Reviewby Carlo Santos, Dec 15th 2011
Documentary of AKB48: To Be Continued
AKB48 is Japan's most well-known pop idol act, a troupe of several dozen girls spread out over Teams A, K, and B (and, as of 2011, Team 4) who perform stage shows at a theater located in the pop-culture mecca of Akihabara. Their rise to prominence is charted in this documentary, which follows the group from late 2009—when a mass roster change forced various members to switch teams—to the end of 2010, when soaring sales records and increased exposure made them a national phenomenon. Backstage footage, out-and-about roadtrips, and interviews with several of the group's members paint a picture of what goes on behind all the song and dance routines.
AKB48 is everything that is wrong with Japan, or the nation's last and greatest hope, depending on who you ask. The media glorify them with scrubbed-clean photoshoots and puff-piece interviews, while critics decry their music, image, and fanbase as the latest symbol of an oncoming cultural apocalypse. But Documentary of AKB48 takes a unusual middle path away from all the fuss. It doesn't play the numbers game about CD sales (except in passing), or try to introduce every single girl and every single song with breathless fan fervor; neither does it try to sensationalize them by painting a "dark side" about the idol world. Instead, it presents the human aspect of AKB48, both on and off the stage. The end result is curiously contradictory—a gentle, slice-of-life film about a form of entertainment that is often the furthest thing from "real life."
While the narrative structure loosely follows AKB48's activities throughout 2010, the true arc is more subtle: it tracks the emotional ups and downs of the team re-shuffles from around that time. Tears are shed at closing performances, soon-to-be-separated groupmates say goodbye, and members stress out as they try to get used to new comrades, new songs, and new dance steps. Yes, there are obligatory moments of goofing off backstage, but more time is spent on showing how hard the girls work, that there is genuine heart and soul behind the seemingly effortless pageantry.
Still, naysayers can argue that everyone in the performing arts works hard; behind-the-scenes footage really isn't that big of a deal. And so the movie goes above and beyond, shining a spotlight on individual members of the group. The slice-of-life tone truly comes into effect here, with some of the best segments showing the girls connecting with friends and family: Rino Sashihara has a heartwarming reunion with her grandparents, while Yuki Kashiwagi returns to her hometown after a four-year absence and hangs out with old school buddies (while also discovering that she's now "the local girl who got famous"). Moments like these are charmingly down-to-earth, reminding us that even idols have to step down from their pedestals once in a while.
The interviews, which also offer a down-to-earth look, are more hit-and-miss in their execution. Part of the problem lies in interviewee selection: the movie takes aim at more well-known members, not realizing that some of them are well-known because they look good on magazine covers and not because they give good interviews. This leads to draggy segments where personalities like Haruna Kojima or Tomomi Itano natter on without really saying much of anything. Other interviews suffer from contrived staging, such as resident geek Mayu Watanabe shopping at an anime goods store—as if that were the only thing that defines her personality. Fortunately, some of the other interviews go beyond the cute façade and canned responses, especially when founding Team A members like Minami Minegishi talk about prospects for the future—it turns out they do worry about leaving the group, passing things on to the next generation, and what happens next after idols grow up.
One thing curiously absent from the movie (or at least very scarce) is actual AKB48 music; this comes from its approach as a slice-of-life chronicle rather than a fan-made tract trying to convert nonbelievers. Aside from various clips of stage performances—often cherry-picked to highlight particular lyrics—most of the film is set to a quieter score, with lots of solo piano lines painting a sentimental soundscape. Two straight hours of AKB48 without a single instance of the raucous, ubiquitous "Heavy Rotation" or signature song "Aitakatta"? This movie pulls it off, and in doing so, ensures that the focus remains on the human aspect rather than revisiting overplayed chart-toppers.
The visuals throughout the film also lean toward the soft, sentimental side, with interviews and individual segments shot in gentle light against the best backgrounds Japan has to offer. (A Tokyo rooftop at night may not be the most comfortable place for an interview, but you might as well shoot there because it just looks cool.) However, the constant use of bokeh technique does get distracting after a while; surely there are other ways to film interviews besides "gorgeous idol talking to camera against a blurry background." Obviously, the backstage and concert clips are less meticulously planned—plant a camera in the room and hope for the best—but some unique images still emerge, especially with practice-session footage that strips away the gloss and stylized outfits commonly associated with the AKB brand.
For the ultimate fan who must have every single AKB48 thing, the decision about buying this disc is obvious: stick with the un-subtitled Japanese version instead, which costs three times as much but comes with an extras disc and a random insert photo. But for more level-headed enthusiasts, and those who are simply curious what the group is all about, this DVD is a far more reasonable deal. Those accustomed to fan parlance may be thrown off by the word choice in the subtitles ("formation" rather than "generation"; "shows" or "concerts" instead of "stages"; "Michan" and not "Miichan"), but there's enough context to pick up on the meaning anyway.
Of course, in the time between Documentary of AKB48's original run and its Stateside release, dozens of other things have already happened: recent trainees being rounded up into the new Team 4, the rise of other 48-themed sister groups, members coming and going—all of which have yet to be chronicled on film. There also remains much more to AKB48's history and its current state of affairs than can be covered in a single two-hour stretch. Still, this movie provides a fresh look at the group, steering clear of gimmickry and hyperbole and relying on AKB48's performers to tell their own story. As the title says, it is a story that remains "to be continued."
Overall : B
Story : B-
Music : B
+ Opens up the human side of AKB48 by focusing on individual members and their personal lives.