Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

She’s not real…but does it even matter?

Citizens of Earth, be warned: the Great Machine Takeover will not come via tanks or T-1000’s. It won’t look like the matrix, and it won’t kill you with bullets.

Nope, it’ll take the form of a teenage girl.

We have officially reached that stage of evolution where CGI is indistinguishable from the real thing (in a time when the status of the real becomes more ambiguous by the day). And credit goes to the Svengalis behind Japanese pop sensation AKB48.

A bit of background. The AKB in AKB48 stands for Akihabara, the neighborhood that was once the center of black market electronics and is now a Mecca for anime / manga fanboys and fangirls. At first glance, they seem like your typical pre-packaged Japanese girl group. Like Morning Musume ten years ago, AKB48 are young, cute, have minimal dancing and singing talent (if any), and wear identical flashy outfits. But a closer look reveals something a little creepier going on.

It’s no secret that girl groups and pre-pubescent singers the world over are selling sex, even though what they claim to be selling is wholesomeness. But AKB48 takes it a step further. The group, it seems, was designed specifically for the otaku market. They perform every day in Akihabara at their own theater, and while they have plenty of young male and female fans, their concert audiences tend to be full of middle-aged men. Sure, Morning Musume (and Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, to be fair) play up the youthful-innocence-is-sexy angle, but AKB48 seem to have dispensed with all pretense and just goes full-on lolicon.

Currently AKB48 has a whopping 61 members who are divided into “teams.” The average age is around 17, though at one point the youngest performer was 12.

So how will AKB48 lead the Great Machine Takeover? Well, recently one of their many members, Eguchi Aimi, appeared in a Glico commercial. She had a profile on their website, did a photo shoot for a magazine, and developed a fan base. And then it was revealed that Eguchi wasn’t real. She was a digital composite of several other AKB48 members.

There are a few things about this story that I can’t get out of my head:

1. A production company hoodwinked millions of the people who keep it in business and saw no need to apologize. Which makes sense, I guess, because when you think about it…none of these girls are real. At least, by the time they achieve AKB48 stardom they’re not. What you see in the magazines, commercials, and even on stage is so far beyond the realm of fleshy humanity that no one can be blamed for shrugging their shoulders when it turns out that one of them was 100% digital.

2. For the fans, does it even matter that she’s not real? Probably not. Japan already has one digital idol–Hatsune Miku, a hologram with a huge fan base who performs all over the country. For the AKB48 fan base, it would seem, reality is nebulous. Dolls, cartoon characters, and holograms are often preferable to flesh-and-blood people. So they didn’t necessarily discover anything shocking or distasteful about Aimi Eguchi.

3. We can’t tell the difference. That scares me. Yeah, I know she wasn’t 100% computer generated (she was a composite of several human faces), and I know that we probably fell through the uncanny valley and came out the other side a long time ago, but sheesh. Images of pod people and virtu-sex that feels better than the “real thing” (again, such a loaded term nowadays) are running circles through my head.

I guess I can take comfort in knowing that even AKB48’s juicy feuds with other stars never existed in reality. Recently, producer Akimoto Yasushi revealed that he will be creating an “official rival” for AKB48. The group will be called Nogizaka46 and will consist (in the beginning, at least) of 20 members. I wonder who they’ll hire to script the Twitter battles and choreograph the hair-pulling.


2 comments on “She’s not real…but does it even matter?

  1. shao
    July 2, 2011

    woahhh, this just blew my mind. Wait, they perform in theaters in front of live audiences and they can’t tell that they are not real. Wait a minute, are the audiences and fans real? Are they also virtual?

  2. gradland
    July 3, 2011

    Yeah, it’s confusing. To sum up: the band AKB48 is real (as in they’re flesh-and-blood human beings). But this recent addition to the group, Eguchi Aimi, was never real. So the girls who perform in Akihabara every day are actual human beings, but Eguchi Aimi never performed with them.

    Then again, even though they’re flesh-and-blood human beings, I feel like the members of AKB48 are so manufactured and pre-packaged that they kind of exist somewhere between human and cyborg. And the fact that an actual hologram-singer, Hatsune Miku, regularly sells out arenas full of actual humans kind of adds to the vague line between human and not.

    I’d say virtual audiences are right around the corner.

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This entry was posted on July 1, 2011 by in Japan and tagged , , , , .
Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

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