The Challenger Akihabara Deep—going where no otaku has gone before: The AKB48 Trench
Starting out, I knew very little about this group. (In fact, I am writing this first paragraph before I watch this documentary.) So what do I know? I know it’s a troupe of pretty girls singing in unison to the joy of fans all over Japan. I know there are a lot of them. And they have songs. That’s…well, that’s really it. In the universe of girl groups, the only others that really come to mind are the Spice Girls and Girls’ Generation, and I only know the latter because my girlfriend really liked the jeans they wore in a video.
Before we start, you should know that getting a DVD like this is rare. The only place to pick this up is at http://store.newpeopleworld.com. No Amazon, no Right Stuf. So when handed a review copy of this disc, I knew this was something special, but I also knew I had it wrong. A hard-to-find documentary? My hopes where over the moon. I was curious what the director and his team would discover about this group. Who secretly hates whom? Which one has substance abuse problems? Surely some scandal would come to light.
For starters, this documentary assumes you know a little bit about the group beforehand. This really is set up as more of a “behind the scenes, get to know the girls” film than it is a structured presentation of their work. It allows you to get closer to the idols as people (or at least what is deemed appropriate, sadly) and see who these dancers are as they attempt to garner attention from an audience that ultimately decides their fate. The product here is really American Idol meets Japanese Pop Star, with the same emotional performances, reactions and judging of the American show mixed with the contemporary idol mania that has swept over Tokyo, Akihabara to be specific. It’s genius, really. This documentary takes some of the more popular girls and puts them under the lens and attempts to find out what they really want out of this and, please, could you prance around in a short skirt while we ask?
I’ll be real: I almost had to kill this thing after the first five minutes. The soft piano, the camera forever rotating as the girls ate and talked about skin care, princes and how life ends at 30. The perfection in their hairstyling and makeup as one girl tells the other to wipe her mouth, when there is NOTHING THERE. I was done. I wanted hard-hitting video journalism, not some powder puff two-hour long commercial for these girls. I mean, if that’s your thing, awesome, enjoy, this is you, all you. But me? Nope. I want the hard stuff. Still, I hop into my submarine and down we go. Come with me, traveler, let us see how deep this goes.
9 minutes in, and they are crying, talking about dreams. Dear God, this is too much. It’s like a bad Japanese porn, with all the bullshit in the beginning, but no payoff. Just more bullshit.
11 Minutes deep: This girl is crying and I think I like it. Why did I do this?
15: More crying. I mean, I get it; it’s an emotional group, they mean a lot to each other, but what the hell? I had an ex-girlfriend who would cry a lot during, er…intimate moments. But this is some next level shit. “Oh, we are working at the same place dancing but I dance with some other people? Let me cry like someone is cutting my arm off, it’s so hard to be this beautiful.” On a side note, it’s much more interesting to see them practice in their sweats than it is to see this full on make-up stage stuff. So that’s…good?
20: I feel like James Cameron in his Deepsea Challenger submersible he took down to the depths of the ocean; I’m getting deeper and deeper into this AKB48 shit, and the light and sanity of normal girls is slowly disappearing above as I sink into this new abyss. I notice Rino uses a cool trick when she meets fans; she shakes hands, then holds it longer than a normal handshake, creating a small but powerful sense of intimacy. Very clever girl, very clever. Oh, you were born in 1992? Yeah, I’m going to go feel dirty and old now. I don’t know which one I will feel more.
26: More Soft Piano, crying, girls graduating? And of course, the cheers of middle aged Japanese men. Why did I agree to this?
31: More crying, though I am buying into this. Forty-eight girls, trained as hyper powerful idols. It’s sorta like how the Beatles played every day to get better in Europe, combined with the Mickey Mouse Club. Will a Justin Timberlake or Britney Spears arise from the chaos? Only time will tell. For now, Maya is not happy with 5th rank. Ganbatte, Maya. (WTF am I saying?!)
40: This girl wants to be a professional singer? Ouch. Nope. But to her credit, a full 10 minutes without piano and crying. Automatically my favorite.
45: They are totally pumped for this new big show. Big boss man comes in to motivate, and makes fun of someone’s English. I just wiki-ed the band. It’s fascinating; where do they go when they graduate? There are new teams on new continents that can sub in for members elsewhere sometimes? Is this like a basketball game? But, you know, with prettier costumes?
