AKB48 are literally the biggest pop group in the world, and you’ve probably never heard of them. I say biggest not necessarily in terms of celebrity hype, nor album sales (though they have a pretty solid standing for both of these), but rather because there are, at last count, about 70 of them. An initial total of 40 was whittled down from application numbers approaching 8,000 – this is manufactured pop, but on a bigger scale than even supergroups of yore like the Spice Girls or Girls Aloud.
A bit of context, then: the name AKB48 derives from Akihabara, a district in Tokyo, in which the group has their own theatre, fittingly located on the 8th floor of retail giant Don Quijote. Forty singers might seem like rather a lot for one stage but producer and corporate mastermind Akimoto Yasushi organises the girls in four teams of ten, such that at any given moment, there is, with some certainty, probably a show planned for later that day. Despite that, obtaining tickets is rather harder than you might imagine: the impossibly high demand means that tickets are now distributed entirely via a lottery. The Japanese government, noting rising levels of suicide throughout the group, has harnessed their popularity and influence to launch a controversial anti-suicide advertisement campaign, with the official statement reading, ‘We’ve decided to ask cooperation from AKB, which can reach out to people in a broad range of generations.’
This wide reach has staggering financial repercussions. Yasushi is capitalising on a culture of idolatry, going so far as to deem the concept of the group ‘idols you can meet.’ Fans have an unusually high level of autonomy in deciding the future of the band, with general elections held in order to determine the member line-up for the next single.
To actually meet and greet these idols, however, is rife with far more difficulties than initially meets the eye. Aimi Eguchi, one of the members of the group, received tremendous amounts of publicity throughout 2011 due to an uncanny resemblance to other members of the group. Eguchi’s internet presence is palpable: a sixteen year old girl from Saitama, north of Tokyo, she has her own profile online, while a quick Google search reaps magazine features, complete with exclusive photos and biodata. Perhaps you can see where this is going: Eguchi exemplifies the best of AKB48, by virtue of being a composite CGI character. Fellow chanteuse Tomomi Itano’s button nose jostles for space with Mariko Shinoda’s mouth, while Mayu Watanabe’s eyebrows frame Minami Takahashi’s face. The product is slightly asymmetrical, but not totally unconvincing. In some respects, this suggests the ultimate expression of idol-worship: a completely artificial persona and character generated by a complex algorithm of the traits and features best liked by a vast network of fans.
As for the music – well, it’s not quite like anything I’ve heard before. Think lots of energy, slightly incongruous subtitles for non-Japanese speakers (‘I came to find the meaning of life through the miracle of meeting you,’ accompanied by swathes of sexy young women in retro clothing playing with buckets) and a jazzy chorus, usually with a line in English. Regardless of my own personal feelings for the genre, it certainly sells. I confess, I find something a little terrifying about AKB48. It might be the smiles, it might be the lyrics, it might be that there are just so many of them – at any rate, from a cultural perspective, they are absolutely fascinating. And, with success far beyond the borders of Japan, their influence grows ever more prominent. With all references to androids entirely borne in mind, then, be prepared. They are coming.