Perfect Blue & a meditation on idol culture

My last week has been consumed by an obsession over an idol group, and in particular one member of said group.

BiSH (Brand-new idol SHiT) is a rock-oriented idol group formed in 2015. Its music is surprisingly good when paired against your usual idol fare, and perhaps my own attraction to it has some basis in its willingness to shun much of the industry’s traditions (their song “IDOL is SHiT” takes this quite literally in title alone).  But what really drew me to the group were the six girls. One member in particular grabbed me at first sight, though: Aina The End.

Not to put other hard-working idols down but Aina is particularly talented. Her trademark husky voice is unique and complemented by her vocal range. From what I gathered from a recent interview I translated to the best of my ability, she personally choreographs the unit’s dance routines because of her history as a back-up dancer, giving her creative input that’s incredibly rare for an idol. Her personality as displayed through her tweets (and the accompanying photos and videos) is playful and even at times promiscuous. And I would be remiss to deny her incredible sex appeal to me, which is fairly appropriate given that she’s not too much younger at 22 years old (all of BiSH’s idols are in this age range which makes them a much more appealing prospect to me than teenagers). Let’s not forget her infectious smile either. Aina is, for all intents and purposes, my vision of perfection. She’s irresistible.

Of course, what I just described could very well be a facade manufactured in a board room to appeal to people with open wallets. To me she comes as genuine but that’s the magic of idols: they’re actresses that at their best can make trick the most cynical of hearts. It’s not that they’re lying when they talk about their lives; I would be surprised if Aina’s tweets a few days back as of this writing about having a bad day was just staging, even if it was left intentionally vague. The same goes for her silly interactions with fans and other idols. It’s more that they filter and obfuscate. The goal of their profession is to humanize themselves for a target audience to relate to them, but remain out of reach enough so as to keep said audience coming back. Bait and hook, but only reel the line in halfway. The line between reality and fiction is blurred, but I’ll allow myself to believe that Aina is genuine because this version of her appeals to my senses in all the right ways.

Questioning this balance of person and persona is Satoshi Kon’s main goal in his 1997 psychological thriller opus Perfect Blue. Mima Kirigoe is the stereotypical idol, a singing and dancing puppet controlled by business-savvy producers. When she’s told to quit her pop idol unit and become an actress, she does. When she’s told to film a rape scene, she does. When she’s told to strip by a photographer, she does. None of these things are remotely within her own interests and indeed cause her extreme emotional trauma, yet she’s been conditioned to do what she’s told without hesitation through two-and-a-half years of idoldom. She doesn’t know any other way to live. This causes her serious identity dysphoria: who is the real Mima? Is she somebody genuine who’s been repressed by her circumstances? Is she the listless person seen when she’s out of the spotlight? Is she a pop idol with a rabid fanbase? Is she an amateur actress whose producers will do anything to get her a big break? Or has any concept of a “real” Mima disappeared alongside her dehumanization?

This is, of course, an extreme representation of idol culture via a work of fiction. Nobody is out killing each other over an idol’s career, nor is the industry so malicious as to completely disregard the humanity of its stars. However, Perfect Blue’s more nuanced points about idol culture remain relevant two decades later. Girls who enter the industry are restricted in the relationships they can have and the topics they can discuss. They’re required to always be in character.

Look no further than Aina’s Twitter presence for examples this. You’ll never see her photographed with men outside of those she works with in a professional capacity, and even any women in her feed which she’s portrayed as having interpersonal friendships with tend to be BiSH members or idols from other units. Promotional tweets aside, Aina never talks about anything remotely controversial; this isn’t to say that she’s expressing happiness at all times but even when things aren’t going well there’s a chipper spin to it.  And of course, anything remotely political is a no-go. You’ll also rarely see her pictured without makeup on (or at least lipstick) because again, she’s always in character. Her life and her job are indistinguishable to an outsider like myself, whether that’s actually a reality for her or not.

The advent of Twitter only makes modern idols feel more like Mima in that eyes are always on them. The difference is that modern idols are deciding when they’re in the spotlight whereas Mima was being stalked, but both scenarios can lead to a sense of dehumanization. The pressure of having to perform throughout every day, even if it’s just for moments at a time, is something that can lead to serious emotional stress. It’s honestly no different than my own struggles with my social media presence; putting yourself in front of the world constantly is frankly an experience which you inflict upon yourself that violates personal space. This isn’t to say that I can speak for Aina on this– what I’m saying is pure conjecture and I do feel as if she’s incredibly genuine in her presence– but it’s very possible that idols like her could lose a sense of themselves like Mima did by indulging in this constantly blurred line.

