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They say that nothing ever dies on the internet. Once it’s there, it’s there forever, and that means that yes, Hikaru will always be “Mop Girl” in its undead reaches. But that doesn’t mean that she has to look herself up to be sure. Yes, “never Google yourself” is one of the hard lessons our heroine learns in these three volumes, and while it’s merely a small moment in the series, it’s also one that helps to highlight the incredible stress she’s under. As the youngest participant in producer M. Hayama’s competition to build a better girl group, Hikaru is less emotionally prepared to deal with the pressures of the grueling days, and having her inexperience thrown in her face by anonymous social media users distills her emotions to their most basic form: anxiety.

Naturally, Hikaru isn’t the only person suffering from anxiety; it is simply that she is our point-of-view character and the youngest, least emotionally-equipped member of the ensemble cast. Everyone has their own issues, each unique to their situation, and each must overcome their particular struggles in order to progress in the competition. For example, former model Eri has zero performance experience, not even having modeled professionally, but rather as a reader model in a series of popular magazines in her hometown. This puts her in a similar position to Hikaru, because she has experience in only one particular facet of being on stage: being looked at. This contrasts nicely with Hikaru’s experience of being heard; both girls suffer from similar feelings of inadequacy, just about different parts of the overall idol experience. On a similar note, Yukino struggles with transforming her Takarazuka experience into something marketable in a much less academic field; she has the performance experience, but the modality is different enough that she struggles with her feelings of inadequacy, especially since she’s already failed once in that arena.

All of this makes for an interesting contrast with Ran, Hikaru’s friend who “graduated” from her idol group in order to pursue a different career path. As a member of an idol group with many members, Ran thought that she did not have the chance to truly show off what she was capable of doing, and therefore the “Girls in the Light” competition offered her an opportunity to stand out in a way that her prior situation did not. This does not mean, however, that she does not struggle just as much as the other girls; where the rest of them are attempting to learn how to be an idol, Ran must unlearn everything that she knows in order to stand out. The entire point of the competition is to find girls who are capable of shining in a way that stereotypical idol groups are not; this means that if Ran does not change her behaviors, she risks being just another product of the idol mill, the very thing that M. Hayama is attempting to circumvent. The story does a very good job of showing that everyone has the same types of struggles even if those struggles aren’t identical in nature, and although the cast is large, we get to know just enough about the main players to feel a real sense of tension that they might not all make it through.

Although Hikaru is the primary protagonist, there are relatively long stretches of these volumes where she does not appear. While this is good for the overall structure of the story, it can at times be a little disappointing, because while the other girls are interesting, it is Hikaru with whom we entered the story and in whose future we are the most interested. This is certainly a sign that the writing is solid, because what little we do get of each character, and Hikaru specifically, allows us to easily become invested. But there are times when it feels as if the title ought to have been Girls in the Light rather than specific to one character, and while that does change by the end of the fourth volume (which completes the series), it can be a little annoying. That said, the final performances in volume four bring the focus right back to where it needs to be: and Hikaru first and Ran second. One particularly striking moment bookends Ran’s turn as the center of her smaller group: before she takes the stage, we see a fan of hers from her earlier idol days with her merchandise from that previous experience. But after she performs, we see him take off the rubber bracelet with the name of her old idol group, signifying that he recognizes that she has outgrown that cookie-cutter mold, and suggesting to us that whether or not she passes the final round of the competition, she has surpassed her previous self. While Hikaru does not get something that is exactly analogous to this moment, the image of the rest of her small unit stepping aside so that she can walk forward for her solo part is drawn in such a way that it gives you chills. It is in this moment that we truly see the title: like her namesake, Hikaru is truly in the light at this moment, and whether that pleases the competition judges or not, that is something that cannot be taken away from her.

Hikaru in the Light! at only four volumes is a nicely compact series. It’s easy to get invested in its characters, and while the art still has issues showing movement during the dance segments, it has moments of brilliance that are breathtaking. It becomes less a competition to see who gets to perform and more a story about finding your strength and learning how to let it shine through, and if that’s a little too wholesome for its genre, well, it more than earns the right to play with genre parameters. It’s worth the subscription fee to Azuki to read it, especially if girl idol stories are your jam.

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