I remember the night I decided to watch Aikatsu very well, like the back of my hand.
It was dark, a warm July night in the hood, not a cloud in the sky. My friend Henry and I were walking back to my apartment from Target. Even that far north, the city was alive with hustle. Short Hispanic men washed cars in the street. Kids played in an open fire hydrant. Someone three streets down was blaring bachata.
And Henry turned to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “You know what, I think you should just watch that show. Let’s watch it together. I think it will make you a better person.
“In fact, let’s go back and watch the first episode right now.”
“Henry, I’ve already seen the first episode. It didn’t exactly leave an impression.”
“Okay, but that was then. This is now.” And he grinned at me, a reminder that nothing truly was what it seemed.
And I relented. “All right, let’s do it.” But I had no clue what I was getting myself into. We got back to my apartment, kicked my boyfriend off our desktop computer, then shimmied into that small space between my dresser and my electronic piano. We watched as Hoshimiya Ichigo, eternal girl in pink, went on her spiel about how, back then, she had no clue she would be an idol.
I had told Henry the truth. The first episode of Aikatsu had come out in October 2012, at a very low point in my life. At that time, I had booted up my old laptop, seated in the living room in my twenty-third story Upper East Side apartment that I couldn’t afford, desperate to find something to make me feel better about my A: lack of job and B: abusive ex-boyfriend. The episode was bad quality and shoe-horned in on YouTube, with no opening or ending and quite confusing subtitles. I thought it was kind of cute, but badly written, and the CGI reminded me of LilPri. (If you’ve ever seen LilPri, you will know this is not a compliment.) As I was already obsessed with AKB0048 and Pretty Cure, I put Aikatsu aside. I figured Aikatsu wouldn’t become any more popular than Pretty Rhythm.
Smile and DokiDoki came and went, and when HappinessCharge came out, there was great talk about the PreCards, Pretty Cure’s answer to Aikatsu. “Why does Pretty Cure need to answer to Aikatsu?” I questioned. “Aikatsu isn’t that popular. I mean, have you seen their CGI?” But I was wrong. This was in the heat of season 2, where even the Pretty Cure boards couldn’t stop talking about Yurika and WM’s performances. I ended up watching a couple of performances on YouTube and noticed that, yeah, the CGI did finally get decent. And the songs weren’t as cliche as Pretty Rhythm Aurora Dream’s had been (admittedly, I hadn’t finished that series). They actually seemed well-written.
Henry handed me a glass of water as we sat there that July night in 2014, wanting an answer as to why this show was so popular. I saw Ichigo’s intro like I had before, but I had never seen this opening, this mix of synthesizers, the logo and the school and this humming in the background, this promise that, behind this song that didn’t match the series I thought I knew, there was something waiting, if I could only just name it.
“Where do you want to go? We want to go to our brilliant hope. Where do you wish to go? Let’s search for it now.”
Season 3 started in October of 2014. I watched two episodes a day in an effort to catch up, and almost did, only thrown off because I had a booth at New York Comic-Con, selling my book series to anybody who might be interested. (It didn’t end well.)
I devoured Aikatsu like a kid making daily visits to the Mister Softee truck. I started episode 2 unsure, but the one-two from Johnny Bepp and Ichigo’s mistake (!) made me sure this would be an interesting watch, at least for a bit. During the next episode, I learned what I believe is Aikatsu’s main driving mantra: hard work and dedication will produce results.
I could definitely identify with Kanzaki Mizuki more than the average person. As a synesthete with perfect pitch, I rarely ever had to practice music. I was the “freak” who could play a song after hearing it once. I could understand why people thought that Mizuki was so special and wonderful and whatever -- but it didn’t make sense to me why she was still practicing. If she was that good, then why put forth the effort? She was good enough as it was, wasn’t she?
If I put any effort into my work, I thought to myself, how much better of a musician would I be?
I met each girl with enthusiasm, and every episode was fun. But it didn’t stop there -- living in NYC meant I had the resources to participate in my own Aikatsu. Every trip to the bookstore yielded a new Aikatsu book or toy. I purchased a coin purse with the Love Moonrise label on it and used it to keep quarters in, for going to the laundry or bodega. One time while at the bodega, I caught a little girl staring at the coin purse and smiled. She didn’t even know where it came from, but it doesn’t take much to inspire a little girl. Could Aikatsu ever come to America? I didn’t know, but I could see how it inspired others without even trying.
By the time I caught completely up, Ichigo was no longer the main character. Her place had been taken by Oozora Akari, a girl who literally stumbled straight through her audition but was still chosen. Akari exemplified what Mizuki had stressed earlier: hard work and dedication would produce results. The results came slowly for Akari, but she finally started landing gigs and found a brand to call her own. She even had her own friends, cool-idol Hikami Sumire and pop model Shinjo Hinaki.
At first, the backlash for this new generation was great: this wasn’t Ichigo, Aoi, and Ran anymore! Would we even hear their stories? But I stayed patient. I hadn’t been around in real-time when Ichigo’s story had come out, but I could understand why Akari’s story was just as important.
I began collecting as many cards as I could, storing them in a binder I bought at the dollar store and trading card sleeves from Target. I collected nearly everything I could get my hands on in person. Pucchigumi, Ciao, the fan books -- it didn’t matter, I was interested. One random day in Books Kinokuniya, I hit the jackpot: they had ordered a couple of copies of a special book published by Ciao promoting Aikatsu. Along with it was Kurebayashi Juri’s school dress and -- more importantly -- an IC card printed like a Starlight student ID.
