by Jason Suzuki
A teenage girl reads passages of Nietzsche aloud as she rides a boat through some of the more industrial parts of Osaka. She’s not dolled up and the color of the cinematography has been muted to the point of greyscale. This is Ririka Sutou, an up and coming member of the Osaka-based idol group NMB48. She is nineteen at the time of filming but looks as if she just reached the dawn of her teenage years. The juxtaposition is loud, even though we find out later her ambition is to be a philosopher. Ririka even has a single written especially for her: “Nietzsche Senpai.”
As a documentarian, Funahashi is known for a pair of films chronicling Fukushima refugees post 3/11. The fact that he was offered this subject, of Osaka’s answer to the pop-idol army that is AKB48, was apparently just as surprising to him as it should be for the viewer. What is there to examine within an ever-revolving group of girls competing for prime spots in yearly singles and live shows when one has already been immersed and seen up close the poor conditions of those displaced by the 2011 nuclear disaster? Yet perhaps his time with those refugees provided a fine-tuning to his humanist muscle as Funahashi finds the purest of unfulfilled dreams within a world plenty superficial.
Formed in 2010 as a sister group to Akihabara’s idol girl group AKB48, the Osakan NMB48 has floundered in popularity compared to the original AKB48 and Sakae’s SKE48. The NMB48 Theater is located in the Namba, Osaka (from where its name comes from) in the Minami district. Known more for its comedy culture of manzai acts, NMB48’s managers tried to combine this lineage with the usual idol trappings. The film doesn’t spend as much time it should on this aspect of the group’s history but that’s because it seems to have been dropped from the act in an attempt at 48 homogenization. Which is weird because watching these girls attempt comedy was more endearing than a bikini photo shoot.
Despite apparently being commissioned by the talent agency who controls the group, the film does not shy away from the harsh realities of this environment where fragile souls are constantly being set up to be passed on. Even the more popular girls like Sayaka Yamamoto will eventually find a situation where they are overlooked for the more trendy servings on the 48 platter. She is a mainstay of the centre when it comes to NMB48 performances but finds herself in the backrow of stints with AKB48 before being replaced entirely.
Funahashi finds even greater pathos in some of the other girls who always seem to play second fiddle, in particular Ayaka Okita. If we could point out one subject whose story seemed to be the most gripping in the production and post stages of the project it would be her. A member since NMB48’s inception in 2010 Okita has never moved up in the ranks of the group despite her being seen as a mentor to each new crop of girls, helping them with choreography. Even more debilitating to her self-worth is how she has never been selected for a senbatsu, the group of girls selected by the management to be featured on an A-side single. It’s hard not to root for her core group of fans who attempt to get her a placing spot in the annual elections where fans can vote for their favorite girls using codes from CDs. Individuals who would never get one-on-one time with these girls free-of-charge sit around computers opening stacks of jewel cases of the same single in order to vote. They know admit it’s ridiculous, and Funahashi refuses to employ any demeaning tactics.
This section of the film is the most revealing of the intersection of lives that has occurred in this corner of the showbiz world. Each year Okita tells herself to stick it out one more single, her rejection from the senbatsu takes a spiritual toll on her. Okita’s fans demand a meeting with NMB48’s management to discuss why she has never been in a senbatsu all these years. He shrugs them off as would be expected of business owners met with lines of questioning they can’t use for PR purposes. After charting in the initial yearly voting results she gets called in by the group’s manager. What we find out is her denial of the senbatsu had nothing to do with talent or popularity but because there were rumors she has had physical relations with a boyfriend. It’s a harsh reminder that these groups profit off the allure of virginity.
Others like Fuuko Yagura confess to striving for popularity, which in turn means job safety, to help support her family. It brings to mind someone like Setsuko Hara, who was not very fond of the world of entertainment and did it to support her family.
NMB48 is easily the underdog when it comes to super groups like these. Its members take the fewest spots during fan voting sessions. And within this group Funahashi finds the underdogs of the underdogs. Some girls see this as a stepping stone to better careers, some find that this was a stepping stone to nothing. It’s the maximization of a phenomenon that’s been around for decades in Japan. The doc applies and existentialist lens to the material, never shying away from the cruel disappointments some of these seem to endure on a week to week basis. There are eight million stories in the NMB48. This has been a handful of them.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.