Thursday, June 07, 2012

Documentary Focus: Idol Groups over 9000

I'm not really sure you can call me a 'fan' of the ridiculously popular Japanese idol group AKB48, in the sense of "someone who buys their singles and votes in their elections" kinda fan. I just find the whole idea of an idol group conglomerate composed of (now) scores of members fascinating.

I got hooked into these girls watching the late night j-drama series Majisuka Gakuen, which portrays most of the popular members of the group as tough yankee juvenile delinquents. While your mileage may vary as on how effective that was, it was an entertaining watch and I wanted to find out more about these girls.

In 2010, Shunji Iwai, one of my favorite contemporary Japanese directors, started up a project that would offer a glimpse on the lives of these girls for the duration of one year. And thus, Documentary of AKB48 to be continued was started. Iwai is known for his films on contemporary youth topics and this fits the bill.

This, alas, is not really about that film. Haha.

This review is about a shorter cut documentary made for NHK entitled Documentary of AKB48 the future 1mm ahead. It's basically a 44 minute cut of the aforementioned two hour film, narrated by AKB48 member Minami Takahashi (nickname: Takamina). It documents the trials of the idol group during the year 2010. 2010 was a particularly crazy year for the group, as it was part of the apex of the group's massive rise in popularity. Coincidentally, it was also the year when Majisuka Gakuen aired.

Mostly it features interviews with the girls interspersed with footage of them practicing, going to places like the LA Anime Expo, and so on. While the theatrical cut of the movie eschews the narration, the TV version's narration makes it more accessible to people who haven't the slightest idea on who these girls are. The narration explains the ranking system and the yearly General Elections (Senbatsu,) a popularity contest that decides which girl gets in the spotlight, and which ones support her from the sidelines.

There are some events that aren't explained fully, including that incident where member Sayaka Akimoto resigns as captain, or how important getting on Kouhaku Uta Gassen is.

The girls who are covered in the docu are appropriate, but there are a few omissions (that may show up in the theatrical release anyway.) Atsuko Maeda, the long reigning queen and 'face' of the group, is not covered in much detail here, other than her involvement in the 2010 Senbatsu.

Indeed, it's not the most popular members or the ones that win the Senbatsu that are the backbone of the team. We see that Takamina does a lot to hold everyone together and give their support through hard times, and to say that these girls work hard is an understatement. She may not rank as high as the others (she ranked sixth in this year's elections, and seventh in the year before that) but she is the foundation of the team, working herself to exhaustion just to get these people to work.

Anyway, the shorter cut of the film may be a better choice to watch if you're curious about the group and want to get to know more about them. For the hardcore fans, there's always the DVD release with english subs or the 4 disc collectors set available in Japan.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Documentary Focus: Dear Zachary

I'm going to give you advice about watching this movie right now (and you should watch it if you have the chance) : go watch it cold. Don't look at synopses, don't spoil yourself. Watch it right off the bat.

There really isn't much I can say to you guys other than this is a fantastic film to watch. I've found it quite unusual compared to other documentaries I've seen, because there's a lot of emotion involved as the film's director knows the subject matter personally; he was one of his close friends.

But rest assured, this film really is a documentary. It is intended to serve as a video letter about Andrew Bagby, who died under tragic circumstances, for his young son Zachary. This is achieved by conducting interviews with Andrew's close friends, family, classmates, and other people whose lives he touched. As with many eulogies the film paints him in a positive light, and he may not be as nice as everyone put him out to be, but you still get that he was a pretty nice guy nevertheless. But to say that the film ends there is an understatement. Lots of twists and turns happen along the way and the movie that you see at the end will not be the movie you expected to see at the beginning.

The film was probably made to be a private one, made on virtually no budget at all. Other than some other minor technical hiccups, I'm not a big fan of some of the fast MTV style cuts that happens. It's in the slower, more measured interviews that the film gains its greatest strength. It's in these purely human feelings of love, regret, sadness, hate, and joy that we get a true glimpse of who this guy really was.

Watch it. It will be hard to sit through, but it's one of those movies that will change you and haunt you long after its done.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Documentary Focus: A Little Kindness

I'm sure you've seen this clip on Youtube before. It's a series of outtakes from an industrial commercial for Winnebago RVs. The man is Jack Rebney, and it looks like it's the worst day of his life. The tape has been going around for quite a while now, first circulating as an endless stream of VHS copies, then viral video fame on Youtube.

One filmmaker, Ben Steinbauer, asked himself a question: who the heck is this guy, and what happened to him?

So he made a documentary about it. Enter Winnebago Man.

At first the film seems like a commentary on internet celebrities and fame, but the documentary goes further than that. Thanks to a few intriguing twists and turns, the story turns out far more complex than initially perceived. The filmmaker paints a picture of a man with many contradictions: wanting to be isolated, yet yearning to be heard. At times calm, well spoken and verbose, and at other times still as hot tempered as the guy we saw in the clip. But deep inside he's just a really nice guy who wants to be understood, in the face of this sudden internet notoriety that he doesn't fully understand.

We're approaching a culture whose boundaries are smaller than ever before, and one whose media is shaped not only by the creators, but by the audience as well. But then again, that really isn't the point of this movie. Though we do not know much about Jack's past, or his life before, but by film's end you get a sort of understanding of the person he really is.

Oddly the film's final message is kind of appropriate: this raw moment of one person's frustration over a really bad shoot on a really bad day becomes a symbol of sorts for standing up to adversity in the human condition. Or, shit happens. We just have to live with it sometimes - and sometimes, there are people like Jack that help us along the way.