When I look at the Oricon charts I can’t help thinking the popularity of AKB48 has ruined music. There are a huge number of copycat groups and they all kind of sound the same and intentionally look similar. I guess it’s great if you enjoy that style of music, but I personally find it dull so seeing it all over the top 30 list makes me sad. Attempting to ride the AKB48 success wave as well is the manga AKB49 – Renai Kinshi Jourei by Motoazabu Factory and Miyajima Reiji in which a boy somehow ends up infiltrating the group in order to get close to a girl he likes. It’s slightly baffling and at times feels like a propaganda piece for the entire system, but I still had a lot of fun reading it.
Our main character Minoru initially goes to the idol auditions disguised as a girl just to see if he can help his classmate Hiroko pass it. Much to his surprise both of them pass the audition (after a bit of drama) and he now “has” to stick with his act of being a girl because obviously he hasn’t told Hiroko that he likes her and that he is this girl in disguise. They become friends in training to become the next generation of AKB48 and they go through all sorts of tests and trials on the way to their dreams. That’s the basic gist of the premise and so far it hasn’t strayed from that.
Every step of the way to become an idol is told and we get to know some of the other girls in training and sometimes the established members show up to mentor them. I don’t know if any of these characters are the current real members of AKB48 or whatever as I know almost nothing about them. If they were I’d find that a bit weird as I would prefer it if this story was completely fictional. The founder of AKB48 Akimito is there however and plays a prominent part. He sets up all the unreasonable goals they have to meet and sits in the background plotting one thing or another. He seems aware of the fact that Minoru is a man in disguise, but is just fine standing back and seeing how far he will be able to keep up his act. Over time other characters seem to realize his gender as well but also don’t seem to care. None of them tell Minoru that they know so that never becomes an issue in the story. The focus on the story is clearly on the work of becoming a proper member of the group and the relationship between Minoru and Hiroko doesn’t advance at all. He doesn’t make any attempts at furthering it and they don’t go beyond being friends. I guess it might go further than that if the series ever ends, but as it is now that’s a secondary concern for the story as the focus is squarely on making them become members of the senior team. The breaks between the story arcs are so short that it kind of feels natural that they don’t have time for love as the story kind of keeps a breakneck pace. This was a positive for me as it always felt like they were clearly moving toward their goal, even if the goal always seemed to be a far way off.
The story in AKB49 often feels ludicrous and like a propaganda piece for the entire idol troupe idea. In the series Minoru meets several fans of the group and one guy in particular essentially lives for the group. He has nothing going on in his life and he truly is a fanatic fan because of it. This is seen as positive as the group “carries the dreams of the fans”. There’s no real criticism of the stupid rules in it and instead it focuses on the positives, if you could see them as that. All the grueling work and fierce competition in the group that in real life sends 15 year old girls to the hospital sometimes is also seen as positive as they are working toward their dreams. It doesn’t matter that they’re exploited and overworked. I didn’t mind all these things too much as I saw this entire series as taking place in some alternative fantasy dimension where this is how the entire thing worked, but I still couldn’t resist rolling my eyes sometimes. It’s a shounen manga and it doesn’t complicate things too much and the ridiculous premise itself demands that you suspend your disbelief. Don’t get me wrong here, there’s nothing wrong with a series keeping things simple and not being particularly clever. It’s just that AKB49 pushed the limits of stupidity a bit too far for my taste sometimes.
The manga has been coming out pretty fast from what I can tell and it sure looks like something that was put together in a hurry. Character designs all look very similar, so despite the huge female cast you basically have 3-4 different kinds of faces and bodies with minor tweaks to them. Unless you pay attention it can be hard to tell who is who since some characters really look awfully similar to each other. Backgrounds often have lots of blank white space, so overall don’t read this expecting anything special from the visuals anywhere. The only time I’d say it looks good is during live performances as the series often pumps up the contrast and does its best trying to sell the power of the presentation.
It’s hard to call this series “good” with a straight face given the numerous issues with it. Still, I enjoyed reading it so it’s at least effective at what it does, even if the entire premise and much of what happens in it boggles the mind if you step back and think about it for a second. If you think the premise sounds appealing you will probably enjoy reading it.
NOTE: The series has not been licensed and is only available as translated scans. This review is based on the first 6 volumes.