AKB48 turns to an American studio


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.

  • GBR48

    Psy was a one-hit wonder outside South Korea. AKB48 have franchises in Indonesia and China. Given how inward-looking and monolingual the entertainment industry is in Japan, that’s damn near a miracle. The format could translate to Western success, but the margin for error is thin as popular culture in most nations is heavily skewed towards domestic products, controlled by the restrictive practices of each nation’s industry. Wherever you go in the world, entertainment industries wear their blinkers with pride.

    Foreign sales of AKS group Japanese releases are ignored by the Oricon chart as a matter of policy, but CDJapan, YesAsia and Ebayers ship plenty of them to the West and plenty of foreign fans make the pilgrimage to the shop and cafe, even if they stand no chance of seeing a performance. The music videos are often more creative than those of other Jpop MVs. Multi-million hit counts aren’t unusual for ’48 MVs on YouTube (which AKS have successfully embraced as an advertising medium to generate interest and sales, whilst other groups just whine endlessly about copyright).

    Music snobs and hipsters may hate everything ’48, but this is one of the few areas where the Japanese entertainment industry can go head-to-head with that of South Korea and come out on top.

  • Paul Martin

    Psy…K pop and Japanese much lauded film directors…all turn to America and Hollywood for guidance, experience and REAL talent because Asia CAN”T satisfy mass western audiences with their feeble attempts to imitate what they view from the West!

    British expat foreign corespondent

  • Hemi

    I find it odd that the article does not mention Babymetal, because it is clear that they are a huge influence in this move by AKB48. And many AKB48 girls are fans of BM.

    If you are not familiar with BM, they are 3 teenagers that front a metal band, and fuse kawaii with metal. Dance moves, peepy voices, and a death metal band that shreds world class. And BM does not sexualize the girls, odd for Japan.

    BM had success in Europe and America before Japan. They are the hottest new band in Metal now in the west, and people in Japan are starting to take notice. I think this effort by AKB48 is due to BMs success.

    Which is a reason I have been a BM fan – they will inspire innovation.

    Japan has to look overseas for pop music growth. Their market although large, is saturated is and is beginning to shrink. Any growth must come from exports.

  • Marouf

    It doesn’t matter if they will never be like Psy outside of Japan, AKB48 never tried to sell them self to the outside world simply because their concept is based on the theater that exist in Akihabara, their concept is so Japanese and so unique & it’s hard to describe it to the rest of the world.
    Saying they are talentless/empty headed girls/sex objects…etc is something easy to say from anyone who is not a fan/anti/don’t care.
    And I think right now Japan is always giving us something new & something unique (Like Babymetal for example), & compared to the music scene in the west that I love & adore Japan now is way better & more entertaining.

    Japan doesn’t have to be like America (coughKpopcough), Japan must be Japan.

  • Tangerine 18

    Talent-free paedo-pop cynically manufactured and marketed at Japan’s army of socially incompetent, ugly and poor men who will never have a girlfriend, let alone a wife.

  • Derek

    AKB48 doesn’t succeed in America because they make no attempt to do so. They rarely visit the U.S., and anyone wanting their music has to order it through Amazon as they won’t sell anything on iTunes or Google Play. As for the music they produce, it entirely consists of catchy pop tunes that sound like an intentional throwback to the sounds of 30 years ago…it’s not folksy or bluesy or hip-hop infused, something that enrages music snobs but that’s what their fan base loves about this group.

    There’s little musical talent among the members – none, in fact, but the music is only a fraction of AKB48’s presence. They also have their own game shows, variety shows, dramas (like Majisuka Gakuen, an interesting and extremely violent high-school drama), and every year the members are ranked in a massive, televised election in which their fans vote for their favorite members. AKB48 is an enormous reality-TV music franchise that continues to grow in size and influence in Japan.

    They have no need to market to America, and whatever Americans think about them is irrelevant.

  • Max Erimo

    J-Pop and K-Pop. Can some one explain the difference to me?
    Both seem like manufactured crap designed to dull the brains of the masses.
    Where is the message that the artists are trying to get across with their music?
    Oh sorry, there isn’t one. Just the tunes which have been OK’d by the companies that run these enterprises. The ones they think will make money. These young people (mainly girls) are parts in a machine designed to make the company they are linked to a lot of money.
    These groups are good at doing what they are supposed to do, generate sales and make their masters money. As for making meaningful music ( even just a little) pitiful.
    Can’t wait to see the reunion tours in 30-40 years.
    Give me real artists who make their own music any day.

