It took me three episodes of watching, but I think I finally have a proper handle on how to approach AKB0048, and for a viewer in my position, I've found that it's best not to see this as what it is: an animated, kitchen-sink sales pitch for AKB48, and more as the post-logical endpoint of the original Macross concept.
More on that below.
Now, when I refer to "my position" as a viewer, it's pretty much the position of "being completely ignorant about AKB48." Beyond knowing a couple of the names and the fact that the real-life AKB48 members are not voicing their AKB0048 namesakes but instead the younger rookies, I'm completely in the dark. At least with Idolm@ster I was familiar with some of the memes.
And for the most part, it's that know-nothing attitude that serves me best, because looking at this as AKB48 propaganda lends it that slightly creepy, disingenuous vibe that tends to permeate the entire "idol industry" concept. You might even get angry if you actively dislike AKB48 and/or what it stands for, something more common among folks raised with western cultural mores that value "authenticity" and shun that which seems "manufactured" or "targeted", things that make up the essence of idol-group construction.
Instead, it's easier, and definitely more fun to look at it as merely the result of Shoji Kawamori and Satelight being asked to take the core conceit of Macross to its absolute extreme: a farce of a show where "culture" is about as literal a force of power as you can get.
The success of any idol anime (and arguably any idol act) lies in the strength of the lie it tells. With flesh-and-blood AKB48 and gritty reality, this usually requires a bit of willful participation on part of the fan, who forces himself to believe in Mayuyu or Kanamin or Risette whatever cutesy nickname is appropriate. That's partly why Idolm@ster was my favorite show of 2011, as its lie is a simple, yet fundamentally compelling suggestion: that these idols of 765 Pro and their Mr. Producer are essentially genuine, and that every idol is exactly as their marketing copy describes. It tickles the western preoccupation with "being real" (often poisonously interpreted as a disdaining of effort exerted in the name of style/fashion/entertainment). Other than that, it was arguably "realistic", its idols largely being "normal" people pursuing career objectives that just so happen to be furthered by greater Togetherness.
AKB0048 operates on this notion as well, but takes it to the greatest extreme, and ends up with its idols and idol industry portrayed as larger than life - far larger than life. Beyond simply idealizing its idols, the future "guerrillas" of AKB0048 are even more unnaturally perfect than their fans' wildest imaginations. They're practically magical girls, whose "idol talent" literally manifests as superhuman ability. Their song lyrics are treated like spell incantations, where "Heavy Rotation!" is as "Abracadabra!". They are the voice of hope for an oppressed galaxy, rather than a bunch of mildly talented girls performing out of a slightly dingy theater in Akihabara.
Even more hilarious are the forces that marshal against this sole voice of hope. Each episode so far smacks a little bit of the Redline race (from Redline, 'natch), with entire planetary armies deploying in full force to stop a dozen teens from singing insipid pop lyrics. Better still, the girls can fight back (non-lethally, of course). Chicks in schoolgirl outfits using heart-tasers, space-bubble guns, and the occasional Itano Circus on hapless space marines and riot cops. It's the kind of absurdity displayed in the last three episodes of Senki Zesshou Symphogear, except in the first three episodes.
Just...don't ask too many questions, though, because thinking about it starts to make it a little disturbing, and not even in the "real idolin' ain't like this" way.
Asking questions leads you to, well, question the situations of the trainee protagonists, and the creepy implications of the world AKB0048 has built. Every frame of the prologue that isn't part of the (amazing) concert scene shows a rust-colored mining town and grumpy old-timers in hard hats and salaryman garb. Orine works in a factory rather than going to school. Nagisa's dad gets pissed because his kid was singing in the shower. Chieri talks about idoling like it's warrior's job (and it is, to an extent) It's a state of totalitarian oppression of North Korean comprehensiveness. Even the Kims' real-life prison-nation, at the height of its domination, had its own movie industry and state-sponsored entertainment.
Speaking of entertainment, it seems that idol entertainment is the only entertainment. What happened to (non-line) dancing, film, theatre, musical instruments, and jazz bars? Of course not, only the angels matter, they who, upon joining the lineup, take the names of their revered predecessors. Mayuyu the 6th, anyone?
In Macross idols and idol music are merely frilly ornaments for "culture". In that universe, the true power, the power that drives alien warrior races to their knees in the face of a teen in a pretty dress, actually resides in emotion, personal connection and intimacy, of which pop culture is a merely a vehicle. As other series and other Macross properties have shown, the job can be done just as easily by a kiss, a movie, a rock band, or a forty-foot-tall man singing enka. Sheryl, Ranka and Minmay were picked because they're more marketable than rock bands, and maybe because Shoji Kawamori is into that sort of thing (who can tell).
In AKB0048, though, music is power, idols are magic, and it has yet to even bother with sci-fi mumbo jumbo like artifacts and Miyuki Sawashiro speaking English, as did Symphogear. Incidentally, Symphogear only barely counts as an idol show. Only one character was ever a performer, and the singing was basically a MacGuffin that justified using music by Elements Garden instead of more Valkyrie-appropriate tunes (Norse chanting, maybe?).
Hell, the girls themselves look somehow inherently superior ubermadchen, what with the naturally heart- or star-shaped light reflections in their eyes, wide-spectrum hair chroma, and the goddamn custom life form that exists solely as a sign of their exalted presence! New song lyrics are passed down from on high by some shadowy, male-voiced presence (Mr. Producer!) and regarded as "holy". AKB0048 members are made goddesses, practically at the expense of everyone else in their world. There's a quasi-religious vibe to AKB0048 that's genuinely creepy, especially if you like to believe the worst about hardcore idol fans.
That's why you don't ask these kinds of questions, and instead sit back and enjoy a slickly-produced, hilariously over-the-top farce. I won't go so far as to presume it has heart or soul, but it has enthusiasm, money, and a decent hook, which in the idol industry, can be just enough.
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