First Single Review: ‘Aitakatta-Gustong Makita’ by MNL48

The first single is an important milestone for every music group or artist. It is supposed to herald your “arrival” into the world, and make a lasting impression on the public. That’s why although not all debut singles or albums become smash hits, there is always an incentive to making it properly and “delivering the goods” so to speak.

As sisters to Japan’s AKB48 (who also happen to be the biggest Japanese idol group in terms of membership AND sales), there is an enormous pressure for MNL48 to deliver. And they would have to do that in a country that has yet to truly understand what a J-idol truly is for, as well as come to grips to a reality they’ve yet to experience.

Aitakatta-Gustong Makita‘ featured six tracks: three songs and their off-vocal versions. Besides the title track, the single includes ‘Talulot ng Sakura‘ (Sakura no Hanabiratachi), and the only Team song in this release, ‘Umiindak na Saya‘ (Skirt, Hirari). All three are localized versions of AKB48’s hits. And not just any hit, but their earliest songs, released back during the time the group was still fresh and has yet to hit their first million seller

Given that the group is hoped (or expected) to hit it big like the rest of its sisters, the choice of ‘Aitakatta’ seemed strange to me. It is without doubt an AKB classic, and one of the group’s “basic songs“, but it is hardly the song you’d want to market to a wide audience. It is only after some time that I warmed up to the idea because ‘Aitakatta’ is basically a song about “greeting” or “meeting” people.

The other tracks – ‘Sakura no Hanabiratachi’ and ‘Skirt, Hirari’ – are songs that I did not expect the average listener to like. Although all three have been performed perfectly by the senbatsu prior to release, I felt that using them was a big risk. I would say though, that even though ‘Skirt, Hirari’ was hardly my favorite AKB48 song, I can’t get enough of this version. The catch is that I’m a fan and as deep into the rabbit-hole as I have allowed myself to be, but who knows?

In my opinion, there are other songs that could have been used, had MNL48 Producer Paolo Kurosawa been going for a commercially successful first outing. So maybe what he was going for was making the first single a kind of “hello” to the fans. A greeting, and an invitation to support them. Or maybe I’m just overthinking it, and the songs were chosen at random.

The Shipping
Because MNL48 has its own “store” in the Hallohallo Mall, and pretty much all MNL48 merchandise purchases are directed through it, it is only fitting that we talk a little about how my order was processed. Please note that your experiences might differ.

This single’s release has been over-shadowed with issues, first, the actual release of the digital versions was pushed from August to October. Second, the actual shipping was supposed to have been done on the first week of October, marking another full week delay. And then, there were the unrelated issues like the ‘Aitakatta’ MV being over-filtered that some people have called it “unwatchable”.

Through it all, I am surprised to note that my transaction was very smooth. Because I no longer use a credit card, I opted for the 7-11 payment option and it was confirmed barely 30 minutes after I made it. People usually use their credit or debit card while making online purchases, but my experience tells me that doing so in the Hallohallo Mall can be an overly complicated matter.

I’m happy I didn’t encounter any issues with the payment, but it was the shipping that gave me headaches. For some reason, “first week” became “second week” with nary an explanation regarding the delay. This should improve, because all online purchases are funnelled towards the Hallohallo Mall, and delays are what hits an online store’s credibility. The excitement of being the first to receive a physical copy can be easily dampened by the delays.

In any case, I’m still excited to receive my copy. But I can’t speak for everyone.

The Review:
So now we get to the meat of this article: the review proper. In here we will talk about the physical state of the album, the design, the “inserts”, and later on, we’ll talk about the songs themselves.

The Package
The packaging of ‘Aitakatta-Gustong Makita’ looks like a small booklet. It reminded me of the free game demos that were inserted in game magazines. It looks cute, but I was concerned at how it houses the CD. After all is said and done, CD cases were preferred because it is supposed to protect the CD from scratches.

The CD itself is tucked on a tight pocket at the end of the booklet. It’s not loose so at least the CD doesn’t fall off easily. The only problem is that getting it out of the pocket is a chore.

The CD itself is unremarkable. The top side is colored blue with ‘MNL48’ on the top and the name of the single on the bottom.

But it is the sleeve – or in this case, the booklet – that is worth talking about. Fans have hoped that there is a random photo-card inserted inside. But I think HHE gave us something better. An actual booklet with a very brief history of MNL48, colorful pictures of the senbatsu, the teams, the lyrics (!), and messages from Producer Paolo Kurosawa, Overall Team Captain Alice, and incumbent Center Sheki.

The format feels like another “introduction” of sorts but it is perfect for a debut single. I especially liked the fact that the lyrics of all three songs are included.

Also, for anyone interested in the men and women behind AKB48 and MNL48, the booklet lists that relevant information. Yasushi Akimoto is listed as the “Total Producer” of both AKB48 and MNL48. Yasushi Kubota is AKB48’s Executive Producer.

But for me, the biggest info is that Nariaki Terada and Kazuya Sato, both from AKS, are listed as “Project Producer” with Paolo Kurosawa. Quite possibly a hint that AKS is more “involved” in MNL48 than I previously thought.

I am also surprised that some names that figured prominently in AKB48 history are listed as part of the MNL48 management. Junji Yuasa (the guy who announces the preliminary rankings in AKB48’s General Elections) is listed under Special Spport Sound Team. And AKB48’s costume designer Shinobu Kayano is also listed as part of MNL48’s Special Support Costume and Hair & Make-up Team.

