Thursday, May 24, 2012

mAyKB48 – (20/48) Subunit – Not Yet

Not Yet is a newer subunit, debuting in early 2011.  The members are Oshima Yuko, Yokoyama Yui, Sashihara Rino, and Kitahara Rie.  The name of the group apparently comes from the idea that the members are not yet good at singing and dancing (which goes along with the whole concept of idols, following them as they improve) although I feel that this is somewhat debatable.  Their fourth single comes out at the end of this month. 

Of note on their latest single is that Kitahara Rie wrote the lyrics for one of the coupling tracks, guilty love.  As far as I know this makes her only the second AKB member to attempt this sort of challenge.  I’ve yet to hear the song, but I think it gives songs an added touch of personality when one of the members is more involved in the creation.  I also think giving the girls these kinds of opportunities is a great thing for the group, as it will help them grow as artists and possibly help them develop talents that they can use once they graduate from AKB.

Not Yet has the interesting honor of being the first subunit to get its own television variety show.  Yonpara Future Game Battle was a weekly show that featured the girls live chatting over Skype and completing various challenges.  They made 23 episodes before it was canceled last month.


While I had a hard time describing French Kiss’s style, describing Not Yet is relatively easy.  Not Yet is all about really catchy pop songs.  I have not been able to get their newest single, Suika Baby, out of my head since I first heard it.  It’s the kind of music you find yourself humming even when you don’t know all the words.  Appropriately, their dancing is incredibly bouncy and makes you want to nod your head along with the music.  Their music videos are a lot of fun and full of energy.

Although Yuko is by far the most popular of the members here, all of the girls are represented fairly evenly.  I feel like Yuko gets slightly more lines/screen time than the others, but it is pretty slight.  Although all the girls do get solo lines in most songs, it seems that the focus is more on the blending of the different girls voices, having them sing in different pairs.  This helps to keep things pretty evenly distributed and adds a bit of vocal variety to the songs.  The first solo song on a Not Yet single will go to Yokoyama Yui on their upcoming release. 


I really enjoy Not Yet, although I suppose I was bound to like them since my favorite member is a part of the unit.  But I think even if it were four different girls I would still enjoy their music.  I like happy bouncy pop songs, and, while they may not be the pinnacle of musical achievement, they are highly enjoyable. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

mAyKB48 – (19/48) Subunit – French Kiss

So after writing up no3b’s entry I really thought that these next two would take a long time, but it seems that most of the other subunits don’t have nearly as much back-story.  So today we move on to French Kiss.

French Kiss is the subunit home of Kashiwagi Yuki, Takajo Aki, and Kuramochi Asuka.  The group’s catchphrase is, “A trio you would like to introduce to your parents.”  They made their debut in June of 2010 and have since released four singles.  They have a 5th single and album in the works.  Early on many of the coupling tracks on their singles were covers of Team B stage songs, but by their third single the release included all new songs.  Their first single ranked number 27 in the 2011 Request Hour and one of its coupling tracks snuck in at number 93.  It was their only single out at the time, so it was a very nice showing for them.

For their first two singles French Kiss had an interesting gimmick.  One version of their singles included a mini drama starring the members.  These dramas were 40-45 minute and told realistic love stories set in high school.  The plots aren't exactly mind blowing and the roles aren't super challenging but the girls do a solid job portraying genuine emotion and being entertaining.  I think this is a cute gimmick which allows fans to see even more of these girls interacting together.  However, the dramas have not been present on the more recent singles, so it seems that it’s a thing of the past.  Possible factors in ending this interesting extra may have been cost and time of production or sales (the version with the drama CD costs almost twice as much as other singles with DVDs and almost as much as full albums so fans may not have been willing to spend that much).  I hope this is something that they return to with future singles as it is something unique that sets their subunits apart.

While no3b seems to focus on all of the members fairly equally, Yuki is clearly the star of French Kiss.  Take a look at their most recent single.  The A-side track of course featured all three members.  But of the four possible coupling tracks (depending on which version you purchase) only one features all three girls.  Two of them are duets, both featuring Yuki, and the last is a solo song by Yuki.  She has had a solo song on three of the four singles.  Yuki is by far the most popular member and she is certainly talented enough to carry solos.  And while she is the center, the others do get their moments to shine as well.

French Kiss definitely has a style, although I’m having trouble putting a descriptive label on it.  But I feel if you like one of their songs you’ll probably like most of them.  They sing a lot of cute love songs.  I really like If and Kakkowaruri I love you.  And the music video for Saisho no Mail is really sweet.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

mAyKB48 – (17/48) Subunit – No Sleeves (no3b)

So now that I’ve covered my favorite members it makes sense to shift the focus to some of AKB48’s subunits.  A subunit is basically a small group of AKB members who release their own songs outside of their work with AKB.  Members of a subunit are often signed to the same talent agency which handles the unit’s activity and promotion.  However, the units are still under the umbrella of AKB (and Akimoto still write almost all of their lyrics).  If members of a subunit leave AKB they will either be replaced or the subunit will disband.  Eric has already done brief write ups of DiVA and Watarirouka Hashiritai7.  I’ll start off with the oldest of the five current subunits, No Sleeves.

