Mage in a Barrel

No False Idol Shows Before Me: The Theology of Idols in AKB0048

The point upon which all of this hinges is: humans are not built to be idols.


This post has been a long time coming. AKB0048 wasn’t my first idol anime, but it was the first one that connected with me on a deep emotional, intellectual, and spiritual level. There are a lot of reasons why this was so, and while the bulk of this post is intended to address AKB0048 and its treatment of idols on a thematic and what I’m calling a theological level, I hope it will also function well as a descriptor of why I love AKB0048 and how the series has shaped my interpretation and vision of fictional animated idols.

But first, a few important notes about where I’m coming from and about where AKB0048 is coming from.

I call this post a discussion of “the theology” of idols because I have come to a point where I am unable to entirely separate my interpretation of AKB0048 from my worldview as informed by my Catholic faith. As such, this is going to be a distinctively Catholic take on the show. While I have, at times, attempted to gain enough detachment to assess whether this weird conflation of my deeply held religious beliefs and my overpowering adoration for a piece of East Asian popular media is justified or simply me imposing my perspective for the sake of dodging cognitive dissonance, I’ve not had much success in that area. It may very well be both, to some degree. You all are likely better judges of this than I – dare I dare you to give me your opinion on this matter in comments?

As for AKB0048, the first three letters of the title give it away: this is no less than a advertisement for the real life girl idol group AKB48. At least two of the major production companies involved with AKB0048‘s creation (Starchild Records and GANSIS) have obvious ties to AKB48, and it’s likely that any other companies possibly hidden under the label of “AKB0048 Production Committee” would be related to the group in somehow, as well. Thus, AKB0048‘s very existence is indebted to the realities of Japanese idol culture. This is admittedly not a great starting point. The horrors of real idol culture are well-known (dating scandals, sexual abuse behind the scenes, acts of violence, death threats and online harassment, and the much maligned purity complex sustained by idol fans and the rules of being in an idol group), and I feel I must acknowledge this, if only to make clear that I do not remain willfully ignorant of the context out of which this show arises in the interest of preserving my feelings about idols.

Despite this awareness, my feelings on real life idols remain quite conflicted. It seems to be very easy for people to condemn idol groups and idol culture holistically – and while the final judgment may be shown to be correct in time (I rather suspect it well be), the selective gathering of evidence in opposition to idols bothers me. Why? Because, as I see it, such bias deliberately ignores seeing any potential good that may exist within the flawed structure (such as the genuine fun the idols may have along the way or the very real joy their performances bring to fans). Idol culture may be untenable generally, but I maintain that it is not evil at each specific point. As with most everything in life, it’s heterogenous – good and bad coexist, sometimes in paradoxical ways.

This serves as a pretty good platform to begin talking about AKB0048, and so we’ll begin with the episode that embodies this most fully, Season 1 Episode 6, “The First Handshake Event” (more commonly known as the “hater” episode). I had quite a bit of queasiness when I first watched this episode, as the handshake event is about as down-to-earth real as AKB0048 gets in terms of specific idol industry parallels. Superficially, the message of this episode seems to be, “Don’t let haters get you down! Haters are actually good for you because they can inspire you to do better!” There’s certainly a good argument for how this kind of thinking might be naive, potentially dangerous, and perhaps entirely impractical (or, worse, enables these kinds of people in real), but it’s a bit more complicated than that because show’s view on the audience. In the world of AKB0048, there are no enemies – only fans who have yet to be converted.

The hater episode also illustrates another point relevant to the way real life idols are scenes, which is that of ownership. The hater in Episode 6 lashes out at Orine because he sees himself as a custodian of the image of Sachiko, the idol Orine declares she wants to succeed. In other words, there is a particular ideal that the idol Sachiko must be for him, and because Orine does not align with that ideal in his mind, she is trampling on private property (or, perhaps, sacred ground). As I see it, the idol system actively encourages this kind of possessive behavior through a number of mechanisms – the primary one being the perpetuation of the idol purity complex.

