Friday, December 31, 2010

In Defense of Maeda Atsuko

I’m not the biggest Maeda fan, so I will leave the fanboying to the experts. Maeda is not even my top favorite, but I do like her a lot. One thing I really don’t like though is when fans hate on her for reasons not her fault. Let me explain.

Some fans have hated the fact that Acchan has always been the center of AKB, as if it was her fault. It’s not, it’s Management’s decision, as I will explain later, but first I want to point out that it’s not even true that Acchan had always been the center.

In AKB48’s first ever stage, Party ga Hajimaru yo, Maeda has stated there was no clear center yet, but if you will watch the two songs that would become their first singles, Sakura no Hanabiratachi and Skirt Hirari, you will see that Maeda is not at center. Literally, Maeda is not standing at the center, Minami Takahashi is, but more importantly, in Skirt Hirari, which has solo lines, Takahashi has twice more solo lines than Maeda. My point is: The center of AKB at the beginning was not Maeda, it was Takahashi. This should not be a big surprise to hardcore fans, it is common knowledge to us that the producer of AKB, Akimoto Yasushi’s favorite member is Takahashi, and Maeda herself has mentioned that Aki-P didn’t even take much notice of her at the beginning. Takahashi was and is considered the captain of the original team and the current AKB afterall.

Things changed by the second stage though, the stage titled Aitakatta. In an excellent interview of Maeda at QuickJapan after the release of River (English translation by Stage48’s wazawai6318, download complete translation here: [used with wazawai6318's permission]), when it was specified that she would be one of the centers and would be the center of Nagisa no Cherry, currently what may be considered by some as THE Maeda Atsuko song, she stated that she hated being the center so much, she burst into tears. Nagisa no Cherry focuses on the lead vocal, where the other three in the unit clearly relegated to backdancers. This apparently caused some disheartenment between the members, and Maeda felt the pressure. In the closing day of that stage, Aki-P told the members to say what they felt, to the audience, during the MC. To quote the translation, Maeda said, “At the last performance of our 2nd stage, Akimoto-san said to us, “Please tell each other everything that you’re thinking.” On the stage of our last performance, in front of all our fans, we were all made to say “At that time, I felt this way….” For example, things like “I didn’t like being behind Acchan.” I too spoke my mind and said “I didn’t want to do ‘Nagisa no Cherry’”. For us, that was an important moment. It took a weight off our shoulders, and also allowed our fans to understand what we were thinking."

People assumed that Maeda was like basking in some glory, enjoying or maybe even pushing Management to make her center, when the truth is, this interview is one of many proofs that the center position was thrust upon her, probably because Management was noticing how popular she was. Even when she was center for many singles, starting with being featured prominently in the PV of their third single (first from a major label), Aitakatta, she considered herself as just one of the girls. She said “… I’d felt that “Even though I’m in the centre, everybody doesn’t think about me anyway.”” Even when Maeda had to share the center position with newbie Jurina Matsui at Oogoe Diamond, she thought little of it, until it was the fans that made a big deal out of it. She said, “It’s not that I was particularly composed, but I didn’t really take it to heart since we aren’t even of the same age. But it was talked about among the fans way more than I had predicted, and we were compared. When I found that out, I was a bit surprised, and I started to worry. I thought, “What should I do….” At that time too, Akimoto-san got angry at me many times. “If you continue on this way, Matsui-san’s going to take your place.” During that time, I myself struggled and worked hard. Starting from the time of “Oogoe Diamond”, Akimoto-san started to ask me about my will each time. “How are you?” He would send an e-mail. “How are you? Can Maeda do it?”… ““I can do it! I want to do it!””… “But starting from “Oogoe Diamond”, I feel like I’ve started to understand the meaning of my own place little by little.”

The first Senbatsu elections in 2009 proved to be a great encouragement for Maeda, her Management-decided-center-position now became the fan-decided-center-position, showing her that she was at her rightful place at #1.

