The Villain Edit: Dissecting how Oshi no Ko evokes real-life tragedy in its depictions of harassment and reality TV culture

By: Kennedy May 29, 20240 Comments
Akane looking at herself in a mirror

Content warning: suicide, self-harm, racism, online harassment

Spoilers for Oshi no Ko Season 1

With the speed at which internet culture evolves, it’s only natural that fictional media often has trouble capturing things like social media usage and online community in a way that feels authentic and believable. So when a series is able to go above and beyond by creating and effectively depicting an internet that even sometimes seems to truly mirror the real world, it’s a rare and fascinating thing that has the potential to deliver some truly powerful messages at their fullest impact. And a common nominee for the short list of titles that’ve managed to achieve this is one of the biggest smash hits to come out of 2023: Oshi no Ko (OnK).

The overarching plot of the series revolves around a “teenager” (who was previously a fully adult doctor who was reborn after his unexpected death) named Aqua seeking to find and kill his (post-rebirth) mother’s stalker/murderer—his mother, Ai, having been a widely beloved idol with more secrets than frills in her costumes. With the goal of finding people who could help him to uncover the many obscured details of Ai’s personal life, Aqua enters the entertainment industry. This is where the meat and potatoes of the series lies: as an exploration into the dark, two-faced nature of the world of pop idols and celebrities. Relevant to this article, this includes a brief stint where Aqua joins the cast of a reality dating show.

Aqua's wide eyes as he's told not to look directly at the camera

First, a recap:

About four episodes in, Aqua makes a bargain with a producer that knew and worked with Ai while she was alive: Aqua will join the cast of a reality dating show, and then the producer will tell Aqua what he knows about Ai. Once the show starts filming, one of Aqua’s castmates—an actress named Kurokawa Akane—(in)visibly struggles to make herself stand out, and by extension of that, get any screen time. The president of her agency yells at her manager, who he threatens to fire over what he sees as Akane wasting a golden opportunity. Akane overhears this conversation and blames herself for everything.

Akane’s desperation to leave a mark on the show starts to overwhelm her, and without thinking, she slaps one of her castmates—a model—on camera. The slap draws blood and the cameras cut. The model hugs Akane and says that it’s alright, and that she understands that Akane only did this because of how much pressure she must’ve been feeling. Akane apologizes, and over tears and another hug, the matter is resolved in a matter of seconds. But without the added context of the hugs and Akane’s apology, the slap makes it into the final cut of the show.

Akane covers her mouth in horror. "I...I didn't mean to..."

As a result, Akane gets relentlessly threatened and harassed online. She tries to make a public apology, but this only adds fuel to the fire. She can’t talk about things that happened off camera without breaking her NDA, so she feels all the more trapped. She blames herself for what happened. She soon stops eating. She can’t stop doomscrolling through the threats and harassment being thrown at her. She feels physically ill. She helplessly drowns in an ocean of vitriol, all over a TV show. Ultimately, she attempts to end her own life by jumping off a bridge, but she’s stopped by Aqua, who finds her in the nick of time.

Hoping that it’ll get people to back off of Akane, Aqua and the other cast members hatch a plan to post a video using some of the raw, unaired footage of the hugs and apology following the slap that was caught by a lone camera that didn’t cut, as well as photos of the cast having fun with Akane. The video goes viral, and while the harassment toward Akane doesn’t completely go away, it dies down considerably. And after spending some time away, Akane soon returns to filming, but she decides to protect herself by playing an Ai-inspired character. Thus ends this brief arc.

Akane as Ai. "As an actress, [Akane] can only be called a genius."

If this sounds kinda familiar, unfortunately it’s because it is.

Terrace House (TH) is—or rather, was—a Japanese reality show that aired from 2012–20 where six strangers get to know each other whilst living together in the same house. Different viewers will give you different answers on whether or not they think it’s accurate to label TH as a dating show, but it’s not rare for this set-up to result in housemates dating/pursuing romance with one another. And when one person decides to leave the cast, they’re immediately replaced with someone else—allowing for the cast to maintain at least some degree of freshness. Meanwhile, a panel of commentators will intermittently offer their thoughts on the goings-on of the house. During its heyday, it was widely praised as being, “the nicest reality show on television” where, “conflict burns more like a tea light than the raging forest fire that American reality television usually delivers.” Yet despite the expectation this sets, TH’s legacy is one of deep tragedy.

