AKB48’s commercial success in Japan is often derided as a sign of the culture’s patriarchal infantilization of women, and the girl group’s inability to appeal to Western audiences a sign of Japan’s increasingly isolated ideas about femininity, sexuality and pop music. Put simply: outside of Japan, AKB48 will never be Psy.
But inside Japan, it’s a reliable moneymaker. Its most recent single, “We Won’t Fight” (Bokutachi wa Tatakawanai), topped the Oricon charts in June. The idol group is the no. 2 bestselling music act in the entire history of Japanese pop music in terms of singles sold. And Japan is the second-largest pop music market in the world – just behind the United States.
Cuteness sells in Japan, especially if it’s well-marketed. Which is why AKB48’s latest music video is puzzling. The ironically titled 12-minute epic, “We Won’t Fight,” was released this summer. In it, the kawaii (cute) girls are more Ronda Rousey than Sailor Moon.
The start is standard fare. The girls are featured in a fashion show, dressed as angels. But an alien attack interrupts the proceedings and sends them into a refugee camp. Their environs are suddenly spare, “Walking Dead”-rural. Then they start to fight.
The combat scenes are violent: Diminutive Japanese pop idols taking on aliens, kicking, bobbing, weaving, punching.
It’s not what you’d expect, and there’s a reason for that.
Samurai-movie “Rurouni Kenshin” director Keishi Otomo directed the video; it was edited by award-winning studio Cutters, an American post-production studio that opened its first overseas branch in Tokyo three years ago.
Cutters thinks Japan’s advertising industry is out of sync with the rest of the world. Founded in Chicago, and with branches in three other American cities, it’s hoping to change the Japanese model, where domestic giants, such as Dentsu and Hakuhodo, use celebrities to market products, even if they have no connection to the product being hawked.
“I don’t want to insult anybody,” says film editor Aki Mizutani, who worked for two years at the studio’s Los Angeles branch. “But here in Japan, the industry is lazy.”
Cutters is trying to prod Japan out of apathy and into greater creativity. Part of their mission is the AKB48 video, which showcases Japan’s best-selling pop idols behaving like guerrilla group rebels, briefly turning a Japanese female archetype askew.
Trans-cultural collaborations, however, are notoriously shaky. “Afro-Samurai,” the 2007 Japan-U.S. animation project starring Samuel Jackson, tanked.
Cutters CEO Ryan McGuire, the son of founder Tim McGuire, believes the core of the problem is Japan’s deep aversion to risk. “We’re trying to fight the status quo here,” he says. “Talent is one thing. But what about innovation?”
The prizing of celebrity over creativity in Japan irks McGuire, who says that the country is rife with creative ideas that never get developed.
Mizutani doesn’t think one company can change a culture, but she is hopeful about Cutters’ recent successes. In its first year in Japan, the studio became the only non-Japanese winner of the All Japan Radio and Television Commercial Confederation’s Grand Prix and Craft Awards, for a commercial that was part of Wieden+Kennedy’s Nike Japan campaign.
AKB48 outsells American and European acts in Japan. The Cutters video, which features the girls making Mixed Martial Arts moves, is nearing 3 million views on YouTube. Could it signal a collaborative trans-cultural future for the domestic industry, where creativity and celebrity work in tandem?
For his part, director Otomo was taken aback by the talents and work-ethic of his American partners, and says the experience made him feel more American, at least in spirit.
“I had to negotiate with (AKB48) to get the girls to work on the fight scenes,” he explains. “They are all super busy. It made me wonder how they manage to learn their dance routines. But the Cutters’ office and editing studio were very stylish and relaxing. It was the kind of environment that allowed me to concentrate on my creative work without distraction.”
McGuire adds that the Japanese and American industries approach filmmaking differently. In Japan, the director is saddled with every task, while in the U.S., the director’s raw footage is passed along to an editor, who works together with fellow artists to produce the finished work.
Otomo gave his footage to Mizutani with notes and says he was amazed at how well she captured the nuances of his direction. Even more impressive to him was that she actually seemed to enjoy the process.
“Cutters embodied the feel of the American creative offices I once visited in LA. Their kind of ‘American style’ really suits me. Plus, they always had my favorite beer ready for me after the shoots.”
Roland Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.