“I want to be an idol,” is one of the first things she clearly remembers saying to her parents. She had been about five or six years old at the time, sitting on the sofa and pointing at the television. Back then, people had smiled at her for saying so, patted her head and told her that it was nice to have dreams.
They don’t do that anymore.
“Shinobu, there are more important things to think about nowadays than wanting to dance around like a harlot on television,” her father says to her if she even breathes the word idol in his presence. “If you need a job so badly, there’s always still cleanup work to be done in Iwate, so go take a bus there and roll up your sleeves.”
Her father doesn’t understand that there are other ways to help people than just picking up rubble and rebuilding knocked-down things. There’s misery, too, and crushed dreams that can only be brushed away by showing people something shiny and hopeful and new.
“Shinobu-chan, you need to focus on your schoolwork and getting into a nice college right now,” is what her mother says to her whenever she looks longingly at idol guest stars on the television set. “Idols’ careers only last a handful of years, dear. Not many of them can actually last long enough to become real stars. And with the economy these days, why, I hear that most idol agencies are actually being disbanded. Don’t you think it would be much better to work at a nice stable company that has job security?”
She knows that her mother is just trying to look out for her, but it still frustrates her enough that she wants to cry sometimes. Underneath her mother’s words, she hears the lack of faith.
Her school friends are more honest, or at least much blunter. “Kudou-chan, um, to be an idol you’ve got to be able to sing and dance and act and all kinds of stuff. Dreams are great and all, but I don’t think any of us could really ever be one. Besides, you’d have to go to, like, Tokyo or Osaka or some really big city if you wanted to try out, you know? We’d only be able to go to places like that when we’re grownups or on school trips or stuff.”
The boys are even worse. “It’s not like you’re ugly or anything, Kudou, but idols have to be really cute. And, uh, you’re not any kind of Hidaka Ai here.”
She knows by now: Nobody believes that she can do this. Nobody will support her. Nobody even thinks that she’s serious. But she also knows that there must have been a time when every idol in the world—even the biggest of the big-name stars who have become real voice actors and radio personalities and singers—probably had a time when they felt just like her.
Her feelings won’t lose to anyone’s.
So she quietly sends in a notice to her school one evening, then wakes up the next morning at 4 am. She picks up the bags she’d packed full of the clothes she’ll need and all her favorite trinkets, puts on her scarf and hat and jacket, and leaves the folded letter she’d agonized over on the kitchen table.
She bows to her house at the gate, and doesn’t look back.
Kudou Shinobu, aspiring idol, learns first thing that taking all the trains south from Aomori to Tokyo when you don’t have the money to switch to the Shinkansen at your earliest opportunity is both deathly boring and terrifying. She can’t always make it into a seat, and after the first time someone’s sweaty palm grazes her behind, she always stands stiff and terrified and waits for the inevitable next hand and the next and the next.
Changing trains is terrifying, too. Being late for one would throw off her schedule, which would then make setbacks for her plan of circling the various agencies on her list to apply for a position directly today. If she has to put off some of them, the question would be which ones to drop, and then whether or not she should give up on applications in favor of sticking to her audition schedule or not.
But she doesn’t miss a single train. She doesn’t take the time to revel in or wonder at her good luck; she just keeps a close eye on her luggage and runs through the station to the next one with her heart in her throat.
When she’s actually able to sit down, she pulls out the stack of applications she printed at the library and chews the end of her pencil while she fills them out.
She hasn’t bothered with any of the really big talent agencies, at least not yet. After being downsized, and especially after having lost some of its biggest stars, it seems as though 765 Pro isn’t taking any new applications these days. And she knows that 961 Pro is out of her league. Besides that, even though 961’s top acts are high-billing and leap to stardom instantly, they seem to have a high turnover rate: Project Fairy and Jupiter both dominated the charts, but then those idols drifted off to other productions very quickly. Whether they’d been fired or they’d quit, she can tell that that applying to a company like that isn’t a good idea.
