Friday, October 31, 2014

Time Capsule Reviews: Beginner

So we meet again, AKB48. Fine. Let's do this.

What has AKB48 been up since I so callously put them on the Idol Blacklist? Their usual spiel it seems. Kokoro no Fortune Cookie- I mean Placard came out about a month ago, their next single is coming out soon, they're making more money than I ever will in my lifetime, nothing new. Because that aforementioned single will be released in November, that made AKB48 eligible for an October Time Capsule Review for the first time since their formation! So how did they fare? Well, of the 35 votes on this month's poll, Beginner got a whopping 22 of them. So yeah. Pretty easy win there. As nice as it's been not writing about AKB48's stuff, I am more than open to writing about their past releases that were actually worth talking about. And since the last day of October is a lovely Halloween, what a more fitting music video talk about than the nightmarishly violent Beginner? To think that now Beginner is four years old. Four years ago, I'd just barely gotten into idols... strange how much has changed since then. Or tragic seeing how much AKB48's changed since then. Just look at the main cover of Beginner: three of the four people featured on it are no longer in AKB48.

But let's go back to 2010, when Acchan was undisputed center and fans' heads were spinning over the music video for Heavy Rotation. Such a time 2010 was the start of a new decade, and the start of a new formula for AKB48. I'm sure you're all familiar with AKB48's five-songs a year formula: sakura song, summer song, Senbatsu song, fall song, and Janken song. Started in 2009, the formula became fully developed in 2010. In 2009, AKB48 released River, their first fall song. AKB48's fall song was meant to sound more serious, maybe darker musically and visually compared to their other singles of that year. Serious didn't always translate to better, but I liked a few of AKB48's fall songs. Beginner, however, remains the best of them. River isn't too far behind, but the other three songs fail to reach the level of quality Beginner has. Maybe because Beginner was a refreshing change in sound for AKB48. Or because Beginner is such an amazing song that none of the other songs could carry the momentum. I'm thinking a combination of both.

Really though, why is Beginner such an iconic song in AKB48's discography? It wasn't their first serious A-side; River came out the year before and was just as serious-sounding. Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru and Keibetsu Shiteita Aijou were also downright melancholic serious songs. I love all three of those songs, but I also think Beginner's a little different from them. While Beginner is a serious song, it has more of a dance sound than AKB48's previous serious songs. And I mean a hard dance sound, like a weird blend between idol pop and EDM. The beginning of the Beginner, Takamina yells "In your position, set!" then the song starts loud and it stays loud. The intensity of Beginner kind of a jarring turn, especially in comparison to AKB48's last single, Heavy Rotation. Most of the girls singing in Beginner sang for Heavy Rotation, yet the contrast in their voices is mind-blowing. Magic of editing I suppose! Still, it's editing I can 100% get behind, because the girls of AKB48 sound badass in Beginner. If they hadn't sounded so powerful, I don't think Beginner would have worked anywhere near as well as it did. A strong backing instrumental helps.

I don't just love the dance sound of Beginner; the lyrics are great. Beginner's theme is the familiar "Do your best and don't give up!" theme AKB48's used in many a song. Not a bad theme in my opinion, but hearing it multiple times can get tiring. Luckily, the theme totally works for Beginner. The first half of Beginner is very desolate and hard-hitting, talking about failure and the burdens of the past. But then the chorus encourages the listener to break free, with the energy building each time the chorus is repeated. Then after the second chorus, Beginner takes a turn for the triumphant. Listening to Beginner makes me want to revolutionize the world and start things anew. And Beginner was a revolutionary song for AKB48. In the days before UZA, this was their dance song, and it is an incredible one. I've already gushed about Beginner in my Top 20 AKB48 Songs, but gushing about it again is not a difficult feat. All I'll say more about the song is that Beginner lives up to the hype. If you only listen to one AKB48 song, make it this one.

The same statement can be applied to the music video as well! Something to note is that the music video I'm reviewing is not the one on AKB48's Youtube channel. That's the shitty rehearsal version they decided to promote because the real one was too violent. What's that? Too violent? How violent could an AKB48 video possibly get? That's what I thought many moons ago when I was just getting into AKB48. Today is Halloween after all; I think reviewing something horrifying is just the way to celebrate the holiday!

The PV starts out innocently enough with some Engrish-y instructions.

And we see some old faces practicing the choreography!

Shall we play a game?

