12 Days of Christmas Anime, Day 4: The Idolmaster

“You sent emissaries to John, and he testified to the truth. (…) He was a burning and shining lamp, and for a while you were content to rejoice in his light. But I have testimony greater than John’s. The works that the Father gave me to accomplish, these works that I perform testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me”.

“Haruka… It won’t be possible this year. Our schedules won’t allow it.” But aspiring idol Haruka Amami, the kind, humble, joyful heart of the 765 Pro idol agency, looks so disappointed when she hears it that the young producer decides to arrange a Christmas party anyway. “Work comes first, so it’ll probably be just whoever can make it.”

“I really, really want to go, but I have a variety show that day…”, says Yuhiko, echoing the general sentiment. Things have changed from the humble beginnings. “Look at the incredible sets we stand on these days,” notes a smiling and assured Chihaya. “You were offered a recording deal overseas too, weren’t you?” asks Haruka. “To think that, not too long ago, we saw each other every day…”

Haruka’s Christmas party is certainly this burning and shining lamp, in whose light she and the group rejoice. But there are signs that it won’t last for long.

We may see some of that in our own Christmases. Everyone accepts it, everyone is ready, even if they feel nostalgic, but there are signs that she does not. “Haruka, this year is very important. You’re a proper idol now, so rethink your priorities,” says Ritsuko, the manager. “I wonder if it was too much to ask,” Haruka herself wonders. But everyone loves her, and they do their best to come, and so the party takes place, full of warmth and joy.

And yet… “I wonder if we’ll be able to do this next year,” comments Makoto casually, watching the rest have fun. They probably won’t. Iori points out how it wouldn’t even be desirable. But for now, they will do their best.

And at the end of the episode, Chihaya sums it up like this: “Changing things little by little may be what it means to advance… But there are things I don’t want to change, too.” Is this enough for Haruka? No, it is not. Haruka is not ready for this sort of change, and things have started to crack.

A few years ago, we commented on episode 22 of The Idolm@ster concerning the increasingly difficult family gatherings which counter, for a time, the separations that life brings. This year I would want to talk about other aspect, about our Chrismases as burning lamps that come and pass, of the things that are important to us, but are lost or change, and of the role of the John the Baptist, the witness of truth, in our Advent.

“For a while you were content to rejoice in his light.” When we are lost, sometimes a powerful light guides us back to the path. There we rest and find comfort. There we gather strength for battles in the world. But in time, in God’s good time, we must go forward, deeper—whether we want to or not. “It is necessary for him to increase and for me to decrease,” said John himself, son of Zachariah of the tribe of Aaron, referring to his cousin, Jesus of Nazareth, to whom John had pointed with all his life and for whom we celebrate every Christmas—the One who came to make all things new.

John the Baptist and the tale of his miraculous conception and birth are like the hallmark of the Nativity story, as well as the sign given to Mary at the time of the visit of the Angel. He jumping with joy is the sign his mother needs to know that she is in the presence of the Mother of his Lord. His peaceful, celebrated birth, marked by a miracle, is commented in the region, in contrast with the hidden birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. And at the end of the Christmas tale, when the public life of Jesus is about to begin, he is the one who, coming out of the desert, makes the announcement and prepares the way. John is the last prophet of the Old Testament, and points to the beginning of something different. Something necessary. That was all the point of his mission. And yet…

For me, The Idolm@ster is also quite the paradox. While the idol industry, whose aim is to create teenage singers/actresses/TV stars/popularity stars with a fandom, gives me pause, there are few anime characters which whom I connect as deeply as I do with Haruka. She is a kind spirit, humble and joyful, full of enthusiasm. She is committed, honors her bonds, works hard. and values people. She is calm, wise, and simple-hearted, and wherever she is, she patiently creates community and fights against the darkness—pretty much what I aspire to be. And yet, she is discovering that she doesn’t recognize the world she fought so hard for. And even more, she seems to be the only one who feels that way.

Similarly, despite the fact that I love this futuristic age, its cities full of thousands of lights, its delicious food, the colorful nature that anime depicts so well and the wonders of technology, including anime, and I do not live in the desert eating locusts and wild honey, few people have had as much influence in my life as St. John the Baptist. The courageous and obedient messenger, the prophet, the man of hope who announced a great joy, the one who, following the call of God, made his life an extraordinary, strange adventure, who called many others to conversion, who prepared the path of Christ, and who, lastly, announced the truth until the bitter end. “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist.” I would want to be like him, too.

I have thought a lot about him this year.

You probably know the story. After living in the desert for many years, near the Jordan River, John the Baptist preaches and baptizes, warning that another will come that is greater than him, and that He will bring the true baptism, with Holy Spirit and fire. For his surprise, when He comes, it turns out to be his own cousin. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” says John. And then, something unexpected happens. Jesus asks to be baptized: After resisting a bit, an astonished John complies, and watches the manifestation of God as the Trinity, and Christ as the Son. Our Lord then goes to the desert, to be tempted by the devil, and begins His mission.

