Since the last manga I read in Japanese turned out to be a complete and total trashfire, I decided that this time I should find something that's guaranteed to be good. Luckily I came across this article on ANN about the nominees for the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize. After previewing the different series on Bookwalker, I settled on Sayonara Miniskirt as the one closest to my reading level.
It's easy to see why this series is getting critical acclaim as it exudes Importance. Even though it appears in Ribon, a magazine best known for lighthearted shoujo fair like Tokimeki Tonight, Marmalade Boy and Chibi Maruko-chan, Miniskirt has absolutely zero humor. It is one hundred and ninety percent serious.
A series like this could very easily turn into a dull slog, but thankfully Makino tempers the story's self-importance with a solid thriller plot that keeps things from getting bogged down.
In the opening pages, we meet Karen Amamiya, the lead singer for the idol group Pure Club -- though the truth is, the group is largely just an appendix. Karen is the only reason anyone pays attention to Pure Club, to the point that when the group holds a handshake event, her line is longer than the other group members' combined.
But then the story jumps forward six months. Karen has changed her name to Nina Kamiyama and enrolled at a good-but-not-prestigious Tokyo high school. She's cut her hair short like a boy's and taken advantage of the school's dress code, which permits girls to wear the male uniform instead of the standard girl's. At first glance Kamiyama looks like a guy, and most people who don't have class with her assume she is one.
Her issues are exacerbated by news that a girl from a nearby school was assaulted on her way home. The school cancels all after school activities for girls (but pointedly not guys) and asks that they go home in groups whenever practicable. This does no good, and the next day news goes around that Miku was groped on the way to school.
At first everyone in class seems suitably horrified, but then the class incels start sniggering and talking about how lucky the attacker was to get his hands on such a fine piece of ass. When girls tell them to shut up, they double-down by pointing out that Miku modified her skirt to be extra short, so of course a guy's gonna cop a feel. If the girls don't like that, these guys say, they should wear pants like Kamiyama
At which point Kamiyama loses her shit.
Kamiyama comes damn close to kicking the shit out of one of the kids. She gives an impassioned speech about how girls wear skirts because they like to look pretty, not because they care what any damn guy thinks. But before things escalate too far, Miku appears in class and says that they're blowing everything out of proportion, and it isn't that big a deal.
Which brings us to the third part of the storyline: what happened to Pure Club. This is one of those plot points that's clearly supposed to be a surprise, but it comes so early in the story that it's impossible to discuss anything without it. If this ever gets licensed for English release, I'd be surprised if this doesn't get mention on the cover blurb.
You see, Kamiyama dropped out of Pure Club after getting stabbed by a fan at a handshake event. In the aftermath, interest in the group soared, but without Karen Amamiya the group has struggled to maintain that popularity. If they have any hope of continuing, they need her to recover.
But even putting aside her PTSD, Kamiyama's newfound feminism makes it unlikely she'll ever want to return to being an idol. And on top of that, the guy who stabbed her kicked the crap out of security and still hasn't been caught.
The one member of Pure Club who cares about Amamiya as a person and not a necessary component of their success is Sara, but even she doesn't fully accept Amamiya's new identity. She sees "Kamiyama" purely as a cover story for eluding the stalker, and doesn't grok that her friend has fundamentally changed. When she learns about Hikaru, she encourages Kamiyama to pursue him even though Kamiyama is clearly uncomfortable at the idea.
But Sara soon comes to regret her decision when she realizes, "Hey, wait a minute... wouldn't a guy who's a total judo-fanatic be exactly the sort of person capable of kicking the crap out of security guards and evading the police?" Has she inadvertently set her friend up with a psychopath?