Appropriately, Takahashi Minami's unnervingly blue eyes captain the game.

Notice how each letter type matches the surname of each idol?

Stepping up to the challenge is Player I Shinoda Mariko! Go Mariko!

Her opponent? The ball version of Sashihara Rino! Who will prevail? Let's see!

Mariko's doing well! She truly is-

Oh no. Well, it's just one hit, I'm sure she'll be fine!

Former idol and fashion model Shinoda Mariko just had her skull crushed. In an idol PV.

B-but... it's okay! Because Watanabe Mayu can win! She's won the Senbatsu!

Or not... holy shit.

Why do they have to show us up close and personal Mayuyu getting impaled from all sides!?

This game approaches death with the same cheerfulness of a Pokemon game.

Here comes Kojima Haruna... maybe she'll die mercifully and painlessly?

...that does not look merciful and painless.

That was not a merciful and painless death.

I scoffed at AKS choosing not to air this PV, but they might have had solid reasoning.

Somehow the unrealistic blood doesn't make Oshima Yuko's death any less painful-looking.

At least in the real world (or the not-game world), Maeda Atsuko's gaining self awareness!

Unfortunately, her game counterpart is getting impaled. In one of the nerviest places of the body too.

And shit's about to get real in three... two...

While the audience clutches their palms in pain, things look pretty awful for Acchan.

Luckily, Yuko is only mostly dead.

And because Yuko is just that awesome, she frees Acchan!

But the Big Bad Gaming System doesn't like that, and Yuko's about to be fully dead.

Honestly, nothing from here can top Haruna's endgame scene. Still, ouch.

But what's this!? Acchan's unplugged and back in the real world!

Naturally, she reacts like any sane person who got stabbed in the hand would.

So what does game!Acchan do? SHE RIPS HER FUCKING HAND OFF.

And then like the friendly idol version of the Terminator she gets a badass weapon!!!

And then she stabs the Big Bad Gaming System right back!!!

Then Jurina shows up and I'm not sure why and it's kind of pointless but at this point things are too awesome to even question that!

But look! They're breaking the game apart from the inside!

From here on, it's a gaming revolution. Everyone's breaking free!

Even the people who died in previous levels get new lives!

This is great! The game is off, everyone lives, and the players are all free from control!

...except Takamina.

But she can still be saved through the power of friendship!!

See? Yuko's alive and saving even more people because she's just that much of a quality person!

Damn right the game is over! And never to be played again!

With the last wire unplugged, the players are all free to go... somewhere! Back to the theater?

With one final kick, Yuko sends the last of the game literally bouncing off the walls.

Which leads to one final badass shot.

Now this is how you do a music video. I'm not saying that just because Beginner is violent and edgy. I know I have tendency to be biased toward those kinds of music videos... No, Beginner is an amazing music video because of it tells a story and it tells a story well. What do you need in any basic story? Conflict. You need a resolution to that conflict, and an exposition for it. Beginner has both, and with some excellent pacing, it has an excellent story. When I watched this video for the first time, I was invested. Did the plot make much sense? No. But that didn't matter because the stakes were raised so high that I was too busy wondering what would happen next. Watching this video for the first time is a shock to the system, especially if you go in not knowing what it's like and having a perception of AKB48 as an orthodox idol group. And while their 2014 music videos may lead you to believe that, Beginner is ruthlessly violent. Whenever one of the members died in this music video, it was like having the floor drop beneath my feet. Not because I didn't see the deaths coming, but because of how cold and merciless the deaths were.

And the deaths in Beginner are brutal. By idol standards, the manner in which some of the girls die is downright disturbing. I think without a doubt the worst one is Haruna's death. It would have been one thing to just slice her head off, but the bland cut right through the middle of her face. That simple shot of her body slumping to the floor with her upper head still above the blade made my stomach lurch. While Acchan may have avoided death, that closeup of her impaled hand made me squeamish too. Said squeamishness was only amplified when the PV cut back to the "real" world. Acchan's always been an iffy actress, but those screams gave me chillbumps. The deaths of Mariko, Mayuyu, and Yuko were hard-hitting too. Mayuyu's endgame was pretty gory too, even if the blood bursting out of her mouth was obviously synthetic. I can see why AKS decided not to include this music video with the single. I can't believe they even let the director of this PV get away with the concept. I'm happy they did though, otherwise we wouldn't have gotten this awesome PV.

