AKB48: Beginners?

On the 27th of October, AKB48 set off into motion its plan to conquer the 2010 charts with the release of the single, Beginner. A week on, the single has sold 862k copies; the single has seen the girl group eclipse the mammoth that is Arashi, dwarfing their sales with no sign of stopping. But what is it about Beginner that makes it so appealing? Are the numbers significant in any way, or is it just another stage on AKB48’s upward trend in sales?


The single itself is great, in the opinion of this writer. It starts off with Minami Takahashi going “In your position, set!”, reminiscent of RIVER’s ‘AKB48!’ call. The song breaks off into a hip-hop beat that would be right at home in a Kanye West album, before the girls start to sing in unison. The song itself is a departure from recent AKB48 singles like Heavy Rotation or Ponytail to Shushu, which carry that distinctive idol-esque feel. It feels more like something from a Korean pop group and the foot-stomping beat almost begs for a rap verse to be laid over it.

What have these changes brought to the table for AKB48, sales-wise? They broke more records than a bull in a record shop (sorry); According to Tokyograph, the girlgroup is now #1 female artist in the 21st century, beating out Utada Hikaru’s Can You Keep a Secret?. The weekly sales of 862 000 puts them just shy of 2nd place in the overall female artist standings, behind Amuro Namie’s CAN YOU CELEBRATE and Utada’s Addicted to You. So can one finally really say AKB48 has made it? That’s not such a sure conclusion, in the opinion of this writer.

As what seems to be following a rather alarming trend, the Beginner single is not without some form of gimmick. Sometime next year, AKB48 will be holding the fourth iteration of their Request Hour Setlist Best 100 concert, a 4 day extravaganza where the set-list is decided by the fans. This is done by — you guessed it — voting tickets that are bundled with Beginner. Of course, this is not to say voting tickets alone accounted for nearly 200 000 single sales. While the AKB48 fan population is known to be a little bonkers, 200 thousand copies is nothing to sneeze at. So there must be something else that accounts for the massive increase in sales.

Turns out, there is. At the date of this posting, AKB48 is still on top of the top 100 video rankings on Recochoku, the only site where the original Beginner Promotion Video is available. “Original, you say? You mean the boring dance clips I’ve been seeing aren’t the actual PV?” No. No they’re not. The original PV for the single has never seen the light of the silver screen, being shown only in concert and the recent Tokyo Aki Matsuri event.

The original featured scenes that were deemed ‘too gory for TV’ and featured a 15 second scene of Maeda Atsuko screaming her lungs out; it was subsequently axed, much to the chagrin of the fanbase. While one would see such an injustice as inherently damaging, the decision that followed — to distribute it on Recochoku — seems to make perfect business (and political) sense. Satisfying the fanbase while generating a ton of publicity, maybe it was the plan all along.

Whatever the plan was, it worked. AKB48 are now well on their way to Japan’s first million-seller in a decade, and it remains to be seen just where these Beginners will peak.