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What is an idol? The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an idol as “a greatly loved or admired person” or “a picture or object that is worshipped as a god.” In Japan, however, this word takes on another meaning. In Japan, an “idol” is an occupation.

Just like “musician” and “dancer,” idols in Japan are an specific type of entertainer. Idols are usually teenage girls and/or boys (though there are exceptions, like in the case of long-running boy band SMAP) who dance, sing, and even act together in groups, with some of them being very large. Fans are able to support their favorite idol/idol group by buying their goods, event tickets, and of course, CDs. Idols are such a big thing in Japan that not only will almost every talk show on Japanese television have at least one idol talking on its panel of guests, but you will almost certainly see them star as the main characters in big-budget Japanese films as well.

Despite the sugary sweet exterior, the idol industry is a money-making monster. For the past eight years, the “artist of the year” chosen by the Record Industry Association of Japan (RIAJ)’s annual report has been some kind of idol group. In 2015’s report, the artist of the year was boy idol band Arashi, while female idol group AKB48 not only won Best Single of the Year, but also won four of the five spots Best 5 Singles in the report… and even then, the other spot was given to their sister idol group Nogizaka46. Idols dominate the Japanese record industry.

It’s because of the power of idols and the money they make that they are taken very seriously by businesspeople–but not in the way you’d think. Although idols are usually loved by fans for their personalities on TV shows or on stage, the reality is simple: they are a product to be sold.

If one idol group is not bringing in the fans at events or not selling a certain number of CDs, they are neglected or discarded completely and a new group is brought in. When an idol is considered “too old” (usually past their teen years), they are expected to “graduate” (leave the group). Idols are considered disposable.

That’s why when I heard that T.M. Revolution a.k.a. Takanori Nishikawa would be serving as producer on B-PROJECT–a virtual male idol project made up of anime, games, manga, CDs, and concerts–my interest was piqued. I loved the idea that his personal experiences as a musician in Japan would play a role in the project’s anime adaptation B-PROJECT: Kodou*Ambitious.

The majority of idol shows are usually very flowery, and if there is conflict, it’s usually within the group or within the individual idols themselves–e.g., “I can’t dance this bit! I have to overcome my weakness!” While the first episode didn’t break any boundaries, the second one was a lot more interesting. After all, it directly dealt with the concept that idols are disposable.

In episode 2 of the show, Thrive–an idol group comprised of the childish Yūta, the mature Kento, and the brash rocker Gōshi are brought to a photo shoot for a magazine feature about their unit by their meek female manager Tsubasa. Gōshi, being a lone wolf type, refuses to listen to authority and even goes so far as to diss their new song because it’s too upbeat.

When they arrive at the shoot for their one-page feature, things go from rocky to avalanche when the nasty editor-in-chief of the magazine arrives and starts ridiculing them. What really makes the easily-angered Gōshi snap is when she forces them all to put on cat ears for their shoot, something he considers humiliating and degrading.

When the shoot is put on hold because of his outburst, he happens to overhear the editor-in-chief talking smack about him and his group. She says that because idols are disposable and Thrive is just too much trouble, they should be replaced. Once again, in a fit of rage, Gōshi fights against the system, saying they don’t need the magazine anyway. However, he later learns that the one single page feature was only made possible because their agency’s director wined and dined the editor-in-chief for days.

And this is where the sad reality comes in. When people see the darkness of the idol industry–or the entertainment industry in general–from the outside, it’s easy to say “you should stand up against those kinds of practices.” But the fact is, the industry is made up of so many people. It’s not just the talent; it’s the managers, the stylists, the technicians, the accountants, the composers, the writers, the illustrators, etc. In an industry with so many people in it, the key to success it to build relationships… even if you hate the other party with a passion, which is something Gōshi learns. If he messes up the relationship he has with this editor-in-chief, not only will he lose face and future opportunities, but his manager, team, and agency will as well. Leaving his personal feelings and pride behind, he apologizes.

Despite this, the editor-in-chief snubs him gives the other two members of Thrive a chance: ditch Gōshi and get an entire feature all to themselves–this time ranging from five to ten pages. In gratitude to Gōshi for swallowing his pride for their sakes, they refuse this deal, putting their relations with such a big figure in jeopardy. While protecting your teammate seems the obvious moral choice, this action puts them all in an extremely risky situation that could spell ruin for their careers. Their willingness to fight back against authority despite this shows just how much they care for their teammate.

In the anime, Thrive is saved by their president in the nick of time from the editor-in-chief’s wrath and everything ends on a happy note as the team play with a cat during their restarted photo shoot. However, in reality, with the low standing of the group at the beginning of the show, they probably would have lost all future opportunities–not only with only that magazine, but with that publisher in general as well.

What makes touching on this issue so interesting is that B-PROJECT itself is peddling the latest and most popular voice-actors-turned-idols to consumers for purchase. Of course, consumers aren’t actually buying the actors themselves and bringing them home or anything: they’re buying their image. The fans of the show themselves are participating in the industry web of underhanded ideals, yet the anime is brave enough to say, “Yes. This is the reality of the idol industry.”

I have to give it to B-PROJECT: it took me by surprise with its surprisingly frank subject matter. While it took the happy ending route, it still seems rather courageous for an idol project to talk about its own industry’s darkness. While the majority of the anime is filled with scenes of super-duper happy friendship like I expected, it was extremely refreshing to be given something out of the ordinary. Who says that entertainment can’t include some not-so-pleasant truths?

B-PROJECT is streaming outside of Japan with English subtitles on Crunchyroll in North America and Daisuki in Asia (excluding China, Korea, and India).

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