Indonesian-Japanese pro-wrestler Kimura Hana joined the cast of TH’s fifth season, Tokyo 2019–2020, in its second part. And joining slightly later, in the third part, was an aspiring stand-up comedian named Kobayashi Kai. Suffice to say, after a while Kobayashi got on the nerves of a number of his housemates, who were starting to see him as a selfish freeloader with no work ethic. Tensions reached a boiling point when, not long after bombing a stand-up show, Kobayashi accidentally washed one of Kimura’s treasured (and expensive!) wrestling costumes—the one that she wore at the Tokyo Dome, no less. Consequently, the custom costume shrank and its color faded. It was ruined.

Terrace House cast photo in the living room

In a rare moment of open conflict in TH, the (rightfully) furious Kimura yelled at Kobayashi, who—to Kimura’s frustration—could only repeatedly say that he was sorry. Kimura then ripped Kobayashi’s hat off his head and stormed off. This confrontation—which the show called “the costume incident”—happened at the end of Episode 38. In Episode 39, Kobayashi offered Kimura a more thought-out, sincere apology and left the house to more seriously pursue stand-up. He claimed that his departure was unrelated to the costume incident. Although she wasn’t explicit about this, Kimura did seemingly accept his apology—or at the very least, she didn’t reject it. She wasn’t ready to hug him as he left, though she told her housemates that she’d give him that hug someday. Due to the pandemic, after the release of Episode 40, a month would pass before the next two episodes (which would ultimately prove to be the last two episodes) would be released. In other words, the costume incident—which many fans regarded as the “biggest blow up in Terrace House history”—remained fresh in the minds of the newly stuck-at-home audience.

Despite how plainly justified Kimura was in her anger, in the moment more viewers tended to sympathize with Kobayashi: they believed Kimura was bullying him, they accused her of having a “cruelty streak”, they blamed her for ruining the peaceful atmosphere that the show was widely known and loved for, they thought she was being condescending toward Kobayashi about his financial habits, they thought she was immature and also at fault—the list goes on. Even in the show itself, the commentators went out of their way to be clear about the fact that they didn’t think Kimura was without blame in the situation. 

The narrative gaining traction among the TH fandom was clear: the self-righteous, dominating Kimura had unfairly blamed, belittled, and bullied Kobayashi while he was already down, and for something that wasn’t even entirely his fault, no less. And thus, open hatred for Kimura flourished in TH fan communities, and many took this further and relentlessly cyberbullied Kimura with everything from rude comments to blatant racism on social media. And after being forced to endure wave after endless wave of this abuse for nearly two months, on May 23, 2020 she ended her own life at 22 years old. 

In the aftermath of her daughter’s death, Kimura’s mother—Kimura Kyoko, a retired pro-wrestler—has expressed what can only generously be described as her immense dissatisfaction with the “disposable” way that she alleges TH treated its cast. Worth noting is that she’s not the only person who’s criticized TH’s production. In a July 2020 interview with Bunshun, Kobayashi—according to SoraNews24 and a translation on reddit—alleged that TH’s production made constant, active efforts to manufacture drama for the cameras. Alarmingly, he alleged that during one such moment, production told him to try grabbing Kimura’s breasts (which he refused to do). As of time of writing, Kimura Kyoko has been involved in (if not at the helm of) multiple lawsuits relating to her daughter’s harassment and death. And perhaps in response to the global attention that Kimura’s death drew, the Japanese government has since increased its penalties for cyberbullying.

Ruby hears a lecture: "the age of being told to dismiss the reaction online is over."

