When back in 2005 record producer Yasushi Akimoto held auditions for the first generation of AKB48 idols, not many thought of this as the beginning of a groundbreaking social phenomenon in the history of Japanese music. Thirteen years later, however, AKB48 consists of over 100 members who, with a long list of achievements — including over 56 million records sales — have forever changed Japan’s music industry. The AKB48 concept of “idols we can meet” caught fans’ hearts a long time ago, and as time has proven, has never let them go.
AKB48’s talent, however, is certainly not limited to their idol activities. Members have also appeared in Japanese TV dramas and films, while some have also built successful careers as business women or fashion icons. Without further ado, let’s have a look at some of the former key members’ careers over the years — as well as their best on-screen performances so far!
1. Atsuko Maeda in Eating Women (食べる女), 2018
“Acchan,” as she is best known among fans, became a member of the first generation AKB48 idols at the age of just 14 in 2005 and is, to date, considered one of the most prominent talents to have emerged from the group. Her natural demeanor and talent won her reputation among fans and group members, leading her to the top in the group’s “popularity elections” for several years. Maeda was the center idol in a number of the group’s leading singles, including “Iiwake Maybe,” “Ponytail to Shushu” and “Flying Get.” She launched her acting career while still a member and continued acting even after her graduation from the group in 2012. In Eating Women she plays a career woman who despite having the perfect boyfriend, needs more to fulfill her life. Maeda co-stars real-life husband, actor, Ryo Katsuji, in the same movie — another reason to watch it!
2. Yuko Oshima in Romance(ロマンス), 2015
A constant rival to Atsuko Maeda, Yuko Oshima is another AKB48 key member that emerged from the group hugely successful. She joined AKB48 as a second generation member in 2006, quickly rising to popularity. She placed among the top two in the AKB48 popularity elections from 2009 to 2013, winning over Maeda once in 2010. This earned Oshima the center position in the group’s mega hit “Heavy Rotation.” Oshima graduated from AKB48 in 2014 at a time when she had already established an impressive acting career on the side. In Romance, she plays a train cabin crew who meets a man that helps her deal with several unresolved personal issues that have kept her from moving on in life.
3. Mariko Shinoda in Real Onigokko(リアル鬼ごっこ), 2015
Mariko Shinoda joined AKB48 in a rather odd twist of fate, quite luckily for her fans. After failing to pass the first audition in 2005, Shinoda landed a part-time work at the AKB48 theater, through which she became popular among fans and supporters. To show their appreciation, they began submitting Shinoda’s name on handwritten ballots for the group’s weekly popularity polls, which caught producer Akimoto’s attention. He offered Shinoda a second chance, which she gladly took. Shinoda later became a core member of the group, and one of the most popular ones to date. Following her graduation from the group in 2013, she launched a successful model and acting career and even founded her own clothing brand. In the spine-chilling horror Real Onigokko, we witness another side of Shinoda — in addition to her impressive acting skills.
4. Rina Kawaei in For Love’s SAKE(恋のしずく), 2018
Rina Kawaei’s AKB48 career lasted for only five years from 2010 until 2015, but it opened a number of professional roles for her especially in the acting world. Today she is one of the best rising acting stars in Japan with multiple leading roles behind her covering a variety of genres both in film and TV dramas. In For Love’s Sake, Kawaei plays a city girl who’s sent to countryside Japan to learn about the craft of making the nation’s alcoholic drink. This happens much to her dislike, but while her learning journey begins unwillingly, the more people she meets the more she begins to appreciate the craft. Kawaei pulls up a hats off performance, certainly one of her very best so far.
5. Haruka Nakagawa in The Brat!(くそガキの告白), 2012
Known today as the “most famous Japanese person in Indonesia,” Nakagawa is another former AKB48 member whose career took a very unexpected turn for the better. The singer joined the idol group at the age of 14 in 2006 as the third generation AKB48, but it wasn’t until 2012 when she was transferred to Indonesia to join JKT48, the recently founded overseas sister group of the Akihabara sensation. Nakagawa’s friendliness and positivity, as well as her willingness to support her fellow members as an older sister-figure, earned her enormous popularity in Indonesia. Following her graduation from the group in 2016, she launched a solo singing and acting career. In The Brat! she plays a rather minor but significant role in the coming-of-age comedy based on the experiences of a young Japanese film director.
More than just national idols, AKB48’s members have proven to the world that their talents are versatile and their ambitions high. And while we’ve already seen some of their best performances, we can’t help but feel excited about what they’re yet to show us!
Text by Rose Haneda