Saturday afternoon at the movies - AKB48 Show Must Go On
Joanne G. Yoshida
January 28, 2012
Boarding the city bus with my daughter Y and four of her friends, on the way to the new AKB48 movie, Documentary of AKB48, Show Must Go On, Shoujo-tachi wa Kizutsukinagara, Yume wo Miru, which was released yesterday.
We saw part I (Documentary of AKB48 To be Continued) almost exactly one year ago.
At that time, it was just Y and I. One year later the world has changed as she is about to enter Junior High School. She would prefer to go to the movie just with friends but still needs an escort to go as far as Park Place, the shopping mall where we will see the sequel. I accept my new role and stay a few paces behind them.
Arrive at Park Place.
I stand by as they stop at a shop in the mall to select pre-movie merchandise. "Kawaii...", my daughter's friend says as she leafs through some "cute" AKB48 themed items. A4-size cards, pens, pencils and stickers.
My daughter buys an "o-to-na parody seal" without noticing I noticed. I don't understand the adult parody sticker nor can I tell you what it means.
I hear her call out "mom" a few minutes later. I am being called out of my invisibility to join them--a few paces behind of course-- on the walk through the mall to the movie theater.
Anyway I'm glad to be remembered.
We split up
Food Court for Indian Curry while I read a book (me)
We meet at the movie theater and buy tickets. Y and one of her friends have a mae-uri-ken, which is an advance purchase ticket. The advance ticket comes with a nama sha-shin of one of the AKB48 members. Y got a photo of Shizuka Oya. There are about fifty types in all so it is part of the thrill of buying the advance ticket to receive a photo and maybe even to get your favorite team member.
They choose seats. Y is happy that I willingly take a separate seat, even though it is just one row behind.
Turn off all cell phones.*
The movie begins.**
*to readers who may plan to see the film, the following are my notes from the film, so if you do not want to know the basic flow of events in the movie and prefer to be surprised, you may not want to read further!
**all quotes written in English in the following account are my direct translations from the movie
When I mentioned the world changing in the course of a year, I hadn't anticipated this moment of the opening scenes---AKB48 members look out the window of a bus to the devastation and ruins of houses and towns from the March 11th Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami. The movie begins with the camera following their relief effort visit to the affected areas of the great earthquake that shook the Northeast of Japan in 2011, and is punctuated by interviews with members about how the events of the past year effected them and their dreams.
"That day, I felt the room shake, I went to evacuate at the elementary school..."
In an interview segment, Iwata Karen, a new trainee to the AKB48 team, 12th Generation Kenkyuusei, and the only AKB member from the hi-sai-chi (devastated areas), was speaking of her direct experience of the disaster. She had been asked to join as a trainee (kenkyuusei) slightly before the events of 3-11, when she was only twelve years old. At that time she hadn't been completely sure about whether to go ahead with making this change in her life, but the great earthquake and its aftermath affected her decision and made her realize the preciousness of life and the importance of taking advantage of every moment. She says that even though it was terribly difficult to make the decision to leave her school and home in Miyagi Prefecture to follow her dreams, she knew that she had to take the chance.
As I watched the beginning scenes, I recalled the voluptuous and luxurious scenes of the AKB48 members in their first documentary movie enjoying a seemingly endless buffet of delights. Here they were in this real life sequel with less make-up and only a makeshift stage in the remains from the devastation where there was still not even running water.
I am struck by the time gap of only one year between the two films and the reality of these events in between. It was a striking and stark contrast to shift perception to see so clearly how the world really has changed.
The camera pans across crumbled ruins, AKB48 members watch from the bus.
When the bus pulls in to Iwate Prefecture on a concert visit as part of the relief effort, the idol group is met with cheers of delight. The relatively small number of group members wear dungaree shorts and simple white t-shirts with "AKB48", and the slogan "What can I do for someone?" which is their theme since 3-11-2011.
Team B captain, Kashiwagi Yuki, greets the audience..."minna san, konnichiwa..."
We can't do much, she apologizes... but what they can do is share their music and songs. They spin around and begin "Hebi Rotation"---1-2-3-4.
The fans smiles express pure joy. Some hold up keitais and cameras, a small child standing on the bare ground touching the platform passes a flower to the hand of one of the members on the makeshift stage. The energizing rhythms of AKB48s songs fill the air as military personnel in army fatigues let down their guard slightly at the back line of the small standing crowd.
" Kyou, samui desu ne", smiles are contagious autographs are being signed at folding tables. It is in the late spring cold of the northeast. The members have a new beauty in this film, a compassionate and natural beauty that shines forth even more in their new roles as idols with a mission--- to help.
"Up until now it was all for our own dreams, but this time it was the first time that we could see that our enjoyment in what we do can make others happy as well."
