Sunday, April 01, 2012

The soundtrack to Japan - SCANDAL, and the AKB48 phenomenon

I wrote after my last trip that every visit to Japan so far has come with its own soundtrack. On my last trip it was AKB48, just because you *can't* get away from them; on other past trips it's been Utada Hikaru, Kimura Kaela and Puffy.

This time it was obviously mostly Scandal, who I saw play live at Budokan and also bought these four items from:

I have all their albums as mp3's, but wanted to get them on disc (with the included DVD's). I scored three out of four (two new, one used), plus one live DVD that I bought new. I did find their first CD with DVD also - the real Japanese release of which is quite rare - but it was too expensive (3980 yen for a used copy). If you've read any of my blog in the past few months, you know that I really genuinely like Scandal - there's no hype about them to get caught up in. I seek them out myself.

AKB48, on the other hand, is just absolutely everywhere here, and as much as I wanted this trip to be about Scandal, you just cannot avoid AKB48 even if you try. This is still the soundtrack to Japan for most Japanese right now. And goddammit, their marketing just works on me:

I didn't buy as much as I bought from Scandal but I did buy these two things, their latest single (used) and DVD. Honestly the DVD is kind of lame and half-assed and I regret buying it, but oh well. Not like I can return it. Buyer beware. Maybe I'll Ebay it.

Japan seems to be moving towards an almost entirely AKB48-based economy. I've been trying to think of how to describe this phenomenon to bemused Americans and the best analogy I can come up with is this: imagine taking every season of American Idol and putting all the contestants into one big super-group (minus the guys, because really, nobody here cares), who themselves are then divided into sub-groups with different specialties. Then you dress them all up in skimpy outfits and make them dance while they sing. Imagine how popular that would be.

But that's basically what it is; it's not just a singing group, it's a system. An entire industry to itself. Individual girls are allowed to rise to stardom themselves, and that means you see them literally everywhere, from TV commercials to subway posters to banners on the street to even my Hooters magazine (more on this later!), which has a pictorial from one of the girls in sub-group SDN48.

This is Tomomi Itano in a 30 foot high ad for some cell phone thing.

Can't remember the names of these girls, but I think this is also
an ad for some mobile phone service.

Well, obviously.

This is the line outside of the AKB48 cafe at 11:30AM. It's not like it got shorter later...

This is the line (left to right) to get into the AKB48 theater, at around noon. The show starts at something like 6PM. (Incidentally, I applied to get into this show and didn't make it...)

When we went to a used record store one day and I joked that their time was over because I didn't see any of their stuff in the alphabetical listing, my wife said "well, I'm sure they have their own section", and sure enough, they had an *entire rack* devoted just to them - despite only four years or so on the scene. I discovered later that this is common at many stores. Even all the guitar stores we went to had big AKB48 sections, where you could buy the guitars they're playing on that CD pictured above! (And they do actually play on that song.)

And this is not even half of the rack, nor was this the biggest one I saw!

It's gotten hard for other individual singers to even break through outside of AKB48. I'm not even sure this is a fad anymore (as Morning Musume and earlier idol groups were); there are so many popular individual AKB48 girls now that they're collectively going to be around for many years even if AKB48 as a group dissolved today.

Some cracks appeared in the foundation while we were here, though - Maeda Atsuko, one of the founding and most popular members (and the main girl on the CD cover above), announced during a live concert that she was "graduating". That's a euphemism here for either quitting or being fired, but there's no way she was fired. This was the top national news story for three days while we were here, with a lot of people questioning AKB48's future. (Some of the group's founding members are reaching an age considered "old" for being in an idol group in Japan, though not Maeda Atsuko - she brought the average age of the group down.)

It put the whole country into even more of an AKB48 frenzy, which we - ok, really I - couldn't escape.

Japan also has this tradition of "omiyage", which are little gifts you buy wherever you go for all your friends and family. Usually it takes the form of some sort of regional food item in a box. I was actually quite impressed with this one, it's quite cute! "AKB48 Tokyo Pastel Sandwich" - even came with its own bag:

The cakes tasted good too! (Yes, I bought it for my wife and myself.)

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About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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