The first time I heard about AKB48, it was in a negative light. They were supposedly ripping off H!P’s idol groups, and some fans were not happy—so the information I came across told me.

“What’s this?! Some other idol group copying Morning Musume?! The injustice!” was my initial response. But really, I had to see this for myself. A quick Youtube search for AKB48 brought me to the PV for AKB48’s single, ‘Skirt, Hirari.’ I had no idea what I was in for. When I clicked on the link, I watched as these girls danced around in schoolgirl uniforms. They were all adorable. Some of them were good singers, and some of them were, well, not so good. I was kind of surprised to see some girls (particularly Maeda Atsuko) featured with a big solo in the song with a voice like that. But anyone who’s seen this PV can probably attest to the fact that this PV wasn’t about showcasing the vocal talent of this group. No, no. It was about, literally, skirts, fluttering. Pure and utter fanservice in one of its most obvious incarnations. At that point, my mind was made up about the whole debate—this group was not copying Morning Musume.

Not even close.

As weirded out as I felt after watching the PV, I developed the need to learn more about a few of the girls that stuck out while I was watching the PV, just to match some names with some faces. I wasn’t committing to becoming a fan of the group—especially right after watching that PV. So I looked up the group on Wikipedia to discover—wow, so, uh, there actually ARE somewhere around 48 of them. Identifying the particular girls I had seen in the PV was not going to be an easy task. Actually, this all took place about a year ago—October or November of 2006, I’m guessing. Before Team B was even a factor! But after sorting through them all, I found out that I’d noticed Itano Tomomi and Takahashi Minami. After having those girls identified—and then taking a moment to find out who the Kamei Eri-look-alike was (Maeda Atsuko, if you couldn’t guess), that was it—for a while. I didn’t bother looking up much more on AKB48. They were still a distant idol group, and I still couldn’t shake the feeling of them being a rival group to Morning Musume—even if I’d found out that they were taking a much, much different approach to this whole idol gig than Morning Musume was.

I was drawn back to AKB48 on a few following occasions. The first was when I learned that Kashiwagi Yuki, one of my favorites—right alongside Aika—from the Morning Musume 8th Generation auditions, had been chosen to join AKB48’s new Team B. Now I had an incentive to follow them, I thought. I looked up pictures of this new Team B (and tried to ignore their ridiculously awful hairstyles… as mentioned in a previous post) just to see if that was, indeed, the same Yuki from the auditions. It was, and she was looking cute in the ‘Dear my teacher’ performance outfit. Cute and a little tired, cute and a little frightened, to be exact.

 

It’s okay, Yukirin! It’s just a cell phone!

Anyway, while this time I was much more willing to invest some time into AKB48, I didn’t follow up on it. This was around December of 2006, and my next encounter with AKB48 wouldn’t be until March or April of 2007, when I downloaded their ‘Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru’ single on a whim. I really, really loved the music, so I decided to check out the PV. I really ended up liking it. I got over the fact that there was no Yuki and let myself delight in the fact that Itano Tomomi was one of the featured girls in the stories of the PV. Obviously, there was still a sexual element to this single. The dancing in the PV and the “ah!”s of the song gave it away, just in case the title of the song wasn’t enough to give me that hint. But I wasn’t as weirded out this time, strangely enough. I looked up a translation of the lyrics, and then chuckled at the name of the single’s b-side (‘Virgin Love’), but this time, I took it a lot better. I don’t think I’d been desensitized by the, um, pantsu in the ‘Skirt, Hirari’ PV. Maybe it was because this PV actually told more of a story—delved into the issue of enjo kosai in Japan—maybe that’s what made it more appealing. It was more than the simple, dancing, jump, flip, “Here’s my underwear deliberately for the world to see!” without an afterthought. This one had more to it—the PV showed scenes of Shibuya, there was acting. And at the very least, the song was catchy (I recall having it in my head so much that I ended up singing it aloud one day when I was alone in the laundry room, and a few people walking by gave me an odd look. Hopefully they couldn’t understand Japanese!)

But once again, I stuck with Hello! Project. I didn’t keep up with AKB48 much. Other than when ‘Seifuku’ would come on my iPod, the group barely crossed my mind. Until (you all probably want to kill me now, but this is the last time, I promise) June of 2007. I remember this exactly—I was on a J-pop forum I frequented, and I kept seeing signatures with pictures or gifs from a new AKB48 PV—the subunit Chocolove’s ‘Ashita wa Ashita no Kimi ga Umareru.’ The fact that these gifs showed the poor girls getting shot was more than enough to grab my attention. I had to see this new PV. What were those crazy AKB48 producers up to now?! So, I set on a mission to find that new PV, and I fell in love with the song. There were only three girls that time around, and at that time, I couldn’t identify any of them. But the bug hit me again—I thought one of them was absolutely gorgeous—not that the other two weren’t, but one in particular was just amazingly beautiful. So I had to find out who she was. After I watched what the hell was up with the rest of the PV! So they got shot! And bled chocolate! Was it disturbing? Definitely! But at least they got up and lived in the end. So, after that brief encounter, I went off to find out who that really pretty girl was—with some searching, I discovered it was Miyazawa Sae. I also discovered that she also had a bit of an acting role in the AKB48’s latest group PV, ‘Keibetsu Shiteita Aijou.’ Off in search of that PV! It absolutely blew me away—this time, there was a real, real issue that I could relate to—school bullying. I didn’t need to find a translation of the malicious text messages shown in the PV to figure out what they meant. The PV was powerful enough without a translation, and quickly, my focus turned from individual girls to learning more about the group as a whole… finally.

