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?

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We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Holograms (At Least Not All the Time): Voca Nico Night

This post was sponsored by Johnny Trovato. If you’re interested in submitting topics for the blog, or just like my writing and want to be a patron of Ogiue Maniax, check out my Patreon.

As part of my Patreon rewards, I was recently asked to write about “Voca Nico Night,” a series of concerts celebrating Vocaloid music broadcasted over the Japanese streaming site Nico Nico Douga. This topic is somewhat outside of my normal purview, as I will admit to not being especially knowledgeable about Vocaloids or the scene surrounding them (I enjoy the music and recognize the characters but would not call myself a devoted Vocaloid fan), but as I watched recordings of Voca Nico Night I found that the performances seen at Voca Nico Night can be viewed as a reminder that, at the end of the day, talented human creators are an integral part of the success of Vocaloids and the music that is created using them.

The story of how virtual idol Hatsune Miku became an international sensation is the kind of tale that can cause some to proclaim the green-haired, leek-twirling, robot-voiced “singer” as the sign of a glorious future, and others to describe her as the death of music. For years the music company Yamaha had put out a voice synthesis program, but with some improvements to the software and the use of a cute girl in chic, futuristic clothing, things changed. Suddenly it was embraced by composers, musicians, music enthusiasts, artists, and writers both amateur and professional, and you can find countless examples of Vocaloid music, art, and more on sites such as Youtube, Pixiv, and Nico Nico Douga.

All of this has culminated in Vocaloid live concerts, where holographic projections of the Vocaloids sing and dance as live crowds cheer them on. This presents a fascinating contrast in the “life” of the Vocaloid. At the same time that Miku and the others become more “real”, their artificiality becomes even more pronounced. After all, even if she were to be brought into reality, Miku still has the appearance of an anime character, and that stylization and abstraction cannot be divorced from her even they’re re-drawn and individualized by various creators.

This can be viewed as a strength, as Miku’s self, constructed from the effort and desires of millions, makes no illusions about the synthesized elements of her music (as opposed to the auto-tuning that regularly occurs in popular music these days), but for those who believe that music comes from the soul, that way of thinking is certainly difficult to swallow. While I’m more of the former opinion, the latter I think is something worth keeping in mind.

This is where I think Voca Nico Night really shines, because without the expensive holograms, without the explicit desire to see Hatsune Miku or Megurine Luka or the Kagamine Twins, what’s left are the DJs, the musicians, the performers at center-stage, engaging with their audience both online and in the flesh. You can still hear the distinctly robotic tones of the Vocaloids, but their images are not taking all of the attention. Instead, the Vocaloids’ role as tools for producing music comes to the forefront, and while talking about the “functionality” of an actual musician would be crass and unfair, the origins of the Vocaloids means that they can be as “useful” or as “soulful” as one needs them to be. Voca Nico Night exists somewhat opposite the live concerts that get all of the attention, and while I hesitate to use a “yin-yang metaphor,” I do think that having both is for the better.

In many ways it reminded me of the times I’ve attended chiptunes concerts (another scene where I have interest but cannot call myself a true fan). Like the Vocaloid scene, chiptunes creators and fans embrace a type of music often associated historically with a visual component that arguably puts less emphasis on the music or the musicians (video games in the case of chiptunes), but people who love chiptunes use concerts to show their appreciation and their talents outside of what is typically expected out of a “performance.” I have to wonder if Vocaloid concerts and the like are at an intersection between the rock concert where band members are sometimes viewed as gods, the orchestra where the relative significance of the individual musicians versus the composers’ original scores can be argued, and the club where a DJ combines beats and melodies together to form something new.

Super Robot Wars UX is Full of Whippersnappers

A new Super Robot Wars game was announced yesterday, Super Robot Wars UX for the Nintendo 3DS, and the amount of new and unexpected entries makes me want to talk about it, as well as some other SRW-related thoughts.

I think you can roughly categorize Super Robot Wars into two types of games: the flagship titles, and the experimental ones. The former consists of the titles with the best animation and the most-anticipated anime entries into the franchise. The latter can go in a number of directions, from aesthetics (3D models instead of 2D sprites in Super Robot Wars GC) to gameplay (a switch from turn-based to real-time strategy as with Super Robot Wars Scramble Commander), but often times “experimental” simply ends up referring to the titles chosen for that game.

That’s pretty much where UX is. Just look at the debut works for this version.

  • Kishin Houkou Demonbane
  • Fafner in the Azure: Heaven and Earth
  • Wings of Rean
  • Cyber Troopers Virtual On’s Fei-Yen HD
  • Mobile Suit Gundam 00: A wakening of the Trailblazer
  • SD Gundam Three Kingdoms Legend: Brave Battle Warriors
  • Mazinkaiser SKL
  • Heroman

When you include the other titles that are in this game, the first thing that jumps out is just how new most of the anime are. Not only is the Mazinger franchise represented by its latest one-off OVA series, but the actual oldest anime in the entire game (and the only two from the 1980s) are Aura Battler Dunbine, and then Ninja Senshi Tobikage of all things. If it were a flagship title, there would have to be certain staples, but with a “lesser” SRW like this, it’s possible to inject a ton of new blood into it and not offend anyone.

Not only that, but when you look at some of the recent titles chosen for UX, they seem to be among the least likely candidates even among non-flagship SRW games. Brave Battle Warriors is actually an already-super deformed Gundam anime done entirely in 3DCG and based on classical chinese literature, the sort of title one would least expect to represent Gundam even with the fact that SEED Destiny and 00 are there. Though I’m sure it’s based on the anime version, Demonbane‘s inclusion may be the first instance (and correct me if I’m wrong) of a visual novel appearing in SRW, which opens the gate for things like Muvluv Alternative.

Heroman I wasn’t even sure counted as a giant robot anime, though I guess if you think about it, it’s basically a combination of Tetsujin 28/Giant Robo with Gold Lightan (though Gold Lightan has yet to make its debut). Possibly craziest of all is the inclusion of Virtual On in the form of a Fei-Yen dressed like Hatsune Miku. Virtual On in SRW Alpha 3 paved the way for non-anime/manga to appear in Super Robot Wars games, and this takes it to another level, as I’m pretty sure Miku Fei-Yen is nothing more than a model kit!

It might sound like I’m complaining, but I’m really not. I actually love it when SRW games go a little wild like this, though one complaint I do have is that the DS SRW games have never been the most impressive when it comes to animation. My issue isn’t even with the quality of the sprites or an unfair comparison to the exquisitely animated Z series of SRW, but that a lot of the shortcuts taken to try to make the games look better actually end up making them look worse. In particular, I’m referring to the way the DS games including UX incorporate cut-ins, and detail shots. Instead of creating the images to better match the sprites and the visuals of the rest of the game, the DS SRWs basically take screenshots directly from the original anime, and while this means things look accurate, it also sticks out in an odd way and messes with the way the attack animations end up looking in a manner which didn’t quite affect previous games with worse sprite animation.

But it might just be that with a game with this daring of a series list, some things have to give. In that case, I’ll take it, but will still hope for better the next time around.