It was the announcement no one ever wanted to happen, but would someday be inevitable.
Though I doubt anyone ever expected it to come this soon.
Atsuko Maeda, a founding member of AKB48 and one of the most visible celebrities in Japan, has announced that she will be graduating from the group.
On Day 2 on the Super Saitama Arena concerts, fans mocked and raged about how Jurina was being transferred to Team K and Milky was moving to Team B and I was going to say something about how this is EXACTLY like big Japanese corporations who shuffle their middle management around without accomplishing anything.
But this, THIS is actually a major move. This alters the very foundation of the 48-empire.
Many have already discussed her motivations for doing so, why the absolute center/face/ace of the country’s biggest pop phenomenon would step down from her role. Oddly enough, it didn’t come as too much of a shock for me, since she IS a legal adult already, and has pretty much accomplished greater and higher dreams than any ordinary human could hope for. Think about this: Maeda has already won the senbatsu election TWICE while Lebron James still has ZERO NBA titles.
Though it’s not like Acchan is going to step into a black hole and never be seen again. As others have speculated, she will most likely still be involved in the entertainment industry, although not doing ALL THE AKB THINGS. She’s got too many endorsements and agency contracts and drama roles to just wander off the face of the planet, like when a middle-schooler decides an idol career isn’t for her. Instead I see her striving to establish her own personal brand, so that she can be Atsuko Maeda the Famous Japanese Person and not just Atsuko Maeda of AKB48.
And while she surely has plenty of personal reasons—reasons that she is doing this for herself—I can’t help but wonder if she is doing this for the good of AKB48 as well. One of the most dangerous things that can happen to a big, successful organization is that they get lazy and decide they’re just going to keep doing the same things over and over because they’re already successful. In the AKB case, that can mean something like ALWAYS sending the same 7 girls to do magazine cover photoshoots and ALWAYS featuring the same big-name members on every single. In other words … the last two years or so. It’s one thing to root for them as up-and-comers, as young teens growing into young adults, but then … what next?
The greatest enemy of the idol genre isn’t their fickle fanbase, or other idol acts, or even stuffed-up music EXPERTS. No, their greatest enemy is time.
That’s why, perhaps, Acchan is doing this for AKB’s own good. She’s not only challenging herself, but challenging them: Find a new center! Get someone else to be the face of the group! If you truly plan to model yourselves as a “school of pop” that trains young women for entertainment careers in Japan, then you had better be ready to operate as an ever-changing organization, not a static insititution that banks everything on a few star performers. (Okay maybe that last sentence might be a little wordy coming out of her mouth.) But that’s what it comes down to: this is Maeda’s challenge to everyone else in AKB48. Can they step up and fill in the blank space that she is going to leave?
I compare it to the decline of the NBA after the 80′s and 90′s. See, the way the National Basketball Association marketed itself in the golden era was to promote its big-name stars: Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing, some bald-headed dude named Michael Jordan. It also didn’t hurt that some famouse manga artiste called Takehiko Inoue created a comic called Slam Dunk that basically became an Asia-wide phenomenon and popularized basketball on the other side of the globe. But as those star players grew older and left the game, the NBA lost fans because they couldn’t see Jordan, or Bird, or Magic anymore. Contrariwise, Major League Baseball has managed to maintain a more steady state of affairs because the way MLB markets itself is to focus on teams—you support the New York Yankees, or Chicago Cubs, or Cleveland Indians, and even as players come and go you stay loyal to the team. And so Maeda’s departure may be the litmus test of the AKB48 plan. Are people fans of AKB48 just for a certain girl? Or do they support the group as a whole?
And so the next chapter is waiting to be written. This isn’t the ultimate end of anything; this is only the end of the beginning. And what happens next could shape a new Age of Idols to come.
I leave with a memory from the time I met Acchan in New York. You how know a lot of people say she’s dull, or boring, or looks expressionless … well I did catch her a few times acting distracted in the interview. (But hey, they’d just gotten off a 16-hour flight, can you blame them?) But there were also times when she laughed the loudest, when she almost jumped out of her seat, when she was so full of life. She also took charge in unexpected ways, like hissing at Haruna to STFU when she was talking out of turn. So maybe some people get the wrong idea about Acchan’s character, but I see her as someone very intense, very driven, who can seem lost in her own world—but lets her emotions out strongly when the time comes.
And I knew she could not be a mean or cold person, because of what I felt when I shook her hand.
Those hands were so warm.