“Documentary of AKB48: Show Must Go On” – 2013 Japan Cuts Review

Only true fans and those fascinated with the idol culture of Japan would find “Documentary of AKB48: Show Must Go On,” a look at the all-girl supergroup AKB48, bearable.  At 121 minutes long, it is an agonizingly detailed look at a year’s worth of events for the large flock (as of June, there were 90 girls in the group, separated into three main teams of 16 each, as well as trainees and “sister groups” who perform internationally).

The second film in a trilogy of documentaries covering the performers, it is initially fascinating to watch the fervor with which fans fawn over these girls and how much effort it takes to put together a concert production and simply be in the group itself.  However, there is only so much squealing, tears and nervous breakdowns that one can be subjected to.

Taking place in 2011, the documentary begins with footage of some AKB48 members touring the ruined landscapes in Japan’s earthquake- and tsunami-devastated countryside.  These humanitarian effort scenes attempt to show the group’s goodwill, but with the ensuing drama and theatrics (members breaking down during a public popularity vote; members, most notably leader Atsuko Maeda, breaking down again during a grueling concert series at the Seibu Dome), they feel both disingenuous and gratuitous.  The film also covers the scandal that caused Mina Oba, initial captain of the newly-formed Team 4, to be suspended from AKB48 for some time.

What may make for good reality TV in digestible half-hour bites does not necessarily consolidate well into a two-hour documentary.  With the rivalry and competition amongst group members and the drama of being in one of the most popular pop performance groups in Japan’s idol-crazed culture, this could have been fodder for an entire season’s worth of episodes (perhaps Bravo would like to culturally diversify their reality shows beyond giving airtime to America’s worst-behaving subgroups?).

However, “Documentary of AKB48: Show Must Go On” does showcase the amount of genuine effort that each member of the group exerts in order to maintain her place.  Hugs, tears and fainting spells underscore the difficulty of upholding the flawless image of the group as a whole.  Sound clips are interspersed between the never-ending concert and backstage footage, providing insight from the leaders of each team, less popular members and trainees.  Much can be learned about how AKB48 spent their year, but sometimes too much really is too much.