I just finished the sci-fi idol anime AKB0048 (both seasons of which are available to watch on Crunchyroll) and, while I on the whole enjoyed it as fluffy, silly sci-fi with lots of friendship and some rather sloppy world-building, there are some elements that have...uncomfortable implications if you think about them much. Or at all. @arcadiagt5, who is entirely to blame for me watching this, warned me not to examine the show too closely many times while I was watching it, so let's examine it too closely now and talk about a few of the things that are a little--or a lot--troubling if you give them any consideration!
Spoilers below the cut.
Based very, very loosely on and using the music of real-life idol group AKB48, the premise of the show is that in the future, for reasons not elaborated on nearly enough for my taste but I guess just enough to set up the situation, entertainment (or at least pop idol concerts) is banned on many planets and considered dangerous. 0048 is an idol group that fights/sings for love and freedom from this terrible oppression by performing guerrilla concerts on planets under an entertainment ban and by generally being the biggest pop stars around. During one such concert, a group of young girls swear that one day they, too, shall join 0048 and spread music through the galaxy. But they don't really know what they're getting into.
- The first thing that stood out to me was the heavy religious imagery and ritual that surrounds how the idol group 0048 is run, as well as it's mysterious leader Sensei-sensei, who is often framed as a god. This wouldn't be a problem but the girls who join are completely unaware of the religious nature of the organization. As far as everyone but the higher ranks are concerned, it's an idol group. The girls' fates are being determined by a mysterious leader they are unaware of for purposes they are unaware of. And even researching Sensei-sensei is forbidden. So basically, the girls unknowingly joined a cult, the apparent leader of which they are permitted to know nothing about.
- The succession system. Basically, the girls who pass the audition are trainees until they become "successors," or full-time members. When they become successors they give up their names and are bestowed the name of one of the founding members of AKB48 until the time in which they leave the group. They are not permitted to retain their own identity. They are given a new one. Again, this is a bit too much like a cult for comfort, and especially uncomfortable when you consider how controlling real-life talent agencies in Japan are of their talents' personal lives. Which is to say, extremely. We'll get back to that.
- To add to the "wait, what"-ness of succession system, which identity each girl takes on is determined by which founding member's soul they resonate with. And they can only succeed when they resonate with the soul of a member who does not currently have a successor. So not only mean that some girls are left waiting for years because the only role they are allowed to fill is already taken, despite their meeting all of the other criteria, the group is only allowed to have a certain make up of souls. Change is not permitted. And when a girl succeeds, she experiences "succession fever," a feverish state which they are expected to just push-through and perform while the soul of the member they are succeeding enters their body. Yeah. And, again, none of the girls are aware of any of this until they have undergone this and even those who have undergone it only know that there's a fever and a change.
- As if the succession system wasn't uncomfortable enough, there exists Tomomi. Every woman in Tomomi's family looks like the first Tomomi, from whom they are descended. Their husbands are chosen to ensure that they all look as much like the original Tomomi as possible. From birth, they are raised and trained to be as much like the original Tomomi as possible, so as to align their souls with hers as much as possible. They are required to audition for 0048 when they reach the proper age. So that's a breeding program, a pre-determined future, and not just giving up identity but never being permitted to form an individual identity to begin with. They exist entirely for the purpose of being the next Tomomi.
- Episode 6: The First Handshake Event. Just this whole episode. What were they even doing. One of the girls receives a terrifying and disturbing hate-video from an obsessive, stalker-ish 0048 "fan" who threatens to bomb an event she's going to participate in (I'm still worried about the former member he was obsessed with; did they warn her? Did she get a restraining order? I am very concerned about this, you guys). They don't up security at the even or keep a look out for the creep at all so he's able to wander around wearing the same distinctive, creepy mask he wore in the video with no problem whatsoever. But, haha, that's okay, he's not really going to cause harm, he just really loves 0048 and wants them to be the best they can. It ends with Orine, the thirteen-year-old he threatened to kill for having inferior dance moves, thanking him for caring so much and in the end they become penpals so that she can learn from his helpful, hate-filled criticisms. Um. yeah. The whole thing comes off like "Thank You, Hater!" (video link; warning, contains NSFW language including the quoting of gross, hate-filled YouTube comments and the slurs and threats contained within), but played completely straight.
- The characters do a gravure shoot. This is already pretty dang uncomfortable since several of the girls are just thirteen, but one of them is ten. Ten-years-old. And still participates. Um. Yeah.
