Saturday afternoon at the movies - Documentary of AKB48, to be continued
Joanne G. Yoshida
I don't know why it surprised me that most of the seats in the theater were filled with groups of four to six boys, some in high school uniform and some in baseball caps of various patterns including leopard print, with pants slightly too low-slung on their waists.
The boys in front of us with popcorn sets on trays turn back to their friends a few rows behind us with popcorn sets on trays, texting on cell phones before the announcement comes up on the screen to turn off all cell phones.
The movie starts with a small number of the forty-eight plus beautiful members from AKB48, eating with delight. Both the foods and the girls are bathed in soft focus light. Even before the opening credits it is clear that the members of Japan's most famous all girl's group in today's music scene enjoy the pleasures of food, and being with each other.
As the movie progresses it also becomes clear that they love what they do for a living, which is dancing, singing and expressing themselves on stage as members of AKB48 - the all-female theater/idol group produced by Yasushi Akimoto.
In the opening cafeteria scene, the camera shifts back and forth from the abundance of well-dressed salads on the table, to the fashion details, smooth complexions, and colorful nails of the well-dressed girls at the table. In between forkfuls of pasta and melt in the mouth cheese entrees, they talk about other food, such as chestnuts and avocadoes in wasabi shoyu.
They feed each other cream-topped sweets and are photographed with radiant smiles in each shot. When they stand up to leave the table, they reveal long legs, flowing lines of silky black hair, soft curves, and the title of the movie, which appears in a simple font style overlapping the scene:
Documentary of AKB48, to be continued
The subtitle, １０年後小女 たちは今の自分に何を思うのだろう？, asks how the members of the group see themselves in ten years down the road. I wasn't sure if "to be continued" was preparing audiences to await a sequel, or if it referred to the question in the subtitle, most probably the latter?
My daughter told me in advance not to ask her any questions during the film, but when I told her I'm sure I'll have some questions about the group she knows so much about, she finally agreed that I could ask one. Even though she told me not to ask questions, she whispered in my ear that the scene we were seeing now was taking place in the AKB Theater.
The group has their own theater in Akihabara, the electronics district of Tokyo, where there is a daily performance, by alternating teams. The A, K and B in the name of the group are from "Akihabara" and the number, 48, refers to the number of members, when it started with three teams of sixteen members each. The team names are A, K and B respectively. The number has grown exponentially since they formed, and includes trainees and off-shoot teams, SKE and SDN.
As of this writing, the group holds the Guinness Record for the "pop group with the greatest number of members".
Before we went, my daughter also briefed me on the names and hometowns of most the members who appeared in the movie, including Sashihara Rino, who is from Oita where we live. On a personal note, it was exciting to see shots taken in front of Oita Station, which already are becoming history, as a new Oita Station is underway. There was a familiarity and poignancy to seeing the old station as it is now, maybe the last time in a major film.
Scenes alternate from concert stages to teams in rehearsal rooms and dressing rooms to on-site shots in locations around Japan, showing the members in their natural environments. The scenes of Kashiwagi Yuki, an AKB48 who is from Kagoshima, are examples of the movie as a gorgeous travelogue in the way it presents the interviews with the members.
The views of Sakurajima, of a mon-ja-yaki restaurant with wood paneled walls and sliding doors, and of momiji leaves turning colors in fall are stunningly photographed and exquisite backdrops to the interview segment. In another, Oshima Yuko, filmed in Northern Japan, falls childishly into the snow and then elegantly gets up to do some snowboarding down the slopes. And in another, the Tokyo Tower at night dissolves into a pink glow, as the camera alternated from shining portrait shots of AKB48 member Maeda Atsuko to distant views of the city at night
As I enjoyed the scenery, my daughter moved up on her chair, deeply engrossed in hearing the members talk candidly about their dreams, their rigorous practice, and their memories. One member said she must have been born to be AKB48, others reflect on their idol status and for many, being a member of AKB48 was a lifetime dream.
Even though the audience is mostly boys, to me it didn't seem that the girls/ young women, are performing just for them. Rather I had a sense they are discovering themselves through their careers as performers.
What makes their energy exciting is the way their genuine curiosity, dedication, and talent pour out in to tightly choreographed yet expressive performances. A combination of hard work and discipline with both freedom and teamwork in their dance numbers surely hits a chord with audiences both nationwide and internationally, and has brought songs such as Aitakatta, Beginner, and Heavy Rotation to the top of J-pop charts.
In both the rehearsal scenes and interviews there are echoes of values which Japan is famous for such as being forward looking, expressing gratitude and thanks, dedication to a team, doing their best, working long hours, and wearing a smile throughout the tough moments and lack of sleep.
I ♥ Team*
*slogan from a t-shirt in one of the rehearsal scenes
Greetings, speeches and tears punctuate AKB48's performances - In outfits from schoolgirl skirts to Sergeant Pepper-inspired epaulets, to multi-colored magic genie costumes with their stomachs bare, they shout out "Yoroshiku-onegaishimasu", a greeting and acknowledgment of beginning a job, in this case the performance.
In line with the recent J-pop history of large girls groups starting with Onyanko Club who began in the 1980's under the same producer, they dance the values of togetherness. In a huddle before a performance, they express gratitude with a team cheer of "Sei, no, itsumo Kansha!"
If you don't know AKB48's songs, you might want to watch some of the music videos in advance, and see what they do best as performers. It is not a concert movie so there are only brief intervals of the songs performed. But you don't have to know anything at all, nor understand the language, to enjoy the visual feast of images and pop goddess-like charm that emanates from the young idol stars, who are both sexy and innocent, smiles and teary, flawless and in control.
Despite their fame, they maintain a purity and freshness as they drift from rehearsal studio to their hometown worlds and on to the stage. They remind us that ambrosia, that delicious food savored by the gods, may still exist, at least cinematographically. In the music video by Japan's famous photographer Mika Ninagawa for the song Heavy Rotation, the whole team savors cakes and sweets as they luxuriate in lingerie on top of a larger than stage sized cake in between energetic dance numbers. They embody a complete cycle from hard work to depictions of enjoyment in pure pleasure, as the theme song for the movie, "Shoujotachi yo", plays and the movie ends as it began, with beautiful girl members of AKB48, eating.
AKB48 Show Must Go On