This also intersects with the idea of image, as the elimination of romantic relationships and sexuality from the idol’s life allow them to remain pure and unsullied in the minds of the fans (that is, to remain ideal). And because an ideal is essential an conceptual object, not a person, this reduction of the idol’s humanity facilitates the fans’ ability to claim ownership. Because the idol belongs to no one specifically (and yes, in ownership seems to be coded to sex), she can belong to everyone generally – which provides enough vagueness that the individual fan can imagine that the idol does belong to him particularly. The benefits of this for the system of obvious: ownership equals investment, both financial and in terms of customer loyalty. The idol truly is truly an idol, a product manufactured for sale. As such, being an idol carries with it an element of inherent dehumanization, as the reality of human flaws, desires, and needs is sublimated into the image of inhuman perfection. Again, humans are not built to be idols.

But AKB0048 (the in-show group) differs in one important way from the real life AKB48: it is an ideological resistance group (and more! 0048 is basically a religious force by the end of the show), not a commercial outfit – and it’s here that the show begins to distance itself from the ugly realities of the industry. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that AKB0048 deliberately appropriates many of the discrete aspects of the idol superstructure to recontextualize them within its own setting, in the interest of molding them to fit its own ideal of what an idol should be. Haters, centers, dance lessons, elections, concerts, and more all become part of Shoji Kawamori’s proposed idol matrix, the crux of which is as follows:

0048 is the system by which the good of idols is maximized and the bad of the idol system is minimized.

This is a bold move by Kawamori (who is credited as Original Creator/Concept and Chief Director), but not an unexpected one from the man who has been obsessed with the efficacy of pop idols as methods for spreading peace for decades. What is more surprising, though, is the extent to which AKB0048‘s thematic concerns end up aligning (although imperfectly) with a pretty recognizable theology. Note here that I’m not arguing on the basis of creative intent – but even if they’re coincidental, the parallels are there.

One of the major theological implications of the Genesis creation story and “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26) is that, as beings who reflect the image of the Creator, we have been instilled with a deep and abiding desire for God. The practical upshot of this teaching is that every human desire is in some way a desire for God. To wish for good things that bring us happiness and joy is not simply a quest for the thing itself, but for the goodness within it. And, as God is the ultimate Good, the pursuit of these minor goods is nothing more than a subset of the human search for this God of Goodness. Taken a step further, even the want for things that are not good (in other words, sinful things) is bound by this truth. Every sin is a perversion of humanity’s need for God.

How does this relate to idols? The bible verse I referenced in the title of this post is from Exodus 20:3-5.

I am the Lord your God […] You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath […] for I am the Lord your God am a jealous God.

In other translations of the Bible, “graven image” has been translated as “idol” or “false idol.” The moral theology here is pretty easy to grasp: don’t worship other things as God because such devotion should be reserved for God alone. This, of course, includes offering pop idols the kind of absolute devotion that ought to be given to God. But the interesting thing here is that the nature of the idol-fan relationship strips away many of layers in other twisted pursuits of goodness, leaving the (False) Image of Perfection and the onlooker alone.

Yes, I propose that idols are the most approximate simulation of humanity’s need for God we’ve yet created for ourselves.

And this is doubly true, I feel, for fictional idols due to the distance their non-realness affords them from the reality of the industry. A human being can make a mistake, through negligence or intent shatter the foundational illusion of perfection on which their idolhood stands. But a fictional character? They can truly be perfect, as they are not subject to the weaknesses of free will that living human beings are. Humans are not built to be idols, but we certainly harbor the capacity to create them. In our quest for God, we have created inferior substitute after inferior substitute until we arrived something so very near the truth that it seems to point directly to it.

This is the beauty of AKB0048. It is, yes, something born out a hopeless quest to replace God, and yet it is simultaneously a wondrous reflection of that desire for Him. Shoji Kawamori’s vision for the idol has created fictional beings so very close to the Real Thing that I cannot help but stand in loving awe. It’s akin to witnessing an archer land a shot at the very edge between the innermost ring and the bullseye. The very core of Christian theology rests on the belief that born out of the ugliest of events in human history arose the most beautiful. I see a similar impulse in AKB0048, which asks, “What is the greatest good that you can find in something as dangerous and wrongheaded as unhumanizing people for the sake of propping them up as near-gods for the gratification of others?”

