As I wrote about earlier this year, I had good success when I watched AKB0048. Though it casts idols as essentially the saviors of a universe where entertainment is now illegal, the series also shows the less than savory aspects of this starmaking industry, where a weird cultish cabal constructs all the group’s songs and where ascending to the main group involves casting aside your personal identity and adopting a showbiz persona. There’s an unmistakably sinister tint to the idol business in AKB0048 despite the fact that the girls are on the whole making positive contributions to people’s lives.
But while AKB0048 is a bit cynical about the idolmaking process, it does not cast that harsh eye on the idols themselves. It doesn’t blame them for wanting to be a part of this occasionally sordid business without knowing of the weirdness below the surface. They’re young girls with their own hearts, dreams and desires, many of whom grew up in the bleakest of circumstances hoping for a bit of light in their lives. Just imagine a group of girls growing up in a futuristic Dickensian world and you’ve got an idea of how their pre-idol lives went.
So we follow the journey of the girls — focusing mainly on the newbies — through the first season and the beginning of the second season. Early in AKB0048 Next Stage we get what I assume is the time-honored tradition of ranking the fans’ favorite girls. It’s a pretty silly thing — basically the Internet’s BEST GIRL debates brought to life — but the girls treat it with deadly seriousness because it is one of the few times they get any sort of meaningful feedback from the people whose lives they try to uplift with their music. (Due to the vast ban on entertainment, live concerts are few and far between.) Most of the girls are grateful, because they’ve busted their asses to get to this point, and this is great validation. This is the fans telling them directly that what they’re doing has a positive impact on their lives.
Chieri up there views this with trepidation, however. A few revelations in prior episodes have her questioning her path to popularity. Did she truly earn it herself, or was her place at the top bought and paid for? She’s planning to quit the group if she makes it into the top 10 in the popularity poll, because she can’t stomach the thought that she didn’t earn that spot on her own merits. Sure enough, Chieri’s name is called in sixth place. She wants to quit, but she’s afraid to do so. Then she gets to the stage, looks at all the people happy to see her up there, and she realizes she can’t quit. She pledges to do better than ever.
And, Dear Reader, I was on the edge of my seat the WHOLE TIME!! (Well, I actually watch most things from the comfort of my bed, but I digress.) This is basically an entire episode dedicated to a stupid popularity contest, and I ate the whole thing up. AKB0048 is a show about girls who battle a military group using lightsaber microphones, mechas, and missiles loaded from skirts, but I formed enough of an emotional connection with the characters to actually give a shit about fictional fans voting for fictional girls in an incredibly silly fictional universe.
If that is not anime, then what, pray tell, is?
(P.S. Takamina best girl, don’t even start.)