A survey amongst the japanese would result in a lack of consensus. That is because the current template for an idol is not constrained to one sector of the entertainment industry. A successful idol releases music, photo-books, acts on TV dramas, sells gravure videos, appears on variety shows, endorses brands, blogs, writes books, promotes video games, stars in feature films and does voice acting.
It can be argued that the idol concept got distorted and abused as it gained popularity: who once were simply glamour models, became gravure idols. The pornographic business also grabbed the title, promoting their stars as Adult Video idols. Maid cafes evolved their waitresses into such status as well(1).
To understand the concept it is necessary to explore its beginnings.
Like a lot of mainstream waves, the idea for idols began as a counterculture. Unsatisfied by the male dominated Kabuki theater, Kobayashi Ichizo adventured into an all female entertainment enterprise in 1913. Just like Kabuki theater at the time, where all the roles, including female characters, were performed by men, Ichizo’s vision consisted in women being the only talent admitted. Funding the Takarazuka Revue(2), Kobayashi created a phenomenon that up to this day is one of the fundaments of the japanese culture, projecting women as the forefront of the entertainment in Japan. The motto of the Takarazuka Music School became the commandments for idols: --Purity, Honesty, Beauty--(3).
However it was not until the 60’s when the term idol was first coined. During this era, on top of the concept receiving a name, its formula started to settle. Two main influences helped the idea acquire a form: Great Britain at the time was propelling the boy band format, leaded by The Monkeys but shaped by the not boy band: The Beatles. These concocted groups would patently establish a marketing concept, where the appeal of the boys was not only manufactured and hyped, but further monetized with films and the idealization of each member of the band.
France was hosting its own current: the Yé-yé. In 1963, Sylvie Vartan, amongst the most popular Yé-yé singers, starred in a film titled --Cherchez l’idole--(4), translated as Search For The Idol, or in japanese: Idol Wo Sagase. The japanese quickly adopted the word for their own female celebrities. Ironically, Sylvie Vartan wouldn’t become the prototype for the japanese idol. That role was for the most famous and controversial exponent of the Yé-yé: France Gall(5), also known back then as the french Lolita, who was suddenly expelled from the french mainstream after her song Les Sucettes (Lollipops, in english) was exposed as shameless innuendo for oral sex.
Still with the momentum of the Takarazuka movement, Japan implemented the boy band and the Yé-yé in its own way: the idol.
Although duets like The Peanuts and other solo efforts pioneered the idol scene, it took Candies(6), the group that decisively cemented what an idol group had to be, and the TV show Star Tanjou, Japan’s American Idol of the 70’s, to make of the idol concept a proper industry. In 1976, Pink Lady arrived to the scene with Pepper Keibu, a single that would mark the trend for the following thirty years.
Pink Lady debuting its first single
Japan’s music industry can definitely be marked as one of the best examples of the japaneseness. Arranged as agencies(7), private entities gather, nurture and promote its own talent. In a way, inherited by the Takarazuka model, where Kobayashi Ichizo had complete and exclusive control of its talent, agencies form their own pools of idols, lending them to TV and radio networks on their own terms and conditions. Collaborations between talent of two different agencies are rare, changing agencies is only accepted when the bigger one is on the benefitting end. The idols are, structurally, mere employees with an unimpressive fixed salary that can only be negotiated once a year. Even idols at their peak, with multiple deals for commercials and TV appearances, and regardless of record sales, cannot brag of making more than a senior programmer analyst.
In 1985, the idol concept would transcend imitation and become something truly unique. Born from Fuji TV, hosted by the powerful label Pony Canyon, and envisioned by Akimoto Yasushi, Onyanko Club stormed Japan.
Twenty girls dominating Japan: The Onyanko Club
With a total of 52 members in its history, it introduced the idea of graduations, where members would leave, allowing new faces in. It had its own variety show. With an abundance of girls, subunits were formed to maximize exposure and profit. It intensely promoted direct contact with fans and targeted heavily the male audience. The Onyanko Club had only two rules: no smoking (as it is illegal for anyone under twenty, in Japan) and no boyfriends, marking the birth of the stigma of the wota(8).
