Being an idol is not what Nina Kamiyama expected. It is what Nina dreamed of as a child, becoming an idol to make people happy. And it is what she worked hard for and finally achieved as the center of the idol group Pure Club. In Pure Club, she absolutely shined, performing under the pseudonym Karen Amamiya. But at a handshake event, Karen is attacked by a knife-wielding stranger which left her traumatized and scarred, physically and emotionally. Not Your Idol by Aoi Makino is Nina’s story as she adjusts back into her life as a high school student, shedding the “Karen” identity, her idol status.
Not Your Idol is also not what I expected. The description reads that Nina “shuns her femininity and starts dressing as a boy,” which at first glance I somehow interpreted as Nina identifying as a boy. This is not the case, and perhaps I should read these blurbs a little closer. Rather, Not Your Idol instead starts off strong with what seems to be the primary thread: exploring the ways in which characters evaluate and value others and themselves, based solely on physical appearance, all filtered through the lens of Nina working through her personal trauma.
This is clear from basically page two, as high school boys are joking and commenting on their female classmates: “this one wears too much make-up”, “I like that one—she’s small.” Hikaru, one of the other main characters, is instead focused on his Judo training, until he bumps, literally, into Nina. Both Hikaru and Nina and their interactions, establish the clear dichotomy: instead of being driven externally by their appearances like their classmates, both Nina and Hikaru are driven by internal factors: Hikaru by his passion for Judo and Nina in her hiding and healing from trauma.
This is even clearer with the introduction of Nina’s foil, her classmate Miku. Miku, who is focused on her appearance and the traditionally feminine aspects of her appearance, like skirts and makeup, continually presents the opposite, more “idol” version of Nina’s identity. She questions why Nina doesn’t wear a skirt, despite having a good figure. Nina shoots back, “Is that all I have going for me?”
The manga continues to bring up instances of assault or threats to Nina and her female classmates. The narrative weaves in and around a range of reactions from classmates, including victim-blaming and ideas of who “can” or “can’t” be victims, but without ever delving too deeply or sometimes without any satisfying measure of resolve before flowing into the next frames. This could seem at times to the detriment of the story, but ultimately instead keeps the story centered wholly on Nina. There are moments of empowerment, where Nina is standing tall and full-framed, but for the most part the story and the art remain intimate and close. Panels are close-ups of eyes, of faces, of hands. The reader stays close to Nina, frame by frame, reminding the reader that the story is filtered through her, her trauma, and her journey.
It’s hard to say exactly where Not Your Idol is heading after just the first volume. The relationship between Nina and Hikaru, who discovered her former idol identity, takes a dramatic and tense turn at the end. Nina is clearly suffering under post-traumatic stress with triggered flashbacks to her attack and attacker. And what more, whether it is conflict or friendship, may develop between Nina and Miku? They are so clearly on two opposite ends of a spectrum ranging from embracing femininity and attention to shunning both completely.
Teen and adult readers who are ready for a slow drama, intimate and tense, and who are willing to sit with complicated themes with no quick, ready answers, may find that with Not Your Idol. The content may be a little too mature for younger readers. My hope is that Not Your Idol will find more similarities to books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson or Just Listen by Sarah Dessen, rather than the way abuse is treated in manga like Hot Gimmick by Miki Aihara or Black Bird by Kanoko Sakurakoji.
Not Your Idol, Vol. 1
By Aoi Makino
Viz Media, 2020
Publisher Age Rating: T+ (16+)
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
Character Traits: East Asian Straight