From that point, things start to change. Two of his disciples leave him to follow Christ: They will become Apostles. When another tells him that he is losing followers, that the masses now follow Christ, John simply states: “It is necessary for him to increase and for me to decrease.” Soon, he is put out of the public life. Fulfilling his role as a prophet, a witness of the truth, he denounces Herod, who is living in sin with his brother’s wife, and is sent into prison. He won’t go out again. But, before the end, we are told that when John’s disciples informed him about what was said of Jesus, he called two of them and sent them to ask Him, “Are You the One who was to come, or should we look for someone else?” So Jesusreplied, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the one who does not fall away on account of Me.”

What is this? A crisis? Was the prison too much? Did John just want to instruct his doubting disciples? Was he confused by something he may have heard of Christ? The question and the final comment are compatible with all these explanations. I frankly don’t know. I wonder. What I do know is that nobody loves and values John more than his cousin.

Let’s go to Haruka now. As much as I like the contemporary world, there are some aspects of it that I hate and reject with all my strength. Soft eroticism, sexualization, the superficial banality of TV culture, gossip, emotional manipulation, the harm done to innocence, and careerism are certainly among them. I would even say they have all scarred me, one way or another. So, for me, every episode of The Idolm@ster is full of a particular tension. This is one of my favorite shows, after all. On the one hand, I’m attracted to the purity, hard work, and enthusiasm of the producer and the girls, and Haruka Amami above all the rest. Being an “idol,” for them, is a noble mission, a role to inspire and touch the hearts of many, to bring hope, ad to help one another as a team.

On the other hand, even in this sanitized portray of the idol industry, we still have the vulture tabloids and paparazzi, the overload of work, the perpetual struggle to hold public attention, in all probability doomed within a few years (there you have Ritsuko), the impact in their private lives, the unhealthy standards, the suggestive poses, the fanservice outfits which would fit an actual harem (or the birthday of Herod), and all the weight put over teenage girls whose personalities are to be their selling points. And the fact that they are competing, and in truth this is not much of a team sport, as Miki is about to tell Haruka.

So, every time I see the childish Yayoi in a skimpy swimsuit-like costume, or a lewd cameraman zooming on Chihaya when she falls to the ground, or Makoto pressured into her tomboy role, even if that’s not what she wants, or Akane and Chihaya followed by the morbose press, or Haruka having to disguise herself with a cap and glasses, or 15-year-old Miki promoting cologne advertisement as the one at the beginning of the Christmas episode, barefoot and with loads of makeup, I want to tell Haruka: This can’t be what you truly want! This fading fame, this inauthentic glory, this sexualization, this superficial popularity. It will hurt you, in time.

While The Idolm@ster does not escape the idol world, it acknowledges part of this, I think. And when Haruka breaks, it is not because she did something wrong. In part, I think, it is because the truth inside of her is greater than the idol world, and surpasses its logic. What she truly wants is something beyond what a good career can offer, something greater. Sometimes nostalgia is a trap, but sometimes it is something else: Hope for the reality behind the sign, a ray of truth that tells us of the things to come, “memoria futuri.” We need to come to terms with this if we are to embrace the greater testimony, walk in the dark when we need to, and learn the truth in a deeper way. In hope that, this way, the truth of our heart, of our thirst, will see the light.

While in the world of the show, a compromise is reached and she becomes an idol again, I think that both the ending and “The Idolmaster Movie: Beyond the Brilliant Future!” show that something else is going on here, something quite untenable in realistic terms, or even in “realistic” Ritsuko-like terms. In Beyond the Brilliant Future, brilliantly (heh) reviewed here, the decisions of the Haruka-led group are barely defensible in professional terms, to the point that she halts the production of an entire show just to get the girl left behind to practice and join everyone on the scene.

As Miki implies, this is a sign that she is just not cut out to be a professional idol. Does this mean that she should abandon her dream of being an Idol? I think so. Sooner or later, she will have to, even. But as there was true light there, I believe she will find her hope in a new form beyond her (and our) dreams of a brilliant future.

Simeon, with the Baby Jesus in his hands, proclaims: “Behold, this Child is appointed to cause the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your soul as well.” Christmas is a warm place to come back to, but also a mysterious way forward. There is the rose, and there are the thorns. This is the tension of life, of hope, of things that are genuine. Life in Christ is full of these kind of paradoxes, contrasts, unsuspected events—some good, some dramatic, some painful. When the Magi were near Bethlehem, the star that had guided their path disappeared. They had to inquire in the confused mess of Jerusalem, and then walk blindly. But they found the star again in Bethlehem.

There is a path. “I have testimony greater than John’s.” Prison, even death, were not the end. The Child of Bethlehem will lead each of us somewhere that surpasses everything we can imagine, and yet that which we can recognize as home. Maybe not now, but in time. If we put our faith in Him, we will sometimes have to walk in the darkness, but the darkness will not prevail. Happy Advent, Merry Christmas. And God bless us, every one.

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