Back Street Girls: Gokudolls, originally a crime-comedy-idol manga by Jasmine Gyuh has been adopted to an anime, movie, and TV drama. It has a simple yet controversial plot: three yakuza men are forced to undergo sex reassignment surgeries to become J-Pop idols.
The series follows three members of the Inukin yakuza family, Kentaro Yamamoto, Ryo Tachibana and Kazuhiko Sugihara. After messing up an important job, the yakuza boss gives them two choices: honorably commit suicide in hara-kiri style, or go to Thailand to get a sex reassignment surgery to transform into a female idol group. After a year of grueling training and extensive medical procedures, the trio, Airi Yamamoto, Mari Tachibana and Chika Sugihara, form a girl group and break into the underground J-Pop idol scene.
A live action movie was released this February 8, 2019 and a TV drama Back Street Girls -Gokudolls- officially debuted on February 18th on MBS before being released on TBS two days later. The series have six episodes in full. The actresses who play the Gokudolls themselves released a full abum titled IDOL Kills that went on sale February 13th.The anime was also released on Netflix.
So, what’s with the hype? How does this bizarre manga keep getting adaptations, and Is it worth a watch?
The majority of reviews by Japanese anime-lovers have a positive response towards the manga and adaptations but there are mixed responses from western viewers. One reviewer wrote on Anime News Network, “It’s equal parts offensive, baffling, and just plain bad, and yet Netflix decided this would be a good show to pick up, dub, and advertise.” Anime Feminist’s writer criticized this anime as it has “transphobia at its core,” as transitioning to become women is given a choice for three yakuza to save their lives, which suggest that being treated as a woman is the worst possible thing that could ever happen to men. The writer also mentioned that the three ex-yakuza idols get slapped around to the breaking point for laughs which suggests that acts of violence towards women is acceptable on screen.
Transgender is always a risky theme in comedy. In the past few decades, there were countless misconceptions of trans or gender non-confirming people, demonstrating fears of the cisgender men. Trans characters, particularly trans women, have long been put in narratives for offensive gross-out shock factors. In Back Street Girls, there are scenes where there is an essence of transphobia such as disjunction of matching feminine faces speaking with deep voices and vice versa for comic effect, which should not be dismissed although the characters do not entirely identify as women. Japan is lagging at issues regarding transphobia so it is not a surprising that this Japanese drama lacks sensibility towards these issues which western viewers take an offense on.
But what makes this anime binge worthy, despite its insensibility in some scenes, is that it proves gender is performative—a social construct, as gender theorist and philosopher Judith Butler stated in her 1990 book, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.
In Episode 5 of Back Street Girls: Gokudolls, which is now available on Netflix, one of the idols encounters an actor who has been her/his, or rather, their, “man crush” for a long time. Trying to show their admiration towards this actor, they struggle with which ideology to approach this admiration and comes to term that they are open to have sexual relations with him. There are moments like these, when ex-yakuza idols try to retain their no longer existent masculine side through the female identity takes over. A theme that is consistent throughout Back Street Girls: Gokudolls is that there is a homoerotic undertone to all of the actions performed, and given that all the main characters are essentially performing a role, an identity and a gender, this anime is telling us that, in a sense gender is performative. It also consistently makes cynical remarks towards the J-Pop industry and makes a mockery of Harvey Weinstein-esque characters in power.
Clearly, this bizarre yet absurdly funny anime is not true to the reality of trans people and has no depiction of the struggles they go through in real life. However, this unconventional anime transcends all sorts of gender norms while delivering a message that gender is performative, makes satirical remarks on norms associated with gender, criticizes sexism in Japanese entertainment industry.