About a month ago, I finally had the time to watch AKB48’s documentary entitled Show must go on Shoujo Tachi wa Kizutsukinagara, Yume wo Miru. This has changed the way I see AKB48 forever. Before, I liked them. Their music was cute and nice and sometimes, a bit generic, but I never hated on them. I had my favorites and I liked who I liked without even really watching any variety shows, which might cause an uproar of “tsk tsk” from hardcore fans. I didn’t really mind that AKB48 pranced around in bikinis, because truly, almost every idol group has done it before. Until I watched this documentary, I’ve lacked that special connection I wanted for this group, something that I have for Berryz Koubou and maybe the Platinum Era Morning Musume. So when I did, I’ve finally come to realize why this group is the biggest phenomenon to ever walk the streets of Japan.
This is the second AKB48 documentary, which takes us through basically their whole year of 2011 and then some. I’m really not a big fan of screencapping–I feel as though its too much work for something that doesn’t last long, plus it’s spammy–but there’s no way I can go through 2 hours worth of footage without giving my readers some sort of visual. I’ll talk you through what is going on as well as giving my own point of view or opinion on things.
I really, really hope everyone will be able to read this until the end. This opened my eyes to things I didn’t understand about AKB48, and I hope others could do the same.
Immediately, we are brought back to the day when all us Japanophiles dropped our jaws in disbelief. The day when the most powerful earthquake to ever hit Japan rattled the ground and left millions in danger of the tsunami that was ready to come.
Here we have 12 year-old kenkyuusei Karen Iwata. She explains her experience of that day, eventually becoming the only disaster survivor ever in AKB48. She explains how she escaped her house to a school which soon becomes a refugee center. She says that the school became way too crowded so Karen decided it’d be best to sleep in her father’s car. In April of 2011, she joins kenkyuusei and attends her first AKB48 concert in which, naturally, she sheds tears.
On May 22, 2011, a handful of AKB48 members travel to Otsuchi, the first disaster stricken place they’ll visit. As they sit on the bus in silence, every member stares blankly out the window, finding it difficult to even process the fact that there was previously a building where that debris sits. When they arrive at their destination, the girls are met with the extremely ecstatic faces of the survivors–most of which, are young children. AKB preform a mini-concert. Afterwards, they take pictures and allow signing of autographs. A weight has been lifted from their backs as they leave the shelter; the survivors were happy to see them, and AKB did something to brighten their world. Mariko mentions the onlookers telling her to do her best and she wonders how they could be so uplifting and cheerful in such a heartbreaking time.
June 9th, the 22nd single election. Every member of AKB48 is nervous. There is an unspoken rivalry spurring around Yuko and Atsuko, the only number ones that AKB has ever known. But to every girl’s dismay, the countdown begins. From 40 all the way to number 1. There is a whirlwind of emotion. Every number is called, each girl stands up bows to her audience and accepts their honorable ranking. And even the second time around, Yui Yokoyama’s reaction gets me.
Soon, we get to the golden 8 spots. Tomochin is awarded 8th place with a smug smile and tears. Obviously, it’s not fun going down in rank. Rank 5 is Mayu Watanabe, whose stint in ranking doesn’t surprise nor discourage her. The Queen of AKB48, Mariko, gets 4th place. Yuki Kashiwagi is surprised and grateful of her 5 spot climb to number 3, and we can see how happy Mayu is for her.
What Atsuko is about to say next is something that I will absolutely never forget:
“Everyone in entertainment has the same dream . . . Why were we battling each other?”
After hearing this from Atsuko, I don’t think I could ever look at her the same again. She’s right. She’s 100% right. If everyone has the same dream and goal, why are they being pitted against each other and possibly hold grudges over a certain ranking forever? It is part of the reason why I’m glad Hello! Project doesn’t hold elections like this. It is also part of the reason why people don’t feel the need to get into AKB48, or learn all the girls names, or bother with the Under Girls songs and stages. The top girls will always be top and the bottom girls will always be bottom, so why bother? There will only ever be a few miracle girls who start from the bottom and end at the top like Rino Sashihara. And if the chances are so low, why even have so many members? If we’re only ever going to see 7 or 8 girls in front of us, why is there a 48 in the name?