This is a sentiment that marks a turning point for the AKB48 members and which comes across in the film and endears me even more to the group and brings their idol stature into a multi-dimensional perspective as they discover how compassion adds another layer to their dedication and their art.
The camera's love affair with the group deepens as well as it pans from hair to face to eyes to mini-skirted legs in the following scenes where they return to the limelight in epaulette shoulders and school girl skirts. There are a number of tension producing moments (to say the least) as ranks are announced at the General Election from 2011. As they wait in their seats for the results, the members are fraught with emotions revealed in tears and shouts and heavy breathing. Atsuko Maeda is hyperventilating in the moments before her name is called as the new center. She takes to the stage in triumphant steps..." ichi nen-kan, iroiro no koto o kangaete..." she begins to make a plea to the audience in response to controversy she has been thinking about over the past year, and bursts out, "Even if you don't like me, never stop liking AKB48". The crowd cheers, fans go wild and she bows from a pink leatherette throne.
Like stories of Greek gods and goddesses blessed with abundance yet tinged with fatalistic blows that occur in web-like patterns, the fates of the members in these fan selected elections take on an elaborate drama. The position and ranking determine whether a member will be a part of upcoming concert appearances, who will appear in promo videos, and who will sing on the A and B sides of new singles.
(In another scene, a new team, Team 4, is announced. I notice my daughter is on the edge of her seat in the row in front of me)
And yet in one line a truth is told---despite all the numbers, the most important thing is the teamwork involved. When things went out of unison in a performance at Seibu Dome, producer Yasushi Akimoto advises them strictly to think more seriously, and to make it better tomorrow.
more than 200 members as of 12/31/2011, including recent JKT48 (Jakarta), the newly announced Team 4, and trainees
Ganbarimasu, the Show must go on!
Moments of creating camaraderie amidst kitsuii (tough) times are acknowledged with hugs, congratulations, and words of encouragement. All the possible conjugations of "Ganbarimasu", probably the most used verb in the Japanese language, appear in the dialogues behind the scenes after the election.
Everyone is cheered up and by now cinematographically speaking, even the sky looks like it is wearing makeup.
Behind the scenes
Stage managers in black are like invisible hands opening curtains at appropriate cues and giving oxygen and blankets and fluids to members who are about to collapse from the duress. The backstage is like a rescue effort to get the top performers to keep on and endure in spite of exhaustion. Gold lamet boot-steps echo like horses hoofs in a gallop down to the wings from stage as oxygen is given to other members waiting in the wings. One minute to show time, 20 seconds to show-time and Maeda-san can't seem to breathe. The curtain opens. Just as she seems about to take a last breath, the "na na na" of the back singers releases her and she flies out in gold lamet. More than breathing, she is giving her all to a soaring performance of "Flying Get".
The Show must go on, and it does. After breathing oxygen and doffing silver foil cape-like sheets, the stars go out like dragons on fire to the stage and breathe their passion and phenomenal energy through their songs and movements.
The younger members have their role models to live up to.
One trainee remarks,
"That's an idol---such a tough situation and then they come out to the stage smiling."
I feel my heart beating fast when the whole troupe appears for the concert in a kind of Hollywood squares set up with rows and columns of AKB48 members filling the balconies of a three dimensional facade.
Maeda-san in center stage finishes the song and puts her hand to her heart.
風は吹いている (Ka-ze wa Fu-i-te Iru) is their message song to the hi-sai-chi.
"What can I do for someone?" , the audience too can ask ourselves as we look at the footage from the members' eyes, out over the remains of debris on the shorelines in Iwate Prefecture where in a certain kilometer vicinity only one tree remains.
AKB48 young women pray towards the tree.
As we watch and share in their prayers.
Iwata Karen, the thirteen-year old trainee who was interviewed in the first scene, apologizes for leaving her hometown at such a time. Only she could wear beautiful costumes while others she grew up with are losing homes and living with the minimal of all things. But she sees that it is gods giving her this big chance to make a beautiful future from which she can then begin
to give back.
"Forever we all need idols."
They show us we can
I call my daughter's friend from my cell phone (my daughter doesn't have one) to tell my daughter to please get to the bus stop in front of the mall in six minutes. Ah, mom, they don't want to go yet... she pleads with me from the game center. I remind her of our promise ( lunch, movie, home).
My daughter, her four friends, and I board the bus back to central Oita.
We are all united in the spirit of "kizuna" (togetherness and cooperation) that we all surely felt deeply from the film.
Recommended link for further reading about AKB48:
I found this following article interesting, it is in English, an interview with "The Man Who Made AKB48", Yasushi Akimoto, especially how he refers to the group as
".... "unfinished." In other words, they're still not very good at singing or dancing. The fans are supporting the girls and cheering them on as they gradually get better as they become the finished article that's what AKB48 is all about... "
quoted from an article by Kenneth Maxwell and Andrew Joyce
Joanne G. Yoshida