Raise Your Arms and Twist! Documentary of NMB48: Directed by Atsushi Funahashi. Produced by Documentary Japan. Running Time: 121 minutes.
Amongst the many bits of Japanese culture that come across to a Westerner as particularly strange, few are as befuddling to someone like myself as the obsession with Japanese female pop idols and the supergroups they form. Known mostly for relentlessly upbeat, schmaltzy songs with utterly nonsense lyrics, the contradictions and exploitations within this particular cultural industry have been debated in Japan for some time, but are still largely invisible to anyone not particularly interested in Japanese culture. For such people, Raise Your Arms and Twist! provides an intriguing glimpse into a world I, and many others, neither know nor comprehend.
From what I gather, there are a number of these supergroups based in the city in which they were formed. This film focuses on one in particular, NMB48, based in Osaka (the “48” refers to the number of girls officially part of the group). We are taken behind the scenes to see the relentless work routines of the girls who form this group, most of whom are still just teenagers when they join. We learn how the group was formed, that it has something of an underdog status compared to more established acts like AKB48 or HKT48, and we follow the routines of some of the head singers/dancers in the group, each one with their particular goals, desires, and reasons for becoming an idol in the first place.
And boy, are these routines exhausting. There are near-daily live shows in smaller groups for select fans, unending rehearsals for the next performance, preparations for the major singles and music videos, conventions, and more, on top of their normal studies, since nearly all of them are still in school. Much like the manga industry, it’s a massive factory system meant to churn out hits and produce silly amounts of cash, and people caught up in it are easily consumed by it.
This is every bit as true for the fans as it is for the idols themselves. The biggest demographic for this particular type of pop idol are middle-aged, single men. From a purely financial point, it makes sense to market to them- they have the means to buy CD after CD and pay premium prices for daily live shows. They also have the time and cash to afford to come to handshake events, one of the oddest things I’ve ever heard of, where they literally get 30 seconds to shake their favorite idol’s hand until security steps in and forces them away (and they WILL force you away if you dally). Following some of the more passionate fans and learning about them in parallel to the idols is funny, tragic, and a bit unnerving, all at once.
Arguably the biggest problem within the industry this creates is the secularization and objectification of these girls, which influences their lives in insane ways. One such way rears its head in a scene where an older dancer, upset at having been stuck in the back for years, is finally presenting by the manager with the real reason they’ve been holding her back. It’s one of the most irritatingly unfair, teeth-gnashing moments I’ve experienced in the theater this year so far.
Although the director of the film insisted he tried to maintain objectivity in presenting this subject matter, his distaste for the entire industry is clear throughout the film. And yet, even with all the cinematic cards stacked against it, I still found myself drawn to it all more than I ever thought possible. It is, on the one hand, horrifying to see how these girls are exploited, objectified, and used to turn a massive corporate profit. But on the other hand, when you see the sheer energy, scale, and effort that go into every performance, I also found myself being able to understand why people can get into this. It is impressive to see their shows. Their energy is infectious if you’re in the right mindset. As much as I could never envision supporting this sort of thing, I also found myself growing more and more emotionally invested in the stories of the individual girls interviewed, wanting to know more about what happened to them and where they are now.
There are not much in the way of new revelations for anyone already familiar with the broad strokes of the pop idol industry and its many demons, and some efforts at philosophical and artistic reflection on the film’s part often don’t jive with the rest of the movie, but this is still a fascinating and earnest work that leaves all its cards on the table, and allowed me to feel I’d gained a bit more insight into a place strange to my mind. Which is, in the end, the whole purpose of documentary filmmaking.