Title: AKB49 - Renai Kinshi Jourei
Author & Artist: Reiji Miyajima
Stop me if you have heard this before: wanting to impress his dream girl, a boy cross-dresses to audition for female idol group AKB48's 12th generation Kenkyusei squad, which consists essentially of hopeful trainees. He gets in, and for love-lorn reasons, continues to cross-dress and perform as a Kenkyusei member, in center position no less. Apparently, as foreshadowed in the very first pages of the manga, he eventually becomes the legendary 49th addition to AKB. Hence the title.
No, I don't think I got flagged down once in that entire description.
This crack-tastic premise doesn't betray how utterly generic the manga turns out to be, when you get down to it. In fact, everything aside from what happens in the manga itself boggles the mind. As in, What Demographic Does It Actually Appeal to? I know intellectually that AKB49 runs in Weekly Shounen Magazine, (alongside Fairy Tail, make of that what you will,) but I would be hard-pressed to find a teenage boy reading a story about a teenage boy becoming an idol, much less one of the female persuasion. In this sense AKB49 fits with the shoujo catalogue, but I would also be hard-pressed to find a teenage girl who enjoys reading about a boy becoming a female idol in the context of fanservice.
This is one for the built-in fanbase, then.
Which brings me to how I came to read this manga. I thought it would be a guide, of a sort, to a subculture of Japan that I have yet to be introduced to. I was morbidly curious, even though that way often lies madness. Well, I didn't know some of the things mentioned in this manga, the most fascinating of which being the "handshake events," where fans line up to shake hands with group members, but by and large, if you want something remotely educational, then you'd better move along, nothing to see here, no sirree.
This is because somehow I doubt that Japan's idol industry is so welcoming to inexperienced newcomers, and generally operates on shounen logic, by which I mean oozing cheese out of its ears. A girl in a crisis of identity? One inspirational comment from a guy then back on her feet she goes. The most popular girl in AKB? Of course she notices the talent-questionable but hard-working newbie. Industry veterans and seasoned audience? Be moved by the sheer power of their commitment. Desperate last minute popularity bid? A sensational and quirky resounding success. AKB49 plays straight every cliche in the handbook, resulting in a less than accurate portrayal of the struggle behind the curtains. For that, go read something like Solanin, because there's no place for level-headed reflection on life in a shounen magazine these days.
What's there, is passion. Underdog sports shounen offerings and underdog idol's climb to the top have this in common, the passion. And underneath the rampant abuse of tropes and behind the flashes of panties, I could sense no malice, only a breathtaking sincerity. The attraction is not "everything a girl can do a guy can do it better," or merely bouts of inane bravado followed by watching pretty girls dance to their amusement, and even if it is, I choose to see its better sides. The attraction, for me, is that when I read AKB49 and root for Minori, I forget that Minori is Minoru, a boy.
The message is that gender ultimately does not matter, that any person following their dream is beautiful and worth watching. Granted, I do not think AKB49 is being subversive by conscious choice, the stereotypes such as the grating-on-my-last-nerve tsundere and the blandly attractive love interest would suggest differently. I would posit, though, that AKB49 has made well-worn tropes into the vehicle for more progressive thinking, despite its own host of frankly crippling issues. What's that you say, substance? Have you not been paying attention at all?
Edit, because I realize I have been making assertions that I haven't defended: Except for one dumb fanservice moment where Minoru is horribly conflicted about sleeping next to his crush who's looking as vulnerable as possible, AKB49 hasn't exploited the gender bender angle. (There's no changing room shenanigans, and he gets groped by a girl, how about that for role reversal?) And both Minori and Minoru are liberal blushers, display the same tenacity and rashness, because dear writers, that's a good look on both genders and not just your male protagonists. This is actually more progressive than certain gender bender manga and shows where the main conflict is "she's in an all-male boarding school, oh my god" which invariably entails small boobs jokes and aggressive behavior and forcing the girl to strip and her being rescued by a boy. Not that I would know, much.
An aspect where AKB49 is unabashedly shoujo: Minoru's growth as a freaking idol is marked with emotional maturity and not the acquisition of a new move. AKB49 can also verge into naivete: being perceived as a girl isn't constricting or liberating; it just means Minoru can be close to and more supportive of the person he loves.
(All well and good, but really, come for the experience, stay for the art. It can verge into inconsistent, but boy are the outfits gorgeous.)