For most anime and manga fans, the Japanese concept of an idol won’t be an unfamiliar thing. From Super Dimensional Force Macross to this year’s Symphogear, idols have been represented in anime as charismatic pop stars with the ability to inspire and change the world.

The translation into the real life idols draws similar parallels. Idols in Japan are currently enjoying a massive high, thanks to AKB48 pushing the concept of revolving door girl groups. Their last single sold over 1.6 million copies, and they currently have their own anime airing in Japan. Like their anime equivalents they’re usually seen to have positive attitudes, work hard and always do their best. It is these aspects which have pushed the group into the limelight, as well as having a large number of extremely hardworking and determined members to maintain activities from daily theatre performances to TV variety shows and dramas. It’s fair to say that AKB48 are everywhere, and really have set a benchmark for other idols groups, such as Momoiro Clover Z and Morning Musume, to aim for.

As for inspiration, many idols led the way in supporting Japan after the devastating Tohoku earthquake of March 2011. Arashi and a number of other groups from their agency, Johnny & Associates, cancelled their concerts to conserve energy, and Arashi instead performed “Waku Waku Gaku”, a series of inspirational lectures by each member, instead of their scheduled concerts. New male idol group Kis-My-Ft2 also postponed their debut and changed their first single to the positive “Everybody Go”, which was followed by the uplifting “We Never Give Up”. Even at a time where Japan was despairing due to the loss of so many lives, and inner political turmoil, idols were able to provide hope for a better tomorrow through their songs.

However, the anime representation of idols as enthused and positive human beings is not holistically true, and usually forgets a number of the important details which separates an idol from the run-of-the-mill pop star.

The importance and power of fanbases is a factor which is often understated for idols in anime. It’s been long recognised that a core of fans will spur record and merchandise sales by buying multiple copies of the same product, sometimes due to different editions (for example, Morning Musume’s latest single came in editions A – F) or due to handshake event raffle tickets inside.

It’s noteworthy as well that fans vigilante-like reaction to scandals can sometimes be disparaging to the progress of a group. Idols are expected to lead a celibate lifestyle, as well as avoiding other vices such as smoking, drugs, and the underage drinking alcohol. So when fans found evidence that two members of AKB48’s newly formed Team 4, Mina Oba and Anna Mori, had blogged about and posted pictures of boyfriends, fans reactions were instrumental in he agency’s decision to, respectively, suspend and fire the girls from AKB48. Although constantly vying for mainstream acknowledgement, idol groups know that it is the hardcore of fans they will usually have to appease in situations of scandals, sometimes leading to events which seem baffling to the west, such as the derogatory treatment of Jin Akanishi by his management agency, after he secretly married Meisa Kuroki earlier this year.

But scandals don’t seem to touch the anime equivalents, and even more serious events such as stalking and unacceptable behaviour from fans is portrayed poorly in anime, from one extreme to another (think Perfect Blue to the tongue-in-cheek asking for autographs in other anime). It barely touches on the obnoxious and provocative comments idols can be exposed to at handshake events, groping through crowds and even mentally unhinged fans stealing idol’s phones at knife point.

So, where as we see anime as a starting point, it’s important to note it is just that, and the Japanese idol system is far more complicated, convoluted and interesting than you’ve most likely seen in any anime before.

Text by Mary Groutage
1st August 2012
Mary will be hosting a panel on Idols at AmeCon next month.
Her panel is scheduled for 9am Sunday 12th August.