Zenkyōtō gets the AKB48 makeover

The idol group AKB48 has made a music video for its new song, the folk-tinged “Tsubasa wa iranai” (literally, “wings aren’t needed”), as a pastiche of the 1960s-1970s campus strikes and student movement in Japan.

akb48 zenkyoto zengakuren student movement pastiche music video tsubasa iranai wings not needed

There’s guitars, helmets, and placards (“solidarity”, “peace”) aplenty, not to mention the young girls from the group looking cute and demure in period dress while surrounded by a circle of swaying male activists. Strictly speaking, the video is supposed to be set in 1972, though a better fit might have been 1969 at the height of the campus movements and also when the “folk guerrillas” were strumming their anti-war numbers in Shinjuku.

The music video centers on the 18-year-old Mion Mukaichi, playing an aspiring documentary film-maker, first observing and then apparently joining female activists on campus armed with the flower power of guitars and cameras.

You be the judge: is this a new The Internationale for our times?

As discussed before, enough decades have passed that contemporary Japan can now look back on the nation’s radical post-war history as something moé and consumable: this can be come in the form of cosplay (costume role-playing) or illustrations. Yes, for some of the déraciné generation born in Heisei-era Japan, so-called extremist student activists with sticks and Molotov cocktails are no longer something stigmatised. Quite the contrary, they are kawaii. It has led to a whole otaku subculture devoted to finding and sharing images, creating original illustrations and even dressing up as student activists from a bygone time. Much of the output then surfaces on social media.

Coupled with the recent trendiness of (sanitised) student activism in the wake of last year’s “SEALDs boom”, it also means we get cynical results like this AKB48 music video. “Tsubasa wa iranai” is AKB48’s 44th single and is released on June 1st. One wonders how the baby boomers will receive it, yet the inclusion of 76-year-old singer and actor Tsunehiko Kamijō is surely a nod to these older viewers.

This is certainly far from the first romantic treatment of the 1960s and early 1970s student movement in Japan: there are countless other examples of novels and films, though the majority of these were created by people with at least some connection to the original period. The idea of AKB48 appropriating past Japanese student activism is simultaneously bizarre, infuriating and fascinating. If it does seem particularly jarring (I confess my jaw almost hit the floor when I first saw the video), perhaps it says more about contemporary Japan’s disconnect from political activism than it does about the group, whose mawkish music and accompanying videos are loved and hated in equal measure

It does beg the question, though: how different would things have turned out if AKB48 and its ilk, along with their anodyne music, had been around at the height of Zenkyōtō and Zengakuren?


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1 Response to Zenkyōtō gets the AKB48 makeover

  1. Avery says:

    I was just talking to some grad students at a party this evening about the portrayal of the student movement in the anime Hyouka. I consider Hyouka to be the single best treatment the movement has ever been given in Japanese culture. (It’s based on a young adult novel which I believe has the same storyline.)

    This AKB video, in comparison, makes me cringe so much I can’t bear to watch more than 10 seconds of it. But both of these things are outliers in Japanese culture — I would put a deafening silence at the center. Indeed, the Japanese grad students had seen the anime, but their reaction when I pressed them for other examples was a very awkward and swift change of subject.


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