This marked the point where I finally, finally became a real AKB48 fan. I found my way to the fan forum, STAGE48, which provided an amazing resource for total newbies like me to the group. The people there helped me identify one of my favorite voices in Chocolove’s ‘Chocolate,’ the b-side to ‘Ashita wa [etcetc].’ (For the record, it was Miyazawa Sae again! I think I found another favorite!)

At that point, now that I’d seen all of the PVs and heard all the singles, I had to immerse myself in more. I listened to their CDs that I could find, and I started on the ambitious task of identifying all of them. It took a while—especially since I kept mixing up Hoshino Michiru and Sato Yukari for a long time—but within a few weeks, I was pretty much able to identify most of them, if not all of them. Over the past summer, I’ve learned more about the group, watched more videos and TV specials featuring them, watched the DVDs of the available Stages, and followed their new releases. ‘BINGO!’ was an instant hit with me—and remains one of my most-listened-to songs to date; ‘Boku no Taiyou’ didn’t score well with me, but their newest, ‘Yuuhi ga Miteiruka?’ is my most listened-to-song to date! Thanks to my Last.fm charts, I discovered that I’ve listened to more AKB48 than anyone else. In such a short time—AKB48 has totally taken over.

And now, I can’t help but remember my first encounters with AKB48. Comparing them with Morning Musume. It was a long process of discovering just how different they are—but at this point, it’s really hard to ignore the differences.

When the 8th Generation audition rolled around for Morning Musume, I was really excited about it and followed it closely. I really got to see how the girls worked their way up—from the initial stages of auditioning regionally, to being narrowed down to 25, then to 6, then to 1! Aika! It was like getting to know this normal girl with dreams of being in her favorite idol group from the beginning and watching her go over all the hurdles in her path to get there. I couldn’t help but cheer for this girl that felt so familiar in the end.

But still, there’s just something about the girls of AKB48 that makes them different. The group was designed to make the girls seem more accessible—the fans can meet their idols in Akihabara. If you’re totally new to AKB48, Japanorama did a small special on AKB48; it’s totally in English, and I’d definitely recommend watching it. Just know it’s a little outdated—it looks like only Team A was around during the filming of the show. But it still gives you a little look into the world of AKB48.

The private videos were a big influence there. Several of the girls filmed their own private videos; they did various things in their videos—mainly showing off their bedrooms, some of them had their family/friends pop up in various places in their videos, showing off their favorite clothes—some of them brought the camera on trips with them… like Kojima Haruna’s video, where she takes her camera to a radio recording and we get to see a few other AKB48 girls out in “real life” with her—then she shows a bit of her and Komatani Hitomi singing at karaoke (and honestly, I was pleasantly surprised by their voices!) Those were the first things that clued me into the more ‘personal’ level of AKB48.

They are still fantastic performers. They all have their strengths and flaws; there are still girls that get much more lines than others. They have talent. There are performances every day; on the weekends, there are two performances per day. Currently, the shows rotate between Team B’s 2nd Stage and Himawari-gumi’s 1st Stage. But just knowing that—it’s given me a lot of respect for the girls. While there is this rotation, these girls are performing a hell of a lot! In addition, they do promotional events, appear on TV shows, many of them have acting parts in dramas and movies, and they’ve even traveled overseas (Team B recently went to China). Clearly, the life of an AKB48 idol is not an easy one! But regardless, they still do their best, and that alone is cause for praise. Some girls have fallen ill, which is completely understandable—people get sick, that’s life. These girls have to deal with that and working so hard; some girls had recently been sent to the hospital due to various health reasons. Just a few days ago, one of the girls who has been absent due to such health reasons returned to a crowd of joyous fans, one fan reported. “Tatami Mats” over at the forum STAGE48 is living over in Japan and has attended several (and I mean several! ) AKB48 shows and leaves us amazing, detailed reports of the shows he attends. He was at the show when Nakanishi Rina returned—and I’m just going to quote how he described her return, it gives such a great image:

“During the 2nd MC (after the song Himawari) Nakanishi Rina was called out onto stage!!!! She appeared in the Juliet/Rollercoaster outfit, and she got SUCH a great applause! She apologized for her health condition and told how thankful she is that everyone is still supporting her. The crowd applauded her for SUCH a long time. Just straight applause… so much that she started crying. She kept crying and couldn’t stop because she was so happy. I wanted to cry to. I just felt so happy that the fans were supporting her that much. It was such a good feeling. Everyone was so warm and she was so happy knowing that everyone cares so much about her. Nobody yelled out anything stupid, everyone was so polite and respectful, it was 100% awesome.”