- The Center Nova is an extra-special role in the group and at concerts (I think; it's kind of inconsistent between seasons 1 and 2) that only the best get to take up. Also, every single Center Nova except one has mysteriously vanished during a concert. But girls still aspire to be it, drawn by the glamor and the idea of being the best. And don't seem to realize that there's probably something weird going on here. And the management also doesn't understand why the Center Novas disappear and what happens to them. At all. They did discontinue the role for a few years...after decades, maybe centuries, of this happening. At the end of the show, you learn that the Center Novas basically ascend to another level of existence (BY BEING DRAGGED BY THE GHOSTS OF CENTER NOVAS PAST) and become one with the universe to keep hope alive and darkness at bay...meaning they function basically as human sacrifices. Who are lured into that role and completely unaware of what's in store for them. And while the management was just feeding girls into this system with no idea what the implications were and just kind of hoping that this time the girl wouldn't disappear, Sensei-sensei, the one calling the shots, absolutely knows. If the girls knew what being Center Nova meant it would be one thing, but that is clearly not the case here.
- EDIT: Oh, and I forgot to mention that part of the audition to join the group involves protecting the performers and attendees of a concert during a simulated attack without being informed that it's a simulation. So they really think that they are risking their lives and watching their friends die. These are kids being put through extremely stressful situations that could cause PTSD without being informed of exactly what's going on. Lack of proper information seems to be a running theme. This was really not thought through. Thank you, tumblr user fyliabrium, for the reminder.
Okay, now for the one that I find to be the most uncomfortable, the one that isn't about a fictional organization that wasn't thought all the way through but instead about real-life context. This one isn't a bullet point because I need multiple paragraphs to talk about it. In season 2, the groups official photographer Michan, who herself is a former member of the 0048 and had been the 5th Minegishi Minami, betrays the group with noble intentions by giving information to their enemies in the hopes of using the villains plan to rescue the missing Center Novas. This betrayal leads to Akibastar, 0048's homeplanet, to become a warzone and the group is forced to flee, leaving the planet in the hands of their enemies who then turn the residents of the planet against 0048. Realizing what her actions caused, Michan risks her life to help the girls and even after having redeemed herself in their eyes and been welcomed back, she starts referring to herself as a trainee.
This may seem like a lot of backstory, but I think it's important to understand the full implications. As previously mentioned, the idol group in this show is based on the real-life Japanese idol group AKB48. In the Japanese entertainment industry, talent agencies and idol groups can be very controlling of their members images and personal lives. In January 2013, when season two had only aired a few episodes, there was a scandal involving the real-life Minegishi Minami, one of the most popular AKB48 members and the one Michan is the fictional successor to. She was reported by a tabloid to have spent the night with a man, which is not only tabloid fodder but also violate an AKB48 contract clause forbidding romantic relationships, a clause that has drawn attention and criticism in light of this scandal. Because of the scandal, Minegishi was demoted in the group to the rank of trainee. She shaved her head, something she claimed was caused by restlessness but which is traditionally associated with penance, and posted a tear-filled apology video.
Basically everything about this situation is sickening, but then they went and tied it into this show. Even if you take into account her noble intentions, her remorse, and her redemption and if you take her cheerful assertions of trainee-hood as a criticism of the harshness Minegishi's real punishment, it's still drawing a parallel between an adult dating during her personal time and the betrayal of a planet to its enemies. This also implies that the damage caused is in some way comparable and that Minegishi's actions damaged the trust of AKB48's fans the way the residents of Akibastar's trust towards 0048 was destroyed by the group's retreat. In addition, 0048 has this no-romaces-with-guys policy as well and at the end of the series Yuka, the only character with a male love interest (Wikipedia refers to her as "the only AKB0048's character who has love interest" and I laugh forever), very nearly gives her love interest an embrace at the end of the series and when they stop themselves just short of touching it's framed as a little sad but the proper thing to do. Because of the real-world context and because Minegishi's situation has already been tied into the show, this continues to draw attention to both the policy and Minegishi's situation and comes off as further criticism of Minegishi's actions. Just ugh.
So those are some aspects of the show that have troubling implications if you think about them. I have quite possibly missed some. And one big thing about this list is that the characters all accept all of the in-universe items with no problem at all once they learn about them. "Oh, we get possessed by a long-dead pop singer? Yeah, okay, why not." That...comes off oddly. Let this list be a lesson to you to think through the implications of your fictional organization and of your characters' reactions to it. Also, let this be a lesson that even fun, mindless shows should probably examine what they're doing.