Already huge among high school girls and (presumably, if YouTube videos can be trusted) a certain kind of middle-aged man, pop-cult AKB48 has managed to become even bigger during the summer of 2010. They’ve nabbed TV candy commercials and appear on a convenience-store’s worth of magazine covers. Spinoff branches of the Akihabara-based groups have emerged in Nagoya and Sendai, with another coming to Osaka this fall. The folks behind AKB48 are working on getting the group’s newest album released in the United States, and mastermind Yasushi Akimoto wants to create similar outfits in China, Thailand, Taiwan and, uh, Italy. Just the other night I saw a TV spot for what appeared to be a new drama starring several prominent members AKB48.
As this small army continues gaining in popularity in Japan and overseas, another trend has also become apparent during the summer of AKB48. The once Vanilla-Wafer pure group has slowly become much more risqué with each new release. It’s not a matter of morality…Japan has way more sexualized institutions sitting out in the open. It just seems rather unexpected…and also a little suspect, considering other events of this summer.
Of course, AKB48 have always been subtly sexual. Look no further than the group’s wardrobe, modified schoolgirl outfits they prance around in. The Awl’s Page Ferrari accurately sums it up by pointing out “the happy Lolita aesthetic, which either totally squicks you out or makes you a really big fan of Japanese pop culture.” That elements always been creeping underneath the bubbly surface, but never as obviously as it has become. Watch the videos for older singles like “Aitakatta” (members wearing relatively standard school outfits, at least by pop star definition) or “Bingo!” below (slightly more revealing dresses, but still super common). It can be unnerving, yeah, but it’s at least not right in your face. The closest AKB48 ever came to being directly sexy was probably for last year’s summer single “Baby! Baby! Baby!” which featured members of the group dancing around in bikinis. Yet plenty of pop groups before them have done the same thing, so it wasn’t all that shocking.
This year’s big summer single “Ponytail and Scrunchie,” though, sets the more sexual tone in motion. Most of the video focuses on AKB48 once again dancing the summer away while wearing bikinis. Again, nothing crazy. The more attention-grabbing portion of the video comes before the actual song even kicks in…a doggy manages to sneak into a locker room that the AKB48 girls are changing in post basketball practice. The viewer’s treated to several sight gags where…just as the camera will reveal a member of the pop group nude…something interrupts the shot. I described this as “Looney Tunes” like back in May and mostly shrugged it off but I did overlook one aspect of this – the very voyeuristic feel of this segment. Based on the “idols you can meet” formula that helped separate AKB48 from the pack early on, the opening portion of this video takes it to a logical conclusion…if a portion of the group’s fans are drawn to them sexually, this video teases them with the possibility of “what if I could get even closer to them?”
Which leads to current single “Heavy Rotation” and its promotional video. Here whatever subtly “Ponytail” contained gets thrown out the window for a lingerie sleepover complete with lots of jumping on one another and sweets (which is to say…we got lollipops up in this joint, connect the dots). Though not nearly as explicit as anything you’d see in an American pop video, “Heavy Rotation’s” cat-eared nightwear fest comes out of nowhere as AKB48’s “sexy” video. It might be a move to make them more appealing in America or one of the other countries Akimoto plans on starting up a similar project. Or maybe he just wants to mix things up and use the time-tested method of sex to sell some more singles. Whatever the reason, it’s jarring.
I think it’s because we don’t expect this from AKB48. J-Pop audiences expect to hear, say, Koda Kumi tell us to lick her lollipop (whether she understands what that means or not) because she’s always dabbled in these sort of sexual songs. It’s the same as in the American pop scene…we expect different things from Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift. AKB48, despite the schoolgirl outfits, weren’t expected to be so directly sexual. Sure, they had that Lolita thing boiling underneath, but for the most part they were teenage girls who sang dippy pop songs and danced around. Suddenly, they’ve become more exposed. “Heavy Rotation” still seems to feature the same “pure idol” aesthetic Ferrari says they subscribe to, but also wedges in a much more revealing side.
This wouldn’t be such an issue if not for the other big AKB48 news of the season…former member Rina Nakanishi entering the adult video world. The move emphasized the most glaring problem with the AKB48 structure, an issue myself, Japan Probe and Ferrari each point out – that the majority of girls in the ever-expanding lineups are basically inessential. Save for a few getting prominent face time in gum commercials, most members can be replaced easily. Like Nakanishi…who wandered into the world of porn. I don’t necessarily want to say just because AKB48 are becoming more directly sexual that the world shall see a spike in former-member pornography. Yet being just a piece of a machine at such a young age can lead to seedier destinations when it comes crashing down, and I do believe having the troupe become even more revealing doesn’t help quell any demand for this sort of thing.
I’ll admit a lot of this are just scattered thoughts I’ve been having since seeing the “Heavy Rotation” clip for the first time. Yet I think this is a clear trend…not just with AKB48, but with fellow school-girl-aping J-Rock group SCANDAL…that could say way more than one would initially think. Ferrari notes some fans “seeming to think that porn was a logical career move, seeing as Rina had already successfully cultivated a fanbase with lust in their hearts.” Give them even more to imagine via risque music videos and you’ll find that demand growing even more.