Insane in the Menbre: 22/7 Anime vs. Youtube Thoughts

When the anime for fictional idol group 22/7 was first announced, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. My only exposure to them was through the Youtube channel of Fujima Sakura, one of the characters in the franchise. Played by Sally Amaki, a Japanese-American who moved to Japan to become an idol, the resulting videos were surprisingly off the wall. Videos like the one about using “menbre” as cutesy shorthand for “mental breakdown” set the tone for 22/7 in my mind as this quirky idol group that wasn’t afraid of gallows humor. Contributing to this was the fact that Sally Amaki herself would express on Twitter some of the challenges of being an idol and talk about her love of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos to the extent that fans threw bags of them onto the stage at Anime Expo. It was like 22/7 and Fujima Sakura peeled back just a layer or two of the idol illusion—enough to entice but not to ruin.

So I jumped into the first few episodes of the 22/7 anime wondering if any of the above would be reflected. To my surprise, the series has taken a completely different approach: a mostly serious show about conflict and self-doubt. Fujima Sakura is a prominent part of the series, but she’s not the main character. Instead, it’s primarily about Takigawa Miu, who’s portrayed as having a crippling lack of confidence stemming from childhood difficulties. There’s tension from the very beginning in ways that I don’t see from many other idol anime. To some extent, the dramatic nature of the 22/7 anime in contrast to the silliness of the Youtube channel feels like when you go between the Love Live! anime vs. the mobile game or the Drama CDs—only that difference is dialed to 11. 

I appreciate the anime’s take on things, partly because Miu is such a different heroine compared to those found in other idol series. Whether it’s Amami Haruka (The iDOLM@STER) or Kosaka Honoka (Love Live!), they tend to fall under this umbrella of “generally optimistic and cheerful girls who are pretty normal but try their best.” Starting with someone who’s struggling internally from the very beginning (and not just in an “I’m too plain” sort of way) is pretty refreshing. The anime also has other eccentricities that at the very least pique my curiosity, such as the mysterious “wall” that gives the members of 22/7 their orders. It reminds me of a similar entity in AKB0048, only it actually seems even more bizarre in the 22/7 anime because of the relatively mundane setting.

I’m not sure if this is the presentation of 22/7 its creators wanted all along, or if maybe it’s intentionally different in order to achieve a different kind of appeal, but it’s an attempt at doing something compelling. I don’t mind it, though one potential consequence is that Sally Amaki’s Twitter seems a lot cleaner and more professional, which might ironically take away from her and Fujima Sakura’s original appeal. Sometimes a diamond in the rough stands out precisely because of its situation.

Nijisanji, Hololive, and the Virtual Youtuber Kayfabe

Since I last wrote about Virtual Youtubers close to two years ago, the scene has grown far beyond any one individual’s ability to keep track. One consequence of this, as I’ve come to learn, is that individual acts have started to form collectives that increase visibility for all. Two of the big ones are Nijisanji and Hololive, both of which utilize a less expensive approach called Live2D that is clearly less robust than whatever it is Kizuna A.I. has. I find the presence of groups like Nijisanji and Hololive to be curious intersections of how people interact with the internet in current times. 

Virtual Youtubers (VTubers) are essentially one part Hatsune Miku, one part livestreamer, and one part idol–the result is a kind of weird unspoken contract between viewers and creators where the notion of “authenticity” is relative rather than being some kind of absolute. One of the complaints that streamers often receive, especially if they’re extremely over the top, is that it’s all an act, and that they’re just playing to the audience in order to get more eyeballs on them. People like streamers with whom they can feel some kind of genuine connection, and a layer of “fakeness” can be a turn-off in that respect. But with characters like Tsukino Mito (Nijisanji) or Haato Akai (Hololive), there’s an obvious understanding that what you’re seeing and getting just isn’t a “real person.” At the same time, there’s still a desire that these characters aren’t fully constructed, and that some of the actual individual behind the anime mask will peek through just a bit sometimes. Fujima Sakura (who isn’t in Nijisanji or Hololive) is a prime example of this, though in that case, the person behind the character (Sally Amaki) is already well known, as is the fact that Sakura as a VTuber is part of a greater project: 22/7.

I mentioned Hatsune Miku here (and in the previous post about VTubers) not just because she’s a cute anime girl mascot who people collectively imbue with a personality and history, but because part of her charm is that her voice doesn’t sound entirely realistic. There’s an artificial quality to her that adds to her appeal, and to some extent, I can see this being the case with Nijisanji and Hololive’s VTubers because Live2D isn’t super-smooth. There’s a kind of choppiness that can drag you out of the illusion pretty easily, so you have to kind of let it work its magic on you. Perhaps it’s closer to pro wrestling in that respect. In a way, the flaws even lend themselves to a greater sense of authenticity, in that these VTubers are not presenting a supremely polished (and arguably overproduced) product. 

