New York Anime Festival was the Big Apple hub for thousands of anime, manga and J-music fans from Sept. 25 to 27. What musical act would have better fit the convention than one from Tokyo’s own pop culture district, Akihabara? AKB48 is a 65-member idol collective that takes the winning combination of cute girls in short skirts and gives it a modern, geek-friendly spin. These hardworking girls have become a hit among both idol fans and the Japanese public. Sixteen of the girls made their American debut at NYAF, performing a mini-live at the convention and a full concert at Webster Hall that won them American fans.
In the 1980’s, AKB48’s prolific producer Yasushi Akimoto helmed Onyanko Club, a legendary idol group whose sexualized innocence he recycled for AKB48. The 52-member act existed in a decade of shared popular culture, one in which Michael Jackson and Madonna became international superstars. Onyanko Club itself was famous throughout Japan and made household names of members such as Shizuka Kudo and a karaoke classic of the coy “Serafuku wo Nugasanaide.”
But modern technology has expanded our choices in entertainment, and audiences are more segmented than ever before. Stardom is obviously still common, but it’s not what it used to be. We may never see another performer with Jackson’s level of popularity again, but we do see many becoming cult stars through the Internet, cable TV and more.
So Akimoto went niche and 21st century for his new pop experiment. AKB48, which debuted in 2006, focuses on fostering ties with the otaku fandom in a concept called “Idols you can meet every day.” The group consists of three ‘teams’ of girls—A, K and B—who rotate performances in a theater in Akihabara, the inspiration for the letter portion of the group’s name. The teams release albums individually, but the lineups for singles draw from the entire pool of members. An AKB48 team show takes place nearly daily, so fans have frequent opportunities to see the girls live in a small venue and even meet them.
Though the intimate approach has cultivated a dedicated fan base among wota (idol otaku), it hasn’t kept AKB48 from catching on throughout Japan and even the world thanks to the basic appeal of catchy songs and very cute, energetic girls. The group participated in the prestigious New Year’s concert Kouhaku in 2007 and is scheduled for 2009’s as well. October’s martial-influenced single River debuted at #1 on the Oricon charts and has sold more than 200,000 copies. Word about AKB48 spread overseas, and some of the girls performed at the Japan Expo in Paris last July.
This growing popularity might threaten to tear the girls from Akihabara, so manager Akihiro Makino’s main goal this year is to balance AKB48’s national popularity and local roots. Currently, the main teams comprise 42 members (AKB48’s membership number has rarely matched what its name implies) and a pool of 23 “research students” provides potential members for the titular groups. In October, the main teams were reshuffled and expanded to include some of the girls from the student pool. Because the teams rotate performances, AKB48’s two theaters, four TV shows and four radio programs always have a group to fill them. “Like if it’s Team A today, Team K and Team B will go next, so those two teams can be on TV or go to other places,” Makino explained. Even while 16 members from Team A and K were in New York, Team B was at home performing. “Probably that’s the only way we can survive this critical schedule,” Makino said.
Musically, AKB48 is what you’d expect from an idol pop group. They sing a mostly homogenous set of hyper, synthy love songs in helium-fueled voices reminiscent of anime soundtracks. At the Webster Hall show and mini-live at NYAF, the music and vocals were all pre-recorded to accommodate the girls’ constant—and good—dancing. But AKB48’s main draws are the audience participation and the girls’ personas. The music serves primarily as a template for fans to learn where to chant and call out to specific members at the concerts, which many of the American fans—as well as Japanese ones who traveled to New York to see the girls in a smaller venue—knew. Each of the 16 girls delivered her own MC in character, and the group wore outfits ranging from schoolgirl uniforms to animal costumes.
Idols represent idealized personalities, and the advantage of AKB48’s size is that it can include so many character archetypes that most people could find members they like. Sayaka Akimoto, a favorite among female fans, has the fashionable Amura look popularized by Namie Amuro and a sisterly personality; in the interview she kindly corrected the sporty-looking Sae Miyazawa’s English pronunciation of her age. Demure Atsuko Maeda, lead singer in most AKB48 singles, plays the classic girl-next-door and is the most popular member because of that.