At the end, after only three years of existence, the Onyanko Club collapsed after a series of scandals and internal disputes.
Although Onyanko Club had changed, determinately, the paradigm of the idol groups, after its dawn, the whole idol scene took a bit of a rest, mainly because of one factor: the Shibuya-kei(9) had begun its rise. However, after the Shibuya-kei, briefly a counterculture, was assimilated, and with the fundaments already set by the Onyanko Club, the absolute peak was to come, thanks to two crucial factors: a mature industrialization of the media, with the CD and DVD revolution already settled in, granting easy access to releases, but with the TV still acting as the main source of news and events; and the insurrection of the internet, allowing unsuspected people access to never before seen entertainment, while no yet stealing the predominance of the TV networks. Within those circumstances Morning Musume was formed in 1997.
Morning Musume performing its most successful song ever: Love Machine
Born already in fame, with Asayan, a talent search TV show, acting as its parent, what started as a five girl group quickly became eight, and eventually to a maximum of sixteen. At first, a collective of girls in their late teens and early twenties, quickly became territory for twelve year olds, while not disposing of its older members. It had as well its own variety show, and formed subunits to generate more merchandise.
While the Onyanko Club was more of a novelty and a fad, Morning Musume was the consecration of the industry that Kobayashi Ichizo had unknowingly started, and Pink Lady had established. Unlike Onyanko’s ephemeral life, that was plagued by rumors, questionable events, sexual lyrics(10), and fights between the members. The approach by Up-Front, the agency behind Morning Musume, was more serene, relaxed and family friendly.
It has to be specified, then, another characteristic of the japanese music industry: the mainstream is composed of a few established players (Hamasaki Ayumi, Gackt, Koda Kumi and a small army of generic, harmless adult contemporary bands and solo acts) and standouts from niches. The idol industry, on its own, is a niche, actively embraced and exploited by the big agencies. Aside from the big acts of the idol music world, of which only a handful sell a meaningful amount of records, the rest are confined to selected corners of the japanese cities with their own faithful fans, only capable of enjoying massive crowds in the various idol festivals throughout the year.
At its peak, Morning Musume broke the barrier of a niche within the mainstream, and effectively became widely established pop culture, with the general populace able to remember their names without the need for a scandal to make them stand out. Ironically, it was the “de-idolization” of Morning Musume that allowed them to transcend. Through Utaban, a variety show where the hosts had a green light to assign nicknames, mock, tease, and even flirt with the guests, watching Morning Musume every week as guests became water cooler talk(11).
Another success was Up-Front’s elimination of the shadowy, cold figure of the agency: As Up-Front expanded with more idol groups, with MoMusu at the helm, instead of identifying all of their idol ensembles as Up-Front owned groups, they were collectively identified as the Hello! Project. If Morning Musume concerts were selling out, the promotion of an all star Hello! Project concert allowed for huge venues to be filled with ease.
The entire Hello! Project in 2005
Anime has spread the japanese culture, intensely, to every corner of the world. The Hello! Project, but mainly Morning Musume, thanks to the internet, has done so as well, creating a worldwide fandom and acceptation of the idol entertainment, from France to Peru, from Finland to Mexico, idols are spreading the japaneseness, globally.
AKB48, produced by Akimoto Yasushi, the very man behind Onyanku Club, entered the scene in very different circumstances than those Morning Musume and Onyanku Club enjoyed. AKB48 is confronting an ongoing korean craze; the japanese right now prefer korean dramas, korean music and korean books. With declining ratings for original japanese TV content, on top of sporting an overwhelming amount of members, circumstances have lead the AKB48 brand to only be recognized as a whole, seeing its fan base composed mostly of teenagers, both male and female. On the other hand, it is enjoying the benefits of the internet to its fullest extent, organizing its international fandom in an unprecedented scale. Yet, it has to be contrasted with the vastly more successful propagation that K-pop has seen worldwide(12), using a westernized approach, with lots of glamour and big production displays. On the contrary, J-Pop is still very japanese, with its subgenera still appealing dedicatedly to their own niche.