No Sleeves is often referred to as no3b.  To understand how that makes any sense, you have to have at least a basic knowledge of the Japanese language and the way they represent English sounds (skip this paragraph if this is of no interest to you).  Japanese has no TH sound and so when adapting English words it is usually replaced by the SU syllable.  Japanese also doesn’t have an L, and the R they have is different than an English R (in complicated ways I’m not going to go into), so both English sounds are represented with R in Japanese.  And last, there is no V is Japanese, so its usually replaced with a B sound.  Thus, in Japansee the word sleeves sounds more like suriibusu.  Surii is how you would pronounce the English word three in Japanese.  So we end up with no3b. 

The members of no3b are Takahashi Minami, Kojima Haruna, and Minegishi Minami.  These girls were all original members of Team A (although Minegishi has since been shuffled to Team K), and they performed together in Junai no Crescendo (part of Team A’s 4th Stage) and Bye Bye Bye (during Himawarigumi’s 2nd stage) at the AKB theatre.  The girls clearly had chemistry together and so in November of 2008 they debuted as a subunit with their first single, Relax. 

The name of the group itself refers to sleeveless clothing and the girls can usually be seen wearing tank tops or sleeveless dresses in their promotion materials.  The group has released eight singles, with a ninth on the way later this year, as well as an album (almost all of which come in annoying multiple versions).  The three members also starred together in a TV drama called “Mendol ~Ikemen Idol~.”  In Mendol they play girls who desperately want to be idols, but keep failing auditions.  They witness a crime and have to flee from the culprits and then finally find a producer willing to let them debut.  To protect their identities they dress up as boys for their stage personas.  The group released two digital singles as the male idol group from the show (aptly named Persona).  They have also starred in a cellphone drama and have a weekly radio program.

If you’re a fan of any of the members, you will want to check out the subunit for sure.  They all have very nice voices and they harmonize together well.  And since there are only three of them, they each get a decent amount of solo lines, allowing you to really get a feel for their individual voices, something nearly impossible to do in most AKB48 songs.  Also it’s common for subunits to feature solo songs as coupling tracks on their singles, and since not all members get solos in AKB this is a great opportunity to hear what your favorite members can really do.  No3b’s last two singles, as well as their album, have come with a solo song by each member (although you only get one, depending on which version of the CD you purchase).

As for their music, they don’t seem to have one set style.  Songs range from the basic pop of Pedicure Day to the almost Latin rhythms of Lie to the rocking Kuchibiru Furezu….  They are very adaptive and make all the song work although all of the songs may not be to everyone’s taste since they are so different.  My favorite of their singles is Answer.  The dances for their music videos don’t seem to be too intense.  I know that Minegishi Minami is considered a great dancer and Takamina is pretty good, so I wonder if Haruna just isn’t on the same level so they tone it down a bit.  Or perhaps they simply want the unit to focus on vocals and not flashy dance moves. 

Overall I like no3b.  All three members are very experienced by this point and it shows.  This group is the only subunit so far to have 2 members who are in the top 10 in terms of popularity (last election Haruna was number 6 and Takamina was 7).  This probably contributes to the unit’s popularity.  In 2011 subunit songs were still allowed in the annual Request Hour Concert, where fans vote for their favorite 48 Family songs and the top 100 are counted down over four days, and four of their five singles, one of their Persona songs, and one of the coupling tracks from a single ranked.  That’s pretty impressive.  In 2012, they made all subunit and soloist songs ineligible and instead had a separate Unit Matsuri the next day, which did not involve voting of any kind and was mostly just a showcase of the different subunits.  In the future I hope that they will have a Request Hour just for subunits and solo songs in the future.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

mAyKB48 – (16/48) My oshimen: Hirata Rina

You know how I mentioned that Mariko moves down the more I learn about other girls?  Well this girl is probably my new number five and thus a great example of that.  My newest oshimen is Hirata Rina.  Nickname: Hirarii.

Even if you are familiar with AKB48 you may not have heard of her.  That’s because she isn’t an official member yet.  She’s a 12th generation research student.  Now there are already over 60 girls in the main group, so I tend not to even notice the research students.  When Team 4 formed I had no idea who any of those girls were (and other than Paruru and Miori I still don’t).  So it’s a bit odd for me to now be focusing on a girl who I normally would not have paid much attention to.  But you see, there is something special about Hirarii.

