There’s a weird clash of values inherent in watching foreign films. I’m not from Japan. I’ve been to Japan once, and I was very lucky to go, but I don’t feel like I understand it any better than I did before I went. Take for instance RAISE YOUR ARMS AND TWIST, DOCUMENTARY OF NMB48: a feature length examination of celebrity and the individual, not unlike NEVER SAY NEVER or PART OF ME.
Only NMB48 are a 60 member strong girl group who perform daily shows to their devoted adult male fanbase. As there’s no time to cover them all, the movie follows an aspiring philosopher, a hard working back bencher, the de facto leader, and the rivalry between two girls seen as coming up through the group.
Working hard isn’t a value quite the same way as it is in North America. Work isn’t something you do at work and then something you do at home in hopes of not having to work later in life. Work is the euphemism used to refer to pretending to be happy when being crushed by overwhelming sadness. Working hard is the only thing you do, and you do it with no expectation of reward.
These girls are ground to a miserable paste over and over again by the pressures of being the scrappy underdog 48 group. (Did you know there’s like six of these things? What the heck! They have staged fights like it’s professional wrestling. Only the fights are pretty much all fightin’ words with some fightin’ dance moves thrown in.) They have to campaign to gain fans so that they can win the privilege of shaking thousands of hands in a day (100 every 20 minutes if you’re the favourite of all 60.)
And the weirdest part of all is that no one in front of the camera or behind seems to ever doubt what they’re doing. Japan has achieved the cultural and societal homogeny that the doctors in RAT FILM sought. Everyone does one thing. Everyone believes one thing. If you question it, you don’t do so publicly. And you never do it in front of a camera.
I get the feeling Jon Chu knew how messed up NEVER SAY NEVER was. You don’t put brazen antisemitism in a movie about Justin Bieber without knowing what you’re doing. But time and again, girls are torn apart by directors, neglected by fans, and made into miserable, beautiful shells of who they were. And the movie just accepts it.
The acceptance of these casual horrors is the real dissonance. Atsushi Funahashi said in a video introduction to the film that he wanted to show the unstaged world of idols, warts and all. But the warts aren’t among the idols. They’re in the audience, behind the cameras, on the other side of the vocal booth glass. And they’re covered up at best or ignored at worst.
The documentary footage purports to get closer to these girls. It’s presented in the more verité aspect ratio of 16:9 within the film’s spectacular 2.35:1 presentation of the songs and performances. But it’s a staged closeness. Because as much as Funahashi wants to get behind the scenes, he’s still only interested in the narrative these girls are meant to play out.
They work. They cry. They’re rewarded. No one asks why. TWO AND A HALF STARS