There are only two spots left with two girls left: Atsuko and Yuko. With Yuko dethroning Atsuko the previous year, who’s to predict the outcome this year? With quadruple the amount of votes as last year, Yuko Oshima takes second place. You can just feel the disappointment oozing out of her. Sure, any girl would be ecstatic to get 2nd place, but Yuko couldn’t maintain that number one that she was able to reach last year. It’s almost as if her number one doesn’t matter anymore because she lost to AKB48’s “true” frontgirl.
It is now clear who the winner is. Atsuko, receiving about 10,000 more votes than Yuko, receives her crown at 1st place. As she recites her speech, you can clearly see the struggle she’s having with herself. It’s almost as if she’s connected herself to a different world; even if she has thousands of fans cheering her name, she can’t hear them because she really isn’t there. She puts AKB48 before herself. AKB48 is more important than Atsuko Maeda. AKB48 can go forward without Atsuko Maeda. Atsuko Maeda does not make AKB48. And this is why people dislike her “potato idol” persona. I don’t think she wants all the attention; I don’t think she strives to have all eyes on her. She just wants to do what she can to make AKB48 better, therefore she drowns out the attention, media, and spotlight to create this potato idol that maybe everyone will forget.
Behind the scenes was filled with tears and happiness. Naturally, Yuko was upset, which broke my heart. Her crying on Mariko just…was so sad. I could tell Haruna really did not know what to do. Yuko tries to calm herself down by secluding herself; if she talks to someone, those feelings will just overflow again and she’ll cry again.
There was also a moment in the backstage footage in which my feelings for TakaMina changed a bit. I really noticed how much she cares for Atsuko. She came running looking to congratulate and reassure her. It was so beautiful to watch.
Later, Yuko walks up to Atsuko to congratulate her on her position. One can only ponder how Yuko was truly feeling at that time. I feel as though we can already determine how Atsuko was feeling.
The next part of the documentary emphasizes on Rino Sashihara–which makes things a bit awkward, since we all know she is gone from AKB48 because of scandal. She goes on to say how happy she was to have such a magnificent climb in rankings and jokes about how people might’ve wanted to see her in another PV. It cuts to behind the scenes footage an AKB single at the time, which I believe was Everyday, Kachuusha. Sasshi strolls along with a fellow extra Rie Kitahara and talks about her appearances in PVs. She goes on to explain how she looks up to Yuko and strives to be someone like her.
The next part cuts to Aki Takajo, who ranks 12th in that year’s election. The bit shows Akicha’s unexpected ankle sprain and resulting absence from AKB48 live shows thereafter. She explains how much it frightened her and unexpectedly adds onto Atsuko’s previous statement. Akicha sees AKB48 perform on live shows without her being part of the media senbatsu. This scares her because another girl stands her place–a girl who is beneath her in ranking. And this is another example of the “battling” the AKB48 girls do. Because of all the work they’ve done to get to the top, do you really think they want someone who’s beneath them to take their spot? Hell no. That’s like you working hard at your job all week and finally getting your paycheck on Friday. But guess what? Your parents decide to take it all because “they need it more than you.” That’s how these girls view their positions, especially those in media senbatsu.
Akicha also mentions her struggle between adolescence and adulthood. This basically explains the lifespan of an idol in Japan. When the idol is young, the fans see her as young, cute, and pure. But as she ages, the fans seem to lose that same feeling. At 20, she’s an adult. She’s supposed to be doing grown up things like drinking and dating guys. With that mindset, the fans don’t see that young, cute, pure child; they see a grown adult–their own age–and become interested in the new younger girls. And so, an idol’s life is basically over.
Meet the AKB48 Kenkyuusei, the future of AKB48 and the future Team 4. On June 6th, as the girls perform their live, an unexpected visitor arrives. Their mix of emotions is clear among their faces: scared, nervous, blank. He then goes to announce ten members’ movement into a new team called Team 4. While I like the idea of Kenkyuusei being promoted and moved along into the actual group, I feel like the addition of the new team is bothersome. Yes, it does follow the name gimmick, but it’s so much. Why not just add the members to each team? There’s only ten, that’s about 3 in each team. But eh, I guess it keeps the girls that have been together in Kenkyuusei together.
