AKB48 and Japanese fantasy

AKB48 (read “A.K.B. forty-eight”), the Japanese girl pop phenomenon named for Akihabara, the Tokyo district famous for electronics and pop culture, performs daily for a lottery-selected gaggle of fans. AKB consists of four subgroups, each of 16 members. Only one subgroup, either Team A, Team B, Team K, or Team 4, performs in the Akihabara theater at a time. The other three groups may be elsewhere in Japan, performing overseas, or holding “handshake” sessions with fans, mostly men aged 15-50 looking to fill their AKB girl catalogues with signatures and photos. At 64 girls strong, AKB holds the Guinness World Record for largest pop group.

Here’s a taste. Warning: many have questioned the artistic value of AKB.

Heavy Rotation, August 2010

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Most of my Japanese friends repudiate AKB as a crude, no-talent posse of catty teenagers. But there’s no denying AKB’s commercial success and its influence on Japanese popular culture. Heavy Rotation had just been released when I went to Japan for a three-week study program with Tokyo’s Waseda University. We visited the Akihabara theater, which is in a giant “random store” called Don Quijote. There they were, the 20- and 30-year-old men with their fan books and trading cards and posters. Note the scene in Heavy Rotation when, after the pillow fight, the girls are tuckered out and need to take a nap: modern Japanese sexuality typically values meek, cute, girlish women. AKB provides dozens of them singing and “dancing” in unison.

The group’s producer, Yasushi Akimoto, leveraged fundamental Japanese cultural impulses in the group’s construction and branding: a penchant for collecting, fantasy, and obsessiveness (see Otaku, Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and anime), the aforementioned preference on the part of Japanese men for cute, delicate, prepubescent women (see maid cafes and Japanese schoolgirl media), and the sexual anxiety of what some pundits describe as Japan’s post-war crisis of masculinity.

And it’s Akimoto, or the fact of AKB’s production, that should catch our attention. Girls “graduate” the group when they get too old or become tired and unpopular. Fans vote on which girls they want to see in the next single. New members are chosen a la American Idol via auditions regularly held throughout Japan. But – and it wouldn’t be Japan if it didn’t – it gets weirder: Akimoto not only produces Nagoya (SKE48) and Osaka (NMB48) girl groups, he’s created an official rival for AKB, Nogizaka46. The girls exercise minimal control over their artistic product and their producer simultaneously manages the group he’s declared their rival? It’s contrived. The romance is gone, the artistic value bled. AKB48 is a media product, the girls themselves more models than artists, and succeeds because it’s fantasy, not music, that AKB fans crave. Artistic? Valuable? Hard to say. Fantastic? No doubt.

“Zetsumetsu Kurokami Shoujo” (絶滅黒髪少女, “The Extinction of Black-Haired Girls”) is the 1st single by Japanese girl group NMB48.

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