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Is Japanese Anime Becoming Gloomy and Dark?

Filled with complex figures that young people can easily relate to, the anime "Oshi no Ko" uncovers the dark side of the Japanese entertainment industry.



Manga books including "Oshi no Ko" in the front row at a Tokyo bookstore. (© JAPAN Forward)   

Except for my elementary school years, I was never a die-hard fan of anime or comics. In fact, with sincere regret, due to my athletic side - a former baseball player who devoted my entire youth to the sport - I  had distanced myself from this distinct Japanese culture. That was presumably because I thought it was not cool. Now it is a worldwide phenomenon. 

However, lo and behold, I have returned to the community thanks to my anime-loving friends. However, I still need to consume much more anime before I become truly recognized as a part of the culture. Now I have gone through the basics. I completed my Naruto's and tried to catch up with my One Piece's. The latter is an epic that spans over a thousand episodes. Moreover, it has a divided reputation among the fan base regarding its live-action series aired on Netflix

Nevertheless, there is one masterpiece that has propelled me to invest more time than I used to in anime and manga. That is a story called "Oshi no Ko" (推しの子), which translates to "My Fave's Child." 

Manga books in a bookstore in Tokyo. (© JAPAN Forward)  

About the Story

The story of "Oshi no Ko" is nothing like Naruto or One Piece. In the former, Naruto seeks to become the head of the ninja clan. And in the latter, Lufi aspires to become the King of the Pirates. Instead, Aqua, the main character of "Oshi no Ko", wants something very different. His final goal is to extract retribution from his father who possibly killed his mother, a popular singer who gave birth to him at the age of sixteen.  

The story is intriguing in many ways. First, it involves reincarnation. The title "Oshi no Ko" is literally what the main protagonist is: a former die-hard fan of a young female singer who reincarnated to become the child of his "fave." 

Second, it uncovers the dark side of the Japanese entertainment business and comic industry. This is an open secret to many but the gripping details are known to few. 

Third, the story is filled with fascinating characters who are not superhumans but complex figures. They have common flaws and desires that Japanese youngsters can easily relate to. That partly explains the reason for its success.

Manga books in a bookstore in Tokyo. (© JAPAN Forward)  

'Oshi no Ko' the Phenomenon

However, describing "Oshi no Ko" as a success may be an understatement. More than fifteen million copies of the comic have been published cumulatively, and it has been translated into English. 

It also has been turned into an animation and has ranked high on Netflix's list of popular series. Furthermore, its theme song has become a viral hit song. Reportedly, Toho and Amazon Prime are considering making a live-action movie out of it. At this point, describing it as a success is insufficient; it is a social phenomenon.


To be honest, a warning for potential readers or viewers is appropriate. "Oshi no Ko" is not a story that you would be comfortable reading alone or watching pleasantly with the people close to you. You need to take into account its dark undertone. 

It covers teenage pregnancy, cyberbullying, and parental neglect. These are accompanied by other serious issues underlying society as a whole. But with all the details that want to force you to leave the scene, the story is a page-turner and renders one anxious to know how the plot will unfold. You just cannot resist it.

The population of elderly in Japan continues to grow. (© Sankei)

Revealing the Structural Challenges of Society

At first, when I contemplated the success of "Oshi no Ko" despite its gloomy story, I thought it was because it reflected the malaise felt acutely by younger Japanese. The entry wages for new college and non-college graduates have gone up in recent years. Nevertheless, there is still a sense that their generation cannot imagine that they will be better off than their parents. 

There are structural reasons for this, such as the aging of society and declining population. They impose more burdens on younger people to sustain the welfare system, the source of the relative calm and stability of the country. Also, even though young people assume social change is needed, the disproportionate influence of the older generation has stalled such a transformation.

From episode 990 of the anime ONE PIECE broadcast on Fuji TV on September 5, 2021 ((C) Eiichiro Oda Shueisha Fuji TV Toei Animation)

Reflecting on Worse Times

However, before making a rushed assessment one needs to think retrospectively about the social circumstances when the "classics" such as Naruto or One Piece entered the scene in the late 1990s. Despite their uplifting undertones, in the real world, the economy was in the worst shape it could be. The burst of the bubble economy had led to the failure of financial institutions once thought of as "too big to fail" to fail. 

Furthermore, the unemployment rate had been steadily ticking up throughout the '90s. It reached 5.5 percent in 2002 - the highest in decades. Sadly, the suicide rate rose precipitously from the middle of the '90s. It reached an all-time high in 2003 - claiming 34,427 souls. 

In this context, the success of Naruto and One Piece, with their glowing personalities, shows us that pop culture does not always reflect actual societal sentiment. Rather, it could be an avatar that represents an aspect lacking from it. For example, bold individuals like Naruto and Lufi, who unhesitantly ask for the moon, were indeed absent from Japanese society at the turn of the century.

Coming back to "Oshi no Ko", although it may be a product of the social environment, it does not tell the whole story. In comparison to the times when Naruto and One Piece were first released, the economy has not dramatically improved. However, the labor environment is overwhelmingly favorable due to the ongoing labor shortage. Also, the unemployment rate has almost halved since then. 

At the same time, looking back at old Japanese animations, gloomy or even apocalyptic undertones were distinct features of Japanese animation such as AkiraGhost in the ShellEvangelion, and earlier productions by Studio Ghibli. From this point of view, it could be said that "Oshi no Ko" is not an anomaly, but an inheritor of this old tradition that could be traced back decades.

Then and Now, What's Changed?

So if the worst has passed, what explains the gloomy and dark narrative that underlines not only "Oshi no Ko" but other animations that share similar characteristics? Why are we seeing an emergence of this new genre, which is absorbed with darkness? 


Also, the emerging genre is not only embittered with darkness but takes place in existing Japanese locations.  This makes them "realistic" while they are also accompanied by  "fantastical" elements. To name a few, besides "Oshi no Ko," this new genre includes "Jujutsu Kaisen," "Chainsaw Man," and "Zom 100: Bucket List of the Dead".

The secret to the success of "Oshi no Ko" may have a simple answer: the tastes and preferences of society have shifted. However, it could also be boiled down to a simpler reason. 

When I was waiting at the station, the cover of the comic version of "Oshi no Ko" caught my eye. The owner of the book was a little girl accompanied by her mother. I don't know if she was capable of understanding the pressing issues covered in it at her age. Or if she comprehended the emotions that the teenage characters were trying to grapple with. But the fact that even young individuals like her had an interest in it attests to its wide-ranging popularity. 

Stories with good plots are not always successful. But they have a higher potential for being so. 


Author: Jio Kamata

Read other essays in English by Jio Kamata on JAPAN Forward.

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