Like most people, I have a complicated relationship with idol singers.
We’ve heard every argument for and against the concept of these groups of teenagers and young adults who sell polished pop and a vision of attainable glamour to the masses. On one hand, they spread much-needed Asian representation across the globe and have helped to shatter stereotypes about beauty ideals and spread messages of self-worth and -confidence in their music. On the other hand, a wealth of information has come to light about how the agencies behind these idol groups are sleazy at best, with the worst abuses within these systems — parasocial relationships going horribly wrong, corporal punishment, sexual exploitation, and in some cases, death — brought up constantly, especially as idols become more of an inescapable presence in Western media.
Every country’s pop music owes a massive debt to Japan’s idol industry, a multibillion-dollar musical empire representing more than 10,000 idols currently active in the country. Part of that industry now encompasses virtual idols of all kinds, including animated ones. Idol anime, shows about girls (or sometimes boys) building some kind of band for a greater purpose, are about a dime a dozen every season.
For the most part, they gloss over the very real hardships and concerns associated with idol life — sure, there will be a girl whose family doesn’t approve of her performing, or who struggles to keep up with the most gifted students in her class, but it’s nothing that a little grit and hard work can’t solve! By the end of the season, everyone in the group will be selling boatloads of records and will have saved their community center/school/prefecture and realized their dreams. These shows are a part of a pipeline designed to inspire more young women to reach for their dreams of becoming concert superstars — and to hawk copious amounts of merchandise to their largely male fanbase. They sell dreams with very specific character archetypes that appeal to both impressionable teen girls and adult men and catchy music that is less disposable than most people would like to admit.
That was a lot of words to help explain the ecosystems that birthed Zombie Land Saga, a 2018 anime series about a group of undead idol girls and their tortured, start-and-stop rise to fame. Through the trailers, the show presented itself as a horror anime and only showed off its true nature halfway through the first episode. Miyamoto Sakura, a wide-eyed idealist in 2008, is ready to submit her application to join an idol agency and runs out her front door, only to be hit by a truck and killed, shooting the narrative into 2018. Sakura awakens to find herself trapped in a decrepit mansion with six other women in various states of decay and realizes that she’s a zombie. Her freakout is interrupted by Tatsumi Kotaro, a mysterious, bombastic asshole of a man, who reveals that he’s revived all of these women, legends in their own times, in order to create an idol group that will revitalize the Saga prefecture and its tourism industry. (Kotaro apparently is completely oblivious to Yuri on Ice bringing tourism to that exact prefecture around this exact time.)
It’s a rough road for the women. Kotaro is a verbally abusive know-nothing know-it-all who shoves their band, Franchouchou, into increasingly ridiculous money-making ventures and partnerships. The women are all from wildly different time periods; one, a courtesan from the 1800s named Yugiri, has no idea what a computer is. They all have to wear heavy stage makeup to not be recognized as the walking dead. Sakura doesn’t have any memories of her prior life, but many of the girls do, and they’re understandably reluctant to participate in this charade of an idol group because of past traumas and exhaustion. Some, like Junko, an extremely popular ’80s soloist, and Ai, the former leader of powerhouse pop group Iron Frill, are recognizable enough even in death to raise eyebrows — and they do, when journalists begin tailing the group. The legendary Tae Yamada acts more like a feral dog than a human being and gives no indication why she may have been legendary in her past.
What makes this show remarkable is that it is a rough road for Franchouchou, and the show doesn’t shy away from that. It’s easy to believe that Zombie Land Saga will be an endless cavalcade of failure and comedic nonsense as the women struggle to come together as a unit, if they ever do. Franchouchou doesn’t sing together until episode 3, with screamo performances, an impromptu rap battle over how they must keep their identities as zombies secret, and half-hearted rehearsals filling up the previous two episodes.
The high-concept, madcap nature of the premise allows for a lot of leeway in depicting the mundane and painful parts of being an idol. Most obviously, even though his outbursts are framed as humorously awful, there’s no question that Kotaro (and the thousands of managers like him) is terrible at managing, and the show consistently portrays him as untrustworthy, with multiple ancillary characters showing outright confusion and shock at his actions. Franchouchou as a whole succeeds in spite of him and the shit hand he’s dealt them, never because of him, giving agency to a group of women who are generally not depicted with any. Hell, they match him beat for beat, giving him anime-style comedic beatdowns to pay him back for his idiocy and abuses.
The series as a whole deals with the deaths of almost every woman in Franchouchou, and how their dreams changed their lives for the worse, in realistic and relatable ways. The show’s most famous character, Hoshikawa Lily, is a trans girl who died very young from a heart attack, brought on by her overwork as a child actress. Her desires to be accepted by her father, first as a daughter and then as a breadwinning child to be proud of, create an unstoppable pile-up of stresses that finally break when Lily realizes she’s about to hit puberty and can no longer pass as a woman. The shock simply kills her. The show fully supports Lily in her identity and experiences, while acknowledging multiple issues idol media hardly ever touches upon— the ceaseless need to put on ever-changing faces and identities to hold onto love and adoration and the idea that she could lose everything because of her gender identity are discussed in tandem with the reality that Lily was basically worked to death. All of these issues are given equal weight in the narrative, with her father acknowledging that he had a daughter, that his drive to see her do well led him to ignore her visible distress, and that he was the sole cause of his daughter’s death.