Hirarii is fluent in English.  Her AKB official profile claims she was born in Fukuoka, but according to Hirarii herself in a self introduction video she did she was born in Arizona where she lived for most of her life until recently moving back to Japan.  (I have no idea why her official profile apparently lies to us and would hate to think that it’s because the staff of AKB don’t think she could be popular if she isn’t FROM Japan.)  It’s clear that she’s spent most of her time speaking English, and at first she stumbled over her Japanese a bit and still struggles with kanji. 

Hirarii’s parents were living in America for her father’s job, but it seems that they may have always planned on moving back to Japan.  To keep Hirarii and her younger brothers up on their studies in Japanese they basically attended school year round.  During summers she would spend 3 months in Japan, but not on a vacation.  She would attend Japanese school during the American summer break and then return to America when the new term started.  This is really interesting to me as I had two elementary school students show up to my very small town school doing basically the same thing last summer. 

Her voice is several pitched higher when she speaks Japanese than when she speaks English, which is kind of adorable, although I suspect may be irritating to some people.  It’s not any sort of act though, my voice does the same thing.  I didn’t even realize that I had a higher “Japanese speaking voice” until some friends pointed it out to me (I also have a “talking to an answering machine voice”). 

Akimoto has already made use of her skills having her speak to an English news reporter from CNN and translate for the girls as well as including her on the trip to Washington DC to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Japan’s gift of the cherry blossom trees there.  She had a lot of MC work and despite getting a bit tongue tied handled herself very well and impressed many of the fans there.  Having an English speaker around could mean a bit more reaching out to the international market.  It’s a lot of pressure to put on a 13 year old (and even a bit unrealistic to expect any 13 year old to be a perfectly confident and elegant public speaker), but if she stays with the group and grows and matures with it she could easily be an asset. 

Hirarii also uses her English skills to promote herself on Google +.  She uploads daily videos that contain 30 second English lessons where she teachers her viewers how to say short sentences in English (Be sure to check out my favorite video, which unfortunatly, I can't embed, which includes Hirarii singing the ABC song and introducing an alphabet book she drew herself).  She’s very active on Google + and was even going to be a member of the Google + senbatsu (whose song is a coupling track on the upcoming Manatsu no Sounds Good single) until Google insisted that the members all be over 18.  It’s a bummer because it could have given her a big push and with all the posting she does with Google + she clearly deserves it. 

The other thing that strikes me about Hirarii is that she seems to have such a positive attitude.  She is known for being super energetic at handshake events dressing up, waving at people, and dancing around when no one is in her line.  When she wasn’t able to be part of the G+ senbatsu she took it in stride, congratulating the members who made it in and assuring everyone that she wasn’t going to stop posting her videos and how happy she was that she could connect with everyone through G+.  When several of her fellow 12th generation members got promoted to Team 4 she was genuinely happy for them, praising their hard work.  She explained that she wasn’t upset that she wasn’t promoted yet because she still had many weak points and needed more experience, but she vowed to keep working even harder so she could make more people happy.  This is amazingly mature for a 13 year old and makes me want to support her even more.

Not only is she adorable and bilingual; she is also a talented girl in singing and dancing.  She has practiced ballet since she was three years old and has a very nice voice.  And every video I see of her performances makes me smile.  She’s been filling in all over the place with the different stages but they are apparently comfortable enough with her talent to have given her a solo and made her part of a small unit song.  Hiarii has mentioned that she wants to make everyone smile and I’m certainly one person with whom she has already succeeded. 

I’m really hoping that Hirarii ranks in the upcoming election.  I have no idea how likely it is with over 200 girls competing for 60 spots.  Her election video is currently the third most watched of the AKB research students with over 14,000 views.  That’s more than most members of Team E, Team M, or Team H.  So that’s something, although I have no idea what kind of an indicator the view counts really are. 

I’d love to see her get promoted to one of the main teams (and there are technically 2 open spots, currently being held by “temporary members” from SKE and NMB for some silly reason).  I suppose I could be happy if she ended up on the inevitable Team 8, I just feel that she would get more exposure mixed in with the more well known girls.  I’m biased because I still think that the very idea of a Team 4 and a Team 8 is really silly, so I want her in the “real” AKB48.  (This is not a put down to any Team 4 members.  They are just as legitimate members of the group as those of the other teams and I do understand why the team was formed from an administrative point of view.  I just think it’s silly.)

AKB's current face and AKB's future face?
I can dream...

While it seems like many of my oshimen could graduate in the next few years, I’m hoping that Hirarii has a long and exciting future ahead of her with the group.  Here's a self introduction video from Hirarii unfortunatly without any translation, but if you understand some Japanese you can follow most of it.  If not you can just admire how adorable she is.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

mAyKB48 – (14/48) My oshimen: Shinoda Mariko

I’m not even really certain in Mariko is still in my top 5.  But for a long time she was my number 5, so I feel like I should talk a bit about her here.  Mariko probably has the most interesting back-story of all the AKB members.  She is the only one to have never passed an audition for the group.

