It seems like every season there’s a new mixed media project promoting a tie-in idol/music group with an app and an anime to jump start or adapt the story. As a self-described resident of what the masses call Idol Hell, I’ve sampled and enjoyed a couple of them. Often, however, these games have a tendency to fall into the same established, familiar patterns in terms of the story points, the character arcs, and how they speak vaguely about whatever the gimmick is. There is one recent series, however, that manages to go against this sparkly mobile game grain.
While it started out as another franchise building off of the foundation that Bushiroad’s BanG Dream built, D4DJ has managed to craft its own identity by pushing the boundaries of what is expected from a mixed media music franchise—particularly in how it integrates canonical queerness and themes of gender identity within the text, D4DJ manages to go places that very few franchises in its peer group manage to do. This makes it stand out as one of the most inclusive, earnest, and affirming music franchises that I’ve experienced.
D4DJ is a mixed media project started by Bushiroad that follows the adventures of various DJ units. The series was launched with an anime, D4DJ First Mix, in 2020, and as is commonplace across mixed-media properties of this type, the voice actresses also serve as pseudo-idols who represent their DJ units IRL.
While it has a large cast, the franchise’s story centers around Aimoto Rinku, a high schooler who returns to Japan after living abroad and gets inspired to start a unit of her own, dragging friends she meets along the way into her dream. While the anime is charming in its own right, what I want to focus on within this piece is the mobile game D4DJ Groovy Mix and how it pushes the envelope and raises the bar for what to expect from these franchises.
Like its peers within the genre, D4DJ is no stranger to subtextual queerness, with many implied ships and tons of flirting between female characters. The relationship between the DJ unit RONDO’s Aoyagi Tsubaki and Miyake Aoi is a strong example of this: Tsubaki visibly has a crush on Aoi and tends to get flustered around her, and Aoi often seems to want to confess her own feelings to Tsubaki but always seems to get interrupted. Art players can unlock in-game has implied yuri connotations as well. This is par for the course in games within this genre, and within other Bushiroad properties such as Love Live! School Idol Festival and BanG Dream! Girls Band Party.
D4DJ also goes beyond this, though. During the game’s second anniversary promotions, a new unit, later named UniChØrd, was introduced during an ongoing storyline about secondary character Kaibara Michiru finding a unit of her own. Within their bios, two of the new girls, Shinomiya Kokoa and Tendo Hayate, are shown to be in a relationship as girlfriends. Kokoa’s biography states: “In junior high, she formed a two-man unit with Hayate, and their relationship has progressed to the point where they are a couple.” Hayate’s biography confirms that “She is in a relationship with Kokoa.”
This is a major step forward from the common practice of subtextual dialogue hinting at romantic feelings between bandmates. For example, in Episode 4 of the first “side:Nova” event, Hayate says “I still love you, Kokoa” in order to calm her frustrated girlfriend down after finishing in second place at a local competition. Kokoa affirms this by saying that Hayate is special to her. It’s these small meaningful interactions that, while similar to the usual sort of speeches, feel more meaningful because there’s no anxiety about it being “plausibly deniable” by the production.
The latest installment in the “side:Nova” storyline, released January 19th, showcased more interactions between the two girls, how the couple started dating, and the status of their relationship. For example, we learn that the two are hiding their relationship from the students at Arisugawa Academy (the private Catholic school that some of the characters attend) to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Kokoa says, “Nobody would understand the concept of girls going out together, anyway.”
In spite of all of this, Kokoa doesn’t regret anything and loves Hayate. It should be noted that Kokoa is the one concerned about these things while Hayate expressly does not care and just wants to be with Kokoa. It is impressive that while this is definitely a concern for Kokoa, it’s not the main concern with her character’s storyline. Since the arc is about the formation of UniChØrd, that takes focus—in other words, while the characters are clearly navigating a homophobic environment, first and foremost this is a story about music and the characters have many other things going on. I don’t expect the game to go in-depth about real-world prejudice, but it’s still refreshing that the story has touched on these realistic concerns so frankly alongside its main plot.
Unfortunately, there’s not much too much else to say about these characters so far since, at time of writing, they just debuted. But I look forward to seeing where the storyline goes from here with the new update next month. As a queer person myself, I cannot emphasize enough how meaningful and sweet this representation feels. The frank and open way that Hayate and Kokoa’s romantic relationship is depicted—and the fact that it is taken as something normal by the narrative—is a small but refreshing shift in the status quo that bodes well for the future of the game.
