I think this episode serves a bit of a trigger warning for me, jokingly speaking. The subject matter in this week’s Cinderella Girls deals with the characters the idols put on. I feel, over the years, this is just something that gets confounded by westerners and when it’s in the context of musical artists, many if not most people do not get it.
To be fair, it’s also kind of a strange idea from any point of view, not just a western one. Even if we talk about relatively fundamental concepts like honne and tatemae, it’s not easy to explain what happens to Maekawa Miku when she puts on her glasses or when she puts on her cat ears. It’s like personas, but it isn’t like a disguise or a mask. On top of that in reality things are even murkier, and not as clear cut, and things bleed everywhere.
Well, reality in Japan’s ad-covered train cars and wide sidewalks of Tokyo, maybe, it’s a little easier to figure out. We think of characters from construction companies or big-box stores as mascots, or funny commercials where the mascot or spokesperson or whatever that it is, as a representation of what it is–a commercial conveying some idea about some goods or services. In the case of a normal human being as the mascot, no matter it’s the “public face” or the “private face,” it still reflects the individual to some varying degrees. (And in the “silly Japanese advertisement” context it can mean very little.) What does that mean for idols?
Last week, we saw Takagaki Kaede, who is this pun-ripping idol whose earnestness might be her most charming point in my eyes. She was who she is in front of her fans, and she stands by that in order to gets her feelings across, despite the ups and downs presented in the episode. It might be easy to say that Kaede can do it because she was being true to herself, her feelings, but it’s exactly the same thing that Abe Nana had to do this week to remain Usaminseijin. But her character probably could be said as the antithesis in some ways. It’s a manufactured identity that avid late-night anime viewers are probably familiar with.
I thought this week’s episode particularly struck a chord for me because it speaks a lot louder if you’ve seen Marietti perform Märchen Debut (like from SSA). Here it is, this “typical” looking Japanese voice actress, in the idol getup, doing her best trying to channel Abe Nana who is channeling her Usamin persona, and she’s leading an arena full of people to go “Mimimi, mimimi, Uuusamiiii.” There’s that dissonance between what you see but at the same time, you’re having a lot of fun. It’s exactly like how this week’s episode is trying to portray the difference between the Kaedes of the world versus the “gag tier” idols that we don’t take seriously.
Just because some of us don’t take it seriously doesn’t mean the idols don’t take it seriously, or does it mean it’s not worth taking seriously. It is no different of a craft between the different types of idols out there. Just different “images” or characters. And that gap is something universal, just that in Japanese idol culture, it’s a very complicated and strangely manufactured thing. It’s kind of like how Lady Gaga works I guess? And it’s clear that there are good gag idols and great gag idols, so just like any other craft, some are better at it, and there’s an art to it.
And on that note, ever seen Key the Metal Idol? That’s a good show to see what “manufacturing” means in this context. Granted in the year 2015, idol culture is closer to what is portrayed in Million Doll than Love Live or Idolm@ster or Key (circa 1994), but the totem pole building never ends in that sense, where our favorite idols serve as conduits between the potentially sprawling franchises behind them, and the sea of fans (or even just a single one) in front of them. It’s about fellowship through personality, dance and music, and that’s no different today than it was thousands of years ago.
Which is to say I think this looking down at the idol warring factions (say, AKB48) is just a misunderstanding of what Japanese idols do. AKB as a franchise may have its problems, some could even be used to characterize larger ills in the Japanese entertainment industry or even Japanese culture in general, but that’s entirely besides the point of why and how fans love idols. And yeah, I feel certain groups out west look down on Japanese idols because they have a thoroughly western sense of artistic authenticity and don’t want to really understand how things work in this context.
And hopefully this week’s Idolm@ster Cinderella Girls would help to explain that.