“Say, have you heard of ‘Oshi’?”
This is the opening line of 2019 NHK dorama Dakara Watashi wa Oshimashita (English Title: “My Favorite Member”), in which a 30-year-old office worker stumbles across a performance by underground idols and is slowly and inexorably pulled down the rabbit hole to chika idol wotadom. This entirely relatable synopsis was enough to garner the show a high priority on My Dramalist as soon as Papermaiden made me aware of its existence. And as much as I wanted to binge all eight 30-minute episodes as soon the fansubs were complete, I disciplined myself and slowly devoured the show over the course of a few days.
It was a rewarding effort. The dorama shines as an incredibly instructive, rewarding and, in the end, empathetic spotlight on the world of underground idol. In delivering this detailed insight, the show adopts a mostly naturalistic tone and doesn’t sugarcoat or romanticize the struggles of the idols or wota. Although the story unfolds through a melodramatic plot device, both the idols and their fans are portrayed as real, imperfect people trying to build a better versions of themselves.
If nothing else, the show answers the question I saw posed on Twitter the other day: “Is the ‘w’ in ‘wota’ silent?”
Dakara Watashi wa Oshimashita opens with Ai Endo being questioned by police about a man who fell from a building. Her narrative to the police tells the dorama’s story in flashbacks: how she stumbles into an underground idol live house while trying to retrieve her lost cell phone; how she finds Hana, the awkward idol who will become her oshi; and how she builds relationships with the wota while she gradually transforms into a wota herself.
Hana is a member of Sunny Side Up, an egg themed underground idol unit. Over the course of each episode we see Ai’s gradual transformation from “I’m a fan not an otaku” to Hana’s most devoted wota. For example, in episode two, we learn that although Hana is the least talented member of the group, she is also their top earner thanks to a single fan who buys all 60 of her cheki tickets at each performance. By monopolizing her cheki, he also guarantees that no one else is able to interact with her. As he becomes a growing source of distress to Hana and a toxic presence in the fandom, Ai strategizes with the other wota to get the unit management to adopt a new cheki system.
Further episodes introduce personal and professional difficulties that impact the inhabitants of this unique world (including a crash course in Japanese contractual labor rights). The idols struggle with issues such as:
- Getting paid (or not) for their idol work;
- Holding other part time jobs to make ends meet;
- Trying to balance school and being an idol;
- The sometimes humiliating experience of trying to grow an audience on platforms like Showroom;
- Making unallowed contact with or secretly accepting financial support from fans.
Meanwhile, the fans have their own difficulties like:
- Hiding their idol activities and being too embarrassed to admit being a wota;
- Finding enough money to support their oshi in an environment where member and group popularity is synonymous with the purchasing power of their fans;
- Fighting proxy wars with other wota and their competing oshi;
- Questioning if the image their oshi projects is their actual personality;
- How much of their idol’s true self is being hidden behind a mask?
- How much is real?
- Does it matter?
Being a Japanese dorama, certain tropes must be followed (I think it’s the law) so the show does make a melodramatic tumble around episode seven. Fortunately, it pulls off a nice dismount for a satisfactory ending. Other than that trip into melodrama, the writing is outstanding and the acting is generally excellent. The sets and cinematography also do an exceptional job of recreating the look and feel of an authentic, underground live house. Especially during the performance scenes, the filmmakers are able to effectively recreate the atmosphere and audience interactions of an actual chika idol live.
In addition to this faithful attention to detail, one of the most encouraging things about Dakara Watashi wa Oshimashita is it’s avoidance of stereotypes when it comes to the portrayal of the idol otaku. While Japanese dorama have largely abandoned the universal portrayal of wota as criminally deranged stalkers and psychopaths, the current stereotype popular on Japanese TV is of sweaty, fat, and mostly-harmless nerds who are incapable of appropriate social behavior, rational emotional responses or coherent thought. In Dakara Watashi wa Oshimashita, with one significant exception, the idol otaku are portrayed as generally compassionate, articulate, and, while often damaged, just a little bit odd. This is a much more generous depiction and, I feel, much more in line with reality.
Overall, I highly recommend taking the time to find and view Dakara Watashi wa Oshimashita. (I’m reluctant to post any links to full episodes since it has not, to my knowledge, been licensed outside of Japan; it has been fansubbed by HPriest @ d-addicts.) For Western fans of chika idol, the series offers insight into the business of independent idol, the underground live house environment and the Japanese wota fandom. For fans of dorama, this is one of those special series that leaves behind the majority of tropes and cliches that fill the medium and displays what the genre can be when screenwriters are largely allowed to follow their instincts.