Since AKB48 was founded on the concept of idols that fans could meet, the staff listened closely to feedback from fans.  The whole concept was a new one and at first the girls did not have many fans.  So the management was very attentive to the feedback they received with the hopes of keeping the fans happy and attracting new ones.  At the time there was a vote box in the lobby for fans to write the name of members that they liked.  Votes started popping up for a girl who was not appearing on stage.  At first the staff thought that it was a prank until someone remembered that they did have a girl named Shinoda Mariko working in the café.

Mariko was from Fukuoka, which is fairly close to where I was living in Japan and not really close at all to Tokyo.  After she graduated from high school she moved to Tokyo to audition for the first generation of AKB48.  She was 18 at the time.  But she failed the audition.  Despite this, she didn’t return home.  She wanted to try a bit longer, so she got a job working in the AKB Café serving juice and ice cream to customers and handing out flyers outside to promote the stage show.  From the café she could glimpse the stage whenever anyone entered or left the theatre.  The stage was so close, and yet it was still far from her reach.  Mariko had chatted with many of the customers about her dream of being on the stage one day and to show their support for her they had written down votes for her.

One day Akimoto approached her.  He had seen the votes for her and had observed her working in the café.  He did not remember her from the auditions, but told her that if she could remember twelve songs in four days then she could perform on the stage.  This was no small request, but Mariko saw her dream closer than ever and practiced as hard as she could, learning the lyrics and the dance steps.  Her hard work paid off and she was made an official member of AKB48.  Because she entered the group after the first generation but before the second generation auditions were held Mariko is considered to be the only member of generation 1.5.

Like several of my other oshimen Mariko drew my attention early on because she was easy to pick out of the crowd.  With her height and short hair cut she was easy to recognize.  I was also drawn to her because she is the oldest member of the group, only a few months younger than me.  But the more I get to know about other members, the lower Mariko seems to drop for me. 

There isn’t really anything I dislike about her.  She’s cute and has a nice smile.  But we don’t seem to share a lot of interests.  She’s super into fashion and I’m really not, so a lot of her appearances in magazines just don’t appeal to me.  She seems to have a really quirky sense of humor and is known as the elder sister to all the AKB girls (which includes teasing them as an older sister would quite often).  She clearly cares a lot about the group and its members, but there just isn’t anything that really endears her to me in the special way that my other oshimen have. 

Mariko was ranked number 3 in the first two elections and dropped slightly to number four last year.  She’s very popular with women, especially high school aged girls.  She’s another who appears in almost all of the singles.  This past year she won the yearly janken tournament, winning the center position for the next single.  The single was set to be a cute fluffy song about penguins, but with Mariko as the center they decided to change it to fit her image better (the penguin song was made into a coupling track on the theatre version of the CD and performed by Team 4).  They went a step further and actually made the song about her, making her the first and only girl in AKB48 to have her name in the title of a song.  This shows that she has a lot of pull and influence in the group, even among the staff.  (It's kinda a long video, if you just want to hear the song skip to about four minutes in.)

While most of the older girls in the group have graduated or were shuffled off to SDN48 Mariko has remained.  I think it’s good for AKB’s image as idols are often seen as only young girls, so having Mariko around shows that being an idol is about more than age.  Older girls often graduate to go on to “more serious pursuits,” but Mariko seems to be doing just fine where she is, so I can’t imagine why she would ever want to leave.

And as always, here is Mariko’s private video.  It’s definitely the oddest of the ones I’ve shown here, with more of her just being zany and hanging out with her friend (and fellow AKB member) than actually introducing herself.

Monday, May 14, 2012

mAyKB48 – (13/48) My oshimen: Akimoto Sayaka

The second half of my top 5 oshimen have been shifting around a bit lately.  I normally consider Miyazawa Sae my number 4, but I mostly like her because she is Eric’s favorite.  And she is undeniably cute.  But at the moment I think Sae may have moved down to my number 5 spot, being bumped down her good friend Akimoto Sayaka. 

Like many people, I’m sure, when I first got into AKB48 my attention was drawn to the front girls.  They were the ones who appeared on TV the most and so it was easier to get to know their personalities.  But as I got more attached to the group some of the more unappreciated members caught my eye.  Sayaka is one such member. 