However, just the fact that Nijisanji and Hololive are these collectives adds another wrinkle. There’s this kind of understanding that cooperation is of mutual benefit to all those involved, but the fact that prospective VTubers basically earn the opportunity to enter these groups calls to mind the very nature of Youtube as a platform dependent on click-throughs and crossovers as a means to garner more attention. It’s not that different from something like Game Grumps, but the veneer of anime avatars makes VTubers a little more mysterious but also makes me wonder just where they’re all coming from. To what extent are they professionally honed products and to what extent are they amateur endeavors–and for that matter, does Youtube explode that difference?

It might not be such a bad thing that people can so easily become Virtual Youtubers these days. I myself have considered doing more Youtube in the past, but I’m just not a fan of putting my face out there for all to see. The way the members of Nijisanji and Hololive do it, on the other hand, provides an alternative for those who want to be out there without exposing too much of their identities. In a time when the difference between the online self and the offline self is all but disintegrated, doing this Virtual Youtuber thing can be an oasis of anonymity, albeit within a profit and attention-seeking environment.

This post was written based on a request by Patreon sponsor Johnny Trovato. If you’d like to request a topic, check out the Ogiue Maniax Patreon.

Real vs. Perfect: The Two Opposing Idol Values

1983’s Creamy Mami was the first idol anime, and it made an idol out of Mami’s voice actor as well. Watching her videos from back then, a 15-year-old Ohta Takako comes across as awkward and unaccustomed to the spotlight, even in “Love Sarigenaku” above, her most “grown-up” song. Compared to many of the slickly produced pop hits of later years, Ohta can come across as almost unprofessional, but that’s exactly where her appeal lies. When it comes to Japanese idols, there are two general directions: “unrefined and real” or “polished and perfect.”

When comparing the Japanese idol juggernaut AKB48 to the K-Pop sensation Girls’ Generation (who have been enormously popular in Japan), the latter visually comes across as a much more “professional-looking” group. While calling them idolsTheir dance and choreography are on point, and their music videos make them look like a million bucks. But while the girls of AKB48 have a kind of awkwardness about them, and many aren’t the greatest singers, there’s a sense of them “trying their best,” and this is exactly what the fans want. In other words, perfection isn’t necessarily desired. It can be, but that strain of inexperience and perseverance is just as strong.

These dual forces can be seen in idol anime in spades. In Love Live! School Idol Project, the main characters are the ragtag group μ’s (pronounced “Muse”), and the defending champions are the practically-professional A-RISE, who come from the richest high school in Akihabara. In Aikatsu!, Hoshimiya Ichigo is shown as having some kind of natural spark of genuineness that contrasts her from the seemingly unassailable Kanzaki Mizuki. And in Macross Frontier, the main love triangle features, as seen above, the humble waitress Ranka Lee (right) vs. the sultry Sheryl Nome (left). In every case, what causes the “small fry” to ascend isn’t that they transform into polished and perfect idols, but that even as they improve, that unrefined and authentic quality shines through. Perhaps it says something that the main heroines of these shows tend to lean that way as well.

And yet, as touched on briefly in the beginning, voice actors who play idols in anime actually end up being idols themselves. When the girls of Love Live! hold live concerts their flaws come out, but that’s part of the appeal of seeing them in person. When watching the characters in the anime or in music videos, that imperfection doesn’t come across in the performances so much as in the dialogue and supporting materials. A similar phenomenon exists all the way back with Creamy Mami. She comes across as much more “polished” than Ohta Takako does, yet they share the same voice.

An interesting case of the strange interaction with the 2D vs. 3D and real vs. perfect contrasts are those that toe the line, like Hatsune Miku or virtual youtubers. With Miku, her limitations—the fact that her voice sounds robotic—is considered part of her appeal. With virtual youtubers, the fact that there’s a person performing behind the character is much more obvious, and the idea that they start to break down or break character is what lends a sense of “realness.”

In this regard, California-born Japanese idol Sally Amaki is especially interesting. A member of 22/7, an “anime-style characters” idol group in the vein of Love Live!, she plays the bilingual character Fujima Sakura while bringing along her own fans as Sally. Not only does she perform the virtual youtuber role as Sakura, but her native English fluency brings an interesting dynamic that highlights a sense of “realness,” especially for English-speaking fans. Not only is there often a contrast between Sally’s “cute, practiced idol” voice and her Californian mannerisms when switching between Japanese and English, but she’ll mention something that only someone growing up in the US would know off the cuff. This lets American fans connect with her sense of authenticity in ways that they might not have been able to in the past.

In the end, “real vs. perfect” is not a true dichotomy by any means, and every idol/idol group approaches that divide in different ways. Whether you’re an idol fan or not, which do you prefer?