Idols are entertainers in Japan, that typically perform musical dance numbers and are nearly always conventionally attractive. The term was coined in Japan and the country’s idol industry remains one of the largest and most explicit of its kind, but similar industries and practices exist internationally. Idols are usually packaged with bubbly personas and swathed in equally cheerful marketing, but a variety of sources have exposed the grim reality of idol culture.
Idols regularly are overworked, underpaid, harassed by authority figures and fans, and forced to conform their personalities and appearance to society’s whims. There’s plenty of idol anime out there but if viewers are interested in media that contemplates and parodies the industry’s issues, here are six anime productions to check out.
6/6 Back Street Girls
The title may remind viewers of a certain American vocal group but the similarities end there. Back Street Girls centers on three Yakuza men that, after making a colossal mistake, are forced by their leader to choose between forfeiting their lives or having gender reassignment surgery and becoming idols.
The trio opts for the latter, and darkly funny chaos ensues from there as the new idols grapple with their new careers and struggle to embody the bubbly idol personalities expected from them, constantly slipping back (oftentimes even physically) into their stereotypically masculine selves. Back Street Girls is a comedy at its heart but it also satirizes the poor living conditions, high demands, and strict management that idols are regularly subjected to.
This slice-of-life comedy’s eponymous protagonist, Retsuko, was actually developed by Sanrio, well known for their creation and mascot, Hello Kitty. Originally titled, “Aggressive Retsuko”, the series isn’t an idol anime by any means but does feature an idol storyline in its third season. Retsuko becomes indebted to an aspiring idol group and their menacing manager, and becomes an idol herself when her death metal passion becomes an asset to the team.
Retsuko soon grows attached to the group and their performances together as a creative outlet but Aggretsuko also reveals the dark side of the idol lifestyle. Retsuko eventually becomes the victim of harassment, stalking, doxing, and even a physical attack that leaves her traumatized and leads her to quit the idol group.
4/6 Zombie Land Saga
Zombie Land Saga puts a unique twist on idol conventions by starring an idol group compromising of recently revived zombies, in sharp contrast to the cutesy nature associated with idols. It also features as an openly transgender character as one of the idols. The anime engages in a few plays on words, the term “Saga” in the title describing both how the anime captures the chronicles of zombies and its setting in Japan’s Saga Prefecture, and the idol group’s name, Franchouchou, referencing the Japanese term, Furanshūshū, which translates to “Decomposing Smell Group” in a morbid but humorous nod to the group consisting of reanimated corpses.
The idols are forced to hide their true identities as the performing dead, caking on makeup over their deteriorated skin and dismissing the occasional fallen appendage as “special effects.” These antics are usually comical but they do reflect the reality of idols’ real personalities having to exist behind a socially acceptable mask that makes them easily digestible to the public.
If viewers have ever wanted to see an alternate version of Ghost in the Shell, in which Motoko Kusanagi is an idol instead of a public security officer, Key the Metal Idol is the genre-bending anime for you. The 90s series revolves around Tokiko, who goes by “Key”, a robot created by her surrogate grandfather, Dr. Mima. His will posthumously reveals to Key that will be able to become human if she can obtain 30,000 friends before her battery dies. After coming across Miho, a popular idol, Key decides to follow in her footsteps and become an idol herself, in the hopes of obtaining thousands of fans to be her friends.
Key the Metal Idol is notably dark, in its fictional world itself and how its fictional elements symbolize and echo harsh realities in idol culture, with Key constantly coming across those who are eager to take advantage of young women’s dreams of stardom for their own gain.
2/6 Perfect Blue
Perfect Blue is quite easily the most iconic entry in Japanese animated horror and depictions of idol culture to date. The psychological thrillers follow Mima, an idol who decides to leave her group to pursue an acting career to the chagrin of those that worship her idol persona. The film touches on the extremely prevalent issues of stalking, harassment, and predatory behavior from obsessive fans that idols face but its primary focus is on the contrived personas that idol culture, and by extension fans, force idols to adopt.
Through the themes of self-identity and distinguishing between reality and fantasy, Perfect Blueportrays Mima’s battle as one not simply against stalkers and killers. But rather, a fight against what the world is telling her she is versus who she wants to be.
1/6 Wake Up, Girls!
In a desperate attempt to avoid bankruptcy, a small production company forms and debuts the show’s titular idol group in this slice-of-life anime. Wake Up, Girls! doesn’t feature any fantastical metaphors or sensational scenarios to satirize idol culture, instead, it plainly portrays the average lives of aspiring idols in all its unglamorous glory.
Like the vast majority of newly debuted idols, the girls have to train incredibly hard, work to build their fanbase up, are at the mercy of their managers and production teams, and have to cope with being hypersexualized to attract attention and make money. It’s undeniably an ugly business but the girls are so incredibly passionate and determined to achieve their dreams, it’s impossible not to root for them to rise to the top.
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