Friday 7 August 2015

So I went to a Japanese idol concert...

Over the course of this week, I have done two very crazy things. The first crazy thing I did was book a flight to Japan just three days before it's due to leave, having never been there before and knowing no more than a few words of the language. Well, there's nothing wrong with being a little spontaneous every now and again.

As for the second crazy thing? I spent the day in Akihabara, which is a shopping district in Tokyo which is seen as the hub of Japan's 'otaku' culture. After spending the day soaking up the local culture, spending too much money on figurines that I'm probably never going to display in polite company, and visiting a maid cafe (don't ask), I chanced upon a theater, Akiba Cultures Theater, in the basement of a high-rise store, which plays host to idol concerts on a regular basis.

Now I was vaguely familiar with the concept of idol groups, which largely consist of troupes of girls singing high-energy J-pop whilst wearing kawaii outfits and engaging in complex dance routines, before I arrived in Japan. I had seen the wonderful yet disturbing film Perfect Blue, which delves into the mindset of fans of these idols. I was aware of AKB 48, an idol act who perform daily concerts in Akihabara, and whilst in the district, you were overwhelmed with billboards, products and soundtracks promoting μ's (pronounced "muse"), the cartoon idol group popularized through the anime series Love Live!

So keeping this in mind, I decided to take a chance and see the idol group in residence that day, which happened to be Yumemiru Adolescence, a five-piece group (although only four performed), who recently signed to Sony Music in Japan. The experience of the concert was interesting, to say the least. Although it would not be appropriate to judge the entire Japanese idol culture from one single concert (I'm not the Daily Mail), here are some observations about how these gigs operate:

The demographic swings strongly one way
Back home, the demographics for pop concerts seem to be quite evenly split between the sexes, with some skewing slightly more one way than others. What amazed me about the fan base of YA however, was how heavily the audience was skewed towards males, with approximately 90% of the 300-strong crowd being made up this way. Whether YA happen to be an exception within idols in terms of their demographics or whether a predominately male fan base is the norm within Japan, but my knowledge of the genre would suggest that it is the latter.

The fans are racuous, yet polite
When the idols are performing, the crowd really, really get into the action, singing along to every word, and bringing in chants to each of the songs, similar to our own charming "Oi, oi, oi f****** oi" chants which grace concerts back home, but a lot less threatening. It's just as well the concert was largely all-seated, as I imagine there would be a lot of the concert would have been as wild as a Pendulum gig in Belfast.

The actual concert is quite short, with very little music.
For someone used to a concert lasting all evening, the relative brevity of the performance was quite surprising. For a start, there was no support act, which is something that I tend to see as standard at gigs I would go to back home (with a few exceptions). Secondly, the actual performance clocked in at just under an hour, which is a bit shorter than one might expect.

Thirdly, the amount of that time actually dedicated to music was actually quite small. In all, Yumemiru Adolescence only performed about 6 songs during the performance, with the rest of that time dedicated to other activities. After the first song, the band engaged in a 5 minute skit which seemed to highlight the various personalities of the members (disclaimer: I went into this gig only knowing a handful of Japanese phrases, so my knowledge of what the skits actually consisted of were sketchy, although I did meet someone at the concert who spoke English who was able to talk me through the elements I didn't understand). The "encore" involved the band coming back on stage and engaging in a large game of rock-paper-scissors with the entire crowd, with the winner winning a bottle of orange juice, hand delivered to him from the group itself.

From this gig, it appears that the idol experience extends beyond just the music, with being able to make a personal connection with the performers being just as important as the songs themselves. Of course, this isn't too uncommon in pop outside of Japan, but the way the two are integrated together during the concert is something that isn't as common.

There is a very strict etiquette to follow
Absolutely no photography is allowed to be taken while the band are performing, and when the opportunity arose to shake hands with the band after the performance, there were a group of security men on duty to move the fans along the line to ensure that no-one spend too much time with any one idol. It's possible that the reason for this is to protect the idols from reputational damage (in case a less-than-good performance is captured) or from overbearing fans. Of course, there might be another reason...

Commercialism is rampant
Now of course I am aware that artists tend to lend their name to products, appear in adverts, and have their gigs sponsored by companies in the West, but in Japan, the level of corporate tie-ins and commercialisation is enough to make Kiss blush. For one thing, how many pop gigs have you been to where half way through, the group actually take part in a 10 minute advert for a product? This idol group appear to have been sponsored by KFC, as they spend a great deal of time extolling the benefits of a certain milkshake this company sells, and even invites a humanoid version of said milkshake onto the stage to interact with the group. As commercially minded as they might be, I couldn't imagine even One Direction engaging in something like that.

And it's not just selling other products that they excel at. When it comes to selling their own wares, they've got things down to a tee. That aforementioned handshake with the band? If it was your first time seeing them in concert, you only had to display your ticket, but if you'd been before you had to spend 1000 yen (approx £5) to have that privilege. There was also the opportunity after the concert to have a photograph taken with one of the members of Yumemiru Adolescence, although in order to earn that privilege you had to spend 3000 yen in their shop. And amazingly, a lot of people were willing to pay that price. The guy I was talking to had saved up enough vouchers to have a photo taken with all the members of the group, and there was a big queue of people waiting to get their photo taken with the idol of their choice.

In unrelated news, I am now the proud owner of three of Yumemiru Adolescence's CDs.

This one photo with Karin (left) cost me 3000 yen. Yay capitalism.
As for the music itself, I think the best thing to say that it is not generally my cup of tea, although it's perky enough, and their choreography was great, and the whole experience of going to an idol concert was fantastic, like going through a portal into another world entirely. It is the sort of concept that doesn't seem like it would work outside of a few countries in Asia, although you can see how some elements have filtered through into popular music elsewhere.

Even if you're not overly fond of J-pop music, I would heartily recommend going to an idol concert if you are in Japan, just for the experience. There are loads of opportunities to see idol groups perform in Akihabara, and each group seem to play in the same venue twice a month -Yumemiru Adolescence are playing the same venue on the 20th, for example. If you do decide to go, I would however recommend that a) you bring along enough money with you (about 3000 yen for the performance, and a few thousand more if you want to meet the band), and b) have a greater working knowledge of Japanese than I have.

Addendum - the manager of Yumemiru Adolescence seemed to be rather thrilled that I was wearing a Teenage Fanclub t-shirt. Whether it's because he's also a fan of the Belshill Beach Boys, or because he took it to be a reference to his own group, I am not sure.

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