Twenty years after Onyanko Club: AKB48, Japan's musical face to the world
As Morning Musume wained around 2004 and AKB48 rose around 2007, the vacuum finalized a shift from what was traditionally known as idol music. A symbiotic relationship with anime was established, where idol music equaled anime opening music and anime opening music was only done by idols. Akihabara became the de facto center of the otaku, and inherently, of the wota. Hatsune Miku, a vocal synthesizer software, personified by a drawing of a blue haired girl, rocketed into the japanese culture, quickly acquiring virtual idol status, further expanding the term idol and what it could imply. Also, the long held motto of purity, honesty and beauty became obsolete as more gravure idols and adult video idols made it into the mainstream and the decaying music industry hesitated on introducing new groups to the market. While AKB48 is still at the helm of the idol world, further developments mark that the evolution of the concept still has a long way to go: Soft On Demand, a conglomerate of pornographic companies, launched the SOD National Idol Unit, composed only of prominent adult video idols(13).
Sono Shion’s direct message to the japanese society, utilizes all sorts of idiosyncrasies and pop culture references to drive his unashamed critique of the nation.
It is, therefore, only appropriate for the focal satire of the film to be an idol group. Dessart, an “engrish” play on words, where its katakana(14) pronunciation could easily be also read as Death Art, is an idol band made of tweens, the top act of the moment, in the film’s world.
The idea of a suicide club being possible stands on the same fundaments of why idols and boy bands are so pervasive amongst the japanese. That is, understanding the idol scene as a sea of generic, pre-manufactured concepts, that never deviate from what its fans do not want, and at the same time, sell them into things they never really desired.
Harshly, Sono Shion points to an apathetical lack of individualism, as the main factor for a void, meaningless act, such as an idol group, to become the symbol of hope, positiveness and even purpose of existence. It is the utter conformity, driven by fear and loneliness, that makes idols thrive.
The film’s point is only boosted by celebrity suicides like Okada Yukiko’s death(15) and Matsumoto Hideto’s(16).
Although we have focused on the female side of the idol genre, leaving aside boy band idols, which are actually considerably more successful and recognized, with heavyweights like Arashi and SMAP; as a whole, there is an unescapable fact of the idol world: it is cheesy.
It is something hard to understand for the non-japanese. SMAP, for example: imagine the New Kids On The Block still being the best selling, most marketable group in America. Or the Backstreet Boys still storming the charts with each and every single, totally eclipsing new acts like the Jonas Brothers or Justin Bieber. Such is the musical industry paradigm of Japan.
...Well, within that cheesiness, Morning Musume was remarkably cheesy. In Pinch Runner, their second film, their characteristic cheesiness is more than apparent. While the movie was captured in film, the first take scenes are rather obvious, leading to some hilarious acting, the editing doesn’t do the movie any favor, either: with a strange combination of formats, frame rate speeds, laughable attempts at visual effects, odd slow motions and basic audio effects, you wonder if the producers were just being cheap or hopelessly inept.
At some point in the film, one of the characters fakes a suicide attempt, using paint to simulate blood. One of the girls discovers the can with red paint, by accident, and spills it on the floor, then tries to walk away from the spill but slips, for real, and lands, hitting bluntly her face; obviously, the shot was kept and used, which is quite a bizarre decision, as the girl looks unmistakably dazzled, and leaves you wondering why filming wasn’t immediately suspended after such a painful hit.