Sayaka is a second generation AKB member joining with Yuko and Sae when Team K was formed.  She was named captain of Team K.  But then scandal happened.  You may remember me mentioning that idols are held to a very high standard in terms of behavior.  And sometimes even perceived indiscretion is enough to harm your reputation.  The scandal involved an older male, Hiroi Ouji, staying the night at Sayaka’s apartment.   Adding to the scandal was the fact that Ouji produced the AKB musical in which Sayaka won the lead role, leading some to wonder if she had won the role in an honest manner.  Both denied that anything inappropriate had occurred.  The relationship between the two is that of a student and pupil with Ouji advising Sayaka on acting.  Sayaka commented that since Ouji is older than her father it never even occurred to her that people might think that something had occurred between them when he spent the night on her couch.  But because of all of the negative attention it brought, which Sayaka felt responsible for, she resigned as the captain of Team K.  I am woeful that it sounds like I’m making excuses,” she said, “I’m sorry for all the fans who support me, and also for AKB members… I’m sorry.  This became such a big issue, and it is all my fault.  I should be the role model for other members, but I’m not qualified as a captain anymore.”  Some fans felt that she should have left the group because of the bad press, but others stood by her and continued to support her.

Sayaka kept working hard despite how unqualified she felt.  The members of AKB supported her.  And about four months later Akimoto reinstated her as the Team K captain.  She later admitted that she never really stopped doing the captain’s job but at the time didn’t feel that she could ask the other members to look to her.  However, the scandal had lasting ramifications.  Sayaka had been a part of almost every single since she joined AKB.  But since the scandal broke she has had a part in only three singles, two determined by senbatsu election (where she dropped from 12th in prescandal 2009 to 17th which she held steady at in 2010 and 2011) and one from last year’s janken tournament.  So while many fans continue to support her, the management of AKB has clearly still not forgiven her completely opting to keep her in the undergirls rather than as part of the main singles, although she does sometimes fill in for senbatsu members during live performances.

I can trace how I was drawn to Sayaka fairly easily.  Once Eric and I had out first oshimen picked out it became clear that our favorite team was obviously Team K.  I picked up the DVDs of Team Ks early stage shows and there I found Sayaka.  Like Takamina she has an incredibly strong and unique voice (hers is the other voice I can consistently pick out, even in group songs). 

The other thing that drew me to Sayaka was the fact that she can speak English fairly well.  I would say that until recently she probably had the best English in AKB48.  And as a fan who speaks English and taught English to Japanese students this is a very endearing quality.

Sayaka has a distinct appearance with her height and the fact that she is half Filipino.  She’s a girl who won’t give up and is honest almost to a fault.  She’s known for being a rather sporty girl.  She has practiced Aikido since the 5th grade and has a 2nd Dan Black belt.  She has also completed the Tokyo Marathon for the past two years, which I find to be incredibly impressive.  In 2011 her time was 6:53:53 and in 2012 her time was 5:34:13 smashing her goal of finishing in under 6 hours.  She improved so much even without being able to train as much as she would have without her busy AKB schedule.  It’s really inspiring. 

Sayka has always loved acting and singing and after she graduates from AKB she hopes to continue as an actress.  She’s appeared in a few movies already, as well as a few dramas and even a number of stage plays.  Most recently she has taken on the role of Princess Ann in the stage adaptation of Roman Holiday, the same role famously played by Audrey Hepburn.  It’s a role that’s very different from her normal character and she looks forward to showing a new side of herself in the role.  I haven’t seen her act much, but she is very expressive and I’m so happy for her for winning a big part like this.  It certainly bodes well for her future as an actress.

In many ways Sayaka needs my support more than Yuko or Mayu or Takamina do.  While those three are consistently in the top 10 Sayaka struggles to remain in the top 20.  In this year’s election the main single will be cut down to only the top 16 members.  So if Sayaka stays at 17 she will not be able to be a part of the senbatsu.  And while my other oshimen will be in all of the singles that follow, this is one of only two chances a year that Sayaka seems to have to make it in and the other relies entirely on chance.  My hope is that Sayaka supporters will go all out this year to keep her in the senbatsu and boost her rank and Akimoto will decide that she is worthy of being a senbatsu member again. 

And to close here is Sayaka’s introduction video from a simpler time before the scandal and the anxiety that followed it. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

mAyKB48 – (9/48) My oshimen: Takahashi Minami

Today I will introduce my third favorite member of AKB48.  My second favorite is Watanabe Mayu, but since Eric already did a write up about her on his blog, I’ll refrain from doing a whole entry on her here.  Mayu caught my eye for the same reason that Yuko initially did.  She had a cute smile.  I knew nothing about her, but she was cute, and in the beginning that was more than enough criteria for me to pick a favorite out of so many girls.  She also had an easily identifiable hairstyle, so she was easy to pick out even when I was unfamiliar with the majority of the members.  My fondness for her grew when I learned that we shared interests in anime and manga.  But enough about Mayu, on to the real topic of today’s post, Takahashi Minami.

