^Me watching every episode of AKB0048. Also, I couldn’t think of a cool, weighty title, so I decided to be straight about this show’s appeal.
When AKB0048 initially aired, I paid little attention to it. I vaguely remember a few folks singing its praises, but I never followed up on it. I believe my thought process was, “Wait, isn’t that show about idols? The fuck outta here.” As you can see, my reasoning is always logical and intellectual. It wasn’t until way later that I actually decided to look a bit deeper into the series and saw that it’s WAY FUCKING CRAZY. If that wasn’t enough to pique my interest, I then saw that the show was directed by Shoji Kawamori (of Macross fame) with Mari Okada as the lead writer. Now, some folks are down on Okada, and I’m not here to argue about that, but Kawamori and Okada did put out a damn fine show in Aquarion EVOL (another anime that I took way too long to watch); if this series is any indication, then they clearly make a good team, because beautiful, crazy things result when they pair up.
(Note: I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but I’ll throw out a few while describing what the series is about.)
I suppose I should briefly address what this series is about. Basically entertainment is banned everywhere because repressive governments hate anything that involves having fun. Idols are particularly high on their shit list; they have signs showing what they think of idols, and just in case people don’t get the message, it’s on their missiles, as well. Yes, they use missiles against idols, along with giant robots and shock troops. But not to worry, because the idols themselves are trained in all manner of combat and come equipped with microphones that double as lightsabers! One of the idols is even an android that has a rocket launcher built into its arm. These idols preach love and peace and will defend it to the death. You can see why people would be eager to join them; the series follows a group of girls who audition to become the 77th generation of young women to join AKB0048.
77 generations? Yep. This is where the show gets really weird: The members of the main group take on the persona of a member of the original AKB48. This involves the girls relinquishing their names and going by titles like “Minami Takahashi the 5th” or “Yuuko Ooshima the 9th” or whatever (meaning they’re the fifth or ninth person to assume that identity in AKB0048′s history). What few people know, however (and this is where some spoilers come in), is that the ladies do not choose their identities; no, there is a mystical process by which the girls are secretly analyzed and it is determined which among them has a soul that resonates most closely with the soul of an original member of AKB48. Each generation of girls could work their ass off and be pretty damn good at singing and dancing and kicking ass, but they might not get called up if their soul doesn’t match up to an open spot in the group.
AKB0048 features the best dual wielding of the year.
So while the idols are mostly good folks fighting for what they believe is right, there’s some sinister, cultlike shit bubbling beneath the surface. (There’s another aspect to this stuff that I won’t go into here that’s basically as strange.) This dark tint is part of what elevates AKB0048 from a fun, goofy idol romp to something a bit more interesting. Even though someone from AKB48′s management is presumably overseeing this project, the details of the world and story don’t paint this idol business in an entirely glorious light.
It’s not particularly difficult to read between the lines here: What the top idols are asked to do is to shed their individuality and take on an identity that has been repeated for generations. Their role is to deliver safe, comfortable music in safe, comfortable, pre-determined identities, because that’s what the fans want. And if someone comes along who can do that job better, then your spot is at stake, though the girls at the top do have a bit of power in determining when they’ll leave the stage — if the threat of relentless competition and (for a few girls in the series) the knowledge that something out of their power determines their role doesn’t erode their self-confidence first.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, and not in the normal, “Wow, being an idol isn’t as easy as I thought it would be!” sense. There’s a level of nastiness to this business that AKB0048 portrays without going into full on “this is actually Heart of Darkness but with pop idols” territory, since there’s no way in hell that would ever be allowed. To be honest, I’m not sure that would be enjoyable to watch after a certain length of time, anyway, which brings the other part of AKB0048‘s success into play. While the show takes a considerable amount of glee at satirizing the idolmaking process and this weird world of show business, at no point does the mockery extend to the girls themselves. They’re young women who have their own dreams and desires, and even those at the very top have their own wishes they fiercely protect, even as their goal is to assume an identity for public consumption.
(Why, yes, that is an android loading rockets from her skirt.)
One moment that really floored me late in the series is when one of the top idol’s confidence is crumbling when she learns that The Powers That Be have decided that another girl is more suited for her role as Takamina (basically the captain of the group). A string of bad luck ensures that everything is going to shit for her. Confidence is at an all-time low. Takamina’s thinking about quitting. But her friend tells her that if her dream matters, then she should make every effort to stay on stage. If she’s crushing someone else’s dream to make hers a reality, then so be it. That’s the way it has to be. The wonderful irony is that Takamina’s role involves building people up and being the team-first idol; it’s her inspiration that paves the way for her seeming downfall.
Later she basically says, “Fuck you, I want to keep performing” and prevents her understudy from making her first stage appearance. And she feels like shit about it later, but that’s how much this means to her. Not once, however, does the anime judge her for this; it simply shows how much that passion to be on stage means to her. However screwed up this world is, AKB0048 sees a bunch of girls with dreams and empathizes with them, even when they’re not being such great people (which happens often). It reminds me a lot of the approach the original Macross takes with Lynn Minmay, presenting her clearly as someone who is bratty and selfish but nonetheless empathizing with her desires and seeing that she still needs to grow up. It’s that heart that keeps AKB0048 from being too silly or too sardonic.
If you can’t watch this because you can’t separate it from the ickiness of actual idol culture, then hey, I can understand that. This shit weirds me out, too; not just in Japan, but the way we build our pop music idols in America, too. It’s kinda fucked up! But to me, AKB0048 is in an entirely different, more self-aware universe.