Content Warning: Stalking/violence against women, sexualization of minors, grooming, foster care system, terminal illness
What’s it about? Doctor Amemiya Goro is a huge fan of Hoshino Ai, a smalltime idol who one of his late patients idolized before she passed away. Who would have guessed that one day she would show up at his practice, wanting him to help her through her pregnancy and deliver the baby? On the day of the delivery, however, he is brutally killed—only to wake up in the body of her newborn baby named Aqua. And that late patient who first got him into her? She’s his twin, Ruby! What will life be like as the child of an up and coming idol?
This premiere is a doozy. An hour and a half long, a rarity for anime premieres, its length is only outdone by its absolutely baffling premise, which when I first saw it, I thought was going to be a disaster. Indeed, this premiere does in fact have some Weird Shit going on, most of which can be chalked up to the premise. While my feelings when watching this premiere veered wildly between “I love this show!” and “oh NO!” in pretty equal measure, they ultimately ended up on the side of loving the show. Every time it did something that felt wrong or gross, it usually course corrected and the problem would not show up again. And what this premiere ended up being, a meditation on the emotional labor of being a young woman in the entertainment industry, was quite profound.
Most of the grossest parts of the premiere come in the first fifteen minutes, and are blissfully over after that. At multiple points our protagonist Amemiya Goro, who is an idol-obsessed gynecologist, is given lines bordering on pedophilia. In particular, at one point as he’s comforting a terminally ill twelve year old patient named Sarina, she proposes they start dating, and, instead of gently telling her that that isn’t possible or ethical, he says he’ll “seriously consider it” once she’s of the age of consent, sixteen. Even if they both know she’s close to dying and will never live to receive the promise, this veers rather close to grooming—and he is called out for it by his coworker, who calls him a lolicon to his face for his view of both Sarina and Ai. But this callout feels more for comedic effect than anything else. Later on, there is a scene where Goro/Aqua and Ruby’s interactions with Ai as their mother veer uncomfortably close to having a reprise of Horny Baby. Aqua is embarrassed by the sight of his mother’s breasts and chooses not to breastfeed, while Ruby gleefully takes up the opportunity. Given the reputation of Doga Kobo for pedophilia, I was worried.
It’s hard to brush this off as being uncharacteristic of the show when it is such a glaring problem. At the same time, there are several mitigating factors, chief among them the show’s perspective on the idol industry, which is ruthless and critical. When we first see backstage as Ai is performing, we overhear conversations among the different industry executives that commodify her and her fellow idols’ bodies, critiquing their looks, suggesting pushing them into sexualized “pin-up” photography, and even proposing that one of them be taken out on a date with the producer. It is impossible to read this show as sympathetic to this industry—and if the protagonist in his previous life represents how male idol fans even at their best look at women’s bodies, maybe it is correct to suggest there might be a latent pedophilia to his gaze on her.
It also helps enormously to win my trust that the show never takes the gaze of these sexualizing producers—not once does it leer at Ai’s breasts, or do any of the kind of gross fanservice one would be worried it would do. It is staunchly in Ai’s camp here. Goro also never uses his position as Ai’s doctor to do any Creepy Shit; the scenes of him doing the medical procedures are entirely without sexualization. There is one moment where it seems like he was choosing whether or not to help her with the delivery, denying her the ultimate agency over her body, but it passes quickly and after that he is always listening and supportive of how she wants the birth to go.
We should probably talk about Ai herself now. She is a wonderfully written character, with a compelling backstory that weaves directly into the thematic arguments the show is making about the idol industry and how it harms people. Describing her art as the art of lying, every aspect of her performance is a finely calculated artifice where she can perform joy even when she herself is deeply sad—and she loves this about it. Ai believes that if she just lies hard enough, the lies will become real, and she actually will love the audience she is singing to.
In representing the emotional labor of idol work, the show represents the ways women’s labor and emotions are commodified, and how women internalize that commodification. After so many years performing, Ai can barely tell the difference anymore between artifice and reality, even when the artifice was designed to self-protect. This is painfully accurate to the experiences of myself and many others—I previously wrote an entire article on the commodification of teachers’ joy and despair, and the feeling of wishing that if I just performed love for all my students it would magically become real is all too true to life. Ai’s arc also critiques the ways the idol industry preys upon the most vulnerable, as she is snapped up by the producer right when she is at her lowest point, in a group home. Anybody who knows anything about the foster care system understands how predatory that is.
There is one thing I want to discuss that I will need to majorly spoil the end of the episode to address, but I think I can firmly say that I enjoyed this premiere, and would recommend this show with significant caveats. As often as I was disturbed by some of this premiere’s content, I spent much of it crying at how seen I felt by Ai’s descriptions of the emotional labor she does, and I think many, many people will connect with its larger themes. This one is a problematic fave if there ever was one.
Spoiler Warning: End of Oshi No Ko Episode 1
I was literally screaming at my television at that ending, in which Ai is brutally murdered by a rabid fan in front of her children. I could not believe that they would dispense of Ai in such a fashion, but I also think that her arc is one that remains compelling. The idea that she is eventually able to reclaim her emotions—to be able to protect her children from the way her idol life commodifies her emotions and actually say “I love you” to them like they deserve and mean it—made the ending powerful. It’s a tragedy which furthers this show’s critique of the male gaze and how disposable it makes the women in its view. And if she had been unable to reclaim these emotions, if she had gone forever without being able to say I love you, it would have been a clear indictment of the intergenerational trauma these systems produce.
That being said, it also creates some serious problems from a feminist perspective. I’m sure many of us went into this show hoping to see a woman-driven show that would give us a woman’s view of the idol industry, and we are instead going to be essentially shackled to Aqua/Goro’s perspective, with Ai arguably having been “fridged.” In a sense, it enacts the disposability which it critiques, and the death scene itself was frustrating in exactly this way. Ruby was narratively shut out of getting to wish her mother goodbye, too focused as it was on creating Aqua’s revenge backstory. Ruby didn’t get to be in the room as Ai said “I love you,” and the show doesn’t even comment on it!
While I have been assured by people who have read the manga that Aqua becomes a separate character from Goro, if the show does not do enough to make good on this and also to give us more female characters with unique perspectives, it will be very disappointing, as Goro is probably the most frustrating thing about this premiere. I hope that Ruby gets more screen time, as her arc over the course of the episode was really beautiful, especially in how it represented her having to regain her confidence in her body after her terminal illness. But I’m a bit concerned!