Minami, perhaps better known by her nickname Takamina, is one of the original members of AKB48.  She is the captain of Team A and thus the captain for AKB as a whole.  She leads the team huddles before a performance and is often the spokesperson for the group at events.  She advises and supports other members and is known for her hardwork and leadership ability, contributing greatly to the group's success.  Like Mayu, Takamina has a recognizable hairstyle, often seen with her trademark ribbon in her ponytail.  And like Yuko, she seems to be a very genuine and passionate person with a good sense of humor.

It's no surprise that these two are good friends.

The thing that drew me to Takamina was her voice.  Her voice is lower than many members, but very strong.  She often gets solo lines in songs and was the first member whose singing voice I learned to recognize.  In a group where a spectacular singing voice is not required she stands out and is very impressive.  As such, she’s always been among the front girls of the group and has been in every single the group has released except for those determined by janken.  Her dream is to one day be a solo singer and she seems well on her way there.

Her ranking in the group has been dropping a bit each year (5th in 2009, 6th in 2010, and 7th in 2011), but her popularity has clearly grown with her getting more votes each year than the year previous.  What’s more, she doesn’t seem bothered by being “only the 7th most popular member.”  In the last election where several girls were clearly upset by drops in their rankings, there were two girls who didn’t seem fazed at all and in fact ran up to the podium when their name was called, gratefully accepting their ranking.  One was Takamina and the other was Sae.

"Lucky seven!"

Another thing I really like about Takamina is that she is a big fan of manga, especially shonen manga.  She once had a meeting in the same building as the main editorial office of Shonen Jump (the company responsible for Bleach, Naruto, and One Piece among many others) and she took a detour to their office and got a picture taken with the staff.  She gushed about the experience later on her blog explaining how she could barely contain her excitement to be there.  It’s the kind of thing I too would be excessively excited about and just makes her all the more endearing. 

Her favorite manga is One Piece.

As I did with Yuko I'd like to end this with a short video from a few years ago of Takamina introducing herself, including some adorable video of her as a tiny child dressed as Sailor Moon. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

mAyKB48 – (5/48) My 推しメン: Oshima Yuko

So those of you following along with both of our blogs will know that an 推しメン (oshimen) is the member of an idol group that you support.  It’s basically your favorite member or members, the ones you look forward to seeing in the group and learning more about.  In most cases your support will just be well wishes and hopes for the member, but sometimes you can show real support, such as with votes in the general election each year or purchasing their photobooks, CDs, or DVDs.  Since I gave an overview of AKB48 last time, it seemed like a good time to discuss my favorite members of the group (Eric is currently doing the same on his blog). 

While in Japan discussing pop culture with my students, the first question that the kids would ask me when I claimed to like a group was “Who is your favorite member?”  Not having a favorite was usually met with skeptic looks.  The kids doubted that I really knew or liked the group.  But once I had a favorite member I was legit.  I proved that I knew what I was talking about and then the kids were quick to tell me who they liked and which other students liked the same members as me.  I also found that some students did not like AKB48, but they still had an oshimen.  There was still a girl or two in the group that they really liked and followed, even if they weren’t a fan of the group as a whole.  Personally I feel that when I picked an oshimen for AKB48 was the moment when I transitioned from knowing about them and enjoying their music to really being a fan.  And the member who won me over was Oshima Yuko (last name first as per Japanese convention).

I don’t remember when I first became aware of AKB48 as a group.  I do remember that when their 17th single "Heavy Rotation" came out in mid 2010 they were EVERYWHERE.  I caught many performances of this single on TV and there in the center, wearing an adorable hat, was a girl with a radiant smile.  She was clearly having a great time performing the song.  It made me smile just to watch her.

I seriously want this hat.

I did some research and found out her name, that she joined the group with the second generation back when Team K was formed, and that she was in the center for this single because she had ranked number one in the recent election.  I was disappointed in the following singles when Maeda Atsuko defaulted back to the center position since I didn’t yet understand how the lineups were chosen, but Yuko still got a good amount of screen time. 

Yuko has bounced back and forth between first and second place in the elections (2nd in 2009, 1st in 2010, back to 2nd in 2011) so I'm not alone in my support of her.  I'm hopeful that Yuko can retake the center position in the upcoming election and I think she has a good chance (especially since her main rival for the first place position will not be taking part in the election).  I'm sure this puts a lot of pressure on her, but she seems to handle it all with grace.  Even when she was bumped back down to second she accepted with a smile.

Yuko has great stage presence.  She was a child actress and her experience performing in front of people shows.  She just looks comfortable on stage, like there is nowhere else in the world she would rather be. It’s difficult for me to explain, but there is just something endearing about watching someone who so clearly enjoys what they are doing.  Performing is something I too enjoy (although I’ve never been able to do anything as high profile as AKB48, just some theater and high school marching band) so it’s a small way that I connect with her.