Then, one year later, on the second Senbatsu elections, she would suddenly be edged by former second-placer Yuko Oshima by only 597 votes. (Acchan got 30,851 votes while Yuko got 31,448. Votes were limited to fans who purchased specific items like singles or subscriptions.) Losing the #1 position for this election meant a lot for her; when her name was called, she said in her speech (translation from Nihongogo’s Ready2), “…I'm a little bit relieved. I think that in the end I wasn't cut out for being the first place. Last year after getting first place I thought that being in that position I must try the hardest to push AKB... But... seems like I couldn't do a good job at it. (Team A pioneers shook their heads when she said this, as if to say, “no, that’s not true.”) This year... So it's like this. I couldn't meet your expectations last year. But being here for the 5th year and being a 1st generation member I still feel like I have to push the members. I'm sorry. I want to do my best this year also in this place. I feel like I'll have to work even harder to get the recognition of even more fans so that maybe I'll be able to get back first place. And if I do get back to first place I'm confident that I'll be able to push AKB48 a lot more. Everyone, thank you very much!” Her heartful speech was, even to me, surprisingly inspirational. Given everything, being that honest, she still says she will try harder to try to regain her position.

Center position would be fair game after that though, as they would soon thereafter announce the first Senbatsu Janken Tournament, a random chance tournament that gives every member of AKB the chance to become the center of a single, something even Maeda smiled about when it was first announced, the winner of which became Mayumi Uchida. Maeda seemed happy to share the center position and to give others a chance.

Maeda is often criticized for looking like she doesn’t try hard enough or that she doesn’t care. She probably doesn’t look as outgoing or friendly or smiling like the rest, she doesn’t crack as many witty jokes as the others, but when I watch her, my conclusion was actually, she is an introverted, shy girl. In the QuickJapan interview I’ve been quoting, when she was asked if she didn’t talk during the MC parts of the stage during her earlier days, she said, “I think I wasn’t able to talk. I didn’t want to talk. I think I was really bad at having to be the centre of attention. So even for things like our self-introductions, it took me a long time to get used to it.” I read a fan report that said that although Maeda appears unfriendly at times, when there was a chance this fan was able to talk with her, she’s actually very nice and friendly, just really shy. She and the other members are quite familiar with this perception of her, and some do defend her, but in the AKBingo! July 29, 2009 episode, this became fodder during the Maeda vs. Kojima Haruna Shoujiki Shougi (Truth Chess Battle), when Kojima asked, “Fans sometimes say you look like you’re not into your job (and Maeda nods in a “Tell me about it!” kinda face)… but sometimes you really aren’t,” and the supposed “lie detector” needle spiked when Maeda said “no.” Maeda just said she sometimes do things at her own “pace” (a popular phrase in Japan) and had a good laugh at herself. At the same QuickJapan interview, she says, “It’s often said about me that people don’t know what I’m thinking about. The members say that about me too. Even though we’ve been together for four years, they say that they don’t know what I’m thinking about… It could be that I’m not thinking about anything at all (laugh). I’m the type that acts without thinking at all. There are a lot of members who properly think about what interesting things they should say during the MCs between songs at the theatre, so once in a while I reflect on how much trouble I cause them during times like that. I think that that’s one of my flaws... I have tried participating more actively. But, I think that by now it’s already come to the point of “Acchan is like that, that’s good enough”. Of course, other than that, it’s also thanks to the members. I think of myself, “Ah, not good enough”, but after all, “there’s people here who help me.” Even though people may say that there’s something different between Maeda Atsuko and the Maeda Atsuko of AKB, there’s nothing different. I’m really just that way. I’m very thankful to the fans and the members who have accepted/forgiven that.”

I love the way Acchan appreciates the fans who have accepted her personality flaws. Yeah, haters hate that about Acchan, but we have reason to hate just about everyone if we wanted to, it’s just a matter of understanding and appreciating what can be appreciated on another person. Yes, Acchan may not fit the stereotype of an idol celebrity who always smiles, extroverted and always has something clever to say, but actually, her nerdiness is one of her charm points. Fans love her girl-next-door image, and the fact that she’s as awkward and dorky as many of us makes her even more appealing. Yeah, she’s cute, and pretty, and has a great figure, but the fact that she acts so naturally and is so human makes her more endearing to the fans. Her dorky laugh and her natural reactions are always a treat to watch.

