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Confessions of an AKB48 fan July 29, 2012

Posted by ayasawada in Anime, Film, Music, Rave.
Tags: , ,


I love AKB48. This might not seem surprising for a self-confessed otaku and firm pop fan, but for the longest time I was dismissive of huge synthetic supergroups.

In my years of fandom, I was surprisingly unenamoured with the likes of Morning Musume, an odd mix of loli idols with constantly rotating members  — the extremity of what many dislike about the Japanese pop industry. When AKB48 came along, I thought, “Jeez, a group with 48 members — that really takes the biscuit”, then got on with my life.

What changed?

First, I happened to read an ANN review of the first AKB48 documentary, produced by Shunji Iwai, a film director I have big respect for. Describing it as “a gentle, slice-of-life film about a form of entertainment that is often the furthest thing from ‘real life’,” the review revealed a world of young girls pursuing their pop dreams before they’d even entered middle school, of binding contracts that insisted on an unrealistic level of ‘purity’ to the extent that having a past boyfriend could get you demoted or fired. But most of all, it gave an insight into the ‘work hard, work yourself to death for the team’ Japanese attitude, the individuals that live by their personalities and looks to rise up the rankings but simultaneously give that up as an ensemble.

Reviewer Carlo Santos summed it up well in a his 2009 interview with the group on their first visit to the US:

“Music snobs everywhere like to dismiss idolhood as a job for the attractive and talentless. But what they lack in talent, they make up for with sheer effort.”

I was intrigued. And then it happened: they made an anime.


AKB0048 is an AKB gateway drug. It puts the AKB concept into animation with a huge cast of colourful characters and a ridiculous plotline of a world where entertainment is banned and idols are the last fighters standing their ground.

Somehow, it works. AKB0048 is captivating. Like Macross before it, it pushes all the otaku buttons: a sci-fi story, pretty girls of all tropes, who not only sing and dance in unison but pilot transforming robot planes and fight with lightsabers (I kid you not). And if that weren’t enough, the Wota are cast as rebel soldiers fighting for the right of their idols to spread hope by singing guerilla concerts (seriously, I kid you not).

Music has a history of driving insurrection and revolutions of course, and I once heard Jewel justifying a pop album by reasoning how people reach out to pop in troubled times. Still, the idea of bubblegum pop idols as a conduit for freedom would have many a music fan guffawing. Yet this is exactly what the Macross franchise is built on – idols crossing battle boundaries and bringing both sides together through catchy lyrics, choreographed dance numbers and moe.

It’s no accident that AKB0048 is led by Macross stalwarts Shoji Kawamori and studio Satelight, perhaps the only ones in the industry who can claim experience of a successful futuristic, mecha-pop cocktail. And powered by the entire AKB backcatalogue I was totally powerless against it.

Of course, I empathised with the core theme of AKB0048 – the fight for what you love and believe in, no matter how dismissive the world is. But what got me was the same thing that intrigued me in that early ANN review: an insight into the strange world of the pop idol; a world of senbatsu (fan elections), kenkyuusei (understudies), the competition for ‘centre’ position, the conflict of teamwork and individual dreams of fame.

And the songs, I loved the songs.


I should be clear: I don’t love all AKB tracks. I’m about 50-50 between love and meh for most of their archive. But the ones that get it right are stratospherically good: catchy, feel-good hits that make you want to break out dancing in time with 15 other individuals.

My favourites are the outstanding RIVER and Beginner (which featured an imaginative, controversial, video directed by Tetsuya Nakashima (the tame version PV is below).

Then there’s ultimate AKB anthem Heavy Rotation.

That PV is a masterful piece of fan manipulation. I defy any male fanboy to resist 15 cute Japanese girls, smiling and dancing around in their underwear, singing, “I want you, I need you, I love you”. Like so much of the AKB machine, you know it’s slightly crass and manipulative — you KNOW it — and yet, you just… can’t… resist….

The show must go on

Recently, I watched the second AKB48 documentary, ‘Show Must Go On‘  and my fan status was confirmed.

Released earlier this year, The Show Must Go On again follows a turbulent year for the group, bookending the action with their visits to the Tohoku region to cheer up the victims of the 11 March tsunami. This might sound slightly distasteful, but here’s a direct the confrontation of a seemingly shallow profession with the worst that real life can throw at you. And as much as cynics might deny it, these visits bring genuine smiles. Watching five or six AKB members give low-fi renditions of their numbers, and the warmth this engenders, is heartwarming. Sure, it’s fleeting, and of course the documentary doesn’t show any others who may have had the opposite reaction. But I can believe that, for a few short hours, a pop group can help people forget their troubles.

If anything, it’s the idols themselves who are hit the hardest by the visit, reflecting on what they do and the decisions one makes in the face of life’s obstacles, the culmination of which is the testimony of Team 4 member Iwata Karen, a Tohoku native who in March was swept up in the devastation, but a month later accepted as a AKB kenkyuusei (indeed, she went on to take a lead role in the AKB0048 anime).

Other things from the documentary shocked and fascinated me. The level of organisation, and resulting pressure, that come with being part of a now 70+ member group (plus sister groups). The scandal of Team K captain Mina Oba, punished for simply having a past. I’ve since learned how this is a common scandal for group members – just last month Rino Sashihara was demoted to sister group HKT48 for a similar reason. Harsh, but for an idol, like a virgin maiden, their perceived ‘purity’ is their lifeblood.

It’s no surprise then that such an environment leads to health problems. The documentary shows up close #1-ranked Atsuko Maeda’s panic attacks. I also saw this create a strange distance between her and many other members, whether intended or not. Yet there were also scenes of great team spirit, including how they regroup and cover for ‘Acchan’ in emergency situations – like a pop idol version of total football – and the inspirational leadership of AKB captain Takahashi Minami in such times. I was also fascinated by the raw outpouring of emotion in the pressure-cooker of the senbatsu elections. Popularity is almost literally the currency they live off, and in one event you see 100 girls dreams simultaneously made and broken, leaving them all gibbering wrecks.

I couldn’t take my eyes of the screen – at once repulsed by this manufactured hell of a situation, and rooting for each and every one of them. For this, I have a weird respect for the mastermind behind it all, AKB48 creator Yasushi Akimoto. The guy had a high-concept and made an absolute fortune. And his empire continues to grow — AKB are branching out to form groups and theatres in other Asian countries, with the main group taking on concerts abroad and launching English-language websites with the senbatsu streamed live. It’s only a matter of time (I hope) before their catalogue is on iTunes UK and we’re welcoming them to these shores.

As for me, I’ve just preordered my first AKB48 album, and as you can probably tell from this post, I still feel slightly dirty contributing to Yashushi’s fortune and the perpetuation of the AKB stress prison. Yet there’s something in that idea that pop can lighten lives in dark times. It certainly does mine. And that’s why I’m admitting to my newfound fascination and respect for these idols and the strange world they inhabit.

To quote the AKB0048 OP theme:

Let me speak of hope,
Like a nameless poet: with passion
If you find yourself broken down in tears,
Then rather than consoling you,
Let me speak of the coming dawn.


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