  • SlightlyDisappointed0

    For that matter, AKB already “turned” to an American studio when they had Joseph Kahn produce the music videos of UZA and Gingham Check. Or even before, if you consider those “alternate” RIVER music videos, that some fans might be already familiar with.
    So what’s the news, again?

    Not to mention that the comparison with Psy, which is supposed to be an unfavorable ones, I bet, is completely out of the left field. Psy was a one-hit wonder and the success of Gangan Style was based entirely on the stereotype of “lol those stupid Asians always doing senseless, inappropriate stuffs. They’re so funny in an inoffensive kind of way”. The fact that he didn’t manage to replicate the same success with anything more serious and quickly faded into the oblivion, giving way to other viral Internet fads is just proof of that.
    If this is what “being like Psy” is, I’m happy that AKB actually has a pretty tighthly-knight community (both nationally and internationally) which talks, discusses and evaluates things, instead of Facebook drones simply going “lol that weird Asian doing that silly horse dance”.

  • nara

    A few facts about the group would perhaps enlighten some people here?

    – Around 10% of their music videos catalog feature sexy themes or bikini. Their choreography have very little sexual movements as well. They do have bikini spreads on magazines, but this issue is more complex than meets the eye because some girls have expressed that they genuinely enjoy these shoots and are looking for opportunities to do more (usually for those that are confident with their bodies and feel good showing it off), so you can’t just very well ban the practice and call it a day. Their gravure shots aren’t that bad in Japanese standard and that’s not to mention how Japan is quite dodgy when it comes to gravure and pornography.

    – The lyrics to their songs varies greatly; some talk about social issues (suicide, war, hikikomori, homosexuality), some are about friendship, school graduation, and working hard, some are self-aware and comment of the girls themselves and AKB48’s history and aspirations, while others still talk about unrequited love and feeling particularly anxious about having a crush. There are numerous references to literature (Freud, Nietzsche, Dazai Osamu, O. Henry, Franz Kafka) and pop culture (Taylor Swift, etc) as well.

    – Takahashi Minami and Sashihara Rino are part of the staff team — they have a say on how the group is run. It should also be noted Captains choose the setlists of the shows and representatives of each team have a responsibility of choosing/drafting new candidates into the group. Additionally, Takahashi Minami and Shinoda Mariko decided their successors (captains) themselves, with minimal intervention by management. The girls are more involved than you think.

    – Members have defied and challenged management on several occasions before (Miyazawa Sae not accepting a concurrency, Matsumura Kaori publicly blogging about the misdemeanor of a staff, Yamamoto Sayaka commenting on her “scandal” even though the staff told her not to). Furthermore, they decide when to graduate themselves and if they wanted to reject a transfer or voluntarily offer to transfer to another group. Iwata Karen rejected a transfer and Kitahara Rie, Ota Aika, Nakagawa Haruka, and Chikano Rina asked to be transferred to another group. Hardly docile and submissive, if you ask me, and that’s not even counting the many many moments where members break the stereotype of being cute, lovely idols and just show themselves for what they are: normal girls that just happen to sing and dance on stage.

    – Yokoyama Yui and Kawaei Rina passed the test to be a certified pharmacist and food coordinator respectively. Iriyama Anna has proved to excel academically, particularly in maths (near perfect score in a test given on TV). Nakamata Shiori goes to Waseda university. Sashihara Rino pens her own book and after you’re through with it, being an airhead would be the last thing that you think of her. Kojima Haruna admits that she exaggerates being dumb on TV so the program would be more entertaining, and that it actually requires a lot of calculation of how to act and react on her part — something a simple dumb girl would be unable to do.

    – They raised money for the Tohoku earthquake and consistently visited the affected area and performed there for free. They do this every year since the earthquake.

    – Most of the girls aren’t talented. They’re not particularly beautiful either. But they worked hard for their dreams anyway and really, is it so hateful for people to support young girls who’s trying their best? Is there a rule that only the pretty and the talented can be popular and loved? Fans are happy and the girls are happy. What’s there to gain by raining on everybody else’s parade just to prove that you have a “superior” taste in musical acts?