Maeda is human, who has flaws, but has worked hard to get her center position, a position that was thrust upon her, and one she did not necessarily want. And yet she remains very much human and tries to be just one of the girls. We hardly have any real proof that Queen Acchan tries to impose stuff or whatever. She’s just her, and people really need to stop making her out as if she was some bad guy when there isn’t even any proof as to why people hate her so much other than her personality flaws which she freely admits. She’s just being herself. And that’s what her fans want.

Her dedication and love for AKB is also inspiring. She said in the QuickJapan interview, “I had a period when I said “no” to everything too. During that time, I was allowed to star in a movie for the first time (Ashita no Watashi no Tsukurikata (How to Become Myself)), but I really didn’t like it. It was terrifying, and I was so lacking in self-confidence. Even at the studio itself, all I kept saying was things like “I want to return to AKB as soon as possible.” Performing at the theatre was my only joy….” I love how many of the girls consider the Theater as their second home.

It doesn’t matter who eventually replaces Acchan. Maeda could be replaced by Yuko Oshima, Minami Takahashi, Mayu Watanabe, Jurina Matsui, or even Mayumi Uchida, but Maeda Atsuko will forever be perceived as the original face of AKB.

In the August 22, 2010 episode of Uchikuru, Acchan gets shown her audition footage, shown here when she was age 14.

Maeda, in AKB's very first stage, Party ga Hajimaru yo. Yeah, even Aki-P made fun of her helmet-looking hair.

Maeda, not the center of Sakura no Hanabiratachi.

Maeda, not the center of Skirt Hirari.

The first time Maeda is featured prominently is in the PV of Aitakatta.

Maeda, in her old "private" video. In this great video, Maeda also teaches proper Japanese enunciation. If Maeda had a series on learning and mastering Japenese, I'd be an expert by now.

In the April 28, 2008 episode of AKB 0ji 59fun (predecessor of AKBingo!), Acchan has a little fun at Yuko's expense. The two love each other.

The May 19, 2008 episode of AKB 0ji 59fun is one of my favorite episodes, where the psychology test provides us with a lot of great laughs.

Acchan likes to downplay herself, as shown in the January 8, 2009 episode of AKBingo!, another one of my favorites. Here, she says she has no skills.

Sata points out,"Of course, you do! You can skip!", an old running joke involving Acchan and Takahashi.

The July 29, 2009 episode of AKBingo! featuring the Shoujiki Shougi (Truth Chess Battle) between Maeda and Kojima, where Acchan just laughs at what had happened when the needle said she was lying about always being into her job.

I love it when Maeda is having fun.

Although she frequently downplays herself, she knows when to bite the bullet. In the October 8, 2010 episode of Shuukan AKB, they explore the gutsiness of Maeda. In this screenshot, she throws away her floating device and swims fast to help her team win in the Shuukan pool special, eventhough she used a life buoy in an earlier individual game. She explains that when she went to Thailand, she almost kinda drowned, and she's been afraid to go to the water since.

On the same episode, they looked back on another Team competition where she single-handedly beat the opposing team in a bobbing-for-apples type of game. This time, she says she wouldn't even think of revealing her forehead (by moving away her hair), if it wasn't necessary.

My favorite solo image DVD has been that of Maeda Atsuko in Phuket. My favorite part is when the stewardess asked her in english if she wanted chicken with pasta or chicken with rice, and I can watch the look on her face when she didn't understand a thing a thousand times. She had to look at her crew and wonder, "What did she say?"

She laughs at her dilemma.

When she finally chooses rice, the stewardess confirms, "Rice?", she answers, "Yes," in english, and she was so happy to answer in english.

I could watch this segment a thousand times, and if I had been counting, I probably already had.

AKB doesn't hide everything from us. In Maeda's episode of AKB 600 Seconds, she is openly shown removing hair extensions. 

Maeda, after being revealed #1 in the first Senbatsu elections.

Maeda smiles bravely when her name is called as the #2 girl in the Second Senbatsu elections. 

Even so, she cannot hide her tears for long. 

Maeda smiles at the surprise announcement of the Janken Senbatsu Tournament, during the July, 2010, Yoyogi Concert.

The original face of AKB48, Maeda Atsuko