Sayonara Miniskirt debuted last August. Four months later, there was a bizarre incident where Maho Yamaguchi, a member of the idol group NGT48, was attacked by two men who apparently got her home address from members of her group. The police and NGT management tried to sweep the incident under the rug, but Yamaguchi went public with the story during an official appearance, causing a huge uproar. Eventually the group forced her to apologize for making a ruckus. Then, just a few months ago, Yamaguchi abruptly announced that she'd be retiring, along with two other members of the group who are almost certainly the ones who gave the attackers her address. (A fourth member was demoted last week after dissing Yamaguchi on social media.)
This is hardly the first incident involving idol groups. Indeed, Kamiyama's backstory is based upon very real incidents where crazed fans attacked idols during public appearances. In 2014, Anna Iriyama and Rina Kawaei of AKB48, were attacked by a guy carrying a hacksaw; in 2017, a man who threw a flare at members of Keyakizaka46 was found to be carrying a five inch blade with which he planned to stab them; and most notably, in 2016 an attacker stabbed singer Mayu Tomita twenty times.
But the Yamaguchi incident is especially noteworthy because it implicates members of the group and their management. The schtick behind the -48 idol groups is that they have dozens of members, divided up into teams that alternate between touring, recording, doing promotional appearances, and playing at a home stage. Including understudies, these groups can have up to a hundred members, and there are over a dozen of these groups operating in the Asia-Pacific region, and even as far west as India. The advantage for management is that with so many performers, the members are interchangeable. Though individual members can become incredibly popular, they never reach the point where their leaving will wreck the group.
In other words, they're pop-stars who are as disposable as the fry cook at McDonald's. If they start demanding better pay or more days off, well, there are five understudies champing at the bit to replace them. Management encourages this with "general elections," where fans can vote on their favorite members, with the results dictating who'll get to perform on the next hit single, get prominent placement in the music videos, and take the center position during performances.
And this seems to be the cause of the Yamaguchi attack. The rivalries within the group reached a point where two members were willing to endanger the life of a third in the hope of moving up the ladder. But the most offensive part of the situation is how the management handled the situation, first trying to cover it up, then, once Yamaguchi went public, forcing her to apologize and then resign. For AKS, the management team behind all the -48 groups, the attack on Yamaguchi was nothing more than a PR crisis.
You see, the Japanese entertainment industry is still regimented the way Hollywood was in the 1940s, with careers squelched at the slightest hint of scandal. Idol groups are particularly draconian, imposing rules against romantic relationships on members. Getting caught with a boyfriend can lead to demotion back to understudy, as has happened to multiple members of these groups over the years.
One especially notorious case is what happened to Minami Minegishi. In 2013 she was one of the top members of AKB48, but then a paparazzo caught her spending the night in a guy's apartment. Once the news broke, AKS demoted her to understudy and posted a video in which she apologized to fans for daring to act like any other young woman in her early twenties.
But what was shocking about the video was that Minegishi had a shaved head. This was supposedly an act of contrition, but shearing has a long history of being used to punish women for sexual transgressions. Most notably, after the liberation of France, partisans forcibly shaved the heads of women who'd slept with Nazis. The message of Minegishi's hairstyle was clear -- a woman's sexuality is something she should be ashamed of.
Management doesn't want their idols to be asexual. Anything but. Idols constantly appear in magazines, videos and photobooks wearing little and teasing more. But the industry still wants them to appear innocent and virginal -- sex symbols that the men in the audience can dream of deflowering. The girls who make up these groups are commodified and sold to audiences with the promise that they will always live up to the impossible image that they're marketed under.
So it's hardly surprising that idol culture is as toxic as the ground around Fukushima. Obsessive fans are a feature, not a bug. Fanatics spend more money. And if one of them goes nutso and injures an idol, there's always an understudy to replace her.
And this is the one shortcoming I see in Sayonara Miniskirt so far. It's hinting at the misogyny that underlies the idol industry, but so far it has focused its ire entirely upon the fandom. This is certainly a worthy subject, but it's only half the story. If the series doesn't also delve into management and how they perpetuate misogyny, it's missing the big picture.
Still, this is only the first volume. There's plenty of time for Makino to delve into other aspects of the industry.
-by Sean O'Hara