Atsushi Funabashi’s Raise Your Arms and Twist — Documentary of NMB48 depicts the strange and cutthroat world of idol competitions in Japan, revealing the inner workings of an industry that promises fame and opportunity for young Japanese women. Focusing on one super group of 60 members, the film works on a trajectory leading up to a yearly election that determines which idols move up in the ranks, and which ones are cast aside for the new generation. Loaded with philosophical insight and a reflective self-awareness that unveils the multitude of dissonant layers that are channeled through the strange world of Idol worship, Raise your Arms and Twist is a nuanced investigation of celebrity.
Supergroups like NMB48 represent the next wave of Japanese musical stardom and are often divided into two or three smaller groups so that daily performances do not become too much a strain on the young talent. Each member of the group has an acute awareness of their ranking and the implicit demands this hierarchy has on the role and expectations within the larger group. The most popular performers get the best spots on stage and solo showcases in music videos. In some cases, they will even have songs written for their personas. Talent certainly plays a role in this, but fandom counts more, as their ranking will be determined by an election process as voted by the fans.
Focusing on a group from Osaka rather than Tokyo unveils a more nuanced reality of the industry, offering a look from the outside. The highest ranked member from NMB48 will have opportunities to perform in Tokyo with larger supergroups, but they will be pushed right down to the bottom of the ranks, obscured by a haze of smoke in the back row. Most of these performers are under 20 years old and see this path as a means to a greater dream. As some hope for fame, others search to support their families, or as a means to other ambitions.
Among the girls, perhaps the most compelling subject, Ririka Sutou, treats the experience as an opportunity to become a philosopher. Her readings from Friedrich Nietzsche serve as counterpoints for the film, and her stray observations on the artificiality of life presents a new and unexpected direction. Thoughtful and driven in her unexpected dissonance, Ririka unveils the truth that exists in the artificial constructions of pop music. As she performs a song written for her called “Professor Nietzsche,” the director stops and tells the singer about her negative aura. She pauses and sheds a tear, but straightens up and reflects on the surrealism of happiness itself. As Ririka smiles and giggles, her inner truth remains elusive and the moment resonates deeply.
Funahashi’s filmmaking often veers into uncomfortable pauses that reach towards pregnant moments of reflection. They create a distance between subject and audience, breaking the spell of involvement and discounting the rags to riches fantasy, shifting away from dramatics focused on hopes and aspirations. Centered more on the microcosm of greater society and dialectics of power, entertainment and politics, the filmmakers showcase a clear and complete portrait of how the industry functions while taking on a precise and reflective point of view.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.