876 Pro is supposedly looking for new talent now that its star-making trio has left the nest, but the idea of submitting a resume to such a well-known agency makes her giddy with adrenaline. She’s printed out the form and fills it out with palms going damp, but she has no idea if she’ll actually be able to turn it in.
What she does know is the thing she likes best about 876 Pro—its lady producers. She’ll be less nervous if she can work with a woman, she knows, and so she specifically looked for agencies that have them. Firebird Pro is new, but a few of its idols are already making their way up the ranks, and it has a good reputation. There are others, too, but not that many. She’s done her research, she knows which places to avoid at all costs, but there is always the worry of sexual harassment from a male producer.
And that thought, especially now after the train gropers, is making her feel a little bit panicky. In Aomori, she never had to deal with anything like this. She never wanted to have to.
If it’s for the sake of making her dreams come true, she can grit her teeth through this much—she’s not unworthy enough to let this make her run back home right away—but she doesn’t want to keep dealing with it forever.
So, as long as there’s a choice involved, she’ll go for the productions she knows she’ll be happiest at first. This entire week, her whole self-allotted test-drive to see if she is right or everyone else is about her dream—it’s an experiment to see how far she can fly by the seat of her pants on all this momentum.
She folds up the papers, tucks them and her pencil back into her purse, and breathes out, waiting for the announcement that she’s reached the Tokyo station.
It is with cramped legs and her wheeled suitcase rattling after her that Shinobu hurtles down the sidewalk, threading her way through the massive waves of people. Aomori isn’t so sparsely populated a place as to have no cities, but none of them have quite the size or the noise of Tokyo. She’s seen this place on television all of her life, and it’s not adequate preparation at all. If she spends too much time gawking she’ll definitely panic, and so she double-checks her directions and just keeps moving.
The transit is so short it seems like a joke after she’s spent literally the entire day on the train: It doesn’t even take twenty minutes for her to be making her way into the small building where Firebird Pro is located. One ride on a rickety elevator, and she’s staggering into the production agency’s lobby, past the curious stares of a few girls loitering on the floor, straight up to the producer’s desk.
She gets the vague impression of the woman’s short hair, black clothes, and glasses, but only that: She pulls out the correct neatly-folded sheet of paper, holds it out, and bows from the hips so that all she can see is the floor and her shoes.
“My name is Kudou Shinobu, I’m sixteen years old,” she takes a pause to gasp and swallow, “and I would like the opportunity to try to debut as an idol in this company!”
The thirty seconds before her application is removed from her hands are the longest in her entire life. She can hear her heart pounding in her ears. The producer isn’t saying anything, but the faint sounds of paper moving seem to indicate that she’s reading the paper over carefully.
“Um,” she says after she waits another agonizing sixty seconds. “I—I came to Tokyo in order to become an idol. Nobody I’ve ever talked to about my dream has supported me… not even my parents—but I’ll do my best, I’ll definitely work as hard as I can, so please—help me make my dream come true!”
“First of all, stand up, because you’re going to faint if you stay in that pose for much longer.”
It’s hard to read the producer’s tone of voice, so Shinobu lifts herself up a little bit, head still bowed. The woman across the desk is adjusting her glasses and looking at her application with an intense expression.
“This company is very small. We only own three floors of this building, and we only have seventeen idols working here right now. It’s going to be cramped, and it might be a bit of an upward climb for someone who doesn’t have any experience in idol work, but I’m not going to refuse someone who’s come all this way from Aomori on their own.
“Consider yourself hired on a trial basis, Kudou Shinobu. Take a little while to relax, and then you can meet everyone else who’s in the building right now, and we can discuss what kinds of jobs you’d like to try.”
The producer puts the papers down on her desk with what’s almost definitely a small smile, and Shinobu finds herself suddenly unable to breathe.
“Thank you so much! I promise you’re not going to regret this, Producer!”