Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Localizing Capitalism: AKB48 spawn, maid idol groups, reinforcing repression?

If there is one thing about Japan that is impossible to avoid, it is without a doubt AKB48. In pure Japanese fashion, this "theater group" of 48 young women capitalizes on the fandoms of young aspiring girls and pervy old men alike.

No matter where you go, there's almost always an AKB48 single taunting you from the loudspeakers, and sometimes even mobile billboards. Even when you least expect it, members will arbitrarily show up on a television program or in the news making an appearance at an event of sorts. Well, there's 48 of them, so there's plenty to go around.

Japanese idol groups are quite popular, largely attributable to the diversity of their members to allow for viewers to become attached to one ideal member. Why only have one member with people who love or hate them when you can have 48 so nearly everybody finds someone to either aspire to be or aspire to be with? The whole country is at the knees of a group of 48 young women mostly between 18 and 19 years old. AKB48 are a prime example of Japan's idealization of youthfulness, maintaining the image of young schoolgirls. 

AKB48 are based in Akihabara, Tokyo's well known electronics and otaku (fandom) district. What makes them a theater group rather than a normal idol group is that their performances are limited to their own theater. Ticket prices are skewed in favor of women and children while looking to wring profits out of older male fans.

Their immobility however is what has led to the spawning of a second youth group right here in Nagoya called SKE48. Nagoya's gals perform at Sunshine Sakae, a common meet-up place amid the shopping, entertainment and host club districts. So far their most noticeable presence at large is in a series of public service messages on NHK where three members will begin a discussion and create a scenario from preventing purse snatching, administering the Heimlich maneuver or installing fire alarms. The real demonstration always comes from a professional, of course.

Girls involvement in these groups are limited to a few years while they are the desired age, but it seems as though an adult 48 group featuring graduated AKB members has been formed known as SDN48.

On an even more local level, Nagoya has brought forth it's own brand of idol group based in Osu Kannon. Osu is a shopping district that also caters to a lot of otaku fandoms (anime, manga, etc.). Aside from the popular temple, Osu is well known for being the place to go for maid cafes, taking the services of internet/gaming/manga cafes up to the next level of intensity by having female workers enact the role of maids. Customers are greeted with phrases like, "Welcome back, husband," creating an imaginary relationship, particularly desired by clientele who find difficulty in socializing. Hooray, capitalism.

These roles are no longer limited to the cafe with the formation of the "Idol Anime Maid" group OSU (Osu Super Idol Unit) in August of 2010. From musical releases to concerts and commercial appearances,  OSU has had a pretty productive first four months.

All of this realization came from bearing witness to a member of OSU beginning her attempt at a solo career at a concert event in November. Being third on stage in an all night-long lineup of all walks of musical acts, I almost knew exactly what to expect when the only thing left standing on stage was the mic stand and the floor filled up with middle-aged men. The performer made her official announcement of her solo project endeavor upon entering and performed her one solo song "on sale worldwide... on iTunes." Her performance concluded with two cover songs, one by none other than OSU and the other by →SCHOOL←, the organizer of the event and her solo project producer. Her stage exhibition was a prime example of the idealization of childhood, dressed as someone much younger than her real age and forcibly tightening her vocal cords to produce a more child-like sound and visage.

From strange complexes to infatuations, Japan sure knows how to milk profits. It's all to easy to be somewhat concerned that this system of feeding the not-so-well-minded but willing customers would only make matters progressively worsen. There already is a challenge with the socially in-adept, and even their endorsement of PSA's doesn't strengthen the repressed of the society. In actuality, the growth and spread of these groups might do even more to repress their hopeful obsessors.

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