That kind of scene is really touching. The fans coming right out and supporting her all the way, so much so that she was taken aback by the response. I’ve always liked Nakanishi Rina, so I was definitely glad to hear that she was back, myself! But these kinds of scenes… these MC scenes where the fans can even have an impact on the idols is one of the things that differentiate AKB48 in my mind. I’m not saying that Morning Musume and other idol groups aren’t grateful to their fans—I just think it’s this kind of close, community-like feel that AKB48 can give you. It feels like Rina was this friend that fell ill, and when she shows up, recovered, everyone welcomes her back with open arms. It’s not so much about—hooray, she’s back so I can see her on stage singing and dancing again—it’s more, “She’s doing okay! I’m so glad to see that she’s healthy again!” And once again, I’m not saying that fans of Morning Musume girls don’t care about their idols like that—it’s just that kind of scene, that kind of setting, in the Don Quixote building where the girls perform daily—that seems so unique.

And it’s not only in the theater that you can interact with your favorites. Once again, the fans over in Japan that frequent STAGE48 clue all the rest of us fans overseas into this kind of stuff since we can’t be there. There are handshake events where you can go up and meet your favorite idol. (I am aware that H!P does occasionally host these kind of events, but it’s the personal spin and the actual stories of being there that draw me a lot closer to AKB48’s handshake events.) I’m once again going to quote Tatami Mats here, when he reported on the first time he was able to meet his favorite idol, Minegishi Minami, at a handshake event. I’ll only quote a small portion of his post—but [here’s the link to the full thing], which I HIGHLY recommend reading—he does an excellent job of detailing what actually happened and how he felt when he went up to shake her hand (3 times in all then).

“Looking back on it….it was so worth it. I’d do it all again tomorrow she was participating in the even. Her smile, every little thing about her, I wouldn’t have changed anything. It met and exceeded every single one of my expectations I had for the event. Her smiling face was everything I needed. In my dreams with her, I would be speaking Japanese to her, without a response. I’d get the smile, but nothing else. Today, I spoke to her, and not only did I get a smile, I got bubbly answers from my favorite idol. Thank you for your time, Minami! It meant the world to me.”

And seriously, every time someone reports on attending another event or details another show they attended (which can all be found in the ‘Your AKB48 Experiences’ thread in STAGE48, for those who want to check that out—there are several other great reviews!), I can’t help but grinning like an idiot while I read through their posts, imagining what it’s like to really be over there. It seems like something totally different from attending a Morning Musume concert, or even a Berryz Koubou or C-ute concert.

Not only is AKB48 approaching their music and videos in a different way than H!P… they look at their fans differently. As described in the Japanorama special above, the group caters to the otaku type, whereas H!P tends to look down upon that type of fan. I’m sure the girls have all got their individual views on the issue—but having joined AKB48 knowing the intended audience of the group, I think the girls come into the group having an idea of what to expect. And that can provide for a sense of refreshing friendliness, closeness. Just… a whole other sense, a whole other attitude, a whole other take on the idol music world.

And I really hope to go over to Japan and be able to attend an AKB48 show myself one day, to see the girls I’ve been reading about, watching, and listening to. The entire thing sounds so exhilarating. But for now, I have to settle for being a fan far across the ocean. I wake up to ‘Yuuhi wo Miteiruka?’ as my alarm (Himawari 2.1 mix, for the curious!), I learn as much about the girls as I can, I read posts like the ones mentioned above, I watch what TV specials and dramas I may come across with them in it, I anticipate their new releases, and, of course, I buy their stuff, to support them in the most concrete way, ha!

… and on that note of ‘Yuuhi wo Miteiruka?’ I just want to point out one last thing about the group. I love how this most recent single has given us CHOICES of the song we want to listen to—there were three versions of the song released. One was featured on the PV, featuring a small number of pretty popular girls. But fortunately, there were two other versions of the song made—Himawari 2.0 and 2.1 mixes, where you get to hear more of the voices that weren’t featured in the original song. I just really appreciate being able to hear things like that—the fact that the producers realize that there ARE a ton of girls, and all of them have their own fans—so we all want a better chance at hearing our favorites! The Chocolove releases have their own kinds of “mixes,” where, since there are only three girls in the subunit, each girl gets a solo version of the song! It’s great! (I’m really looking forward to hearing Miyazawa Sae’s version of ‘Chocolate,’ since that was the song that I’d fallen in love with her voice in those few months ago!) But it’s just another way that AKB48 is different from H!P. It’s a recent development, and it’s still certainly not giving everyone equal time here—but it’s certainly appreciated!

And now it is ridiculously early in the morning, and I need sleep, so I’m going to stop this entry right here with a simple statement (that I probably would’ve never imagined myself saying a year ago) to wrap this all up before I fall asleep at the keyboard.

I love AKB48. ❤

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