The Toxic Lure of Idol Anime

Today, I’ve stumbled upon a featured article from ANN’s columnist Nick Cramer where he talks about his descent into what he calls idol anime hell. Even though I don’t find idol anime very intoxicating like he does–in fact I plan on debunking their allure in this very article–he did mention Azuma Hiroki. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know that Azuma is a name that gets mentioned a lot. Remembering that Azuma has in the past discussed the idol phenomenon, the piece basically begged me to write a response.

I approve of this idol unit.

From my observations, idol anime fans generally fall into two camps. The first camp happens to like the artistry and craftsmanship. They like the uplifting songs, the iyashikei atmosphere, and the genuinely good limited animation. The other camp is the camp Cramer found himself in. Being the admittedly cynical fan that he was, he became interested in idol anime because other otaku were interested in them. It wasn’t the content that got him hooked, what was alluring was being part of a social circle that watches and discusses these anime together.

Azuma’s round table with Fukushima Maiko and Shikura Chiyomaru from 2012 sheds light on so called participatory content. They start off their discussion saying Japanese otaku have changed and become significantly more sociable in recent years. In the past, otaku flocked to Akihabara because they believed to be misunderstood by society. Akihabara was a place where they felt they could be themselves. However, younger otaku these days don’t grow up thinking that and are in fact seeking a more social otaku experience from the get-go. Some of them may not even like 2D content such as anime, but they get involved because the format in which content is showcased allows them to connect with other people, be them fans like themselves or ultimately the creators. Fukushima-san, who has created Dear Stage and MOGRA clubs in Akihabara, stated that this mode of consumption is a generational trend. According to her, younger fans simply can’t become interested in content which they can’t participate in. If AKB48 hadn’t incorporated handshake events and general elections, they wouldn’t have become the idol juggernaut they are today. The ability to interact with the girls in various ways is a much beloved format that triumphs the desirability of the songs and videos they produce.

Fukushima-san made me wonder about Twitch chat people. Whenever Twitch broadcasters close their chat, either by making them subscriber-only or completely shutting them down, many users simply switch to a different broadcaster. Passively enjoying the content of the stream isn’t enough for them, they simply need to have access to tools that will allow them interaction. The user dynamic that Twitch chat provokes demonstrates that for a certain segment of viewership content is secondary. This mode of consumption simply can’t be the same as it was for otaku before the advent of social media. My generation watched anime without fail and then logged on to discussion forums. One could make the argument that the drive to discuss anime on forums incentivized people to watch them, but this is still a far cry from outright rejecting content because fandom didn’t offer ways to interact with other people. Those who would have demanded that never gave anime a chance in the first place.

Azuma continues on this tangent, saying these days even anime is being treated as nothing more than a topic for conversation. More and more people are supposedly consuming anime by watching the first episodes of a show, then giving up on it if it doesn’t become widely talked about, for example on 2channel or among their social media peers. My own observations of /r/anime echo this change of attitudes. Redditors really like the social platform, perhaps even more so than the shows they watch. Earth would probably shatter before any of them started watching an older show on their own, without there being a re-watch thread on the sub’s front page.

Unfortunately, I can’t do anything about people who don’t genuinely love anime. Producers could stop spending on strengthening delivery platforms and start spending more on the content itself. Promoting silly shows like Aldnoah.Zero that troll people into a discussion won’t help the anime medium in the long run. Idol shows at the very least display a level of craftsmanship that is appreciated by the more vested anime fan. Admittedly, the allure of idol anime Cramer talks about isn’t the content. What is alluring for him is the very same thing that Twitch chat wants from their video streaming platform.

Now, before someone decides to label me as someone who has either never given idol shows a shot to begin with or hasn’t experienced the sort of passion Cramer talks about to know its appeal, let me tell you that you’re wrong on both accounts. The beef I have with the article is the notion that in order to reconnect with anime like he has, one has to look past the superficial. I understand his point, but the way he goes about labeling Azuma and Kon as two highly cynical guys is also wrong. At least Azuma decided to confront the predicament the Database faces us with and has written praise to works that have attempted to escape it. Cramer’s piece almost reads as a mockery of otaku for being cynical about dumb content.

Has Cramer given up on demanding excellence from anime shows? To a degree, yes. He’s figured out anime can’t maintain a level of excellence that would keep him satisfied on grounds of content alone, so he found a suitable solution to keep his interest high. That is only healthy! The otaku that survive the disillusionment that follows the initial period of two to three years of watching have a palette of options to focus their interest on. The social route is just one of them.

Maybe this article makes me look like a bigger anime cynic than I actually am, but the fact that it’s hard to escape the Database isn’t the right reason to stop demanding excellence from anime. If more idol anime were as novel and as well produced as that Idolmaster adaptation was, the world of anime would be in a better place.


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