Conversely, someone like Ai has a complex befitting the overall silliness of the show — she died when stricken by lightning during a performance and fears another disaster will befall her onstage in her second life — but one of her most prominent arcs is the way she butts heads with Junko on how idols should interact with their fans, a far more realistic and relevant topic. Junko, from the ’80s, fully believes that she should be a distant icon for the masses, much as she was before their death. Ai, who worked in the Golden Age of the 2000s, understands idol work to involve handshake events, personal meetings, and being as accessible as possible to her fans. Their divide weighs heavily on Junko, and the vast difference in presentation unnerves her to the point she wants to leave the band. Most shows would not dare to even discuss the issues inherent in any of these topics, much less all of them. (Is it a good thing that idols are so accessible now? Why should one teenage girl have the weight of modeling perfect morality on her shoulders? Is one of these approaches better or worse than the other?) While Junko’s complete perfectionism is shown as unfortunate and the show frames her learning to divorce herself of it as unambiguously good, Ai also learns more about accommodating others, and that the way things are set up now isn’t exactly perfect either.
The show clearly believes more in a third avenue, where a star can serve as an inspiration or an idol by any action they perform. Franchouchou’s oldest fans are two metalheads who loved their impromptu screamo performance from episode 1 but don’t need that deeper personal connection to adore them. Conversely, Lily’s father is able to work through his grief by watching his daughter’s “lookalike” and expressing some of the pain he’s kept bottled up for years to her in a handshake event. In one of the show’s wildest moments, former biker gang member Saki manages to convert an entire female gang of juvenile delinquents into Franchouchou fans by saving them from the same death she endured decades prior — noble and brilliant, yes, but definitely not a fandom earned from any musical endeavor. Sakura, too, ends up being the inspiration for an extremely unlikely person at the end of the series, with no idea how much her small actions meant.
Sakura herself goes through the wringer. The whole series portrays her incredible determination to lift up Franchouchou, pushing forward with rehearsing and bettering herself, even through Kotaro’s bizarre ideas of promotion, like playing a gigantic mud-running festival, or while trying to survive on a freezing mountaintop. Upon discovering her memories late into the series, just before Franchouchou’s biggest concert yet, she comes to the painful realization that her short life was marked with horrendous luck and crushing failure. Her last gasp at giving her life meaning — sending in an audition form for Iron Frill, because she was inspired by the then-living Ai’s willingness to get knocked down and get back up again — ended with her death.
Learning she never accomplished anything of note and did nothing but let others down, she’s sent into a spiraling depression that threatens everything the group has worked for. We see Sakura snap at everyone around her for the first time in the whole series, and she reserves one of the most upsetting verbal beatdowns for Kotaro, verbalizing the grotesque underpinnings of their uneasy “alliance” as brutally as possible — she didn’t ask to come back to life, her life was an unending disaster, and the last thing she wants is for someone like him to give her any hope at all.
Sakura’s depression is shown painfully and unflinchingly, with her dour self-flagellation upsetting the entire group, and the ways she’s peppered with the encouragement of Franchouchou — people who genuinely care about her — understandably exacerbates Sakura’s issues, until Yugiri and the others are able to convince her that they won’t leave her behind. The effort she put into bonding with everyone previously, with no expectation of reward, pays off, and despite a literal natural disaster ruining the their concert venue, they — being zombies — pull through, because of their faith in each other and the strong connection they’ve built with their audience (with many recurring characters from the series seen in the 500-strong crowd).
What sets Franchouchou apart from others in their afterlife is their bonds with each other and the world around them, and the show does everything to build them up naturally. But unlike most shows of its ilk, or even real-life groups that have their bonds as selling points (Ai’s pre-character development statements early in the series about how idol groups aren’t friends, just colleagues, rings very true to famously estranged groups like Girls’ Generation), their connections feel real and valid, despite the mystery still surrounding some of them and their vastly different life experiences. The final episode really hammers this point home, showing everyone they’ve inspired and helped as part of the audience for their big show united in a roller coaster of emotions. It also shows how the girls, who started the series in various states of disinterest in and hatred of idoldom, have bonded together so fully that even a stage collapse can’t stop them from lifting each other up.
In the end, Zombie Land Saga doesn’t celebrate Junko’s ideal idol — the untouchable,unfathomably beautiful, flawless pinnacle of humanity. Rather, the show celebrates the idol in all of us, the imperfect person whose legend comes straight from the things that set her apart from polite society. The members of Franchouchou come from the most disenfranchised and ignored groups on earth — trans people, sex workers, teen girls, delinquents — and every single one of them is shown as praiseworthy and transcendent in their worth. It celebrates the way we all connect with each other at our most basic levels, with no veneer and with all flaws on display, through grief, triumph, pain, and success. These dead, animated idols, ironically, show us the best that women have to offer the world, without cheapening their journey.
For my money, it’s the perfect encapsulation of everything about female idols that, despite everything wrong with the subculture, keeps me enthralled and empowers me in its best moments.