“I only became an idol because I thought it meant getting paid just to look good. No one said anything about making an effort!” Yuya Niyodo
ZINGS, a male idol duo, is starting to attract interest, but not always for the right reasons. One half of ZINGS, Kazuki Yoshino, is blonde and bubbling with infectious enthusiasm – but his partner, dark-haired Yuya Niyodo, always looks unmotivated and is often downright incompetent on-stage. Sometimes he doesn’t even remember the words of the songs. Their agent, Hitomi Shinano, alternates between fury and despair at his attitude. One day, when Niyodo is slumped on a bench backstage, wondering aloud why he ever agreed to be an idol, he realizes he’s not alone; a girl in a brightly-coloured costume is sitting beside him. “Can you see me?” she asks excitedly – and reveals that she is also an idol, Asahi Mogami. Of course, he’s never heard of her, but Yoshino has. Yoshino, it seems, can’t see or hear her – and that’s because she’s a ghost. Asahi Mogami died, tragically young, a year earlier in a road accident. For some strange reason, only Niyodo can see her and she’s decided to make it her mission to change him and his attitude. If she can’t still be an idol, she’ll make sure he’ll succeed in her stead. When ZINGS next appear on stage, she takes possession of him and suddenly – Niyodo is singing and dancing with such skill and zest that the ZINGS fangirls are at first shocked and then ecstatic at the transformation in their ‘bias’.
And so, an unusual partnership is born between a reluctant idol and his phantom muse – and ZINGS’s fame begins to spread, leading to an invitation to participate in a big event called Hottie Farm where they’ll appear alongside established – and very popular – idol group Cgrass. But someone – possibly Asahi Mogami’s most loyal fan – has noticed Niyodo’s tendency (when possessed by Asahi) to use her on-stage mannerisms. And he’s furious! How dare Niyodo besmirch the sacred memory of his beloved idol! Meet Hikaru Setouchi who’s the leader of Cgrass and, as it turns out, utterly obsessed with Asahi, to the extent of turning up in person to warn Niyodo that if he doesn’t stop borrowing Asahi’s moves, he’ll cut him down! So when ZINGS are invited to take part in Hottie Farm alongside Cgrass, it’s a chance for them to raise their status in the idol world. But Hottie Farm incorporates a shameless merchandising event called Hot n’Fresh at which the idols will meet their fans (who have paid, of course, for the privilege) – and who should show up in Niyodo’s queue but Setouchi (in disguise, of course)?
Having threatened Niyodo, Setouchi comes to every ZINGS concert to keep a close watch on him (in disguise, of course, but not a very convincing one so Niyodo is aware he’s in the audience). He even sets up a website detailing everything that’s wrong about Niyodo’s performances – which, contrary to his intentions, becomes a hit with the Niyodoids, Niyodo’s somewhat eccentric but loyal fan group. Deep down, Setouchi is a good-hearted (although incurably obsessed) fanboy and is only trying to do his best to sustain Asahi’s reputation, so when his first attempts to sabotage Niyodo backfire, what does he do next?
There’s a genuine sadness underlying this story which gives it extra depth, even though mangaka Hijiki Isoflavone never makes it maudlin or sentimental. The untimely death of a seventeen-year-old girl who dedicated her life to becoming an idol and whose spirit can’t pass on because – it’s implied – there’s still so much she wants to achieve lends the manga a unique and sometimes poignant tone of voice. Quite where it will eventually go with this theme (the manga is ongoing at the time of writing) it’s impossible to predict – but the other aspect that makes it a good read is the portrayal of Niyodo. It would have been so easy to present him unsympathetically or one-note – but Isoflavone depicts him with some considerable depth of characterisation, so we come to understand why his fans find him so fascinating.
Playing almost as big a part in the story as the aspiring idols and Asahi are ZINGS’s fans. The mangaka uses them as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on each development, focusing in particular on three friends who are dedicated Niyodoids. Interestingly, they’re not teenagers (idol fans are so often depicted as young girls) but salaried women. That’s probably because the manga is that rare beast in translation, josei not shojo, as it’s published in Monthly Comic Zero Sum, the home of many successful titles that have also gone on to be made into anime series, such as HameFura, 07-Ghost, Bibliophile Princess and Karneval.
The translation notes at the back by translator Max Greenway are especially useful as they explain many of the terms that apply to idol group fandom that aren’t common over here, especially ‘bias’ (favourite member of a pop group, originally from K-pop) ‘flower stand’ and ‘handshake event’ which are more obvious.
Hijiki Isoflavone brings the whole idol world to hectic life with a graphic style that often looks hastily dashed off, yet delivers panels buzzing with energy (sometimes too much energy in the case of the overheated reactions of the fans!). If the proportions of heads to bodies sometimes looks a little wrong (there’s a tendency to draw bodies somewhat on the short side) the liveliness of the facial expressions (or the opposite in the case of Niyodo) more than makes up for it.
If you’ve watched the recent anime TV series (HIDIVE Summer 2022) you’ll know that it’s based on these two volumes – with some overlap into Volume 3 which is due out now-ish, and will also (I hope) introduce new material and develop the story of this likable idol duo that’s really a trio. I’d recommend the manga over the anime series which, although good in parts, lets itself down with not enough budget for the 3D versions of the songs and peters out at 10 episodes. But the manga (already up to six volumes in Japan) delivers believable and relatable characters in a wry and entertaining look at the world of idol culture that will appeal to readers who enjoy stories (like IDOLiSH7) set in the hothouse world of popular music.
Read a free preview of Volume 1 here.