Yuko eventually wants to become an actress and I think that she will have success in this.  From what I’ve seen of her in dramas she has a pretty wide range.  In the AKB48 drama Majisuka Gakuen, which I or Eric or both will likely discuss later, Yuko was a high point of the show for me.  Some of the other girls came off flat in front of the camera or simply weren’t believable in their roles, but Yuko gave a strong performance. 

Everything I hear about Yuko indicated that she is a nice, cheerful, genuine girl.  She seems like the type of person I would want to be friends with.  Someone who can be loud and fun, but is also thoughtful and will be honest with you.  I’ve heard other members speak well of her and it seems like even if she doesn’t remain successful forever, she is truly enjoying it while it lasts.  My very first oshimen is still my #1 and I will continue to support her in AKB and when she eventually graduates.

To finish things off, here is Yuko to introduce herself.  The video is several years old, but still adorable and lets you learn some more about her.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

mAyKB48 (1/48) – What is AKB48?

For the first entry in mAyKB48, it seemed appropriate to go over the basics.  So what the heck is AKB48?

AKB48 is a massive girls idol group (in fact, they hold the Guinness World Record for the “largest pop group”) based in Akihabara, Japan.  But you could learn that from Wikipedia and it doesn’t really tell you much about them. 

Even some fans of AKB48 think that the group has only been around for a year or two, but in fact the group got its start back in 2005 when a man named Yasushi Akimoto had an idea.  Akimoto was no stranger to the music industry in Japan, having created the popular Onyanko Group in the 1980s.  But his idea was for something very unique, to create a group of “idols you can meet.” 

In Japan, the word "idol" is used for pretty much any talent who is popular and appears often in mass media.  They could be a singer, an actor, a TV personality, or a model.  The term can be used for both males and females, although it seems to be used more often with girls.  All idols are celebrities, but not all celebrities are idols.  The perception of idols has changed over the years, but currently idols are presented as fairly average people who just have a little extra something to make them popular.  It is not uncommon for idols to be sort of one-hit wonders, being everywhere for a few months and then suddenly dropping off the radar entirely.  Idols are held to a fairly high standard in terms of behavior, especially in larger idol groups where members graduate from the group and new members are added on a fairly regular basis.  If you are at all a fan of Japanese pop culture you probably know of some idol groups such as Morning Musume, SMAP, Arashi, KAT-Tun, C-ute, and S/mileage.

This is Arashi.  They are also super popular.
Most idols, and celebrities in general, are pretty much removed from the general public.  People see them on TV or on the radio and read about them in magazines and can occasionally see them in concerts, but even then they may be in a very large arena and you will probably be sitting very far away.  With AKB48, Akimoto set out to change that idea.  He wanted to create an idol group who performed on their own small stage for their fans on a daily basis.  He found a space to rent as a performance area on the top floor of the Don Quixote department store in Akihabara. 

Akihabara is often called Akiba for short and thus the group was called AKB (AKiBa) after the location of their stage.  There is debate over where the 48 in their name came from.  At one point the group did have 48 official members, but that number has since grown to many more and it doesn’t’ seem like 48 was originally the desired number of members (although it was much easier to explain to people when they had 48 members…).  I’ve heard that the 48 is a play on Akimoto’s first name and is more of a brand label than a desired number of members. 

But moving on, or rather, back to the history, they held auditions and 20 girls made their first performance in December of 2005.  Many of the girls had little to no previous dance or singing training.  In fact, the opening of their theatre was delayed for a week when it was decided that they were still not ready to put on their debut performance.  But the girls worked hard and practiced and performed everyday and multiple times on weekends.  A large draw for fans of AKB48, and other idol groups, is seeing the members grow and improve over time and watching their hard work pay off.  In early 2006 auditions were held for the second generation of AKB48 members.  The original members became known as Team A with the second generation known as Team K, and the teams took turns on stage on different days.  In late 2006 Team B was added to the mix. 

It wasn’t until 2009 with their 14th single “River” that AKB48 got their first #1 hit on the Oricon charts.  This is when the group’s popularity really took off.  And boy did they ever take off.  You honestly cannot live in Japan and not know who these girls are.  They are everywhere.  With multiple teams they can perform in different parts of the country and still have a show going on at their theatre.  The girls are often on TV, both on their own shows and appearing as guests on talk and variety shows and in various dramas and commercials.  They appear in advertisements, in magazines, in movies, and in fashion.

The 48 phenomenon hasn’t stopped growing either.  In late 2008 SKE48 was formed in Nagoya where they have their own theatre in the Sakae area.  NMB48 popped up in 2010 based in the Namba area of Osaka.  And in 2011 the most recent sister group was formed in the Hakata area of Fukuoka, HKT48.  These sister groups are similar to AKB48, with their own stages and daily shows, although the members are not nearly as popular yet (with a few notable exceptions).  The group even has some international sister groups with JKT48 in Jakarta, Indonesia and groups planned for Taipei and Shanghai (TPE48 and SNH48).

