[Hello all and welcome back to Weeb Analysis where this month we’ll be dabbling into the world of idol music with Ya Boy Kongming!. Weeb Analysis is a monthly column dedicated to analyzing new anime and seeing which titles are true classics in the making and which ones are worthless shlock not worth your time. The question now stands: is Ya Boy Kongming! worth your time or not?]
I’ve covered a lot of subgenres of anime over the past two years here on Weeb Analysis. I’ve seen the merits of Shonen action series, examined the lack of horror titles in the anime community, and the ludicrousness of sports anime. I tend to think of myself as being versed in a lot of anime genres and make it a point to dabble in every genre at one point or another. Yet there is one genre that I find completely and utterly impenetrable no matter how hard I try to learn more about it: idol anime.
For those uninitiated, idols are young women, mostly preteens, who are recruited by talent agencies as aspiring musicians/singers/dancers/whatever-the-hell-they-want-to-market-them-as. While there are indeed male idols, the vast majority of them are female and have highly cultivated images that are strictly controlled by their managers and record labels. If you want a Western equivalent, think of boy bands like NSYNC, The Backstreets Boys, One Direction, and the Jonas Brothers and how they cultivated a deeply devoted following that almost certainly resembles an obsession.
Indeed, idols in Japan do not live great lives. They’re treated incredibly unfairly with grueling work hours, a highly curated public image that prevents them from dating, partying, or drinking, and of course, often have stalkers. Probably one of the most famous examples of the negativity of idol culture can be found in Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, an anime I highly recommend you check out. So of course, there is plenty of anime centering on idols, either real-life ones or fictional ones. Groups like AKB48 have anime about them, and there are franchises dedicated to anime original idol groups like the Love Live! series.
To me, they’re all usually so saccharine and sweet that I can’t stand them. They lack an edge and focus on fulfilling the dreams of their fans while having very little substance to them. To me, it would be a stretch to call Ya Boy Kongming! an idol anime. Its main character does not consider herself an idol, despite the plot centering around music and featuring a lot of the same thematic beats as an idol anime. It is a series centered on music, but again, that would mean that something like On-Gaku: Our Sound is an idol anime, which couldn’t be further from the truth. That being said, I would classify Ya Boy Kongming! as an idol anime if only for how by the time it reaches the conclusion of its 12-episode run, it serves as a direct criticism of that industry and a love letter for authentic representation in music.
Ya Boy Kongming! is about the legendary Chinese strategist Zhuge Liang Kongming. When he was alive in a period of Chinese history known as the Three Kingdoms era, he was a feared military tactician who led his side to victory on numerous occasions. Because it’s war, Kongming eventually dies, yet he’s reborn in modern-day Tokyo and meets a young waitress named Eiko who wants to become a professional singer. After singing at a party Kongming attends and being moved by her singing, he decides to fulfill her dream and help her become a world-famous musician. In order to do that, he’ll have to plan his way through one of the most grueling warzones known to man: the music industry.
I’m no stranger to weird anime premises here on this column, but so far, Ya Boy Kongming! is probably the weirdest. You would think that such an out-there premise would limit your enjoyment of the show, but it really doesn’t… for the most part. Because of Kongming’s historical importance, a lot of references will be made to his military achievements, characters will continuously question if his identity is true, and Kongming has flashbacks to other important Chinese warlords that he knew in his actual life. These moments tend to slow down the pace of the show for people unfamiliar with the Three Kingdoms, which is going to be a lot of people.
Thankfully, these moments don’t define the show. The series is mostly focused on having Kongming devise plans to help boost Eiko’s profile versus the many bigger acts she performs alongside. Because of this, Kongming is a fun character to interact with. He’s always polite but can be cunning and shrewd in order to get the results he’s looking for. However, he never tries to intentionally hurt or disparage anyone. When he’s able to successfully portray Eiko as a better act than the people she’s performing near, he’s able to deescalate any tense situations by offering them something in return. When a band is ready to complain about Eiko upstaging them at an outdoor concert to management, Kongming offers their lead singer a drink that could help relax his tense and hoarse throat and gives them the recipe for it. He means well at all times, even when he’s engaged in a 10-minute rap battle undermining his opponent and bringing out all of their self-doubts.
Despite being named after him, Kongming is a supporting character for most of the story. His goal is Eiko’s goal. Kongming proclaims that he only wishes to serve his master, but it’s never framed in any uncomfortable or perverse way. There’s genuine compassion he feels towards Eiko’s music and a desire to finally achieve peace, the peace that he could not attain during the Three Kingdoms. Peace through music is a laudable concept that we’ve seen pop up every now and then, mostly through horribly dated celebrity charity songs. But if you’re interested in Ya Boy Kongming! because of Kongming himself, I’ve got bad news for you. In the second half of the series, Kongming is barely even a character, instead opting to give time for Eiko to flesh out her ethos and identity as a singer.
