WE CAN BE REBORN ALL THE TIME Oops, wrong idol group.
It’s safe to say that my entry into H!P fandom was burdened by some horribly awkward timing. Not only had I just missed out on Morning Musume’s big Los Angeles appearance by a few months, but I came around at a time when many were ready to start digging the grave for this once-prominent idol group collective. The Elder Club had just graduated, meaning most of the girls that sparked my initial interest were long gone by the time I showed up. Their weekly TV show had been cancelled just a year before, meaning no more new chances at memorable moments like the ones done in years past. Their former “home away from home” in Utaban no longer respected them, preferring to dwell in ancient history instead. Momusu’s new songs of the time were an acquired taste: they were good, but sounded too much like each other and clearly lacked the instant spark of the classics. And fans were slowly but steadily jumping ship, some running off to the emerging South Korean scene, others to another idol family called AKB48 that was starting to gain momentum that year.
Throw in the graduation announcement of Koharu Kusumi, one of the more visible and marketable members of that era (and whose recent smack talk I may or may not address in a future write-up), and it’s no surprise that the end felt like it was near. Did I really become a fan at the worst possible time? Was I meant to come full circle in time to witness the collective’s final attempts at relevance?
I’m kinda skipping ahead from where I left off in my introduction entry; perhaps someday I’ll go into more detail on my initial struggle to decide whether the H!P Kids acts were worth paying attention to (which turned out to be a long adventure in itself), or my botched attempts to see Ai Kago in person, or how I was crazy enough to book a last-minute road trip just to see an hour-long movie featuring a new H!P singer I barely knew anything about. But amidst the buzz surrounding Morning Musume’s 52nd single, right now seems like a really good time to focus on an ongoing notion amongst fans that had haunted my first 2 1/2 years in the fandom and still lingers even today: the alleged “death” of Morning Musume and Hello! Project.
In retrospect, 2010 seemed like a pretty dark time for H!P. Dwindling sales, decreasing relevance in the home market despite increasing international presence, and to top it all of, the dreaded triple graduation of key Momusu personalities being announced for the end of that year. Even I was showing some skepticism despite still being in the middle of my “honeymoon” phase, having found the latter two of Momusu’s three singles that year to be a bit boring. Yeah, it was easy to write them off, but even then declaring “death” seemed like a ridiculous, overexaggerated assessment of the situation. After all, the announcement of the triple grad was also accompanied by the start of the first new member auditions in years…and when those auditions were over, we ended up with four new girls who would then proceed to breathe some brand new life into this supposedly troubled group. Management was clearly making moves, but it wasn’t enough for some people. Plus seeing four middle-school-aged girls suddenly join in after years of an older, more mature roster had to be pretty jarring for a few people to handle, even if it was a necessary change after a long period of complacency.
2010 may have been the low point, but 2011 was the real test, with even more eventful shakeups along the way. Ai Takahashi, the longtime leader and face of the group who had become my all-time favorite member, had announced her plans to leave the group by the end of the year. Despite the freshness of the 9th generation, the new songs still weren’t making much of an impact, both in sales and quality…and their freshness would be short-lived with the sudden announcement of yet another new member audition. Elsewhere in H!P, new group S/mileage was experiencing its own trials, with their own new member audition followed up by the sudden departures of two of its founding members. Berryz Kobo made their first public appearance on the US mainland and managed to gain some traction at home thanks to the advent of Momochi, though they still weren’t lighting the world on fire. C-ute and Erina Mano started off the year hot but seemed to peter off as time went on, and Buono’s experimental album was met with a polarized reception. Still, whether you loved or hated what was going on, there’s no denying that H!P wasn’t giving up just yet, their determination summed up with a brand new show called Hello! Pro Time and an immediate post-Takahashi collaborative effort by collective-wide supergroup Mobekimasu.