Up until this point I’ve blamed the industry for the restrictions it places upon idols, but perhaps the real culprits here are the fans and their expectations. Idols are coveted figures, ones that while realistically completely out of reach are still the object of personal-feeling affection. For some male idol otaku, the fantasy of potentially being able to have a chance with their favorite is a big part of what keeps them so attached (and thus opening their wallets). Perfect Blue’s Me-Mania is the extreme embodiment of this, stalking Mima and even trying to take her life in the film’s third act so as to eternally make her his (sadly, this illogical and dangerous mindset has manifested multiple times throughout the history of idol culture). The industry is keenly aware this obsessive part of the fandom exists. What results is a catch-22 paradox where neither side is willing to budge and if there’s to be any victim of the fallout it’s going to be the emotional stability or even safety of the idol at the center of it.

One could also make the argument that Mima’s career trajectory in Perfect Blue also worked out well for her in the long run, allowing her to move from a fleeting pop career to a successful one as an actress as seen in the film’s final scene. This in itself is an important conclusion about the business of idols: it’s a young person’s game. Few idol units skew past the mid-20s. With the business being as saturated as it is now, most of these girls will never have the opportunity to transition into a fruitful career like Mima did. When they “graduate” (leave their idol unit), most will disappear from the public eye entirely and immediately. Their Twitter account may be deleted and devoted fans will be left with nothing but the past to grasp onto. Aina’s particular talents have lead her to recent solo opportunities lately, including multiple tracks with popular producer Teddyloid, one of which will appear as the ED of an anime series airing in the Summer 2017 season. She’s the exception rather than the rule, though. Note how we never hear from Mima’s fellow idols again in the latter half of the film. Despite landing a charting single, they’re still disposable once the next generation pulls in. It’s a cut-throat industry.

But don’t take this as me painting all idols as mere products or vehicles for emotional destruction. The industry has become so vast that while the AKB48’s of the scene are as corporate as they come, what I’ll dub as “indie idols” play to new audiences and production companies that don’t have these types of expectations (I’d put Aina and BiSH into this category from everything I’ve seen). Even then, certain bad habits don’t die easily. At least you don’t get reports of abuse like this reported in these more fringe idol groups, though. I feel there’s hope through these for an idol culture more safe for those within it.


After-Thoughts

I had planned to write this article before being turned onto BiSH. That and my newfound adoration for Aina really helped it take shape since I could put myself in the shoes of an invested fan of the scene. One of the things I wanted to talk about but couldn’t quite fit in was a humanizing element of Aina: her surgery for vocal polyps that occurred last December. During the process, she tweeted out pictures of herself in the hospital, at one point going as far as to share a photograph of her ailing/healing vocal chords. It was a reminder that she, like all idols, is human. Outside of her talent, her and I are made of the same parts. Rewatching Perfect Blue through this lens gave it new impact from the previous times I had seen it. While Satoshi Kon deals in the blurred line of fantasy and reality, the events of the film didn’t feel entirely implausible, and projecting this idol that I’ve become a fan of onto such a situation was quite terrifying.

I also want to stress that I really do find Aina and the BiSH idols (as well as some of their contemporaries) to be particularly genuine, at least as far as idols are concerned. They don’t just spout empty platitudes and talk about themselves frequently. While they’re most certainly filtering their lives to a degree as dictated by their profession, they aren’t pandering to the more deprave parts of idol fandom. They also seem to have personal lives which makes me more comfortable with the whole thing; I feel like I’m not encouraging abuse. Why do I feel the need to keep stressing this? Probably just for my own peace of mind. A lot of my piece was based on conjecture and using what I know, which in this case happened to be Aina and co.

I also want to tie Perfect Blue into a previous piece I wrote: much like Serial Experiments Lain, it’s become increasingly more relevant in modern times. The idol industry is bigger than ever. Mima’s dilemma has the potential to be more common than ever with the advent of social media keeping idols in the public eye on a daily basis. The best thing we can do is to remember that these girls (and guys) are people. In fact, beyond idols, we should keep this in mind when looking at any public figure. Perhaps that’s the universal message of Perfect Blue: people are people.

25 thoughts on “Perfect Blue & a meditation on idol culture

  1. This was a neat take on it. I thought about making a post like this on my own, but maybe a bit more confrontational, or so I thought. Perhaps saying “Idols are dehumanizing and it’s all your fault, fans” is way too mean-spirited, even if supported by factual evidence. But the way you worded it was firm and fair; something for me to consider when I make my own someday.

