Introductory note: up until Christmas I aim to post an article a day about something interesting I found during the year. The articles won’t be much different to normal, except a little shorter.
Treatments of the mass media in dystopian science-fiction generally tend to present it negatively; the influential power of the media is presented as a tool of oppression or of suppressing revolution and generally Juvenal’s aphorism panem et circenses is cited. The idea is that by providing easily-understood and followed media in vast quantities, the population can be distracted from dissent by virtue of being content with their leisure-time. It is ultimately sound logic; a content population are less likely to rebel and a population obsessed with light and unchallenging entertainment may become less receptive to subtexts and more complex ideas.
Traditionally, the resistance to this state of media-induced stupor is some kind of countercultural movement; the cyberpunk subgenre of science-fiction was predicated on this idea that it would be the punks, bikers and other rebels that would provide the resistance to pervasive corporate culture, working on traditional concepts of the state versus the people. This still holds true in much science-fiction exploring such themes today, tempered as it is with a new kind of anti-corporatism favouring economic accontability and opposition to lobbying of government by business. Ultimately it is the freedom of information and communication that matters now in dystopian fiction.
Within this genre then came AKB0048, a short animated series by Shoji Kawamori, whose previous accolades include the surreal Genesis of Aquarion and Aquarion EVOL, and the Macross franchise, discussed in some detail especially in terms of how it considers imperialism and cultural influence previously on this blog. At its core, AKB0048 is a piece of advertising for the pop supergroup AKB48; while a full digression into the concept of the idol group in Japanese pop culture would be too lengthy for this article the closest parallel is a movement like Beatlemania – the band are more than simply performers, they are presented as a lifestyle and have an exceptionally pervasive media presence. However, fandom of idols transcends even this – whereas pop groups in America and Europe tend to have fixed members and may split up and reform (or, in some cases, take on new members which often polarises the band’s audience), idol groups such as AKB48 have a continual flow of members in and out; what is sold is the image of the band not its specific members. The Beatles were renowned for who they were as people; AKB48 are renowned for being AKB48 and the steady replacement of members as they no longer fit the required image for the band is turned into a media circus. Fans are encouraged to vote for new members in a spectacularly extravagant campaign and their obsession is encouraged and rewarded.
With this as its starting-point, AKB48 took the idea of a pop group as a kind of lifestyle movement and sold image and turned it into a countercultural group fighting a dystopian empire; immediately this seems absurd as the conflict has suddenly become the epitome of the mass media with an obsessive legion of followers challenging a dystopian state seeking to suppress mass entertainment to avoid people obsessing over it and keep them productive. In comparison to Kawamori’s past series AKB0048 is the culmination of what Macross touches on; the idea that the concept of pop culture and mass entertainment is enough to mobilise people against their leaders. In turn each aspect of idol culture is put forward in the series; the fanbase, the process of application, training and ultimate retirement at a young age, and the concept of the band’s image being more important than its members – and these are then framed as a cultlike organisation. The idea of selling an image becomes shown as a campaign of selective breeding to keep the band’s members looking identical between generations. The fanbase become a private army with heavy weapons mobilised into anti-authority militia.
Ultimately this hyperbole and apparent celebration of the dedication needed to be an idol ends up going so far past parody that it shows up the cynicism and emptiness of the whole; for an advertisement for the AKB48 brand – and ultimately AKB0048 is just that in its reverential depiction of the group and their songs – it is one that ultimately gives Kawamori the last laugh in how it presents a conflict between a movement obsessed with reiterating the past’s inane pop culture and a dystopian state trying to actively reject the panem et circenses model.
Perhaps, in conclusion, this is reaching too far into a piece of silly fluff; at the end of the day the series remains a hyperactive, psychedelic tale of heroic pop stars fighting evil (at times even by moonlight). Yet to an outsider who sees idol culture not as a natural way of life but as an almost-incomprehensible kind of fandom that represents the logical conclusion of a media and reality-TV focused society, it is a piece of fluff with a message that is hard to swallow as unequivocally a good thing.