Shihono Ryo And The Hard Work Of Turning Eighteen

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First and foremost, I want to wish Shihono Ryo a very happy eighteenth birthday. She’s brought much happiness to her fans and deserves happiness of her own for such generosity.

It doesn’t seem very long ago that  Ryo turned sixteen and was no longer a U15 idol. (I tend to include fifteen-year-olds in the grouping, even if technically the term is “under 15”. Enough 15-year-olds appear in the U15 mags that it seemed a fair judgment call.) It was as sad as it was inevitable – time waits for no wota, after all, and we thank heaven for little girls because they grow up in the most delightful way. I was watching other favorite idols cross the same threshold towards ever-encroaching adulthood, such as Tsugunaga Momoko. So even as I pledged fealty to these greying stars, I also began searching for new U15s to occupy my attention. (Hello, Koike Rina! Hello, Watanabe Mayu!)

And now that Ryo’s turning eighteen, she no longer strikes me as a junior idol at all. The age of legal majority in Japan is twenty, but there’s something about turning eighteen – at least in this American wota’s imagination – that suggests a rite-of-passage, a crossing of some significant transom. For me she’s now a gravure idol, period – and as a result, now inhabiting the same imaginative space as Ogura Yuko, Kijima Noriko, Hoshino Aki, Tani Momoko, and so many others. She’s gone from a big fish in a small pond to a small fish in a bigger pond.

Up to now, Ryo’s work has always involved intimations of sexuality, but played firmly against tropes of purity and innocence. That’s the whole point of the junior idol subgenre, to delight with the in-between-ness of adolescence – not a girl, not yet a woman. It is the ephemerality of this young womanhood, the sense of transition, which often makes the best junior idols powerfully heartbreaking.

(And on a tangent, this is why the U12 subgenre baffles me, as those models are clearly still just girls and nowhere near womanhood. However, the celebration of innocence too often gives way to the stronger intimations that one finds in U15 idols, which is a disturbing cognitive dissonance since there’s no nascent maturity there at all. I know U12  has its audience, but I’m clearly not it. The aesthetics just don’t make sense.)

Some people may think it’s easy to be a teenage girl and pose in a bikini and have everybody love you. (At least, everybody who’s willing to admit they love you to love you.) But I would contend that it’s much more than that, and that Ryo emerged as something of an idol superstar for both her genetic gifts and uncanny abilities. After all, many teenage girls want to be famous in some manner: some luck out with especially striking looks or some kind of talent, and they become actresses or pop idols or fashion models. Most girls aren’t as lucky, and if they want that media attention have to consider showing some flexibility in what kind of fame they achieve.

For better or worse, the junior idol genre features magazine spreads and even whole photobooks with plain looking girls trying their damnedest to stand out and look sexy or pretty or especially moe. And again, it’s for these aesthetic – as opposed to moral – reasons that I object to much of Aida Garo’s work as a U15 photographer: he takes his models and tries to work his magic to make them seem more charismatic and attractive than they actually are. That’s fair enough, given that all idols receive such treatment to some degree. However, Aida’s often worked with models with little genetic gifts or inherent talent, then gilds the idol lily further by sexing them up with lots of thongs and lingerie and questionable poses. The over-sexing of these youths is an attempt to hide just how poorly they fare as idols in their own right. What we’re often left with (and there are notable exceptions in Aida’s stable, such as Irie Saaya and Kiri Sari) are unfortunate girls in revealing outfits, with too little of the charm that makes an idol such a transcendent experience for the wota.

So as with many other things, Sturgeon’s Law is very much the norm for junior idols. Luckily, Ryo was part of the blessed ten percent. Ryo was not only good looking naturally, she knew how to manipulate her image to great effect. She had striking features from the start of her idol career, but that was often tempered by a certain awkwardness – which in the junior idol world, is a plus. She wasn’t some poor little girl placed in a thong and told she was prettier than she was – Ryo was clearly beautiful, and never had to fight for that kind of recognition, and clearly had the confidence that went with such a gift.

But if that was it, I doubt she’d have gone as far as she did. If the world of junior idols is about celebrating the in-between nature of adolescence, then it is a gift to be able to capture as wide a range of emotions and attitudes as possible. One need not be a nicomo to know the value of that X factor found in the top tiers of modeling. A limited image repertoire doesn’t preclude success in the junior idol field – Ayukawa Honoka and Tada Mizuho didn’t have much range beyond over-sugared enthusiasm and thinly veiled naive lustfulness, but that was more than enough in their cases. However, it can make one stand out. Yamanaka Mayumi, for instance, is a rather average looking girl – however, she projects a vibrant and even alluring image that makes her a standout junior idol. If I saw Mayumi on the street, I wouldn’t think twice. But in her photo spreads and her DVDs, a much more haunting beauty emerges.