    My problem with idols is that I can’t watch them perform or act KNOWING that they’re enduring and putting on a face. I feel like we can relate to this somewhat since we create content for people as well, even if it is a bit hypocritical. Still, knowing that and watching it doesn’t sit well with me. I feel like fans need to accept more and stop being so indulgent, while the industry needs to take it easy on their idols more. Perhaps everyone is to blame? But at the end of the day, as long as the yen keep rolling in, why should they stop? Now that, is something to keep note of for sure..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, exactly my feelings. Especially with the mainstream idols I find them unwatchable, but this wave of “indie idols” has continued to strike me as genuine. They’re still idols and there are things that come with the job, don’t get me wrong, but the way these girls interact with fans and talk is very different. You can just kinda tell, y’know? For me in particular that is even more attractive.

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      1. I haven’t been looking at the idol game for a while, but if that’s true then these indie idols sounds like a step in a more healthy direction, I suppose. If they’re performing while still being themselves, then that’s great. I could get behind that and support.

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  2. Idols are interesting to me. I’ve always enjoyed idol music in spite of its lack of originality, and the idea of idols is incredibly appealing. Despite this, the industry’s many issues have led me to consume idols only through anime, primarily Love Live. But the girls in Love Live have voice actors who certainly function as real idols, so it presents me with a dilemma. Do I dive in deeper, learning more about the voices behind my favorite girls, or do I stay on the surface to avoid perpetuating a problematic culture. It’s a hard question. I’m not one to avoid everything problematic, but I don’t know how far I should go with this.

    Anyways this was a great piece. Relating a piece of media to a personal experience is always the best way to go, and you did a great job of that here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I feel you on the problematic nature of idol culture; it’s very often hard to see past, especially since the music is often not enough to sell me on being into most of these groups (BiSH not included). This is why I’m attracted to these more genuine idols. BiSH’s producer (who also produces a few other groups) has an active presence on Twitter and is sometimes seen in photos with the girls. Other people who manage them are too. It feels more right, unlike the blank faces that are AKB48 (really don’t dig that whole operation, although I think it’s a fascinating case study).

      As for virtual idols, I love Hatsune Miku and that whole vocaloid family (been to two concerts), but that’s a bit of a different thing. I haven’t seen Love Live but I have watched Idolm@ster and I think the original series is a fun watch with the occasional catchy tune. My interaction with it begins and ends with the anime, though. The mainstream pop idol stuff isn’t a music style that appeals to me enough to listen to it regularly. It’s cool in the context of an anime though. Also, I need a human face to connect to (Hatsune Miku not included). Aina is what has hooked me into BiSH. Without her, I don’t even know if this piece would have materialized.

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  3. Interesting stuff Tim and you conveyed your thoughts well. It really feels like this sort of piece would make for good YT material. Maybe a 5-6 minute video or beyond with clips and depending on how deep you dig in. It’s nice to see your writing is so versatile.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I watched Perfect Blue with no understanding of the social forces behind the idol industry so I was pretty confused by why it was tying Mima’s identity crisis to the fact that she was being stalked. One day I’ll have to rewatch it to better appreciate it.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. The singles released this year have been a few of her best performances yet! Maybe those were recorded before her surgery? I feel like there’s pretty quick turnover of music in the idol scene so it may have been recorded this year. Regardless, she still seems to have it. I can’t for-sure say how it’s going though other than she sometimes tweets about it (pics of her with what seems to be some sort of inhaler), although less so lately. (Oh gosh, the amount of detail about this I picked up is borderline stalker-level, huh?)

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  5. This was a super entertaining and thought provoking post and I really enjoyed it. Really like how you managed to incorporate your own recent experiences with the subject matter too.

    My knowledge of the idol scene isn’t particularly great, but this really opened my eyes to a lot of the issues surrounding it.

    I’m also going to check out Perfect Blue now. So there’s that too.

    Great post as always Tim, and to second what Prattle has been saying, this would make an excellent YouTube video.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks dude, I’m glad you liked it! For all its problems, there are still things in the idol industry to appreciate, especially some of these smaller, more genuine units. As for watching Perfect Blue, it’s one of my favorite films. In fact, all of Satoshi Kon’s work could fit into that category but this one in particular is a gut punch. Prepare for some heavy shit.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s definitely something I’m keen to “get into” solely because it seems like a fun thing to be a part of in some areas.

        I really enjoy Satoshi Kon’s work, Paprika is one of my favourite films, so I’m sure it’d be right up my alley if it’s similar to his other works.

        I’ll likely check it out tomorrow. I’ve been neglecting to view “heavy shit” recently. This may be a nice change of pace!