It meant the world to me, having that ID card. Sure, I could have bought one online, but it meant something that I had found it myself. I had an ID card, so surely I was a student at Starlight now, right? Who cared if I couldn’t jump on a plane and go to Japan? Who also cared if Starlight Academy was just something out of a television series? No big deal, right? I had the ID card. That had to prove something. The ID went into my wallet, where it has stayed ever since then. Every time I open my wallet, I remind myself that I’m a part of Akari’s generation. I really am a student at Starlight.
Now sweetie, you’re probably thinking, Aikatsu isn’t real. Or is it?
I intended to do more Aikatsu, to put my music out into the world. To properly do the hard word and dedication that promised results. My Aikatsu had different plans.
I threw myself into a project that February for free, staying up late to compose and arrange music in the name of Aikatsu. The friend who put on the show was grateful but didn’t want to pay me for a second show, and we fell out. Around the same time, another performance opportunity popped up, a competition with prizes. My voice cracked on stage, but I did my best, even incorporating a Special Appeal into my performance. I had fun until a fight started and the cops ended the competition prematurely. Nobody won.
I felt old and worthless, like I had been wasting my life. When Graham Moore got on the Oscars stage to accept the award for The Imitation Game, he showed me I hadn’t been. I had just been waiting for a different kind of audition. I was weird. I was different.
“I’m gay,” I whispered in that spot between space and time, unable to hide the truth any longer, finally accepting myself. The next day, rumours of a new Aikatsu girl dressed in neon colors hit the Internet so hard it blinded me. I danced in my competition in glowsticks, inspired by the girl with a marionette heart. I created my own Aikatsu story, finally finding a place to belong in the narrative. Whether I share that with the world is dependent on a number of factors, but it still exists, a facade more precious to me now than anything else.
I made friends. I talked to them about Aikatsu. I bought cards online and chatted about each episode. When the Starlight Queen Cup happened in the spring of 2015 instead of fall, we all figured that Akari would be the next one. It made sense. And there would probably be some sort of a change at the end of season 4 to reflect this. But we had until October of 2016 for that, so we could certainly get to Japan and play our own Aikatsu before then, right?
My boyfriend was nothing but understanding about my sexual identity revelation. I told him I was still dedicated to him, to our relationship, to the world we had built together. And I believed he would do the same. How wrong I was.
He took the window seat on the blue train that morning, so I was forced to stare out into the aisle as he told me the girl he cheated on me with wanted him to move out, said I was a bad influence, that I was manipulative and she wasn’t comfortable. Living in NYC was precarious, funds-wise. We were okay, making a living, and he would jeopardize that for both of us by making this third wheel “happy?”
He stayed on the train as I got off at Columbus Circle for a transfer, and staring at the track, a thought occurred to me: I gotta tell Dad. Dad had always said that if I needed financial help to just ask. I didn’t want to, but I was caught between a rock and a hard place.
I caught my transfer and texted him in between stations. “Anything you need, just let me know” was his reply. I got off the train at Bryant Park, and the staircase up and out of the station looked like the light at the end of the tunnel.
And I realized the truth. That my cheating boyfriend could only take me so far. I had to take myself, and I had, more than I had even realized. I could survive in the city without my dad helping me. I wasn’t sure exactly how it would happen, but the voice that had stayed quiet for so many years finally spoke up. Eh, what the hell? Might as well.
I texted him back as I climbed. “I just need you to love me.” It was raining in Midtown; God’s tears knew what was coming.
“Always,” my dad texted back. Yeah, right, I thought to myself. You didn’t say that ten years ago when you found out I was dating a girl. You said I was a disgrace. That I would ruin your reputation around town. Those words caused me to hide who I was for years and effectively stopped any personal growth. But I am more than your sweet girl. I am my own person, and step by step, I will grow into the person I choose to become.
“Even if I like another girl?” I texted, then rushed down Sixth Avenue with my head ducked. I waited for the text of anger. It never came.
I am Oozora Akari -- slow to blossom, but blossoming, finally, for sure, once I am finally given the care and love I need.
I always thought that the Starlight Crown was passed down from generation to generation. And perhaps that was true from Mizuki to Otome to Sakura. We never saw any of their crowns, save for Sakura. But (and this is not an important spoiler) when the new Starlight Queen gets her tiara, it is not the same one Sakura wore.
Who inherits the old Starlight Crown, then? It is every single one of us. Whether you are a young child, a netizen, an ojisan -- or an obasan! -- we are the ones who inherit the Starlight Crown. We are the new Starlight Queens. Ichigo gave the crystal mic to Akari, and now Akari gives it to us, and it is up to us how we remember this series and let it continue.
For continue it shall -- in Photokatsu, yes, and the mini-movie that will come out later. But also in our hearts, and in our heads. In the activities of idol-me, whether seen or unseen. In doujinshi, and fanfictions, and mixes and art and in the eyes of every person who has been touched by a Starlight idol. And any of these activities are valid, regardless as to whether or not we agree with someone else’s interpretation. Would it be Aikatsu-like to interrupt their own idol activities? You don’t know what life path they are on. You don’t know if they are first-auditioning-for-Starlight Akari, or Pon-Pon-Crepe Akari, or Searching-For-Berries or Bungee-Jumping or Luminas Akari, or even newer. We are all Akari, as we are all Ichigo and we are all Mizuki.
Some may say the shining line of admiration ends with episode 178. That the original generation of Aikatsu is over. But for me to say that it is over is like pretending I never came out to my parents. Instead, I will live Aikatsu, every single day of my life, until the day I die. And I will always keep my student ID with me, prepared to tell anybody who asks, “to idols, cards are life itself.”
These cards saved me. And if they saved you, then we can continue running together, fighting on in our idol activities.