Besides queer relationships, the game also frankly addresses themes of gender presentation with the character of Miyake Aoi, RONDO’s DJ. The character fills the role of the princely girl archetype that causes many characters to be flustered, but the game’s storylines have added nuance to that trope that makes the character extra interesting.
In the game, players receive cards of the characters in various situations and outfits to represent their accompanying storyline. These cards come with a short story that expands upon the art and digs deeper into the inner world of the character. In her first card episode “The Girl with the Long Hair”, it’s revealed that Aoi used to present feminine in high school. She adds that “a lot of people teased me, saying I looked like a boy crossdressing.” When asked if it bothers her, she states that she tries to stay positive and tell herself that short hair and the “prince” look suits her.
Cut to the most recent ongoing event in the English game, “My Prince: Haruna and Aoi Relations Event,” where this topic comes front and center. In this storyline, Haruna seeks Aoi’s advice after she is chosen to play Romeo in the drama club’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Shenanigans ensue, and Aoi ends up playing Juliet at the end of the story.
One of the key themes throughout this event is everyone projecting their desires onto how they think Aoi should present. This further develops the internal conflict introduced in her card story by showing that Aoi’s considerate and polite nature often leads her to internalize these comments, creating an emotional disconnect and causing her to suppress her own desires for how she wants to look. The storyline ends with Aoi reaffirming that while she does like her masculine presentation, she also wants to begin to explore a more feminine side to herself that she has not let herself embrace in years.
Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that not everyone is going to like this storyline for Aoi, and it can be viewed as harmful towards masculine presenting individuals and/or those who identify as gender nonconforming; or that it reinforces the traditional beauty standards and ideals of femininity that the idol genre tends to hold up. And that is a valid critique. This trope of masculine-presenting female characters not being comfortable in their skin or being pushed towards craving an ideal femininity can be painful for gender nonconforming and transmasc audiences especially, and I don’t want to dismiss that.
However, I feel that this storyline takes a more nuanced approach than simply having Aoi be a rehabilitated “tomboy.” It does not disaffirm Aoi’s more masculine/gender non-comforming presentation, or say that Aoi is never going to present masculine again. Her dialogue emphasizes that she is happy with her more masculine style, but she also wants to be free to explore her gender in her own way without outside input.
In one scene, Aoi goes to the hairdresser intent on inquiring about growing her hair out again. When the hairdresser says Aoi would look handsome in any new style, Aoi feels sad, dismisses the idea, and asks for her usual. Aoi’s desire to experiment with her gender presentation—even if that experimentation leads her back to more traditionally feminine beauty standards—is repeatedly dismissed or talked over by characters who idealize her “princely” vibe. The game makes it clear that this has a negative impact on Aoi, and ultimately puts out the message that a person’s earnest expression of their personal style is more important than social expectations or other people’s perceptions.
On a personal note, this storyline and this card story in particular is very affirming for me as someone who identifies male but is curious about presenting in a more feminine way. I’ve certainly had those thoughts about wanting to wear a cute dress or have long hair in spite of the immediate opinions of people around me. It’s great to see a nuanced representation of this kind of experimentation and euphoria.
The story ends happily for Aoi, too. As she’s putting on her Juliet costume, Aoi feels anxious about the fact that everyone is going to see her in this dress. She’s worried about whether she can pull the look off. Haruna sweetly says that Aoi is cute and that the dress looks great on her. Ultimately, though she initially struggles reconciling her public perception with her inner feelings, Aoi is surrounded by friends who come to understand and support her, and her experimentation with her gender presentation is presented as a positive thing by the narrative.
D4DJ is a franchise that I have come to love and really means a lot to me. For a genre that tends to stick to subtext and most often portrays a very strict gender binary and accompanying beauty standards, it feels great to see progress being made with a canonical queer relationship and a character who wants to be more fluid than how she is perceived. These plotlines and characters are all relatively recent additions to the game, and how the stories of these characters will progress is an open question. But their inclusion speaks to D4DJ’s desire to experiment and to open their storytelling doors, making important strides that set it apart from others in its peer group.
At the end of the day, I love that D4DJ pushes the boundaries for what is to be expected from this type of franchise while still managing to have a wide cast of characters who I’ve grown to love in their own ways (except Noa…if you know, you know). I also love how it manages to showcase how there’s no one way to be as an artist or a person through said cast as well. I look forward to what is coming next and the innovations I hope it will continue to make.