        Liked by 1 person

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  7. While I’m not wholly unfamiliar with idol culture, outside of the virutal idol Hatsune Miku and what I learned from watching Perfect Blue (and reading this post) recently, I find myself in the shallow end of things here.

    From the little I know, it seems both fascinating – in terms of participants and fans encouraging such unfair expectations onto the idols, especially those with enough awareness to know the struggles they face – and a scary reality for the idols involved in the more harsh world that as you mentioned indie idols may not have such a tough time by comparison.

    This was a very insightful read. And I hope that going forward, if maybe more awareness was spread about many an idols’ situations and other measures were used to help lower fan expectations, perhaps the idol culture and the lives of the idols will improve for the better.

    Again, I’m mostly out of the loop on the goings-on here, so my solutions are basic conjecture at best, and I’m probably being too optimistic on the side of fans for a lot of them to lighten their expectations, but I if something can be done to help alleviate these issues I think a lot of the solutions lie in the fans changing their attitude and behavior.

    Excellent post!

    ~ Ace

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “Indie idols” may have been a bad term to use for BiSH given that their past few releases have been on a major label, but it’s more the spirit of the thing. Extensively reading their twitters like I have (both in research for this piece and as a fairly obsessed fan) shows that there really aren’t the same restrictions on them as those in an AKB48-type thing. In fact, it might be even less so than I realized in this article; I’ve noted at least one member talking about a boyfriend in the past which is one of the biggest (maybe even THE biggest) no-go with your traditional idol unit. Suffice to say, the spirit of the thing is very different and I don’t think you can be completely disingenuous on a platform like Twitter… people will catch on.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. brackleberry

        Remember that BiSH are managed by a modern day Malcolm Mclaren, in the form of Junnosuke Watanabe. Even the pitch for creating BiSH is a Mclaren reference – “BiSH~Rock’n Roll Swindle~ Can the knockoff surpass the original?!” (the original being the then just disbanded BiS)

        They are less an outright subversion/parody/exploitation of idol culture than BiS was, but they were created to fill that gap once BiS were gone. And to be a version of BiS that Watanabe had more ownership of.

        No matter how sincere the members of the group, there’s a degree of cynicism, irony, experiment and archness to their very existence.

        This is in part of the appeal of them, and BiS before them. They’re idols for people who think they have idol culture all figured out, not realising that Watanabe is one step ahead thinking up ways to sell idols to just that sort of person.

        Or they do realise, and knowing you’re being manipulated is part of the appeal too. It’s probably part of the appeal in more “traditional” idol groups too. I’m a fan of late era BiS and BILLIE IDLE® the “NOT IDOL” group that sprang from BiS’ ashes, and as good as the tunes are, the ironic presentation and media manipulation is part of the appeal.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thanks for engaging me on this subject (and I’m glad you found this comment of mine as well).

        I had in some capacity figured that out about Watanabe, even if I’m working through a mostly-language gap and a lack of in-depth research on him. Comparing him to McLaren certainly puts him into perspective. I guess it’s worth noting that no pop star/unit anywhere comes without her/her/their dosage of cynicism via having their image crafted by producers. In fact, when working with anyone in the entertainment industry you should always keep it in the back of your head that the “them” being presented can be an adjusted version of themselves (or completely falsified in some cases, though I think some level of genuineness goes a long way).

        I’ve personally found a distinctive mark of said genuineness from the members of BiSH. In many ways this has become more important for me than the music, of which I think there are for sure some great tracks but the seasoned music vet in me can poke plenty of holes in. It’s the personality that sells it as more than that.

        Maybe this is completely me being tricked, and if so I’m a gullible bastard. But I don’t think you can fake it. Sure, there are obviously ways they’re presented over social media that are carefully crafted (for example, they’re always wearing make-up in pictures, and the few times I’ve seen any piece of content that signaled a negative emotion it was spun with an angle of motivation or optimism). I just feel like there’s more behind the surface.

        But maybe my feeling that is the point and BiSH are just like any other idol group in the industry. I would love to hear your own perspective on this.

        Definitely want to talk a bit more about it, though would love to do it on Twitter if you’re down (my handle is @thoughtmotion, and my DMs are open). It’s a topic I’m very interested in and you seem to have a lot of knowledge on it, especially as it relates to something I’m already familiar with.

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      1. It was jarring, since we had such respect for his work on Pi,
        and later Requiem For A Dream (which is the best Anti-Drug
        PSA film you can show any impressionable teen/ YA) So when
        we saw Black Swan we were taken back, since so so many
        people were hyping it & calling it a masterpiece, all we saw
        was a blatant rip-off. To be honest Perfect Blue did it better.

        Liked by 1 person

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