idoly Pride lives rent free in my head: it doesn't shy away from the difficulties of being a teenage girl with a teenage body in the idol industry. The series doesn't ignore the fact that you have no privacy as a public figure: every aspect of you is available to be consumed, even your medical history or your personal pain. And yeah, Idoly Pride doesn't do it all the time: there's plenty of episodes filled with teen girls being teen girls, and there's loads of good songs to jam to. But there's also a message, and that… that's the way I see idol anime reshaping themselves. All the frills, fun, and pure joy of loving a franchise filled with young women singing their hearts out, but also… a bit more realism to open up the conversation on a whole new level.

Idol anime aren't going to be everyone's cup of tea. For most folks, they'll still be one of many things: too moe, too generic, or just generally uninteresting. Yet there is so much joy in idols, and the anime produced to promote and perpetuate them. There's a lot of joy in seeing young women use the power of emotionality and kindness to chase their dreams. There's a lot of joy in seeing young women be happy: in fact, that might be the most radically wonderful part of the idol anime genre overall. That's certainly what I see idol anime being, at the end of the day: beautiful shows that depict happiness, that spread joy, and fill the world with a bit of levity through the glorious power of music. At minimum, they're a way to uplift young women through the wonderful power of emotionality and femininity. At most, they're genuinely human stories that can tackle intimate topics like grief, healing, and passion. That's the true power of idol anime, and exactly what they stand for.

There's a lot to enjoy when it comes to idol anime: a lot of historical, foundational series, as well as the series mentioned in this video. Of course, Idoly Pride is one of the best in my books, especially for 2021. What are your favorite idol anime? Please let me know in the comments below so I can fill up my watchlist with a bunch of new and old shows!

Thank you all for watching! If you enjoyed this video, be sure to like, comment, and subscribe, as well as follow the anime News Network on Twitter for heaps of anime content from some of the smartest writers in the business! And if you liked what you heard, are curious about idols, or are looking to get some anime insight from your local journalist-slash-Japanese localizer-slash-anime critic Blerd, consider checking out article writer Mercedez Clewis on Twitter at @pixelatedlenses where they're always doing something anime-related.

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