[AniFemTalk] Idols, boy bands, and girl groups

In honour of the little song contest Europeans put on last weekend, this week we’re looking at idols, boy bands and girl groups in Japanese pop culture! Idols and idol groups in Japan are big business in all demographics, and idol anime and games are no exception (idol manga I’m less clear on – please enlighten me in comments!).

On the one hand, real idols have been used as a way to challenge the typical marketing of gender in Japan. On the other, it’s a business with a darker and less feminist side. Anime, manga and games about idol groups add another layer of complication, packaging up idealised images of young boys and girls for children’s consumption and adults’ merchandise purchases. Plenty for a feminist community to discuss.

  • How do you feel about the idol genre in general?
  • What differences have you observed in the way male idol characters and female idol characters are designed and/or marketed?
  • What do you think are the most and least feminist-friendly qualities of a typical idol story?
  • Who do you think is the most interesting character in an idol story, from a feminist perspective?
  • How do you feel about real idols or idol groups, from a feminist perspective?
  • Which real idol groups, games, anime or manga would you recommend to AniFem readers?


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  • My favorite of the idol anime is Wake Up, Girls!, which tries to pull off the trick of both enjoying idol culture while also exposing how inherently exploitative it is. I looked up my initial reactions (posted on AV Club), and while I don’t think the franchise ever lived up to my hopes as expressed therein, the first movie is still well worth watching. Here’s what I said at the time:

    What’s great here is the snappy direction by Yutaka Yamamoto (best known for The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya), as well as being a clear-eyed look at the genuinely creepy idol singer phenomenon. A core theme of Wake Up, Girls! is that it’s fundamentally corrupt and cruel to use children as entertainment, no matter how good your intentions. Maybe it’s too much to hope that the title is a feminist invective aimed at the characters themselves, but it conveniently works that way.

    • Moni

      Yeah but recently the creator (or director) made super ugly comments about an idol who was stalked by essentially saying idols are meant to be available to their fans. (https://www.animefeminist.com/links-1-7-march-2017/)

      • Yeah, it’s weird reading about what a super creep he’s become in the last couple years, because they did a panel at Anime Central 2014 and I asked Yamakan something along the lines of “hey, you’re criticizing how idols are treated, like how they can’t have boyfriends… are you going to do something different with YOUR idol group?” and his reply was that it was fine with him if any of the WUG!s had boyfriends. Which is kind of the bare minimum that I’d want to hear as an answer, but maybe the bigger picture of my question got lost in translation. But still, he *seemed* OK, at least then. Now when he’s doing stuff like offering to unblock people on Twitter who support his Kickstarter, it’s like he’s so far into being awful, he’s almost a parody.

        FWIW, the WUG! project has broken off from his studio (Ordet) and moved to Millepensee for their upcoming season. So, going forward at least, we shouldn’t hold him against the WUG!s.

  • anony

    I really hate the idol industry. It exploits young girls, getting them to sign up for things at ages like 13 or 14, and it relies on selling the affection of ‘pure’ and very young girls. It’s also responsible for some of the worst headlines, like idols who were attacked/stalked, or had to apologize for going on dates, or guys who masturbated onto their hands before attending handshake events.

    Idol anime don’t involve real people, so I don’t hate them in the same way, but generally I find them uninteresting. It seems to me that they rely on characters all being pleasant, cutesy and not having serious flaws or conflicts, which makes them seem like ideals rather than real people (and a very unrealistic one if you think about what real teenage girls are like). The way the characters tend to be distinguished also makes me think that they’re being offered up for consumption, and you can pick whatever ‘brand’ of model teenage girlfriend you like. In general my reaction to idol anime, or anime with lots of female characters, depends a lot on the intended audience. If it seems like wish-fulfilment for men I’ll definitely give it a pass.

    One anime I did enjoy was Natsuiro Kiseki, which is really more of a slice-of-life – I don’t think the girls get involved in much idol activities. Girlish Number was pretty interesting. And there’s Perfect Blue, if you really want to look at the dark side of idol culture.

    The #1 best idol anime is Sekkou Boys and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes a laugh.

    • Kacey Levitt

      Not to mention that some of the companies coerce (read: force) girls to unwillingly dabble in the adult industry for the sake of popularity. So much for that “pure” image they want them going for!

      I remember reading an article a while back that was about a Japanese tabloid mistakening a voice actress (for Love Live! Sunshine, but I can’t be sure) for a porn star that looked like her. Needless to say, all hell broke loose with the show’s (assumedly male) fans. They destroyed CDs, figures, posters, and other paraphernalia until the tabloid admitted they messed up. Rabid is as rabid does.

    • Dawnstorm

      One anime I did enjoy was Natsuiro Kiseki, which is really more of a
      slice-of-life – I don’t think the girls get involved in much idol

      As far as I remember this one wasn’t an idol anime in content so much, as it was a marketing concept. The plot was centred around making wishes on a magical rock, I think, but it’s been a while. There may have been some idol activity; I don’t remember. The most prominent idol tie-in was that the four main girls were voiced by the voice-actor idol group Sphere, and I think I remember talk about the fictional characters being loosely based on the members who voice them, though I couldn’t find confirmation when googling, so who knows. I’m surprised how fondly I think of this of show now that you mention it. I don’t remember enjoying it all that much when it aired, though it was certainly a pleasant watch.

      I share your misgivings about the industry, though I’m mostly neutral about idol shows. Sekkou Boys was hilarious, though.

  • Moni

    I have conflicting feelings, these groups have the potential to be empowering for young girls but they in their marketing seem to targeting older men in actuality as many idol groups I like and have seen concert videos, they tend to be filled entirely by men. Even Aikatsu lives (mind you a card game geared towards young girls) are filled with men. Also the regulation of their sexuality by forbidding them from dating and the rare story you hear of a member who is kicked out or demoted because she’s suspected of being a lesbian, is just horrible and promotes the message that their sexuality (ie. their purity) is for the consumption of a presumed straight male audience.