The climax of the film is a marathon. For some reason, the producers thought the best course of action was to have the girls of Morning Musume run a very real marathon. The odd decisions continue as the film starts to jump from a 24 frames per second, film format, for the dramatic scenes; to 30 frames per second, video, for the actual marathon. Bear in mind this was in 2000; Morning Musume were incredibly popular at the moment, nationwide, very close to their peak. Since the filming conditions for the marathon could not be controlled, as you see the girls running their cathartic race, you can also see the fans and the curious running alongside them, taking pictures and screaming in awe. Some shots of the Morning Musume suffering of side pain are included, as well, just because.
We won’t dig too much into television, in the Nihonjinron series, although it possesses enough peculiarities to deserve a dissection. What needs to be pointed out, though, is the nature of the japanese variety show: ad lib being its backbone. Surprising the guests and pushing them for improvisation is a constant, requiring of the TV personality a true capability of being spontaneously entertaining.
Momoiro Clover, in 2010, were still newcomers to the idol scene, albeit successful. They were told, by their management, they would be doing a piece for a variety show. The task for the girls was to go to a haunted place and ask a spirit to grant them the wish to appear at Kouhaku Uta Gassen.
Kouhaku is the ultimate musical show. It is held every year during new year’s eve. Appearing on it is the most explicit validation of the success of a singer or group.
The legend says if the wish is pure at heart, it is granted, if not, death arrives as punishment after seeing a pair of ghostly white eyes. The trick behind all of this was that, unknowingly, Momoiro Clover were filming the movie White Eyes, and not a clip for a variety show. This twist on the mockumentary concept wasn’t done by a random person either, Koji Shiraishi, the director, is pretty much Japan’s specialist on the found footage/mockumentary genre.
Sora Aoi, internationally known as a japanese pornstar, once said in an interview: “...There was also a possibility of going into TV and other parts of the entertainment industry. If there was only the AV industry, I couldn’t do it.” Her curriculum now features a vast history of appearances in mainstream shows, prominent roles in dramas and roles in serious films, like Yamasaki Yutaka’s Torso(17).
Hoshino Aki, started like every bikini model, gradually appearing in more magazines and then releasing gravure DVDs. In no time, she became one of the top gravure idols and eventually an emblem of the gravure world. Now, she is a mainstream face and powerhouse of the entertainment industry(18).
Added to the previous examples, there is Mihiro, who upon her retirement from the pornographic industry, wrote an autobiographic book, that saw its film adaptation in Nude. Mihiro’s story, and consequently the film, amongst all the morals and messages, delivered a patent note to the japanese society, as the gravure and the AV industries are more and more assimilated into the mainstream: the promise by scouters, of fame and success, stating erotic or pornographic jobs as a platform, is true in Japan.
The film, though, doesn’t let that message be delivered irresponsibly, since it underscores Mihiro’s personal struggle against japan’s society, where she is almost artificially repelled from a healthy social life: what started as casual (and even fun) bikini photo shoots, was forced by friends and family to be viewed as hideous, shameless acts, ending in self abhorrence.
As the world of casting is shown in its natural, heartless form, Nude depicts a sex entertainment industry that, once the job is obtained, enjoys a highly professional and relaxed ambient. The film leaves on the note that it wasn’t Mihiro’s beauty or branch of work that lead her to success, but her resilience that allowed her to keep on ascending, in a path where free fall was at each step; the actions of a properly strong woman.
It is, ultimately, primordial to understand Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture(19). While this specific subject warrants its own essay, for this article, its should suffice to say that in Japan, cuteness is an ideal. Although, as a trend, it rose around the 60’s and 70’s (in synchrony with the idol industrialization,) the goal for cuteness goes beyond women: from Hello Kitty to Pikachu, from Comet-San(20) to Aibon(21) to the Tamagotchi. Everything has been motivated by cuteness: mannerisms, haircuts, nail designs, food adorners and even warning signs in places like subways and constructions sites(22). And while it is inescapable, the fact that the industry of the cute is in part fueled by lust and arousal; the big picture illustrates that it is a mentality and a way of life. That would explain why female idol groups amass a significative amount of fangirls(23), but mostly, girls themselves aspire to be the idols: a symbol of cuteness.