June 11th: other members of AKB48 visit the second disaster-stricken city to be visited, Miyako. Like the first time, they perform a live for the onlookers. At the very end, two 4 year-old little girls walk up to the stage and give Miichan some flowers and a pine cone. Cute, huh? This touches Miichan–a lot. It’s almost to the point where you get confused about what she’s even crying about. But seeing Miichan explain how much it meant to her that those little kids gave her gifts and how she’s realized that her career is not only for her but for the sake of someone else, made me love her even more than I did before.
July 22, Seibu Dome the first concert of their Yoshaa Ikuzo!. I must say, that castle set is absolutely adorable–and a bit scary. But the girls didn’t see it from that point of view. Inside the huge dome was a mess. No one knew where to go, what to change into, or where to change. After the concert, everyone is drained and on edge. They all know the concert was a disaster. But when they hear it from Akimoto, their hearts sink. He doesn’t necessarily blame them, but he does point out that it is their responsibility to make things work. It is obvious to see how much this bothers TakaMina. Being the leader of AKB48, she feels ashamed to have left the group fend for themselves. She even takes it upon herself to tell Akimoto this herself and the members of AKB48–another instance in which my feelings for TakaMina’s leadership and maturity makes me like her more. After this, even with all the members tired from a long day’s work and another concert scheduled for the next day, they practice. They practice right there, by themselves and in the dark, in the Seibu Dome parking lot.
The next day starts out like any: rehearsing. But there’s somewhat of a bad aura lingering, and that’s Atsuko. All of a sudden, she starts hyperventilating and is taken to the hospital. Now, the lead and center for 75% of AKB48’s songs is gone. What the hell could they do? In anticipation of Atsuko not coming back, other girls are assigned her position for certain songs. But then, as the girls get ready for showtime, Atsuko comes back, almost angrily. She is advised by TakaMina to go back if anything else goes wrong.
Backstage was a grueling war zone. Crawling through entrances, racing to get in position, fanning violently to get some sort of air circulation–it looks near dangerous. As the preview to Flying Get plays, stage crew questions whether or not Atsuko will be able to reenter the stage. The heat is getting to her the most. Time seems to move in slow motion as the preview comes to a close and the girls get ready to get back on stage. As the girls perform Flying Get, the camera focuses on Atsuko, who seems to be having an extremely hard time catching her breath. She seems to make it through because the next thing that is heard is, “Encore! Encore!”
While the fans shout for the extra performances, AKB48 is backstage trying to breathe. I can completely feel with TakaMina’s reaction to it. She flails and makes faces, obviously discomforted. When I get overheated, I am so unbelievably uncomfortable and my body just begins spazzing by itself–sitting still makes me sweaty and sticky. I hate the heat.
I can’t believe how devoted AKB48 fans are. 25 minutes after the first “Encore!” was shouted, the girls appear on stage. 25 minutes? After 5 minutes, I would have been gone. Yuko covers for Atsuko, who isn’t able to get back on stage. But after one or two songs, Atsuko finally emerges onto the stage. And they finish the encore the way they were supposed to.
The second day at Seibu Dome really opened my eyes to AKB48. These girls work hard. They rehearse all day to finally perform at 7pm; imagine how tired the average person would be? They collapse due to the unbearable heat only to get back up and keep going. No one raised a gun to their heads and said, “If you don’t do well, I’ll kill you.” Their lives aren’t being threatened. They are choosing to work this hard. They are choosing to push themselves past their breaking points for thousands of people watching them. The worst that could happen is that they’ll get reprimanded by the manager. These girls are willing to reach farther than the sky only to please their fans in which will then please them. That is a true idol.
At the second day at Seibu Dome, the leader to AKB’s Team 4 is announced: Mina Oba. The OG members of AKB48 discuss it in their separate interviews, and none of which is very flattering to Oba. Kashiwagi explains how she was doubtful that Oba could manage being a captain. Sayaka Akimoto questions why Haruka Shimada wasn’t chosen as captain. Even TakaMina blurts how Oba just didn’t have a leadership aura or willingness about her. It’s obvious that each girl is curious about the decision.