The Oshi no Ko manga began in the same year as this TH incident, launching in July 2020 with the first chapter of the dating show arc releasing that October. When the anime began in Spring 2023, OnK’s massive new audience was quick to see parallels between Akane and Kimura. While not 100% confirmed, it’s hard to see this as anything but intentional, as series creator Akasaka Aka mentioned “an instance of a suicide stemming from a reality show” when discussing the inspirations/concepts that went into the creation of OnK in an interview with Anime News Network.

OnK soon caught the attention of Kimura Kyoko, who criticized it for using Kimura’s death, “like free source material.” Per ANN, she’d further say about the matter, “I don’t mean to blame the author or any specific individual. I just wonder if there was no one who gave it the proper consideration before releasing it out into the world. That’s what makes me sad. Because it raises important issues, I would like to support a work like Oshi no Ko. However, I don’t think it needs to be done in a way that makes people who have actually been victimized on social media suffer when they see it.” Ironically, this would reportedly result in Kimura Kyoko receiving “excessive harassment” from a number of OnK fans.

Akane in a dark room, lit by her phone. "We can't forget that if you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."

What does this do to OnK’s messaging?

The criticisms from Kimura’s mother leaves attentive members of OnK’s audience face-to-face with complicated questions: is OnK—which seems as though it’s trying to shine a light on the dehumanization of reality TV participants in this arc—dehumanizing a reality TV participant? If so, does this act of hypocrisy weaken or strengthen the points that OnK is trying to make? If not, then what, precisely, is OnK doing? Whichever it is, (how) does it affect OnK’s overall messaging? And is the value of that message worth conjuring Kimura’s ghost? 

To tackle these questions, we first need to take a few steps back and examine another question: it’s hard to believe that Akasaka wasn’t intentionally trying to make the audience see Kimura in Akane, so as to give her arc and Akasaka’s messaging more gravity. But when put under the microscope, how closely do their situations actually resemble each other? The answer: not very.

Kimura’s actions as portrayed by TH seemed to come from a place of real and justifiable frustration, yet much of the audience still didn’t sympathize with her. Akane’s actions, on the other hand, were rooted in the pressure to overcome her invisible edit (what reality TV fans call it when the final version features a specific cast member so little that it basically feels like they’re invisible), which is something that the in-universe show’s audience never could’ve had a reasonable possibility of knowing about, attentive or not. 

camera screen footage of Akane in a kimono

Furthermore, OnK has omitted a very crucial ingredient that not only helped to cause Kimura’s harassment, but also made it worse, and affirmed that it was never going to fully go away: bigotry. An often overlooked part of the harassment that Kimura was forced to face came from racism and misogyny. Remember: Kimura was Indonesian-Japanese, and the hero to her villain was a cis man. Neither of these things (biraciality in Japan, being portrayed as a villainous woman to a heroic man) apply to Akane, though. 

Bigotry—whether overt or casual—often plays a larger role in online dogpilings than most people who haven’t had the immense displeasure of either experiencing it or closely witnessing it tend to realize. Whether the harassers or victims are fully conscious of it or not, it’s a pervasive part of this kind of bullying, and in fact, often determines who’s going to be the most likely to experience it. And this isn’t new, nor exclusive to online culture. For example, in times before widespread internet usage, celebrities who were queer, not men, and/or not white were often overly scrutinized, bullied, and (often unfairly) blamed for ruining mens’ lives in a way that their cishet, white, and/or male counterparts rarely (if ever) were. Though it was more associated with physical publications such as tabloid journalism, this treatment of celebrities or figures otherwise in the public eye very much resembles the online dogpilings of today (see prominent examples: Janet Jackson, Yoko Ono, Britney Spears, etc). And by trying to evoke Kimura’s harassment whilst also swerving out of the way of addressing the bigotry that often builds the foundation for large-scale cyberbullying—and were certainly present in Kimura’s case—whether intentionally or not, Akasaka is ignoring a crucial element of it.