50: Minami has her shit together. She knows she’s not the prettiest, but she’s smart. She’s got plans. She knows that in 10 years she’ll be off of AKB, “graduated” or whatever, and might do acting, something “dignified.” She’s got all the angles covered. Why the hell am I even caring? Maybe it’s the bowtie and those giant puffy cheeks. She seems continually disgruntled.
57: Haruna—Jesus, finally, someone born in the ’80s; now I don’t have to feel totally pervy. I mean, I still have to, but at least this numbs the edge. BTW, last seven minutes? At least four chicks crying. Since this is a happy group of girls onstage, is there some “happy girls crying” fetish I am not aware of? If so, I’ve found their Koran.
60: Never mind, Haruna fishes for way too many compliments. “I’m not great, I’m not pretty, oh sorry, I have to go water my plants in this blouse while you guys are interviewing me.” And just like that, we’ve gotten through the halfway mark. Deeper and deeper, fellow traveler, deeper and deeper.
68: Vote Team B, apparently. Man, this is starting to look like the Maoist Red Book loyalty dance. I think they are trying to take over everyone’s minds. I think they need some Hologram Tupac to really set the mood and get the audience.
71: Yuki is back home with her friends she hasn’t seen in years and they make sure to tell her that they like the other girls from AKB48 better than her. Man, this is great, like the Playa Hater’s Ball from Chapelle’s Show, but instead of African American pimps making fun of each other, it’s Japanese school girls being jealous of their old friend. I could take this on the road. That okonomiyaki looks good, too. Also, this piano needs to stop. Seriously. Just, just play some different notes or something. Or get a saxophone. Enough.
75: Random thought: When this whole show goes bust, they should Battle Royale this thing up. Each idol gets a weapon and is dropped into an arena. Only the true idol will survive to land the five-year acting/modeling contract.
81: Yuko is easily now my favorite, there is no surprise she is number one. She makes weird faces and snowboards, and makes fun of the other members…or, maybe because she’s totally cool with posing nude in the future. Okay, it’s probably that.
87: Atsuko, the queen of the group, talks about being number two now and her forthcoming “graduation.” This is a really great shot; she’s on the roof of a building with a train passing in the background during the night. It evokes a kind of melancholy introspection that I really wanted from this documentary. Also, I think I’ve figured it out: Graduation is just like being turned into Soylent Green. At least, I think so. Run, Atsuko, run!
92: More crying.
98: Mariko is aging like bad cheese, and even her deep voice makes me think her time on the team is limited. Oh yeah, Logan’s Run, baby. Are you 25? Better get ready.
101: Cry, Yui, youz on TV NOW! Welcome to the ranks of the elite! You were an understudy and all our dreams depend on you!…Wow. Please just pretend I wrote that sarcastically.
108: Apparently, Takamina is a secret uber-boss that all the girls fear. Oh, man. But talk about motivated. She also seems to dance with a lightsaber, so extra points in my book. She seems like a total bitch. She can boss me around anytime. No, Takamina, keep the lightsaber belt on. I like it better that way.
114: Those graduate girls? Totally Soylent Green.
119: Annndddd Done.
Well, I have to say, it was an interesting journey. I mean, sure, this is a giant girls’ group swelling with mass market appeal, but what got me about it, during the credits, was the girls eating and sleeping on the buses and during practice. Reminded me of when I was on the track team in high school/college, and that sense of team—well, I got that.
So was this the hard-hitting documentary about sex, drugs and choreographed dance I was hoping for? No, but it did give me a chance to see a part of Japanese culture I had previously only studied from afar up close. I saw young girls working together to make a performance perfect. Granted, it was for some middle aged dudes who probably weren’t too worried on that front, but it was impressive nonetheless.
So, if you’re into the Akihabara scene, dude, this one is for you. It’s got more cute girls talking about their dreams than you can shake a stick at. Cool costumes. Maybe that’s not your thing? How about a drinking game: Girl cries? Drink. Introduced to a girl born during the first Bush administration? Drink. Hear middle aged men with glow sticks scream like little girls? Drink. Soft piano? Drink. Realize that you really are hoping for their future, that Haruna gets higher and ranks in the general election and that Team A really needs to watch out for Team K’s new dance routine? Just finish a bottle of whiskey, buy tickets to Japan, and watch them live, waving a glow stick and yelling as you go. Welcome to AKB48, a cornucopia of youth, dreams and tear ducts.
Documentary of AKB48 to Be Continued is sold exclusively online for $19.99 through the NEW PEOPLE store at http://store.newpeopleworld.com.