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.
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.