From the outside, Japanese subcultures feel like they don’t belong on this Earth. Documentaries about these underground subcultures depict people whose lives can be defined as “drifting” and “antisocial” trying to engage in what looks like to be maddening occult activities.
One such subculture is the so-called underground idol subculture (地下アイドル). Documentaries uploaded to YouTube display amateur or indie idols singing off-tune and dancing to the beat of loud nonsensical music on a poorly-lit wooden stage that might crumble at any minute now. Comments below deride these idols’ singing abilities and choreography; when footage shows them going to Akihabara live houses and their fans are pumping their fists in the air with their light sticks, the commenters type away in disgust at how bizarre, talentless, and tasteless this subculture is.
It is worse than low art. It is grotesque and obscene.
It isn’t hard to see why. Footage of men reaching up to touch under idols’ skirts can put anybody off, and there are scandals everywhere. The various scandals of the popular idol group AKB48 in particular have given idols a bad rap. Even though the underground idol community forswore AKB48 years ago, many people don’t see the difference between them and the group. They all probably have the same problems, so what’s the difference? It is not surprising then that idol subcultures as a whole receive a lot of commentary from outsiders in academia and social media. These people may not see eye to eye on many things, but they do agree on one core issue: idol subcultures are a disease.
But subcultures are far more than the stereotypes people write about all the time. These subcultures are a respite from the nihilism of reality. They are dreams and ideals people can achieve against a hypocritical mainstream culture. People in subcultures embrace their consumerism and fanaticism because they know their passion can shine brighter than what they can ever achieve in their ordinary lives. It is why they live.
Melody Lyrik Idol Magik by Ishikawa Hiroshi is representative of those dreamers and believers committing their lives to a culture not many people approve of. It won’t convince anyone who is prejudiced to subcultures that underground idols can be something more than a craving for sex and glamor, but it can explain why people engage in them in the first place.
It is a desire that pumps the heart up as Nazuma, an average “outsider,” later learns when he finds himself attending a prestigious school for underground idols and fans deep into the subculture. With the help of his old childhood friend-turned-idol expert Kunihiya, he becomes the producer of two aspiring idols: Ako, a girl who talks very little and prefers nodding to communicate and hiding her emotions under her many parkas; and Asha, a mixed race Japanese girl who is way too hyperactive and pushes everyone about.
Their dreams may be romantic, but their journeys remain painful and tiring. These characters don’t always enjoy singing and dancing; in fact, Ishikawa makes sure to seam their pain and anger into the writing.
Nazuma and Ako are narrated in their respective chapters as vulnerable teenagers who are trying to find their place in the subcultures they’re in. For their little happy scenes, Ishikawa likes to write about how the light twinkles through the leaves and the way sakura blossom petals move through Ako’s hair when she is walking to school. Mainstream literary writers, if they read these beautifully crafted sentences, would be envious. But Ishikawa is also able to let his delicate prose give way to cynical writing not found in idol anime like The iDOLM@STER and Love Live; illusions of sound and light in these idol performances come and go as if to attack the narrators for their naivety and idealism.
They are bewildered by what they see and hear. Situations such as fans getting slapped in the face at concerts or idols performing satanic rituals for a member who has left the group are plentiful and comedic to read about. But these instances show there is far more to the subculture than they first thought.
It is understandable to see why the third-person narration shows their hesitation and nervousness throughout the book. They are not sure about what they are doing. Whether it is composing lyrics for a new song or even doing a small live performance, Ishikawa displays an unusually high sensitivity to his characters and the subject matter he is writing about.
He isn’t writing about the imagined stereotypes of idols and their fans after all; he is writing about people who struggle and engage in these subcultures. These idols and fans have faces and there are many kinds of them out there. It doesn’t matter who fits the bill.
Likewise, Ishikawa enjoys writing about minorities and people with disabilities where they belong — on the same level as everyone else. Nobody is discriminated against in Ishikawa’s depiction of the underground idol subculture. Asha’s sister is an autistic girl. She hides behind her mother and is afraid of communicating with others except on paper. Yet, she can’t hide her excitement over idols, just like anybody else in love with idols.
This is what normal fans are like — anyone who dares to go against the mainstream and struggles like everyone else who wants their dreams to come true. Everyone is a nobody and we just like what we like. Nothing more or less to it.
Embracing the superficiality and low yet honorable goals is what subcultures do best. While mainstream society prides itself in going up and up, subcultures remain humble and dig even deeper underground instead. That’s the difference between AKB48 and underground idols: the former sees fame as money while the latter desires fame because they can get recognized for their efforts.
Seeing people drive at their work is why subcultures are exciting to watch. They are “useless” and “weird,” but that’s why they are beautiful. Reading about how the four main characters in Melody Lyrik Idol Magik grow is just as satisfying as watching subcultures grow. They remind us of the reasons why we engage in subcultures and why we should be proud of the effort we put into the work.
Kastel’s Rating: Extremely Recommended