To retain their credibility, the AKB48 girls have the difficult job of staying in character in all their public appearances. While big scandals like Noriko Sakai’s drug conviction often ruin careers, even minor slips can cause disproportionate damage. Former Team B member Ayaka Kikuchi was booted from the group last year when a photo of her and an alleged boyfriend hit the Internet, violating the no-boyfriends rule of AKB48. She was recently reinstated after a fan petition and new audition, but the incident shows how high expectations are for idols to keep up their appearances in their private life, even when it has no effect on their performance abilities.
An interview with AKB48 provided a fascinating challenge for American journalism, whose truth-seeking goals are at odds with the nature of idols. The NYAF interviews were conducted in groups (mine was with the Japanese-language newspaper Daily Sun New York) and highly restricted weeks before the convention even began. The management screened the questions and rejected even innocuous ones such as my inquiry about the girls’ interest in Onyanko Club to find out if it had influenced their auditioning for AKB48. (Presumably, it wasn’t how they wanted their group represented.) Press were only permitted to use one promotional picture with a specific caption and even asked to call Webster Hall “Webster Hall New York City,” a guideline not followed here for the sake of sanity. At the interview, the four girls present—Akimoto, Miyazawa, Tomomi Itano and Minami Minegishi—entered the room single-file after press were seated. They introduced themselves in English, looking directly at me because I was the sole American in the room. I was flattered by the attention and then realized that was exactly how idols you can meet every day are supposed to make you feel. At the end, each girl walked up to a press member individually to give a gift of four CDs. This is why AKB48 is so popular in a saturated idol scene.
The Daily Sun asked lightweight questions that led to answers that were cute and quotable but certainly scripted. Minegishi told a story about getting into a dance-off with a street performer and ending up friends with him. The girls often talked about the surprise of seeing Japanese culture so popular in the U.S., such as when Itano described coming across Sanrio products in an American store. “I thought it was interesting that these character goods were sold in America like in Japan,” she said. Akimoto talked about enjoying New York City’s people and liveliness. “Even after 9 p.m., there were just as many people out,” she said. “When we passed by people, they smiled and made eye contact.” Miyazawa interestingly talked about wanting to change people’s perceptions of idols as just cute girls wearing frilly outfits and dancing preciously, because some of AKB48’s performances have cooler outfits and edgier lyrics (perhaps alluding to “Blue Rose,” a rock-influenced number performed in midriff-baring pleather like that of J-pop girl group Max).
I did my best to pry for some authenticity and the rich, intriguing ideas behind the well-choreographed project that is AKB48—and idols in general. Much of the group’s activities seem to reflect producer Akimoto’s tastes and wishes. Having lived in New York two years ago, he had dreamed of one of his acts performing there and seized the opportunity at NYAF after AKB48’s Paris show went well. But was a Big Apple concert something the girls themselves wanted? “They have no idea why they’re here,” Makino admitted.
They also visited the coffee shop La Lanterna because Akimoto likes to write lyrics there. This anecdote elicited one of the few clearly genuine, spontaneous moments in the interview: The girls all said an impressed “Oh!” when I said I knew their producer had written the lyrics to enka legend Hibari Misora’s 1989 hit “Kawa no Nagare no you ni.”
Given more time, I could have explored the ideas and people behind the act. But the irony of idols’ appeal that fans invest time and money into getting to know them, yet what they want to get to know is the persona, not the person. It’s precisely the artifice that these people are superhumanly cute, attractive and available beings that draws people to them. Finding out that your favorite idol smokes, dates or thinks poorly of her fans and that her outward personality is just a role assigned by managers would destroy the fun. And with AKB48′s time at NYAF being as brief as it was, it was a chance for American fans to experience the fantasy without staying long enough to see through it.
Thank you to Aya Sakamoto and Brian Stewart for translation