The violence of Beginner isn't what solely makes this PV awesome. Like I said, Beginner has a tightly paced story. The conflict of this PV is engaging and makes the viewer root for the players of this twisted video game. The payoff comes from the turning point, when Acchan's hand gets impaled. From their is a chain of events: Yuko saves Acchan at the cost of her own life, Acchan goes unplugged, all climaxing into her game avatar ripping her hand off and growing a new weapon. From there, it's all uphill. Acchan defeats the game, with a little help from Jurina, and saves every other player who was plugged/enslaved into the game. The biggest payoff comes from Yuko hugging a still-plugged Takamina, thus breaking the last bit of control the game had. Watching the girls pull that last plug out is such a satisfying conclusion to the story. Then that last bit in the dance shot where Yuko kicks the ball and it ricochets around the room is like the cherry on top of the most deliciously violent sundae. Beginner is a violent wave of emotions and disturbing scenes, but that last shot makes the entire music video worth it.

Beginner not only has a great story but also a great atmosphere. I love sci-fi. Especially that sleek, polished looking sci-fi like the one used in Beginner. The setting of Beginner is simplistic, like an early-era video game, which I think makes the violence even more effective. I love the little touches the editors put into this music video. There's a lot of little things you need to pause to see, in both the text and the weapons. Like a lot of the opponents/monsters have the names of other AKB48 idols on them, like Sashihara Rino and Minegishi Minami. I'm not completely sure why they're in there, but touches like that only add atmosphere to the music video. The almost-cute cleanness of the music video also makes the deaths even more dissonant. Like when the text pops up saying "OMG!! Damage!!" It sounds so cheerful on text, which makes the violence even more nightmarish. And the girls all look amazing. The outfits for beginner match perfectly with the tone of the setting. I especially love the uncannily blue eye contacts the girls all wear in the "real" world.

To say I love the concept for Beginner is an understatement. I would watch a movie about this. Hell, I'd read a story. Someone novelize this music video! Beginner at heart tells a simple story that's been done in other media. But the execution and the fact that this is AKB48 we're seeing make that story stand out. The music video pulls no punches in showing violence (in fact, I think it held back considering how far it could have gone with some of the deaths). To see the Senbatsu of AKB48, who last music video were prancing around in lingerie singing about love, get so quickly disposed of is a huge shock. And that shock value makes Beginner an even greater music video. AKB48's always pushed the limit with some of their music videos in the past, like Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru and Keibetsu Shiteita Aijou. But Beginner was their first foray into science fiction, and it was a memorable one. I don't think AKB48 could ever replicate the same effect they had with Beginner. Considering the current state of the group, I don't even think I'd want them to. For me, Beginner's music video is the one that made me realize that AKB48 was more than just a generic idol group. They could be dark, they could be edgy, and they could make a damn fine music video.

Five freaking apples. One for each death in Beginner plus Acchan's impaled hand. And also because Beginner is an amazing song with an even more amazing music video. Beginner is definitely in my top 10 idol music videos. It's edgy, violent, and pushes boundaries for an idol group. Looking back on Beginner gets me nostalgic for the AKB48 that was... and makes me try to forget the AKB48 that exists now. Go watch Beginner if you haven't done so already and see what I mean.


  1. thank you!!!!
    this review is really amazing and brought a lot of details that i had missed. I already loved this song and PV and reading about it in your point of view it is great!!!
    Love the fun way you write!!!

    1. Thank you for the kind comment! Yeah, this is one of my favorite music videos so writing about it was a breeze!

  2. Excellent review of an excellent song, and one of my top 10 AKB48 releases. Amazing video aside, the music itself is governed by bold and unexpected key changes: A minor at the start, to F minor, then to a modal G sharp minor and back to F minor by means of a very beautiful and sophisticated transition at 'Dou ni ka naru sa/ Furui PEEJI wa yaburisutero'. Plus, there's the frequent use of the 'fate knocking at the door' motif which pervades Beethoven's 5th symphony. So much crammed into 4 minutes! With one or two exceptions, as far as recent AKB48 A-sides go, they don't write 'em like this any more, which is a great shame.

    1. Thank you! Beginner's right up there in my top 10 too, same goes for the music video! I can't use all those technological music terms, but you're absolutely right! Beginner is a wild ride from start to finish. It really is a pity they don't have songs like this anymore.