The answer: by ripping away the artificiality and the exploitative nature of the industry and replacing it with an pseudo-divine quest to bring love to the universe, idols can be transformed into a force of supreme goodness. Idols become a simulacrum for God.

Well, they almost do (and here is where the discussion of AKB0048 proper begins) – as I said, the parallels aren’t perfect. Within the context of the show’s universe, it’s really Sensei Sensei, the formless, indeterminate being who creates the lyrics of 0048’s songs who occupies the role of a Godlike being. The idols for 0048 and NONAME really serve more as prophets and saints, vessels who willingly take on the task of conveying the benevolence of the spirit of love and hope to the people. Music has long been recognized within a multitude of religious traditions as a method for communing with the divine, and although the J-pop tunes of AKB48 bear little resemblance to Gregorian Chant, their status as a channel for uplifting grace remains.

The pinnacle of this calling is a sort of ascension (and I use that word deliberately, as the perpetuation of the individual will and consciousness aligns the disappeared Center Novas with a far more Christian conception of heaven than something like the Buddhist Nirvana), where the idols who have most fully embrace the generous giving of themselves live on in perpetuity, singing for the sake of those who remain behind. And notice that the conditions for meriting entrance into that realm is not predicated on desire, but on action. “A life-threatening battle and concert,” that is, a situation which necessitates that the Center Nova be willing to give up everything for the sake of protecting the light of hope, is one of the setting conditions – but, as Yuko discovers, she must actively embody the person of a Center Nova in order to activate the Kiraras and open the gate. She must give it all up.

Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

Notably, though, the effects of the Center Novas aren’t relegated merely to a steady pulse of song beneath the fabric of existence. Rather, their memory continues on in the minds and hearts of those who remain behind, inspiring others to following in their steps. For all her efforts to become a center Nova, Yuko’s real desire all along was the join Aachan on stage and sing along her. As brilliant as Yuko’s will to protect and serve was, she never quite achieved the purity of purpose that Aachan (and later Nagisa) demonstrate. So she falls just a bit short. A person, although they may inspire us along our path to the ultimate goal, can never quite serve as our primary focal point. It’s a childish, selfish desire of Yuko’s – her undoing, as it were, although I continue to love her dearly anyways.

Next, and while there’s been some contention over this, I don’t think it’s a debatable point that that the acquisition of the Center Nova status is positioned as the very pinnacle of any idol’s involvement with 0048. And yet, it is discontinued – out of fear. This I find resonates well with the distrust of self-sacrifice modern society has incubated. When an idol becomes a Center Nova, she disappears, subsumed (willingly!) into a grander purpose not comprehended by those left behind. It’s a death by two standards: a death to self and a death in the eyes of the world. Two characters—Tsubasa and Michan—even run away from the terrifying gift that the Center Nova becomes.

But that is a very grand kind of self-gift, and most of the personal losses suffered by the members of 0048 don’t scale this way (although that’s not to diminish their significance). Of these, the one that stands out to me most is Yuka giving up her sweetheart Mamoru in order to pursue her dream of becoming an idol. In the first episode of First Stage, Mamoru flatly tells her he’s in love with her but won’t be able to continue loving her is she joins 0048 – an arc resolved in episode 12 of First Stage when he tells Yuka he now only loves her as a member of 0048. Likewise, Nagisa sacrifices being with her family, and many of the other girls have given up other things for the sake of pursuing idolhood. The endurance of personal tragedy gives way to galactic heroism; the sacrifice of self paves the way to reach people (and the way successors are defined by their adherence to the spirit of the original members of AKB48 reminds me of the Christian quest to conform the self to Christ).

