Warning: spoilers may be forthcoming if you haven’t read the manga’s first volume or seen the anime’s first episode.
We all deal with trauma in different ways, and Aquamarine Hoshino has two traumas on his plate: his murder in his past life and the murder of his second-life mother right in front of him. It almost does not matter that they are linked except that solving one means solving the other. Even though he is a grown man in a teenager’s skin, he has a lot to deal with. One of the most striking things about this second volume – which, according to series writer Aka Akasaka, is where the story begins – is how Aqua has positioned himself as the so-called man of the family in the 1950s sense. He believes himself to be the most mature member of the Hoshino family. He sees it as his role to protect his twin sister Ruby from both herself and the carnivorous Japanese idol industry, barely factoring in their adoptive mother into his plans.
This is likely partly due to his previous life as a doctor. He knew Ruby in her existence as Sarina, a young teen who died during his residency. Although there was nothing he could have done for her, he may still carry that scar on his soul. He was also in the position of being able to care for others; it was, in fact, his job, and since he has retained his brain in a wholesale sense, he cannot see himself as just a teen boy whose mother was murdered. He’s also an adult man who should have been able to do more. Aqua himself does not seem to register this as guilt, but that is what it looks like from the outside, and the ways that he sabotages Ruby’s attempts to audition for idol groups are a ruthless way of assuaging his feelings.
He also has a clearer picture of what the Japanese entertainment industry can do to a person. This is because he was an adult when he died, whereas Ruby was still a child. However, it is also likely because he has worked with Director Gotanda for years. Initially, Aqua thought he would solve the mystery of the double murders by becoming an actor, but he ultimately decided to try to work behind the camera, and Gotanda has been giving him that perspective for a decade. Gotanda’s a bit of a cynic himself, and that may fuel Aqua’s perception of the idol machine that chews up young people before spitting them out to fend for themselves. In Aqua’s mind, that’s what killed Ai, and he does not want that for Ruby. He may not be going about it in the best way, but his machinations form an interesting counterpoint to Ruby’s bright-eyed optimism.
That Aqua is the ultimate cynic when compared to his sister (and, to a degree, his adoptive mother, who isn’t quite as down on things as he is) is what helps to give this story its edge. I’ve said before that it’s a bit of a Perfect Blue redux, and Aqua’s calculating nature is a major factor in making Oshi no Ko its own thing. When he meets his former acting partner, Kana, now a second year at the same high school he and Ruby enroll in, he’s offered the chance to get closer to one of his potential suspects in Ai’s death but to do it, he’ll have to take an acting role. Kana is convinced that he’s not giving his acting chops enough credit, and by the end of the volume, it’s looking like she may be right, as Aqua single-handedly saves a mediocre drama series. But his cynical nature and understanding of human darkness allow him to do it, which isn’t quite what Kana is talking about…or perhaps it is. Kana has gone from adored child star to a nearly washed-up has-been, so she’s hardly Little Miss Sunshine herself. The implication is that to survive in the entertainment industry, you have to be more like Aqua than Ruby, and it may be that Kana strikes the perfect balance.
With this second volume and the start of the main story, Oshi no Ko comes into its own. The first volume was good, but it risked alienating readers with its edgy plot twist of Ai’s murder; indeed, it wasn’t maintaining its promise to its readers, which is always a dangerous position for a writer to take. (Less so with the intended audience age for this series, but it didn’t work for me.) But now that we’re in the meat of the narrative, Akasaka can use a bit more subtlety in his criticism of Japan’s entertainment industry and how it affects young people who enter it with Ruby’s starry-eyed dreams of glory. As Aqua moves through the plot in his quest to solve the mystery, he unearths the wriggling insects hiding underneath the glittery rocks, and that many of the production staff aren’t pleased about him fixing their lackluster drama says something. This series doesn’t revel so much in its cynicism and darkness as it wants us to notice those elements. When you add that to a two-pronged murder mystery, it becomes a story that only improves the more you read.
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