Monday, February 18, 2013

Japanese Idol: AKB48

Perhaps some of you may have seen a story that ran on CNN a couple of weeks ago about a Japanese pop star who shaved her head because she was caught dating someone. Perhaps you did not. Either way, it is time for me to unleash the cultural phenomenon that is AKB48.

But before I get into that, a little background. Japan is coo-coo for idols. There are several idol-cranking-machine companies that create groups of young men or women, train them to sing and dance, and put them out there as their products. Entertainers in Japan commonly work for a studio/agency and they get paid a salary. It's similar to the studio system that this country used to have for movies. If you want to be a singing star, but you are not a singer/song writer or a band, you can take the idol route and audition for one of these big wigs. And if you are lucky enough to pass, your celebrity persona will be totally fabricated by people high up and belong to them to do with as they wish. Singing abilities are not particularly important and as long as you can move with some semblance of rhythm, you qualify--or so it seems. The most important part is the look. You have to look your part.

I think this idol phenomenon exists because Japan tends to be a high stress culture (from people taking their schools and jobs too seriously) and people need release. Drinking hard, eating good food, and singing karaoke are some of the remedies, but TV idols are another way. You have something pleasant to look at and they provide you with some hopes and dreams that they can some day belong to you--no matter how creepy that may seem. And that is what they work hard to provide.

My analogy aside, idols are just a way of life there and we've had some ebb and flow in quality and longevity of such groups over the years but it is a constant in our society. As for some examples, in the '70s, when I was in elementary school, I was obsessed with two groups. One was Finger 5:

Yeah, baby, yeah!

I loved them, wanted to join the family and go on tour with them. I have heard that they once had a joint concert with the Jackson 5 in a stadium in Tokyo and it sold out. When I heard about this, I was about 25 and was seriously angry that I missed it. 

Then there was Pink Lady:

I loved them, wanted to join the pair and go on tour with them. I knew every song, every choreography (I still know them. It's a scary thing.) and spent hours in my room simulating their lives and wearing costumes that I put together. They were a national sensation. They were together for about 4 years (which is close to my entire elementary school life, so it felt long back then) but then disbanded and once they disappeared from Japan, they made a brief TV appearance in the US in a variety show called "Pink Lady and Jeff."

This is upsetting on so many levels, I can't get into it.

Needless to say, that didn't go anywhere, but they were super hot once. 

OK, so jump forward to now. AKB48. The current National obsession. AKB stands for Akihabara, an area in Tokyo that is known for selling nothing but electronics and therefore also action figures and comic books to attract all nerds (I took my husband there once and experienced the cult-ish vibe there where men are afraid of real women but can mingle with them if they looked like anime characters. As a result, there are many girls dressed as such giving out flyers to their cafes.And 48 stands for...well, how many of them are in the group. 48 girls. In. One. Group.

 They actually hold a record on Guinness book of records. So. Many. Girls.

They are EVERYWHERE. You cannot escape them. There is not a single Japanese person young or old, who doesn't know who they are. I once watched a documentary on how they came about (not sure why) so I now know the whole story and it is an amazing tale of business development. A producer named Yasushi Akimoto, who has cranked out some talents had an idea to develop a girls' group with a concept of "idols you can meet." He went looking for a space in Akihabara, and got a floor of a chain store called Don Quixote that sells a bunch of random stuff. (Side note: I have also taken my husband there and it was the loudest, most crammed, hyper stimulating shopping experience of our lives.) Akimoto renovated the space and put a tiny theatre there that would seat only about 100 people and put an ad out for young girls who wanted to sing and dance. He selected about 20 to start and started putting on a very wholesome show of many girls in their uniforms. Slowly but surely, nerds started to flock to this place, more girls wanted to join, and it settled into a group of 48. There are upward of 80 plus girls who are "members" but you have to be good to be in the top 48. But even within that, there is team A, K, and B and they rotate to accommodate the space and their schedule of performing daily. Fans came to see their tiny concert everyday, bought trading cards, collected and traded them, and voted on who they like best. If a girl gets more votes, her spot in the group moves to front and center. So the fans had some power and that attracted more nerds to flock together. 

Over the past 8 years or so, they've gained momentum and broke out of their little place (though that still exists and the members who are not on TV often still perform daily) and now they appear on top rated shows and crank out albums, all of which sky rocket to the top. And once a year, they have a televised fan-voting event where the top 10 most popular girls get selected. It's like a Presidential Election (well, to a certain demographic). If you are in the top 10, you get more gigs and if you are even in the top 25, you get better positions for cameras on TV, therefore, your chances of getting more votes the next year gets higher. It's so awful yet brilliant. Here is footage of their concert with the top girls getting to spread out:

They maintain  a friendly "team spirit" type of attitude on camera at least about each other and they are supposed to stay innocent, therefore they are not allowed to date while they are in the group. Which leads me back to the girl I mentioned at the top. She is one of the top 20 girls and broke the rule (she was seen coming out of a male singer's apartment). To apologize, she shaved her head. No one made her. She did it because she felt that is what she deserved. People were like, "um...that was extreme." Seriously. I feel bad for the girl.

They can also choose to "graduate" the group and become an independent star, which I think is the goal of many in the group. It is a tabloid head line if one of them decides to graduate. I guess Japan is a peaceful country if that is making headlines.

And because of their success, there are now SKE40 (Sakae area of Nagoya), SDN48 (more "mature" girls), NMB48 (Namba area of Osaka), HKT48 (Hakata area of Fukuoka), JKT48(Jakarta, Indonesia), TPE48 (Taipet, Taiwan), and SNH48 (Shanghai, China). 

I am going to launch SEA48, the Seattle area version with 48 girls... who are all 48. Stay tuned.