Despite this major omission, however, there are still truths in Akane’s arc. Reality TV participants do often get harassed, including to the extent where some consider—if not attempt—suicide as a result (see additional examples: Brita Filter and Zoe Alexander). Mass harassment campaigns can often deal more damage to one’s mental health than most people tend to realize. Women in the public eye are disproportionately more likely to be vilified than cis men. And TV editing can often be intentionally disingenuous. Despite missing a crucial element of what online harassment looks like, this arc is still impactful in its own way—especially if this is the first time you’ve given any serious thought to the way reality TV participants are treated upon being rapidly launched into the public eye, often with little or no practical preparation. 

But because it lacks this element that’s crucial to fully understanding online harassment, why it happens, and why it never just goes away, most of that punch comes less from good execution, as much as it does the fact that the series is taking on this otherwise widely overlooked subject matter at all. This is further emphasized in the incredibly tacky way OnK closes Akane’s arc. 

footage of a tearful Akane. "It's an ironclad rule in the industry not to leak raw footage to the public."

Aqua always knows just what to say and do, so of course, he dramatically appears at precisely the right time and place to save Akane. Furthermore, he’s successfully able to turn the tide of public opinion by quickly obtaining (very recent!) unaired footage from a reality TV show that he was on—and all for an internet video, which just so happened to go viral (although admittedly, I’m willing to give a pass to the virality of the video since fellow castmate Mem-cho, a popular and internet-savvy streamer, offered Aqua assistance here). Somehow, none of this violates anyone’s NDAs! Also, there’s seemingly no repercussions for the cameraman who gave Aqua the footage! Nobody is blacklisted and/or fired! How fortunate! In the real world, this would be unfathomable

That OnK generally seems to be making an effort  to keep its depiction of the entertainment industry grounded in reality makes this conclusion feel all the more sloppy and bewildering. It suggests that the trauma of harassment campaigns can be solved if the right guy is in the right place to be a hero. While perhaps well-intentioned, this undercuts OnK’s storytelling, and leaves a lot of the core themes of Akane’s arc hanging without being properly unpacked.   

monologue over top of Akane entering a room full of her concerned castmates. "I saw that in vague terms bevause online criticism is never fully resolved."

So, what now?

Plainly put, reality TV has a harassment problem that’s been largely fueled by social media—which has its own harassment problem. And because women, queer people, and people of color tend to be harassed more harshly and more often, they tend to be the ones experiencing this at its fullest force. General audiences either don’t realize or don’t care that the people in these shows aren’t necessarily characters—much less that edited snapshots of their lives can’t possibly hope to convey the entirety of themselves or of what happened. More reality TV viewers need to be taking this into consideration, and for that matter, the shows themselves should be making more tangible efforts to support their casts, even (if not especially) after filming.

So then, where does this leave us relative to OnK and Kimura? Kimura and Akane are both women that struggle with the fandoms of their shows, but their similarities more or less end there. But because this subject matter is so rarely talked about in a way where it’s meant to be taken seriously, it’s still enough to nonetheless make their situations resonate despite their similarities only being skin deep. 

Ruby looking at her reflection in her phone screen. "And in showbiz, we ourselves are the content."

The lack of depth in the parallels between Akane and Kimura, however, makes it no less true that Kimura’s mother has every right to criticize OnK—in fact, if anything, it gives her criticisms more weight. If OnK truly wanted to shed light on this issue by way of evoking Kimura specifically, Akasaka would’ve been better off consulting Kimura Kyoko about a way to go about it that’s both accurate and respectful.

OnK takes some big swings at issues that don’t get talked about, let alone taken seriously, as often as they should—issues that will likely only get bigger in the coming years as social media usage continues to grow, and fame continues to become more accessible to an increasing number of people. It certainly continues to persist now, as evidenced by the recent death of Ashihara Hinako, who—like Kimura—was forced to endure endless waves of social media harassment before choosing to end her life. But taking on an issue this large and nuanced in a way that does it justice requires a level of understanding of it that, frankly, Akasaka demonstrably doesn’t have. And it’s profoundly disappointing that he doesn’t have it, given how overlooked (let alone critically thought about) this subject matter—which continues to be massively relevant—is. 

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