It is also obvious how different Shimada is from Oba. While Oba scribbles on a whiteboard, Shimada sits in a corner reciting a speech she will make during the concert. But they stick together, as if Shimada is sub-leader; in a way, it feels like it’s just not the right position for her.
Then scandal breaks loose. Mina Oba is suspended from AKB48 for talking about her past relationships and the leaking of purikura shots. Another case that makes idol life so hard. They are there to represent a pure, naive, innocent child. Love? What is love? They aren’t allowed to know. Even for Mina Oba, who joined at a fairly late age(17), her life before idoldom is just that: the past. Nothing of the past is allowed to be brought up, not even the relationships that have long been over. That’s hard. In the absence of Mina Oba, Haruka Shimada takes place as captain.
September 20th: Nippon Budoukan. The second Janken tournament–winner will be the center for the 24th single. All the girls talk about their match with Mariko; they mention how determined and even scary she looked. Miichan’s comment made me sad though; she said she faltered when matched with Mariko, she was afraid of any backlash of being the center for a single. She said that she would have been embarrassed if her center single flopped after so many consecutive million sold singles. The girls actually thought about things like that. It wasn’t always, “I wanna be center or senbatsu so bad! I want spotlight!” It could have been, “What if I am center and I do terrible? What will everyone think of me?” As we all know, Mariko ends up winning the Janken tournament to go on as center for her soon-to-be-named single, Ue Kara Mariko.
November 13, 2011, another handful of AKB48 members visit another disaster site: Rikuzentakata. Among the girls is the only disaster survivor of AKB48, Karen Iwata. As the girls quietly walk, Karen naturally becomes a bit emotional next to a fellow member. A crew member or something of that sort tells the girls that the river that they look at currently used to be a forest of pine trees; it is something that Mariko describes as a message stating to never forget about natural disasters.
Karen explains a bit more about her decision to enter AKB48. It will make one wonder: Did she only join AKB48 to leave her current situation? A situation similar to: “I don’t want to go to college, so I’ll just work for my dad’s company.” I, for one, don’t want to be too hard on her, she’s young. But if that was her mindset, one can only decide for themselves if that’s ethical or not. Karen seems like an awfully mature 12 year-old(now 14), so I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if she actually did have that mindset. On the flipside, watching her perform with her senpais shows a passionate side of her.
At a Team 4 rehearsal, Mina Oba emerges to apologize to her former/fellow teammates. She explains how she decided to resign as captain on her own. She asks the girls if it would be okay if she could take part in their lessons. Of course, the girls don’t have much choice but to say yes.
Mina goes up to Shimada later on and it is obvious Shimada was in a hard position. She was a replacement captain for a certain amount of time. Was she really that valuable? Was she even needed? It’s something that she might always have to question.
AKB48’s Flying Get receives first place at Japan Record Awards, something they never would have imagined they’d receive. The documentary ends with every single member of AKB48 plus some on their way to perform on Kohaku Uta Gassen 2011. Karen expresses that she definitely does not want to leave AKB48 as a kenkyuusei and plans to become an actress–one feat that she has already been able to complete this year, 2012.
I could watch this documentary over and over and over and never become bored of it. It opened me to a different side of AKB48 and idoldom in general. It showed me how hard an idol works. It showed me the thoughts that goes through idols minds–they really aren’t just brainwashed. It made me like Yuko Oshima so much more, she’s my second oshi now. It made me understand why Atsuko isn’t a “regular idol.” It made me realize why people are in love with this group so much. Don’t get me wrong, AKB48 isn’t perfect and there are certainly things that I would like to change. But, I can now say that I am a true AKB48 fan and that missing piece is now filled. If you’re on the fence about AKB or have never really given them a fair shot, watch a documentary or a stage. Trying out a group just doesn’t mean you listen to their music–understand what that group is all about. Watch and listen with an open mind and I can promise that if you aren’t completely sold, you’ll feel more positive than you did before.