Following Atsuko Maeda’s March 25 announcement that she was leaving the all-girl idol collective AKB48, a rumor circulated on Twitter that a male University of Tokyo student had committed suicide in response. The rumor was quickly exposed as a hoax, but the point had been made. People were taking the news way too seriously. No one was really surprised when the sports tabloids made it their front-page story, but did the national dailies have to report it in such detail?
When Maeda said she was “graduating” from a group she joined as an original member at 14, she was already 20, the age of majority in Japan. As a commercial enterprise, AKB48 is fixated on adolescence, but there are members even older than Maeda who remain with the ship, so some commentators have been pondering the significance of her decision. She’s nominally the group’s most popular member and, more significantly, her endeavors as a solo entity have yet to meet with much success. In the past she said her main ambition was to be an actress, but the TV drama series she appeared in last summer, “Hanazakari ni Kimitachi,” averaged a miserable 7 percent share per episode, and her big movie vehicle, “Moshi Koko Yakyu no Joshi Maneja ga Dorakka no ‘Manejimento’ wo Yondara,” was a box-office dud. Adding insult to injury, the tabloid Sports Hochi awarded her its Hebi Ichigo Award — Japan’s equivalent of Hollywood’s Razzies for the worst film performances of the year.
Some in the show-business press hold that Maeda may be unselfishly making room for young AKB members to rise higher in the organization, but gossip columnist Yoshiko Matsumoto thinks it might be something else. She sympathizes with Maeda and believes the young star wasn’t happy in the group. It’s lonely at the top, and the pressure to stay there is more emotionally vexing than it’s worth. People misread her slightly contrarian attitude as the outward manifestation of a grouchy constitution, but the politics that rules AKB forces her to do things that must be trying on a day-to-day basis, such as putting up with colleagues’ “overly considerate” attentions.
The group’s producer and songwriter, Yasushi Akimoto, once described Maeda as “stoical,” adding she isn’t comfortable with “wishy-washy relationships.” When Akimoto talks about AKB, it’s often difficult to tell if he’s being naive or cynical. Like the comment he made to CNN several months ago that his sexually suggestive lyrics are merely a means of “depicting reality” so that the girls and their fans will think about such sensitive topics, his analysis of Maeda’s personality glosses over what’s obvious, which is that she’s forced by circumstance to be Akimoto’s point-person in a project that endeavors to explain how young Japanese women think and feel.
By now nobody with half a gram of critical faculty believes AKB’s appeal is purely musical. Any entertainment value derived from their records or performances is qualified by their mission to be both famous and accessible. Akimoto’s boldest twist on the classic idol formula is to tie sales of AKB merchandise to involvement with the group, even if the involvement is heavily controlled: the meet-and-greet sessions after shows and, especially, the “elections” to decide which member is the most “popular.”
These elections may have had more to do with Maeda’s decision than anything else. Contests to determine popularity are the cruelest kind, and it’s said that the first time Maeda won an election the audience was clapping and calling her name just before the emcee announced the runner-up, meaning that, while everyone expected her to win, many vocalized their hope that she wouldn’t. The next year, when her crown was taken away by Yuko Oshima, Maeda said she was relieved, and the year after that, when she got it back, she made a strange but revealing comment: She knew there were people who hated her, but “please don’t hate AKB48.”
It was too late. The haters were out in force, and it appears most of them are women. It’s no secret that, unlike past “people’s idols” (kokumin-teki aidoru), such as Pink Lady or Morning Musume, AKB48 is designed to appeal specifically to a preadult male sensibility, regardless of actual age. Except for elementary school girls who aspire to be in the group, females seem to have a tough time empathizing with or appreciating AKB48.
Part of it has to do with sex. Pundit and sex-paraphernalia entrepreneur Minori Kitahara has said that AKB doesn’t demonstrate the “sexual self-awareness” of female K-pop artists since that would be intimidating to male fans, who still prefer their objects of desire to be demure and unyielding.
Not to mix metaphors, but the catfight in the goldfish bowl that AKB’s public activities showcase — from backstage documentaries to variety-show appearances — is what keeps those male fans riveted and female nonfans repulsed. In a feature article in Aera that diverged from Matsumoto’s tack, AKB was said to symbolize the “lack of freedom” that young women still have to struggle with in Japanese society, though the writer also wondered if expressing such a viewpoint wasn’t “being too mean.”
This cautious tone shows how tough it is to discuss the group with any sort of candor and not come across as being petty and nasty. Whatever one wants to make of Akimoto’s questionable PR decisions — presenting his charges as, literally, fantasy bedmates, or having them smooch one another suggestively in TV commercials — the girls’ main appeal is still their accessibility, which, in the context of Japanese show business, is a pretty good joke. The operating principle of idolhood is that fans don’t feel the sort of distance from their heroes that they might feel toward performers with ambition and demonstrable talent. AKB48 just makes the relationship clearer. Consequently, Maeda’s retirement seems contrived, so her fans shouldn’t fret. Someone will find something for her to do.