asiascape vistas

Techno-Culture, New Politics, and Philosophy in East Asia

Asiascape Vistas is a forum for discussion about the many and various dimensions of cyberculture found in or originating from East Asia. Its focus is on the interplay between these media and questions of politics & philosophy. Contributions are from the academic collective responsible for the core project, but other contributions will also be considered by that collective.
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Dissociative Identity Artists

After resisting the temptation for quite some time, I finally decided to give it a try. AKB48. Artists of the year at the 26th Japan Gold Disk Awards in January 2012. On stage every day. Even more present in all kinds of TV commercials. A planned, exploitive and devastating blow against Japanese music culture, according to David Morris and his comparison of the group with the Wu-Tang Clan. Although I agree with David in many ways, I have to admit that I almost admire the producer Akimoto for creating something far too forceful to ignore.
As David says, AKB goes one step further. As far as I can tell, Akimoto has created his own charts within J-Pop, a self-contained world staged as an internal, never ceasing adaptation of “Popstars.” Because the group can draw on 48 carefully selected girls who, in combination with their various outfits, are able to answer to a wide variety of female and male, old and young preferences and desires, AKB48 never fails to stay novel and attractive, at least for those who conceive of these terms as a set which is based on appearance. No question, there are many victims of this production, and, mocking such sacrifices, they are incorporated into a narrative that depicts the group as heroines who overcame many tough struggles in the past, as the lately released second “documentary” of their making, “Show must go on”, with the Japanese subtitle saying something like “while getting hurt, the girls withstand the pain and hold on to (or pursue) their dream” shows. (See) But this kind of exploitation, in combination with a large pool of dreaming girls, also allows Akimoto to create a kind of on-going game, in which the front girl is repeatedly selected in various ways. The two most striking examples of this I know of are the general election in June, in which fans could vote to determine the leading member for the next single, and the second “rock paper scissors tournament” in September 2011, where the members competed against each other for the pole position in the next single. To me it seems quite cynical that, with many 100000 votes in the election, and, if I remember correctly from the many TV news reports about the event, between 10000 and 15000 fans visiting the tournament, AKB48 may be said to draw more participation than the anti-nuclear protests in Tokyo, most of which were reported to draw together some 10000 demonstrators. Combining “the people's voice” and “luck” in this way and making both huge media events, to me seems like an intriguing new way of producing idols, that goes way beyond “old-fashioned” TV formats like Popstars and other similar shows.
In his observations on television, Adorno somewhere said that creating statistically “average” idols is the most sophisticated way the culture industry employs to uphold the belief that everybody can be a star, which, inquired with the same statistical methods, turns out to be no more than an illusory, minimal chance. The production of AKB48 adds to this initial selection process two new elements I am in my cynicism tempted to call participatory culture and explicit randomness, which seem to contradict each other but both share the intension to replace the common “experts” selecting the winners by some universal criteria. The winner of the latter event, shortly afterwards, had a TV commercial advertising a candy of some kind as the secret to her success in the tournament, with the ad ending with herself crying „lier!“ It might be interesting, maybe crucial, to ask what the intentional strategy behind this ad was. But not now. I'd rather finish this section with a toast to Akimoto, who seems to have taken the culture industry to a new level, and managed to develop a group mostly known among Japanese otaku or extreme fans of manga, anime, idols, etc., into a country-wide popular brand. Is this the dawn of participatory culture-industrial randomness?
This is not the only interesting thing about AKB48 and their sister groups (lately, JKB48 was born as an Indonesian copy of AKB, also produced by Akimoto). Although I do not think that there is anything to say about the music, I would like to mention two of the various interesting effects and side-effects of the concept. First, AKB48 can be anywhere. That is, since neither TV appearances nor live performances have to include all members (or are capable of holding them all, for example in the case of small TV studios, etc.) they technically are able to appear in different places at the same time. Furthermore, if for example 6 members have contracts for TV commercials (I haven't counted, but there are a lot of spots with AKB 48), you might end up seeing them ten, twenty times within 1 or 2 hours. This practice is, of course, not limited to media appearance, but may also be applied to stage performances. Arguably, AKB48 bends the limits of time and space.
But this is only possible, because they do away with any (traditional? Old-fashioned?) notion of the “group” or “band” as one more or less coherent unit of artists with some kind of “image” shared by the fans. In order to address many different audiences, AKB 48 members not only represent very different types of “girl,” they also are placed into very different contexts. Thus, AKB at more or less the same time promotes a chain of convenience stores, a chain of lunchbox stores (at both of which you can buy lunch), a chain of real-estate agencies, but they also advertise insulting web-services like AKBabywhere members of the AKB web-services (1480 Yen or 15 Euro per month) can create “virtual babies” with the AKB members by uploading a picture of themselves, in an even more ridiculous ad. This clip, in my view, seems to nurish associations with sex ads (“Would you like to make a baby with me?”), but the idea also mocks all those who really want to have children but are unable to do so. While drastic expression has always been an important part of literary fiction and its critical potential, and is particularly vivid in Japanese anime and manga, this clip is so disturbing because it depicts real people, namely an AKB member and a real child which she pseudo-breastfeeds smiling into the camera. I may be very old-fashioned, but I do believe that there is a line which many people are not willing to cross, but which is crossed here. But I'd be happy to hear other opinions on this clip.
To return to the earlier discussion, it seems as if AKB48 has many faces and very differing appearances according to the respective context. They could even be called dissociative identity artists. In times of “patch-work identity, contemporary psychologists emphasize the importance of the work the individual puts into making this patchwork coherent as crucial for her or his well-being. At the moment, the seeming incoherence of AKB48 may be met by a similar incoherence of the fans and of their distinct media consumption patterns. But in the age of the internet and youtube, it will be for the fans to decide how long AKB48 (and other similar groups) can manage to maintain this coherence in incoherence. Or maybe the fans have already reacted to this problem by developing not only preferences of specific members, but also consumption patterns by which they are able to ignore the unlikable aspects and focus on the likable ones, something like an art of dissociative consumption.