By the middle of next year I will be able to say that I’ve come to known three distinct versions of Hello! Project.
It was around this time five years ago, in the final weeks of the summer of 2009, that I had unexpectedly become a fan of this particular company of Japanese idols. Fueled by a vague sense of familiarity with some of its faces, I found myself hungry and eager to indulge in the many years’ worth of silly TV appearances, huge discography of strangely-crafted pop music, and overwhelming roster history, essentially playing catch-up to all the things I missed out on, driven by a weird bout of fake nostalgia for something I never actually experienced. This is the first version of H!P that I knew, the version that Japan once loved but was long gone by the time I had (re)discovered and accepted it, the version that drew me in to become a fan in the first place.
My official entry into the fandom was marked by the shock surrounding Koharu Kusumi’s graduation announcement, which eventually led to learning to love what was left of H!P at the time: an older and more refined Morning Musume roster that struggled to escape the shadows of both their predecessors and another idol company that was finally hitting its stride… the dichotomy of the H!P Kids groups, one establishing itself as a long-term stable act with anime tie-ins and overseas appearances just as the other was recovering from the loss of two members… and the rise of five promoted
Trainees Eggs, one a soloist (and so far the last H!P has seen) and budding actress, the other four coming together as a strange new group claiming to have “the freshest legs”. This is the second version of H!P that I knew, the version I bonded over with other remaining fans through a rough patch and subsequent renaissance, the version that further defined and shaped my fandom identity and experience.
It’s now the latter half of 2014, and the transition out of that second version–and into a new era–has already begun.
After last year’s false start, the Morning Musume 12th generation audition was restarted again this year, and this time around we actually got ourselves some winners! Of course, the real surprise isn’t that we have winners this time but rather the actual winners themselves versus the many names that were rumored to be amongst the finalists and anticipated to move on. I personally can’t complain about the results; the past few auditions have taught me to trust Tsunku and management to make the right draft picks for the long haul, and these new girls do show a lot of great potential: the two
Eggs Trainees, Akane “Lady” Haga and Maria “Maria” Makino, have obvious experience with how H!P works, and Haruna Ogata (wait, another Haruna???) has a bit of a goofball vibe. The standout pick for me, though, is Mikitty Miki Nonaka: already possessing a charming smile that may one day rival Zukki’s, she also has instant international appeal, having lived IN AMERICA in the past and thus showing off English fluency! Such a pick for 12th gen carries some heavy implications on the direction H!P marketing may be heading in the coming years.
As for those who didn’t make it in, whether they actually were finalists or not, for all we know the more popular/standout members of H!P’s minor league could be getting the Karin Miyamoto treatment, kept from joining existing groups with the long-term plan of placing them in their own spotlight later on. And H!P will probably need them to step up their games soon, because while new talents are now being thrust into the spotlight, a bit of the old guard is undergoing some major shakeups…
With a Budokan concert and heavy involvement in what has become a very well-received and hyped musical in Lilium under their belts, the young group once known for having “the freshest legs” seemed to finally be on the rise this year. So what do they do? The most logical plan, of course: announce plans for new members and a name change! S/mileage’s second generation have definitely come into their own over the years while still maintaining the charm of their early days (seriously, is there anyone more adorably insane than Meimi Tamura?), and being sempai to new blood could be interesting. Still, the call for a name change, coupled with the fact that it was Dawa and Maro themselves who approached management with this whole idea, makes you wonder just how long the remaining members of the original four plan on sticking around. It’s a shame as well, because I was all set to follow S/mileage as my new #2 H!P group next year due to…
The icon of idol stability, the H!P Kids’ magificent seven, the one group with all the freakishly tall members and really weird names and songs…the very reason why I’m still in this fandom today. Many fans were anticipating it, some were maliciously wishing for it for some reason, and now it’s happening: Berryz Kobo will
disband go on hiatus come spring of 2015. Being an idol is tough work, and spending your entire childhood in the spotlight can make you really ponder on what else there is for life and the world to offer, so it’s definitely understandable that the members of Berryz would want more space from each other to do their own things, and admittedly the spark they once had in their younger years isn’t quite there anymore. Regardless of what you think of them now, the news is still sad considering their longevity and influence on other groups–they’re your favorite idols’ favorite idols. Questions still remain, though, as there has yet to be any word on individual H!P graduations, so it’ll be interesting to see who sticks around and who leaves to get married and/or go into hiding. Will Yurina become the greatest supermodel to rule the runways? Will Momochi still be Momochi in 20 years? Is Miyabi finally heading for the glue factory? Hell, Airi Suzuki is still around, so Buono could still be a thing in the near future (though I would definitely love to see them switch up their style of rock).
Finally, there’s the fate of our dear beloved glorious supreme leader. With the type of idol mastery only she could bring after 11 years in the game, she faked out her own graduation announcement at the end of the 2013 autumn tour, only to announce the real deal this past April. It was another long-anticipated development that still felt shocking when it finally happened, but she’s finishing on a high note and leaving both Morning Musume and H!P in very good hands. I’ll be speaking more on her in a later post, because she deserves more than this.
Hello! Project is indeed in a state of transition right now, and the coming year is both exciting and scary…but that’s just the nature of the biz. It’s fun to see new members come out of left field and make a name for themselves, but it’s also a reminder to enjoy your established favorites while you still can.
And on that note, I’ll catch y’all in NYC this weekend…