Ryo’s image repertoire had a wider range than most any other junior idol: she could do the whole po-faced girl in a soaking wet seifuku thing, sure, but she also had a knowing smile and precocious playfulness which made her seem considerably older. She could be exultant in one part of a DVD – the silly girl having fun – but also convincingly do the moody dark-humored girl in the next scene. And she could project teenage insouciance better than anyone: I remember one DVD where she’s being interviewed and she’s eating some snack pretzels as she answered questions. The matter-of-fact way she answered, the unwitting sexual suggestiveness in the way she ate her food, and the clear sense that she was laughing at the camera and the silliness of her situation made for a dazzling performance on her part. It was Ryo being Ryo, during some studio downtime – but it was also clearly a performance of Ryo being Ryo the idol.

And now, having turned eighteen, Ryo is at a crossroads. She must consider the new reality of being a neophyte gravure idol where the likes of Hoshino Aki and Ogura Yuko dominate. Moreover, there’s Kijima Noriko, who looks-wise could well be Ryo’s older, bustier sister. And one has to wonder: is she up to this task? Are the skill sets and expectations for being a mature gravure idol so different from her work as a junior idol?

Ryo may not have to compete right away – she can be as moe as she likes and be convincing as such – but the horizon is clear. Equally important, the kid gloves are off. But she’ll have to be more forthrightly sexual in her image, even if she continues to emphasize her more adolescent image. (Which isn’t a bad thing – Yukorin milked it well into her twenties.) Her figure, tall and lanky and even a bit scrawny, may work against her to some degree, as full figured models tend to fare better in gravure than Ryo’s body type. What could be deemed coltish in junior idol circles is just plain skinny when measured up against the likes of a Hoshino Aki.

And yet, she does have her history and experience, and it does count for something – that is, as long as her fans continue to think of her in that fashion. I’m sure most Ryo wota will continue to follow her work and even hotly anticipate whatever new boundaries she will cross as a more mature gravure model. Also, her experience at projecting a charismatic image, of winning over her audience, should serve her in good stead, as will the boldness and sense of humor that infused much of her work.  Her bona fides may diminish just a little in the non-junior gravure world, but that’s the same as high school grades not worth a damn once you’re in graduate school. She has a good foundation to build from, and a strong  support system at her disposal – that’s invaluable.

I’ll contend that an idol is an idol is an idol, no matter what subgenre of idoldom one inhabits. At its best, the idol-wota relationship is always a wonderful experience whereby everyday infatuations are elevated into a publicly intimate artform. The wota worships the idol in a manner reminiscent of courtly love from medieval times, and the person best served by that dynamic is the legally unreachable and still-maturing junior idol. (I’ve written on this previously in a sorta-manifesto for junior idols.) The wota asks for nothing but to love the idol in his own manner – one that keeps the ideal alive because it keeps a clear demarcation between imagination and reality.

In return, the perfect idol knows how to play out the strange, mediated intimacy that is worshipped by the  wota. She knows how to seem as everyday and real as possible, even if it’s just an image she projects. She knows how to stir up dreams and desires in a wota, but still keep the  wota at a safe remove. She has to exult in the fact that she is being worshiped – that is, show gratitude that anybody’s willing to look at her in the first place – but not let that be a sign of weakness or approachability. The perfect idol knows how to make you love her without ever letting you mistake that love for something substantive, something that takes real work and commitment. She knows the wota-idol relationship is simply a game, a divertissement played out in the wota’s heart and mind, but which doesn’t infringe on the meatier, more real love that is a part of everyday life.

Ryo understood the game, knew how much to reveal (as seen in the Record photobook), but also made clear she was often holding back. This may all devolve to a wota relativism – one idol is better suited to a certain wota than another – but the popularity of Ryo’s work and her longevity in the junior idol field… the fact that she reached the end of line and is now no longer a “junior” anything… is a testament to her gifts and what she’s achieved. The best may well be ahead of her, as difficult as it can be to imagine.

Of course, there’s a chance she may give up on being a gravure model. Now would be a good time to bail, after all, and focus on her music career – or maybe even pursue higher education. It’s not unheard-of for an idol to reach the cusp of maturity and decide maturity means no longer being an idol at all.

But hopefully Ryo will continue her career, and develop as an idol and geinou. And lest we forget, she’s also frozen in time for those fans who want to remember her as the junior idol legend. Ryo’s wota still have her photobooks and DVDs from the past six years, and they are still amazing. I still find my breath taken away by the magnificence of Record – and her very first photobook is still a thing of great beauty. As a fan, I welcome her growing up, but am very very grateful that her youthful development has been so well-documented and marketed.

If anything, the future looks bright for Ryo, and the shining monument of her junior idol years stands as a hopeful omen for what lies ahead. Happy Ryo Day, everyone!