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Documentary of AKB48: Show Must Go On – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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Yasushi Akimoto created and produced theater idol group “AKB48” in 2005. The group has gone on to become national idols. When the group held 3 concerts at the Seibu Dome, a total of 90,000 fans came to see their performances. Documentary of AKB48: Show Must Go On shows up and close the group and problems they face as idols. The camera follows the group over a one-year period. Crafted from more than 1,000 hours of footage, including concerts, rehearsal sessions and interviews with band members, the documentary charts the complex balance of friendship and competition that exists between band members, and takes a look at the more personal side of a multimillion dollar music industry group.

Opening to a scene showcasing a small group of AKB48 members personally surveying the absolutely devastating aftermath of the 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami, Documentary of AKB48: Show Must Go On, like the opening images themselves, is a film about hardships. Many, many hardships. Whether this ranges from Iwata Karen, an AKB48 Kenkyuusei (a trainee member of the group) who was born in the Miyagi Prefecture and experienced the calamity firsthand mere months before she was accepted into AKB48, to the excruciating concert circuit and the impact both psychically and mentally it has certain girls within the group, Documentary of AKB48: Show Must Go On is a film that looks more specifically at the trials and tribulations that AKB48 faces as a collective band consisting of individuals. Unlike 2011’s Documentary of AKB48: To Be Continued, which focused more extensively on the dynamics of the group and what AKB48 meant to various members, Documentary of AKB48: Show Must Go On develops a narrative that is focused more on providing insight into individual members, further exploring the obstacles they face within Japan’s most popular idol group and arguably biggest musical act.

One who is only slightly familiar with Japanese music certainly can attest that AKB48 has become one of the most successful idol groups of all time, reaching worldwide fame and continually releasing hit after hit on the musical charts. The emotional impact of this immense success must certainly affect its members, with some more able to handle the pressure than others. In many ways, the film’s overall mood is quite reflective of its initial scenes mentioned above, where the environmental damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami is representative of the chaotic nature of AKB48 itself. Eiki Takahashi, who has become a prominent director of some of AKB48’s most famous music videos, takes the helm here and really showcases the more intimate world of AKB48, presenting viewers with some very, very personal experiences that members have faced in the past. Fortunately, Takahashi never truly makes these scenes feel exploitative, rather having the scenes of emotional despondence and physical adversities speak for themselves.

It’s surprising to see just how personal the film truly gets considering that its one based around music idols, delving ever intently into the day-to-day routines of the groups’ members—hearing their thoughts, fears, and even jealousies. Compared to Documentary of AKB48: To Be Continued, one can view this film as simply more open towards showing the privileged experiences of individual members, a move that definitely delivers a more sympathetic appreciation for the girls. One example that the film looks at is the competitive rivalry that exists between Atsuko Maeda and Yuko Oshima for the number one spot within the group. This is specifically highlighted through the 2011 Senbatsu Election results—where fans vote on their favorite member—which had Atsuko replace Yuko for the number one spot. The film gives the viewer the emotional significance of the event as a whole, showing us the reciprocal respect that being “number one” truly means, with Yuko and Asuko expressing a mutual—and sentimental—admiration towards one another. Being number one simply isn’t a superficial title to hold for these two girls—it’s a position of leadership that at times makes them question if they truly deserve be held to such high esteem by their fans. It’s this sense of vulnerability that situates the film as one willing to courageously explore this facet of Japanese music idols.

Or perhaps more astonishing is the film’s ardent look into the physically tortuous experience of the 2011 Seibu Dome concert series. This is where we see even more of the strenuous scheduling that AKB48 has to upkeep in order to remain successful, with producer Yasushi Akimoto even going as far as to ridicule them for their apparent lack of focus. With girls overexerting themselves, passing out, and even becoming sick, this portion of the film is one that truly showcases the madness and fortitude that exists within the idol world. Perhaps the most striking portion during this segment is its focus on Atsuko Maeda, who is viewed here as someone literally falling apart before our eyes. As the most popular member of the group, she has to perform, with Takahashi showcasing the laborious and often despairing effects of what being the most favored member in the most popular idol within Japan entails. We view her physical and emotional hardships as overwhelming for her—going as far as her completely collapsing at one point—but she keeps trying her best to retain her composure not for her sake but for the sake of AKB48 as a whole.

The film also explores the shifting landscape that exists between the leadership roles within the group, looking specifically at the buildup of AKB48’s Team 4 and their subsequent issues. We view this in the positioning of Oba Mina as leader of the team, only to be dismissed shortly afterward due to past issues concerning a blog post detailing that she had a boyfriend and drank alcohol, which in industry standards is considered scandalous behavior. With her replacement being that of Shimada Haruka—a member many thought was more properly suited as leader of the team even before Mina was chosen—we see both of them battle; one to regain their role as leader and one who feels that they are not worthy of being a replacement. The dynamics are certainly interesting to see here as they both face immense hurdles in their roles—or lack thereof—as group leaders. They both want to see the group succeed despite their hindrances, which is a very strong theme that runs throughout the entire film.

Clocking in at over 2 ½ hours, the film may at times feel a little too long for its own good, but Takahashi truly provides a more comprehensive look into the social structure of AKB48 as a whole than the previous documentary film did. One can view Documentary of AKB48: Show Must Go On as a film more openly dedicated to the pains more so than the joys of being a member of AKB48, showing the viewer that certain members—and to a larger extent the group as a whole—face circumstances that are incredibility difficult to overcome. What is equally as intriguing to see here is that those members do strive forward, struggling along the way to fulfill their obligation to the group—a very Japanese philosophy in its own right. Through all the hardships, they know that AKB48 is bigger than them and support it the best possible way they can. Like the very nature of the earthquake and tsunami itself, the film’s title lends itself to the notion that the despite experiencing such difficulties, the show must go on—and indeed it does.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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