This is where, personally, Ya Boy Kongming really comes alive. While the show for the first half is centered on Kongming creating these plans to boost Eiko’s reputation, the series takes a turn at an arc centered on a social media campaign called the 100,000 Likes Project. Basically, Eiko is given a choice by a major music producer. He could offer Eiko a gig at a small festival and help boost her profile a tiny bit, or she could go big and compete for the chance to perform at one of the biggest music festivals in Japan. The catch is that in order for Eiko to actually perform at that festival, she needs to amass over 100,000 likes on a single social media post by a due date, and she’s not the only competitor in the race. Plus if she fails, then she gets no concert whatsoever.
This allows for Eiko to really step into her own and we get the more juicy elements of the series: the condemnation of the music industry. Specifically, the idol industry. Her biggest competition is a group called Azalea, a trio of idols who are represented by a ruthless record company called Key Time. While they were once an energetic and happy girl group who played their own instruments, their manager, Karasawa, forbids them from playing their own music, forces them to dress as scantily clad idols, forbids them from even playing their own instruments, and tells them that as long as they do what he says and dance to the music he makes them sing to, they’ll become famous.
Movies and shows that take this angle aren’t anything new. You could watch shows like Empire, Vinyl, or any documentary about your favorite band to know that behind the scenes, the music industry sucks. Nothing that Ya Boy Kongming! says is anything revelatory, but what makes it stand out from the crowd is its love of music. Eiko loves to sing because it helped save her life after a failed suicide attempt. A young rapper called Kabetaijin loves to freestyle because it allowed him to fit in with his friends in high school. Even the girls of Azalea, who came to represent everything wrong with the idol industry, only sold their souls to the devil because they were frustrated that no one was validating the passion they had for playing and performing for others and were unable to pay their bills on their dreams. Music is powerful and all of the musicians here display that every chance they get.
There’s a developing friendship between Eiko and the singer/bassist of Azalea, Nanami. The two only met because Nanami would sneak away from Azalea to perform on the street so she could remind herself what it meant to actually play music. The two bond, go out to eat, head to public saunas, and of course, sing and rock out on the streets. They become true friends through music and even when Eiko learns that she’s going to have to compete against Nanami to get into the major festival, she still views her as a friend and expresses a desire to sing alongside her. This all culminates in a battle of the bands on the streets of Shibuya where both women bear their hearts to each other through song and understand why they each sing.
Through all of this, Kongming isn’t around. It feels weird for the title character to disappear so much as the show progresses, and I feel that may ultimately be the show’s weakest point. Ya Boy Kongming’s first couple of episodes paint a picture of a series where a Chinese strategist navigates through the ins and outs of the music industry, but that premise gets dropped halfway through for a plot centering around its real main character. On the surface, it makes sense, but to focus so much of the marketing on a side character is a bit misleading. It would be like if the Harry Potter series wasn’t called Harry Potter, but instead, it was called Hermione Granger but absolutely nothing was changed about the plot or the writing.
Most music anime also lives and die by its music, and the music in Ya Boy Kongming is fairly good. J-pop will almost certainly never be a genre of music I listen to, but the songs are all sung nicely and have decent beats. There was nothing that truly stood out about the music in this music show, which feels a bit like a missed opportunity. The best song in the series is the freestyle rap battle between Kabetaijin and Kongming, which is just impressive for how the writers and translators were able to marry the lyrics to the music across multiple languages.
I may not love the music here, but loving music is not the same as appreciating music. You could hate a genre or a song but admire the passion that goes into making a song and the heartbreaking authenticity that it represents. Take Ke$ha’s “Praying.” I may not like the song that much as a song, but I applaud the bravery and the soul that was poured into it because of what it represents. The same is true, in a sense, for Ya Boy Kongming!. The second half of the show is centered on Eiko making a song that is entirely hers, so she creates a song called “Dreamer” that debuts in the last episode and embodies the core ideas of basically every idol anime: people who love to sing music do so because they love it. It’s a simple theme, but an effective one.
I admit that Ya Boy Kongming! isn’t a revolutionary series, but it’s highly entertaining. Kongming’s machinations at the beginning are fun to watch, as is his adapting to the modern world like making a bet with a world-famous singer over a game of Ring Fit Adventure, but that eventually transitions into a show about the power of music and how much it means to people. Again, these are themes we’ve seen before, but it’s presented in a way that’s different enough to make it at least worth checking out. This has “underrated gem” written all over it, and with the final episode proclaiming the end of “Volume 1,” it’s only a matter of time until “Volume 2” gets announced at some point. If you have the time, give Ya Boy Kongming! some love, if only for the title being so damn fun.