The significance of these names are still beyond me at this point but it has me excited and made me give bonus points to this CD.

But who can forget the handshake ticket? In true AKB48 fashion, the single includes a ticket to what will be MNL48’s first handsake event. There are no dates on the ticket, but there is the serial number and some important reminders.

The Songs
Track 01 – Aitakatta-Gustong Makita
By the time I managed to listen to this track, I’ve already seen four live performances of this song by MNL48. The live version showcased the girls’ vocal abilities very well. The track, however, sounds like it was sung by a maximum of six people.

Sheki’s voice dominates the track, and while that is to be expected because she’s the center, there are moments when I felt the song feels like “Sheki and MNL48“. It is a good thing that Sheki has above average singing ability in that she can still dominate a group song and still satisfy fans enough to like the effort, but it doesn’t bode well in a line-up that features 16 members.

To be fair, ‘Aitakatta’ as a song doesn’t include a lot of harmonizations and this might have an effect in making chorus lines sound like they were being sung by one person. At least the “la la la la” part did sound like there were more than just one singing.

The localization seems to have worked just fine with this track as the adjustment period for our ears didn’t take as long as I thought it would be. But I find that it is easier to appreciate the localization better when you’ve seen the lyrics and listened to the track itself.

Track 02 – Talulot ng Sakura
MNL48’s first pop ballad is an early AKB48 song about graduations. First performed in the Fan-Meet, it employs deeper tagalog than ‘Aitakatta-Gustong Makita’. For starters, I haven’t really heard of ‘talulot’ being used in a conversation. This is one of those songs you’d wish that they would just use the original title, but it is what it is.

My first observation is that there seems to be auto-tune in some places. I don’t quite get the need for an auto-tune in a song that is clearly in the vocal range of its singers. The good news is that you’re likely to miss those spots if you’re not actively looking for them or your ear isn’t sensitive to auto-tune.

Filipinos are good ballad singers and ‘Talulot ng Sakura’ reinforces this image. It is the strongest track in terms of vocals in this single and it shows the girls’ vocal range better than the other two.

Looking at the lyrics, I can see that it reads like a poem. Trying to sing along feels like a challenge because a lot of the words used in the song aren’t exactly every-day usage for me. But it feels good to actually read the lyrics while listening to the track because now you get the whole picture.

Track 03 – Umiindak na Saya
I have a confession to make: AKB48’s “Skirt, Hirari” is not a favorite of mine. I just didn’t get the appeal, I guess. So I was very surprised when MNL48’s version stuck stubbornly stubbornly refused to stop playing in my head. A severe case of “Last Song Syndrome” that I haven’t really completely recovered from yet.

‘Umiindak na Saya’ reminds me of some Filipino folk songs for some reason. Quite strange as ‘Skirt, Hirari’ is a J-pop song through and through. But that’s how the song came to me. Unlike the other tracks, ‘Umiindak na Saya’ was sung by Team L, marking it as technically the first team song. This song has already done something positive for me as a 48 Group fan in that it became the bridge that allowed me to appreciate the original more.

I would say that the lyrics featured fairly easy to understand words unlike ‘Talulot ng Sakura’ where my mind had to work extra hard to keep up.

The Off-Vocals
The track also features off-vocal versions of the songs. It’s a feature that is the norm for J-idol CDs (although other artists have also used the format) and provides the fan with a clean instrumental versions of the songs.

There’s nothing much to remark here besides the tracks being basically the originals. There wasn’t really any need to re-record the music so if you already got the originals, there’s nothing new to see here.

A Nit-Pick:
I really have only one nit-pick. Since this is a “sousenkyo” single there was some expectation that the Under Girls and the Next Girls will receive their own songs as per standard in the 48 Group. That didn’t happen as two tracks were performed by the senbatsu, and one by Team L.

This is makes me feel that the debut single  isn’t a proper sousenkyo single and it also means that the Under Girls and the Next Girls wouldn’t get the chance at performing until the next single comes. But that is IF Kurosawa-san will even consider sticking to the AKB norm and not stick with his senbatsu for a whole year. So, despite this single being solid in terms of production values, there is a feeling that it isn’t as representative of the group as hoped, with barely a quarter of its total members participating. I’m not insinuating that it isn’t, but that it feels that way to this fan, at least.

The Bottom-line:
I really want this group to succeed, and I was silently dreading the day their single will be released. I was face-palming during each delay and issues that came up the last two months. But this single proves that the Japanese Idol concept can work in the Philippines.

It is not the ground-breaking single that will magically bring in millions of fans to the group (and revenue to the management). But it is a ground-breaking single not just because it is the first but because the over-all package itself is well-done. The booklet format is a pleasant surprise, the colorful pictures of the members a most welcome addition, and the messages by Kurosawa-san, MNL48 Group Captain Alice, and the first center Sheki are priceless and rank as one of my most important mementos from the group.

MNL48’s first single ‘Aitakatta-Gustong Makita’ is a solid effort and a quality product worthy of a place in the collection of any fan – wota or otherwise. Whatever you may think of J-Pop idols, this single is a good first product of what I hope to review more in the future.

See you there!

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