They’re banned from having boyfriends, perform in frilly knickers and suggestive schoolgirl get-ups – and their male fans are encouraged to imagine making babies with them. Oh, and they out-earn Lady Gaga. Meet the cute, but controversial, AKB48.
By David McNeill, First published in The Independent.
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It’s a weeknight in Tokyo and high-octane J-pop bounces off the walls of a crowded club. On the stage, 18 teenage girls wearing pink pyjamas and fixed smiles rattle through a series of synchronised dance steps. Their songs – belted out like a well-drilled, if risqué, school choir – are as fizzy and nutritious as a soft drink.
“S-U-G-A-R,” they chorus, pumping the air with their fists. “Jump into your racing car, say sugar rush, sugar rush (hey)!” The audience, a motley crew of students and office workers, sing along, cheer and wave glowsticks as if acting according to some invisible cue. Ninety-five per cent are male.
The music stops and each girl performs a monologue. “I’m 14 and I haven’t eaten a watermelon yet,” says one. “So I’m going to try one this year.” Another starlet saunters to the front of the stage. “I bought a bikini last year and I haven’t had a chance to wear it,” she coos in a high girlie voice. “I’ll have a nice body by the summer so I’ll try it then.” A collective “ooooh” from the crowd and then it’s back to the jackhammer soundtrack and a series of eye-popping costume changes: short tartan skirts, black leather boots, suspenders and school uniforms. Welcome to the world of AKB48.
You may not have heard of them, but AKB48 is one of the world’s most successful pop acts, with more than a dozen chart-toppers and annual CD and DVD sales of more than $230 million (which is triple what Lady Gaga brought in last year). Add in income from merchandising, endorsements, concert ticket sales and TV performance fees and you have a genuine super-group, as ubiquitous in Japan as instant noodles. Among the Guinness World Records they hold is one for most number of appearances in different TV commercials in a single day (90) and the world’s largest pop group (since 2010).
The AKB48 monster (the “48” stands for the number of regular members) was conceived nearly a decade ago in Akihabara (hence AKB), Tokyo’s capital of geeky cool, when Akimoto hit upon the idea of an all-girl group that would perform daily in their own exclusive theatre, drawing in customers off the street. Thousands of girls were auditioned, American Idol style, and eventually a team of 24 was formed. Older members would tutor younger “trainees” and eventually “graduate”, or leave the group.
Despite the mega group’s incredible popularity, their success raises some troubling questions. For one thing, where does all the money go? Not, it seems, to the girls. Akimoto’s management company has declined to discuss the group’s finances, but Japan’s tabloids say the performers are paid as little as $2000–$3000 a month, depending on their popularity. Top stars like Oshima reportedly earn at least three times that – still a tiny fraction of AKB48’s huge income – though their earnings can be boosted by leveraging their stardom into solo efforts. Akimoto reportedly gets 30 per cent of all royalties and fees.
But what happens to the girls once they have reached their sell-by date? Some may be lucky enough to carve out new careers in modelling and acting. A few have started clothing chains and at least one, Nozomi Kawasaki, has gotten married. Three others have accepted the lure of Japan’s porn industry. Rina Nakanishi appeared in more than a dozen adult videos after she retired from AKB48 in 2010. Eri Takamatsu is a veteran of six hardcore movies. Last October, Risa Naruse made her adult video debut. “I want to find a new me,” she shyly says in the movie National Idol, before peeling off her school uniform and having sex with men on camera.
Oddly, few of the hundreds of ex-members have broken ranks or told tales about what happens inside the group. But occasionally the public is shown a glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes. Some of the most valuable insights come from 2012’s Documentary Of AKB48: Show Must Go On. Culled from more than 1000 hours of footage, the movie shows the young performers, under Akimoto’s tutelage, pushing themselves to the limit, with some crying, vomiting or fainting during rehearsals. The movie hinges around the looming retirement of Atsuko Maeda, who bowed out in 2012. More than 200,000 fans applied for tickets to her final concert.