For a while there, I thought Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE would be a colorful, bubbly criticism of the Japanese pop idol industry.
In this anime world of Shibuya – a popular shopping district in Tokyo – otherworldly monsters known as Mirages have been stealing the creative inspiration from the populace. By targeting notable entertainers, they're able to anchor themselves to a constant source of creativity and drain them and their audience for energy. Tsubasa Oribe, a rising star in the world of J-Pop, faces off against these monstrous foes, and learns to overcome her inner fears and emerge as the best damned Idol she can be.
On the surface, it's your standard Cinderella or Duckling story: Someone supposedly plain cocoons into their true and beautiful potential. Running parallel, however, is the story of already successful singer Kiria. Despite already being a professional, Kiria herself is undergoing a journey of self-discovery. Having been convinced by friends, fans, and managers that she was supposed to have a specific, cold and cool image, she gradually learns to accept her love of cute and girly things. Viewed side-by-side, Tsubasa's story of being told what to do and how to behave in order to be successful looks to be the beginning of the trajectory that Kiria had already gone through.
Idol culture in Japan is all about image. That'd be a true statement about any celebrity culture, but whereas celeb culture in the West tends to be about fans exploring a star's personal character, the Japanese pop Idol image is more explicitly about constructing a fantasy for fans. To fans of Japanese Idols, on-stage screw-ups become part of a narrative. You sympathize with the band members as if you were watching it happen to characters on a film.
Rather than the single "authentic" self that the West demands, [members and Idols of Johnny’s talent agency] are able to separate the private from the public and craft public personas – personas which go far beyond "the funny one" and "the cool one" and are much closer to what we saw from The Beatles playing "The Beatles" in A Hard Day's Night. Group members will play up in-group rivalries, friendships, and even sexual tension for the audiences.
Early performances of all-girl Idol groups will include members stumbling, forgetting lines, and even crying from embarrassment – not because this is a reflection of the real feelings of the idols, but because this is part of their persona's act. A narrative begins within the crowd's mind of an earnest group that, over the course of years, learns to work together as a cohesive and competent unit.
When it comes to female pop groups, these narratives are often constructed to appeal to a male otaku fanbase. As Japan has faced harsher economic times, mainstream consumers have stopped buying media products, but subcultures such as the otaku pick up the slack. In response, the music industry has not only begun appealing more to otaku tastes, but encouraging and exploiting superfan purchasing habits. CD sales are not only used as votes to determine which member of AKB48 is the number-one Idol, but also used to determine who gets to shake an Idol's hand. Such a strategy encourages a fanatic, consumption-based culture to purchase multiple copies of their product rather than just the one of a typical customer.
Unfortunately, otaku can have some harsh expectations when it comes to Idols, be they real or fictional. Aside from high standards of physical beauty, otaku also tend to expect female "characters" – again, real or fictional – to be "pure of spirit" and earnest. Television shows and video games are filled with plain, blank-slate protagonists surrounded by women that love them, but generally these romances never come to fruition. Instead, fans are left to fantasize about a romance with their favorite girl – which means fan fiction, including raunchy and lewd fan comics referred to as doujinshi. As these works are unofficial, the character is considered "unsullied". The "real" character remains pure and devotional, and no group of fans are offended by the creator favoring one pairing over another.
This is where the line between fiction and reality blurs. While male pop stars and groups are often little more than a public act or narrative, the perceived purity and earnestness of the female pop idol must be just as true off stage as it is on. Managers within the music industry intentionally manipulate schedules to prevent idols from dating. In rare cases where Idols have been caught in a romantic engagement, they've found themselves performing penance for their fans, or even paying damages to their management.
I brought this understanding with me when I played Tokyo Mirage Sessions. The nature of Tsubasa and Kiria's stories within Tokyo Mirage Sessions gave me hope that maybe, just maybe, someone was deciding to point out the problems with fan expectations by wrapping it up in an aesthetically pleasing and disarming package, to catch the player off-guard and, with the ironic use of making an imaginary character more real, show them just how damaging otaku demands can be to the Idol's psyche.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney comes to mind as a similar game with a lot to say. It seems absurdly unrealistic in its court proceedings to a Western audience, but when you learn how different Japan's justice system is, the biting critique of an unfair, unjust, and very real system suddenly stands out from the colorful and cheeky presentation.
As Tokyo Mirage Sessions wore on, I began to have my doubts. The game was becoming too earnest about the wonderful powers of pop music. The other shoe wasn't dropping. The perfectly bland protagonist, Itsuki Aoi, was becoming praised for simply being there – no significant talents of his own other than the vague ability to "inspire those around him," (without any actual demonstrations of leadership, of course). He's simply there.
Then, in the game's epilogue, Tsubasa gives a heartfelt speech about how she learned so much and was going to devote more of herself to her fans. She was going to work harder and with more verve for her fans. That all of her fans were her great inspiration. But no inspiration was so great as you.
You, of course, being Itsuki, the bland otaku stand-in.
The game ends on such a cotton-candy note of self-affirmation that any hope of criticism is swiftly deflated like a pitiful balloon animal. Tokyo Mirage Sessions is your typical otaku fluff. It is not challenging, but instead encourages and endorses an escapist view of life and the world. Its message on the power of music is shallow and empty encouragement to continue treating pop Idols like public property rather than as human beings.
It is frustrating, because this narrative is the thin wrapping to an otherwise enjoyable and charming game. Colorful characters, chic style, intricate combat and inspired pop songs are the real experience offered by Tokyo Mirage Sessions. Despite filling many archetypal roles, the characters and their interactions together nearly always brought a smile to my face.
Smiles or no, it doesn't take much to see every interaction was the same. Either the female characters began to crush on and admire plain old Itsuki, or the male characters developed an aspirational respect two steps away from becoming a fujoshi's boy-love fantasy. It's all a player's fantasy. This is Charlie Brown's dream world, where even a blockhead can be admired, and all characters exist to admire him.
By catering to a perceived audience of unreflective otaku, Tokyo Mirage Sessions robs its characters of any real depth, and robs its players of a meaningful narrative. That its style and charm is so potent as to overcome these flaws is a testament to all of its other strengths.