Ironically, I started experiencing my own cracks in my fandom around this time, despite admiring this new offense-oriented approach. After all, my beloved Ai-chan had just left and I couldn’t afford to fly to Japan to see her off in person. I also had made a tough decision not to see Berryz Kobo in Seattle, a decision I immediately regretted shortly after. Personal issues in the real world prevented me from keeping up with the 10th gen auditions and HPT episodes. The new music releases at the beginning of 2012 weren’t exciting enough for me to really give a shot (although admittedly I wasn’t as offended by Momusu’s chicken outfits as most fans were), and I was still having trouble becoming attached to the most recent batch of rookies. Even clips of old favorite moments no longer held my interest, having seen them way too many times already by that point. To top it all off, Risa Niigaki had suddenly announced her intentions to graduate just as I was warming up to her a bit more. My honeymoon phase was officially over…but I too wasn’t quite ready to give up just yet, not without giving things one last shot in a small town called Somerset, New Jersey.
Honestly, I don’t know how influenced I was by the emotional high I experienced on that trip, but it felt like I came back loving H!P more than ever at just the right time, because it suddenly seemed like they were on fire with every new release! The Berryz/C-ute mashup “Cho Happy Song” seemed like a stroke of genius and the perfect way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the H!P Kids. “Song for the Date” turned out to be one of Manoeri’s best songs to date (see what I did there?). A pair of already catchy-as-hell Thai pop songs were made even more infectious with Berryz going the international cover route again. I finally managed to get a proper appreciation of adorable insanity in the form of S/mileage’s Meimi Tamura. And C-ute…well, it was great to see them break their own sales records twice in a row, plus they’ve grown up to become a set of amazingly hot and drool-worthy performers. If the second half of 2010 was a horrible time to be a H!P fan, the second half of 2012 was definitely an awesome time to be one.
Of course, let’s not forget about H!P’s real bread-and-butter act. It turned out that losing Gaki (and sadly, Aika as well) became a blessing in disguise; with the focus on Momusu now on all the new members just in time for the 50th single, it only made sense that a strong promotional push was needed to not only celebrate a milestone, not only help Japan become reacquainted with its former #1 idol group, but also to state the obvious: Morning Musume is not only not dead, they’re in fact more alive than ever. And they struck hard with a vengeance: “One Two Three” was a straight-up banger and instant classic as a song itself, and also managed to become the group’s biggest hit in almost a decade…and to prove that this was no fluke, they followed it up with yet another new member audition (with an unexpected way of revealing the winner) and another high-selling, high-quality track in “Wakuteka Take a Chance”. Throw in some international handshake events and greater internet presence, and you can see that Morning Musume did more than just survive…they’ve reloaded.
I think that’s what I’ll refer to this new Morning Musume from now on. Many fans have taken to labeling Kaori Iida’s time as a member as the “Golden Era”, and the Ai-chan/Gaki leadership period as “Emo Musume” or “Platinum Era”, with this current post-Gaki lineup being the “Colorful Era” in honor of the 13th album’s title. But personally I think “Reloaded” is a better term, because that’s pretty much what they did when things were becoming stale and looking grim: they reloaded with new members and a new focus. Plus I like to think the phrase “Morning Musume Reloaded” is reminiscent of “Matrix Reloaded”, because just like those Matrix sequels, these newer girls have been getting a lot of undeserved flack from older fans for not having the same kind of buzz and prominence as their legendary predecessors, despite being worthy of their own newer legacy and appreciation.
Two years ago, shortly after the 9th generation was introduced, I made a post at a forum contemplating the timing of my entry into this fandom, wondering if I picked a bad time to become a fan but concluding that I had in fact probably picked a great time instead. Now, on the eve of what looks to be a continuation of Momusu’s current hot streak, it feels good to know I’ve been validated…and giving this validation even more weight is how I had to sit through a “bad” period beforehand, because going through a bit of suffering first helped make witnessing the comeback all the more sweeter.
On second thought, please don’t actually call it a comeback. They’ve been here for years.