On Idols and Context

People are people.

After my grandfather came home from serving in WWII, he got a job at a local steel mill and raised a family. He wouldn’t talk about his time over there, nor did he feel the need to travel. If asked, he would say he didn’t need to travel because he learned people are the same everywhere, except for the French. The French, he said, were a rude group of people.

I’ve always taken that for truth … not the part about the French, I’m sure they were just cranky from needing the uncultured Americans, British, Canadians, etc. to free them from the Germans. Which is why I think anime can be watched by anyone because no matter how “weird” it seems, people are people, and we all have the same hopes, dreams, and desires.

That’s not to say that there aren’t differences that arise from shows produced by different cultures. For instance, I believe some of the reason Japan has been pumping out so many brocon and siscon flavored shows is that the idea of the nuclear family is a really recent addition to their society. It wasn’t until the American occupation after WWII that the definition of a “family” being that of a nuclear family was pushed upon them. Or to flip it around, when I watch an anime set in America, it’s interesting to see how the Japanese view life in America.

So, there is context lost when someone in America – like myself – watches an anime which is produced in Japan. One might lose some of the layers that make an anime good but this lost of this context never ruins the enjoyment of an anime and there are ways to gain that context back if one is inclined. The method I’ve been thinking about lately is when something is said or done in one anime that illuminates something about said or done in another anime.

For example, in episode 6 of Zombieland Saga there is an argument between the zombie idol from the 1980s, Junko Konno, and the zombie idol from the 2000s, Ai Mizuno, over what it means to be an idol. Junko lived at a time when an idol was meant to be perfect and unapproachable, or much closer to the English meaning of the word “idol”. Ai comes from a time when idols have to be approachable through events where fans can shake hands, talk with, and have their pictures taken with the idols and for idols to have a bit of imperfection so the fans to encourage them and feel some sense of connection when their idol gets better.

One of the things that first popped into my mind during this argument was the anime Macross which I watched for the first time last year. Macross was released in 1982 and, while it is not an idol anime per se, it does feature a woman, Minmay Lynn, who becomes an idol and is instrumental in humanity eventually surviving an alien invasion. Onstage, Minmay is every bit the glamorous, perfect idol that Junko argues that an idol should be. Off stage, Minmay has a very unpleasant personality that makes the viewer kinda wish something unfortunate would happen to Minmay so she’d have to leave the show.

What episode 6 of Zombieland Saga made me realize is that I did not the context that someone watching Macross in Japan in 1982 would have concerning seeing Minmay off stage. That Minmay isn’t a perfect person is hardly shocking to me; however, I now understand that it would be at least mildly shocking to many people who watched Macross as it aired in 1982 to see Minmay act like she did. And this now answers my question about why Minmay was made so annoying; I imagine Shouji Kawamori was trying to make a point about idols by showing their less than perfect side.

Another example of missing context only to see it filled in later occurred between Gurazeni: Season 2 and Karakuri Circus. The protagonist of Gurazeni is Natsunosuke Bonda, a middle reliever with self-esteem issues. At one point in the second season Bonda is asked to appear on a radio program and because he’s very nervous he decides to have an alcoholic drink right before he goes on air to calm his nerves. This does not go well as Bonda begins to talk about the salaries that he and the other two guests, fellow middle relievers, are receiving and the disparities between them. That he committed a major faux pas is apparent by how everyone around him responds; why he’s not supposed to do this only became apparent to me after an episode of Karakuri Circus.

Episode 5 of Karakuri Circus takes a much-needed breath after the action-packed first four episodes to show our main character, Masaru Saiga, the now super wealthy elementary schoolboy, going back to school for the first time since the events of the series started. Shirogane Saiga, master of a killer puppet and protector of Masaru, reminds Masaru that “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down” and if he doesn’t want to be bullied he needs to blend in better. Now, I’ve heard this saying before but I’d forgotten about it; hearing it again made me realize why Bonda isn’t supposed to talk about salaries. Professional sports stars are almost by definition nails that need hammered down and to get around this, a polite fiction is kept up where no one talks about the salaries of these players.

As an aside, realizing at this point that people don’t talk about salaries of baseball players in Japan – as opposed to in America where everyone knows what each player makes – gives Bonda’s nervous tic of discussing the salaries of the players he faces a different spin. As an American viewer, I still think it made the start of the show a bit dull; however, I also now realize that it could also be seen as an edgy thing for the mangaka to do.

As a further aside, I was fascinated by something else from episode 5 of Karakuri Circus. Masaru does have a pack of bullies that bother him. One of the things they do to him is take his school shoes out of his school locker and so Masaru goes to class in his socks. I’ve watched enough anime to realize how important the shoe thing is and in my house growing up everyone were expected to take their outside shoes off at the door and switch to a pair of inside shoes; however, Masaru should have worn his outside shoes to class. When confronted by the teachers, as I’m sure he would have been, he could have told them someone stole his shoes and the fact this happened shows that this school doesn’t care about it’s bullying problem and ask the teacher how the school are going to remedy this. (If the kids aren’t allowed to use locks then cameras should be installed so these acts of bullying can be caught and the kids punished.) Then again, confronting the teacher like that strikes me as something Americans would do.

Since we’re on the topic of context, I also think there’s a potential pitfall that I and other anime fans have to be on guard against and that’s not watching specific anime due to an excessive worry about missed context. For example, this season’s SSSS.Gridman is on track to be Trigger’s best anime series and yet it’s probably the least talked about and least watched series of theirs. The reason for this largely stems from SSSS.Gridman being part of a franchise that people aren’t familiar with. Even though I was willing to give the show a chance, my main worry going in was if I’d get the show and be able to enjoy it without the knowledge of the franchise that would be common for a Japanese viewer, not how good the writing, story, and characters were going to be. It’s a similar story with all long-running franchises and, while I understand why this is so, I wish it wasn’t.

Just because a series is part of a long-running franchise does not automatically lower the chances a new viewer would enjoy that series. If the only reason a series like that turns out “good” is because one has an encyclopedic knowledge of the franchise then it’s not really a good series. And that’s not really all that different from a segment of anime series that only people who are familiar with the source material find good. If knowledge of the source material is needed to enjoy a show, it’s not a good show.

And an upside to trying a series that’s part of a long-running franchise and finding a keeper is that there’s no need to wait for a sequel to get more, there’s plenty of other series already released and waiting to be watched.

So, go watch Lupin III: Part 5 if you haven’t yet – it’s one of this year’s best series – and give SSSS.Gridman a chance, it’s one of the this season’s best.

3 thoughts on “On Idols and Context”

  1. This was a fantastic read about context. I’m not the smartest person in the world when it comes to words like context. But bringing up about the zombie anime and macross simplified it for me in a nutshell. Especially the part talking about SSS.Gridman which I’ve been watching. It is a shame the anime is not talked about a lot, just because it has no plot direction and you don’t know what’s going on. Doesn’t make it a bad show, it’s intriguing and interesting when there is no context put In things just go with the flow.


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