The sci-fi Japanese pop star scandal

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Minami Minegishi
  • Minami Minegishi
Recently I read William Gibson's Idoru for the first time, which is kind of weird considering how much I love William Gibson and the fact that the book's been out for 15 years now, but when it was first published I was in the middle of a very stupid boycott of the author based on the fact that he'd decided to move his stories from a relatively far-off dystopian cyberpunk future to a time just a handful of years away. By the time he shifted to an even nearer future for the trilogy beginning with Pattern Recognition I was ready to deal, but Idoru kind of fell by the wayside.

Its plot revolves around an impossibly famous older Japanese rock star who scandalizes his fans and the celebrity-industrial complex by falling in love with a pop star named Rei Toei—who happens to be computer generated. Like most Gibson novels it uses a fairly basic heist-movie plot structure to get to the book's real meat, which is William Gibson philosophizing about the ongoing evolutionary relationship between humankind and the technology we're building. In this case there is a decent amount of thinking regarding the particular nature of Japanese fame, and how an infinitely reproducible, highly customizable pop star might be the ultimate fulfillment of obsessive fans' desires. (In typical Gibson fashion, his prediction eventually came true.)

In retrospect the notion of Japan embracing a virtual pop star seems kind of like a gimme, especially when you consider the relatively minor importance Japanese culture places on the distinction between fictional characters and real people. But I don't know if even William Gibson could have accurately predicted the rise of groups like AKB48.

It's less a group than a massively franchised theater show with a revolving cast of young girls. (According to its Wikipedia page there are currently 88 girls on the four primary AKB48 squads, as well as seven other franchised groups based in other Asian cities.) The primary concept behind AKB48—and the copycat operations that it's spawned—is that the individual members are approachable in ways that hyperfamous solo pop stars simply aren't. One of the four squads performs daily at the group's own theater in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, and when you consider that there are nearly 100 girls on the team the chances of seeing—or even meeting—your particular favorite member are pretty solid.

If that sounds like a recipe for turning obsession-prone otaku into full-blown stalkers, that seems to be part of the plan. Along with following strict guidelines about age and appearance, the members of AKB48 are expected to adhere to an equally strict code of conduct. For instance, the girls aren't allowed to date, because that would ruin otaku illusions that the girls are both accessible and virginal. (The girls are allowed to publicly have romantic feelings for men as long as they remain unrequited, which adds a dramatic note to their story line.)

Recently a 20-year-old AKB48 member named Minami Minegishi was photographed leaving the apartment of a member of the boy band GENERATIONS. A Japanese tabloid ran an exposé on Minegishi's rumored affair, and on Thursday night, after being demoted from senior-level member to kenkyuusei ("trainee") of the offshoot group HKT48—and shaving her head—she posted a teary apology video on YouTube.

(Of course the statement from management for Minegishi's alleged boyfriend, Alan Shirahama, goes, "We leave his private life up to him. He told us they are just good friends and nothing more.")

Idoru's what first popped into my head when I started reading about Minegishi because I finished it just the other day, but maybe a more appropriate comparison would be the story line in Cloud Atlas about Sonmi-451. Sonmi's one of the "fabricants" cloned to live an existence based solely around working in a fast-food restaurant in futuristic Korea. She and the other fabricants are expected to spend their entire lives inside the restaurant—drugged into unconsciousness when they're not waiting tables and kept ignorant of the world outside of Papa Song's—until they pass their prime and are recycled.

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