Times like these always provide a good opportunity to stop for a bit and question stuff. Question the idols. Question the system. Question the fans. Question yourself, even.
Much has already been made amongst idol fans regarding a certain AKB member’s recent hair-razing (see what I did there?) shenanigans, especially with international mainstream media outlets actually finding it newsworthy, but I never really had planned to comment too much about it, especially with this being a H!P-centric blog and my own minimal interest in the AKB world. Still, considering how the news itself and the reactions to it reflect on the idol industry as a whole, it has definitely encouraged me to once again take a look at my own place in the fandom and how I got here in the first place.
You see, for the most part I still consider myself the type who’s a bit apprehensive towards the whole celebrity worship thing. Sure, there are famous figures in entertainment that I’ve admired and idolized (and even idealized) over the years, but I also try to recognize the fine line between one’s public work and personal life, letting the latter only affect my respect for the former under certain circumstances. The tricky thing about idols, though, is that their personal lives are their public work, or at least that’s what their management wants to sell to us. They’re a special breed of celebrity, trained and crafted specifically to satiate the natural tendency for audiences to place public figures on a pedestal. And I think, despite my normal apprehensions, my love for these characters is justified by just that: they’re characters, who just happen to exist in the real world instead of confined to a movie or video game or sports arena. It’s only when we accept this can we have clarity towards things like the “no dating” rule and other image-conscious requirements placed upon idols that seem ridiculous when placed upon non-idol entertainers.
Of course, the real debate occurs when these rules are eventually broken. It’s tough enough keeping personal lives personal for regular celebrities, but what if it’s actually a written part of your job description? Another tricky thing about idols is that it’s almost a 24/7 job, and considering how young some of these girls are, either still going through or just finishing puberty, there’s definitely an intense pressure when it comes to maintaining the facade, especially with concerns of possible consequences.
This is where Minami Minegishi’s bald head comes into play. What kind of pressure was she under that she felt compelled to take things this far at the slightest hint of accusation? Does the problem lie with the girls who sign up for this work or the draconian system itself? How many heads must be shaved, cigarettes must be smoked, and poems must be plagiarized before the people involved finally decide to consider if changes to the system are necessary?
Of course, this also highlights the differences between Asian and Euro-American cultures. My interest and experience with both H!P and Japanese culture has always felt like a bit of a paradox. The country’s reputation for strict obedience and obsession with “saving face” and traditional hierarchy seems to clash with my own laid back, explorative tendencies and individualistic values; likewise, the sugary, commercial nature of Hello! Project is a stark contrast with the demands for authenticity (whether actually fulfilled or merely simulated) prevalent in my hip-hop and artistic backgrounds. I believe this is why shows such as Utaban and Mechaike were the perfect entry path into the world of H!P for me; the scripted “harrassment” of these pristine idols served as an effective deconstruction of the idol mystique and Japanese discipline, reminding us that deep down everyone is human.
Strangely enough this brings me to my last self-reflection: is there a common bond amongst my favorite idols? It’s something I never stopped to think about until I noticed patterns in a few other fans’ favorites recently, because it’s not necessarily a conscious decision nor the only factor in deciding favorites. One person seemed to have a liking for members with notable boobs (not always the biggest but certainly memorable mammaries); another openly admitted his preference for the shorter girls; another lamented her top 5 consisting mostly of troublemakers, including Minegishi.
I think for me it’s that down-to-earth human element, something that goes against what an idol is traditionally expected to be. There’s Ai Takahashi and Riho Sayashi, skilled performers with awkward/clumsy personalities, clashing against the marginally-talented-yet-lively idol stereotype. There’s Hitomi Yoshizawa and Maimi Yajima, both athletic freaks who defy the delicateness associated with femininity. There’s Yurina Kumai and Kanon Suzuki, whose respective body types are in opposition with the traditional short and scrawny expectation. There’s Junjun and Mika Todd, whose status as foreigners allowed them a bit more leeway in navigating through Japanese etiquette and provided a more laid-back, open vibe. There’s Miki Fujimoto, whose lackadaisical handling of her own dating scandal must’ve been shocking at the time but is somewhat ridiculous and hilarious in retrospect. Outside of H!P, there’s AKB’s Sayaka Akimoto, another tall and athletic bombshell who also just happens to be of mixed heritage.
In some of these cases there’s also a bit of personal relatability in play for me, such as Ai-chan’s social awkwardness, Junjun’s outsider status and “my pace” personality, and Sayaka’s Filipino background. And naturally there are exceptions such as Miyabi Natsuyaki and Erina Mano, my love for them being despite their conventionality.
And of course, there’s Ai Kago, whose recklessness both during and after her H!P career has given her a sense of notoriety amongst fans and the Japanese entertainment industry. Fittingly enough, while her troubles may have made her unattractive to other people, I’ve actually found her more appealing because of them. Maybe it’s because of the sheer coincidence that the scandals that led to her dismissal from H!P and initial disappearance from showbiz were similar (in both nature and timing) to the drama and isolation I had gone through with people in my own life. Maybe it’s because the harshness of her downfall serves as an example of what I find wrong with yet another disciplinary system in the world that focuses more on punishment and shame rather than rehabilitation, correction, and understanding. Or maybe it’s just because she was the first H!P member I knew by name, even before I even knew she was a part of H!P. (yes, the timing of this blog post is deliberate–happy birthday Aibon!)
In the end, these are the things that make me wonder why I became/remain a fan at all. Yet at the same time, they also remind me of why I remain a fan…the whole thing is a crazy, messy beast, and I can’t stop watching. But it’s also a very complex, delicate thing of beauty–you really never know who’s next to go or when, making every moment of your favorite members’ time in the spotlight all the more meaningful.
Their lives, our entertainment. We watch it while they live it. They walk, we follow. They talk, we holler. Just here for our amusement.