But I think I’ve unintentionally conflated self-sacrifice (the giving up of something) and self-gift (the giving of something). It’s the latter of these that AKB0048 focuses on most, as the core idea behind 0048 is that they are idols who “go to see you” (a bit of a twist on the real life group’s initial conception as “idols you can meet”). 0048 goes out – for what? To spread love, hope. Entertainment becomes the kind of catch all metaphor for these kinds of positive abstracts, as well as being the mechanism of transmission. But it’s all something given, and given, and given. Most accurately, I suppose you’d call it self-gift by way of self-sacrifice. As Nagisa says in the final episode of the show, “But even if you hate us… please don’t hate music or entertainment!” In other words, the messenger is willing to be killed as long as the message gets through, as long as love’s goal is achieved. Hm.

Self-gift through self-sacrifice is the kind of giving that does not require reciprocation. It’s unconditional love, as 0048 proves again and again by singing even to those who regret them. And this,  you know, is an impossible thing for human beings to do. To give and give and give… humans are not limitless, not self-sustaining. AKB0048 manages to get around this issue by pushing idols to their maximum good and minimizing their bad. In real life, the dehumanization of the idol is a moral evil in the service of profit. But AKB0048 liberates the best of idols, the inspirational and generous power their carry by being super-human ideals. Humans are not built to be idols, so to become an true idol a human being must find sustenance outside of themselves (be it through God or through the power of fiction).

In other words, AKB0048 invents a form idolhood that allow idols to “un-humanize” themselves in the positive sense rather than be dehumanized in the negative. The will to good and see people, the will to sing of hope, the will to become a true Center Nova, is free. Catholic theology teaches that true freedom is the “freedom to good” (virtue) as opposed to the “freedom to do anything” (which nearly always results in vice). Nagisa, Yuko, Takamina, and the rest make choices to limit their “freedom to do anything,” which results in a detachment and an increased “freedom to do good.” Human nature is to indulge the self, but the pursuit of achieving the will of the divine is a recursive cycle that enables the individual to move beyond haters or weapons or personal weakness.

What does it mean to be an idol in AKB0048?To be an idol is to share love and hope with those who need it. Why is AKB0048 the best idol show about idols?  Because it sees beyond the grime of idol reality and takes idols to their most inspiring and beautiful peak.

I will speak of hope / …  / if you are lost in your tears / instead of consoling you / shall I tell you of the sky / which will soon grow light

These lyrics are from the first opening, “Kibou ni Tsuite,” and to me these are important as a kind of ethos for AKB0048. There is a sense of “looking beyond” in these words – an extension beyond the physical reality to something more. To me (and I’ll close with this), this is critical to the way AKB0048 communicates its messages about idols, love, and hope. In Kawamori and Mari Okada’s hands, AKB0048 goes big. Tonally, atmospherically, and in scope of imagination. Next Stage Episode 10, “Shouting Paradise,” features a scene where 0048 sings with a bunch of space gorillas to defeat the mechas of DES. It’s absurd, but it’s grandiose and expansive and magnanimous – “great-souled.”

To be an idol in AKB0048, it’s not enough to just be pretty or good at dancing or good at singing. You must have a great soul. If seeing great souls in others isn’t enough to inspire us to hope in the power love, I don’t think anything will be. And that’s what the idols of 0048 bring. That is why they go to see us. Not just so that we can hear their songs of love, but so that we may witness their all-encompassing, unconditional love for us and the gentle generosity of their great souls.

Am I putting AKB0048 on a pedestal? Of course. But becoming a beacon of hope is what it means to be an idol.


Closing Notes:

[1] All Bible quotes are from the Revised Standard Version.

[2] If there is one real worry AKB0048 presents in terms of real life implications, it would be as a propaganda piece that preaches idols can find perfect personal fulfillment within the idol structure.

[3] Ghostlightings’s write-ups of the first season’s episodes are far less effusive than this piece; I agree with him on many points.

[4] My first piece on AKB0048 came from a vastly different place than this one. It’s interesting to see how things have changed since then.

[5] Yack…deculture…