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Ai sings and sweats in a still from Oshi No Ko Image: Doga Kobo/Sentai Filmworks

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The wildest anime of the year is built on entertainment horror stories

Oshi no Ko reincarnates laypeople into the euphoria and terror of stardom

“What would it like to be the child of someone famous?” an obstetrician wonders not too long before being pushed off a cliff and reincarnated as the child of his very own patient: his favorite idol, Ai Hoshino, pregnant with twins. Another of Ai’s fans also dies roughly around the same time and is reborn as the other child. Welcome to Oshi no Ko, an adaptation of a manga series by Aka Akasaka (known for the hysterically funny Kaguya-sama: Love Is War) and artist Mengo Yokoyari.

For the twins, now named Ruby and Aquamarine (shortened to Aqua), the reincarnation angle is like if the fan parlance about various celebs being “mother” quite literally came true. The result is surreally funny and even sweet as the two sink more into their new life, becoming fully convinced by their own performances of the roles they now play as the children of their idol. But then Ai dies too, murdered by a stalker. Aqua swears revenge, theorizing the real culprit is in the entertainment industry.

Oshi no Ko leverages the reincarnation premise for both the wild dramatic potential of its revenge plot line, but also as a way to have a pair of fans see behind the curtain, with different perspectives and impossible hindsight. Aqua and Ruby are reborn with the social connections that they never had before, and with the (spooky) intelligence to maneuver this world from an early age, mostly so we can quickly get into the real meat of the show: production logistics. Through its unpacking of those details, we can see both the joy of the craft and the amount of hard work and passion that goes into invisible elements. But there’s also the other hand: the emotional punishment of it.

For all its sensational bits, Oshi no Ko isn’t always a story you only watch or read for the twists or huge revelations — for a time, those are actually rather few and far between. Instead, it remains focused on the granular details of the business and artistic decisions driving the entertainment industry (and how different industries and media overlap), and the work that goes into cultivating fame. It considers audience responses, and how the creation of a public image reverberates back into the lives of the characters.

Some of that is euphoric. For all of its focus on the numbers game of entertainment, the show is also interested in the joy that can result from the combination of celebration and self-expression. Ai’s star quality is symbolized very literally through the colorful constellations that appear in her eyes. When her mom teaches Ruby how to dance, the show takes on a transportive fantastical direction and vibrant color, unlocking new methods of expression.

Following the feature-length pilot episode, the first season of the show has been split into arcs about different sectors of entertainment — not just the different kinds of performance and personas involved, but also exploring how these things are staged.

That means getting into the granular details of the business, breaking down where production costs come from and where they go, different camera setups, and the technicalities of performance. The show also looks at what might make a show terrible, like the technical difficulties facing an adaptation of a popular shojo manga. In another arc about adapting manga to live theater, a veteran author tells, with haunted expression, how terrible and exhausting it is working on a weekly series. Entertainment, in all realms, can burn you out.

Perhaps the most cutting material presented in the anime so far comes from the series’ depiction of a reality television set, a dating series called LoveNow. Oshi no Ko acknowledges the layers of performance involved here too, and how they work in concert with the producers to create storylines, though this time the people involved play a version of themselves.

An extension of this is that the people themselves become a commodity — and that also means that they’re a product that everyone owns, and they have to keep functioning, keep projecting the image they’ve cultivated, or be punished. In some cases that means young women, like Ai, maintaining a pristine appearance by hiding their children from the public eye, any deviation from that prompting backlash.

A still of a screen from Oshi no Ko’s in-universe reality show, with Aqua on-screen surrounded by glitter stars, and on-screen text that reads “Aqua, actor, high school first-year” in Japanese.
The difference between Aqua performing for the cameras on a reality show versus his real life, on the hunt for his mom’s killer
Image: Doga Kobo/Sentai Filmworks
A close-up on Aqua’s eye, which is blue and the star is sparkling out from, while the rest of the image is grayscale Image: Doga Kobo/Sentai Filmworks

In contrast with the show’s peppy, cute characters and bright color, this is the reality of the business. Just as Aqua’s and Ruby’s past lives bleed into their current ones, the relationship between personal lives and stardom in Oshi no Ko is similarly porous — a later arc in the manga feels almost akin to the thematic content of Nope, in which mass entertainment is made through the dredging up of childhood trauma and marketing it.

That thinner line of separation between the actors and the roles they play is already present in one of Oshi no Ko’s more unsettling storylines, particularly around LoveNow. Aqua joins the cast of the show, playing the part of brooding teen heartthrob as a favor to the producer, who promises a lead about Ai. Much of the cast is comfortable with what’s being asked of them in terms of playing a dramatized version of themselves, all knowing how to curate their own narrative, lest the producers or tabloid press do it for them.

Akane, a theater wunderkind, is less skilled in knowing how to create that story, and falls into one when she accidentally scratches the face of another cast member in what’s then framed as a villain moment, the producers stoking the flames through their edit. The series frequently posits that the best entertainment is effectively a good lie, and the LoveNow incident comes from fandom possessiveness and failure to separate what’s being constructed from what’s real. Like Perfect Blue, it also emerges from how viewership and audience has changed in the modern day, and this is where the show’s interest in the frequently possessive parasocial relationships between performer and audience takes a turn for the more horrific.

Akane in a dark room illuminated only by her phone screen as she looks sad in a still from Oshi No Ko Image: Doga Kobo/Sentai Filmworks

It’s here where the heat of the spotlight feels harshest, as the audience blowback is overwhelming and terrifying, showing the reaction from Akane’s perspective as she doomscrolls through insults and death threats on Twitter. The simultaneous feeling of being completely isolated and fully exposed gets translated by the framing of Akane’s darkened bedroom, the screen acting as a sole light source. Oshi no Ko treats this story with seriousness and righteous anger, at audience entitlement and media systems that thrive on putting vulnerable people in harm’s way.

Akane’s case, following on from Ai’s murder, is illustrative of Oshi no Ko’s portrayals of the darker side of the entertainment industry. It often ties into various consequences of lopsided power dynamics and institutional misogyny, from the more everyday instances of ageism in auditioning and casting to more specific cases of harassment, like Akane’s. But not without balance. Akane’s story, even with its noted similarities to a real-life case, ends hopefully, charting a path for her back to the show with the help of her cast. The season itself carries that hope forward, lavishing Ruby, Kana, and Mem-Cho’s onstage idol performance with hypnotising, emphatic spectacle. A cut of animation almost exactly resembles Ai’s performance from the first episode, serving as a reminder as to why she, and later her daughter, might still join such a treacherous industry.

Even though it does expand outward into other miseries, the moral and artistic compromises that emerge in the faultlines between creativity and business, Oshi no Ko isn’t a cynical show. Through its lighthearted and earnest moments and through its frequently bubbly presentation, it sees the allure of performance, the liberation and the joy in creating art, and people like Aqua, Kana, Akane, Ruby, and others creating these performances, just as much as it sees the practicalities of putting on a show.

But for all its love of entertainment, there’s also incredibly pointed anger with how easily it can fall into exploitation on a business level and even horror. It recognizes that the fame its characters pursue is a poisoned chalice, a symptom of wanting to perform and express themselves rather than a benefit — the show’s incisive detail portrays both a love of craftsmanship as well as an intricate, restrictive set of rules that the performers are locked into. They exchange privacy and autonomy for their fame, each character going through their own sort of rebirth to match the reincarnated twins as they cast off some part of themselves so they can function better as entertainment. The show sees both the ecstacy of stardom and its precariousness, some of the show’s best drama coming from its portrayal of this tightrope act — the thrill of flying high, and the danger of falling.


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