But AKB did not stop holding auditions.  Although they did not add more teams, girls were added as Kenkyuusei, which you will usually see translated as trainees or research students.  They are basically the understudies for AKB48.  They practice with the group and learn the routines so that if members are absent from the stage performance due to illness or other commitments they can stand in for them.  When members of AKB48 leave the group these research students have a chance to be promoted to take their place. 

Girls can leave the groups in one of two ways.  Girls who break their contracts get a sort of dishonorable discharge from the group.  They leave, often with only a brief announcement that they have left the group.  Most recently two members had to leave as it was discovered that they had been dating, which is against their contracts.  Often no explanation is given as to why these members have been let go.  Of course, at any time, members can decide to retire from the group, an event which is called graduation in the idol world.  Some girls leave to focus on their studies, others to pursue solo careers, others because they just want to retire from being idols.  Graduations are usually given a lot of fanfare, with the girls often having a performance dedicated to their graduation with the opportunity for them to speak to their fans and thank them for all of their support. 

When AKB48 first started out girls graduated from the group fairly frequently.  Girls joined, enjoyed a year or two as a member and then moved on.  From the original 20 members, only 5 are still active in the group (with another to graduate soon).  However, once AKB48 exploded in popularity graduations became far less frequent.  There were a number of research students who had many fans due to their hard work on the AKB stage but were still not official members of the group.  So in 2011 Team 4 was announced and it seems likely that a Team 8 will be formed soon.

Since the entire premise of the group is having idols that you can meet, they do a lot to promote the different girl’s personalities and interests.  A few of the girls are even known for being a bit bratty or cold, with others having more traditionally attractive qualities like being energetic or kind.  With so many members it is difficult to promote them all, and it is often left up to the girls themselves to find ways to promote their individual images through blogs and interactions with the fans.  The group holds regular handshake events where, by buying AKB merchandise, usually CDs, you can stand in line for several hours with tons of other people and shake your favorite member’s hand.  It seems a bit silly, but it is an opportunity for many to get some actual face time with someone they admire, however short it may be. 

So far the group has released 25 singles with their 26th coming out at the end of May.  However, the group has well over 100 songs in their repertoire as each Team performs a different show and most are on their fifth or sixth stage show.   For most of the singles Akimoto (who also writes the lyrics for AKB48's songs) chooses the girls who will participate.  But fans were unhappy with this, as they disagreed with certain girls being left out.

Fans are given an opportunity to have a say in the member lineup of one single each year.  AKB48 and all of its domestic sister groups participate in a general election (which would better be described as a popularity contest).  Fans get codes that can be used to vote for their favorite member in the newest single or for being a member of the official fan club.  The rankings the girls receive in the election determines the lineup for the next single.  Many fans buy multiple copies of the single so that they can vote for several girls.  The total number of votes in last year’s election was over 1 million, and there is no telling what will happen at this year’s election.

The only other single whose members are not handpicked by Akimoto is the one following the annual rock-paper-scissors tournament.  Members compete in a televised single round elimination tournament.  The winner gets the center position for the following single along with the girls who advanced to a high enough round.  This gives girls who are not often in the front a chance to show their stuff. 

While it is easy to look at the whole 48 concept as a giant marketing scheme it is also worth looking at the work that the members have done.  In the beginning the girls often performed for near empty theatres and it took a lot of dedication for them to continue with the group.  Their popularity did not happen overnight and the girls had to work very hard for years to get where they are.  AKB48 has also done a lot for the areas effects by last years earthquake frequently visiting the area to visit schools and hold concerts to cheer people's spirits, holding a massive donation drive and even donating some of their own salaries to the relief effort (they're rasied over 1.25 billion yen).  Love them or hate them, its impossible to deny the heart and determination these girls have.

mAyKB48 (0/48)

So in an effort to get back into blogging and share something from Japan we really enjoy, my fiancé and I have decided to devote the month of May to sharing our love of the group AKB48.  Since returning to America I have been sad that when I get excited about bits of pop culture news I have almost no one to share my excitement with, as most people have no idea what I am talking about.  So hopefully with these blog entries I can introduce AKB48 to more of my friends and maybe even get some people hooked like I am.  I am not intending to turn this blog into a purely pop culture blog.  I still have a lot to say about Japan and my time there, but since I am no longer living there, the focus will change a bit and I guess this is the first sign of that. 
The goal is for Eric and I to each post 24 posts about AKB48 in May, totally 48 posts about the massive group.  So if you want the full experience you should check out his blog as well.  We’ll number the blog posts as we post them, but it’s probably not vital that you read them in the exact order written.  We’ll cover various things about AKB and their various sister and sub groups, but there is anything you want to know about AKB48 let us know!