Coming back from an unexpected hiatus to comment on another unexpected hiatus, yes?
2015 has been a pretty eventful year for Hello! Project, and I would love to comment on all the big things that have happened, such as Tsunku stepping down as producer due to cancer complications, or the Great YouTube Reddening, or saying one last goodbye to Berryz, or DID YOU SEE ZUKKI IN “OH MY WISH” HOLY FUCK SHE LOOKS SO GOOD…or finally get around to a series of posts I had planned relating to Sayu and last year’s New York concert. Instead, I’m here to talk about an upcoming graduation (!) that is bound to leave many folks heartbroken and questioning the direction and future of the group that she’s leaving.
Sadly, this won’t be about Kanon Fukuda, who had announced her graduation earlier this year and will be leaving
S/mileage Angerme in a few weeks. “But who’s better than Kanyon?” you might ask, whether or not you intended to invoke memories of the late WWE/WCW superstar Chris Klucsarits. This, to the surprise of everyone, is actually about a 9th generation Morning Musume member. AND NO IT’S NOT ZUKKI YOU HEARTLESS PRICK
On October 30th, 2015, Riho Sayashi shook the idol world by announcing her intention to graduate from Morning Musume at the end of this year.
I’m just as shocked as you are, especially with how soon her last day with the group is relative to the announcement. I mean, why so soon? Aren’t we supposed to be given a longer heads up nowadays so
Up Front can milk our wallets dry with merchandise we could have more time to come to terms and emotionally prepare? And why is the group’s ace leaving while the group’s current momentum is still hot, and just as she herself is about to become legal hit her idol prime? This suspiciously fast-tracked process raises a lot of questions and is bound to confuse and frustrate many a fan. And yet, as the news brewed in my mind for the rest of that day, I thought about the official statements given, the observations made by other fans, and some of the things Hello! Project has done during her tenure, and I had come to the conclusion that this could actually be the start of something really big and interesting.
Let’s rewind for a bit: way back in the ancient year of 2012 (sounds crazy, right?) Aika Mitsui announced her graduation from the group, effective mere weeks after the fact, owing to her chronic foot injury problems. She did not, however, graduate from Hello! Project, as had been the case with several preceding Momusu graduations. She would then later announce her intentions to travel overseas and study English, eventually spending time in New Zealand and coming back with a solid grasp of the language; she now works as a reporter for Up Front Link, the company’s English-language international promotion division.
Riho, being not only the star of the show but also an incredible dancer who gives her all each and every night, is likely no stranger to injury herself. From sciatic neuralgia during her rookie year to an unexpected leave of absence during part of this year’s summer tours, one has to wonder if she just might be pushing herself a bit too hard to keep up the pace. Like Aika, she is leaving Morning Musume but not H!P, again a strange circumstance given other recent graduations having been a departure from both. And in her statements, Riho has said that she is strongly considering going overseas and learning English. Could she be following the same path as Aika?
Despite the current conflict regarding YouTube Red and Up Front videos being unaccessible for Americans, the company has made it clear over the past few years that H!P is aiming for a worldwide audience. From last year’s Momusu concert in New York to this year’s conception of the all-English song “One and Only”; from the arrival of Miki “I LIVED IN AMERICA FOR 8 YEARS” Nonaka to Aika
being temporarily sentenced to Mordor going to New Zealand; from the many awkward subtitles being added to new music videos to the establishment of Up Front Link itself…all signs point to this quest continuing. What if Riho Sayashi turns out to be the next big step in this plan? Past attempts by H!P to bring some international flavor into the fold, whether to appear worldly to Japanese audiences or to directly appeal to potential foreign customers, had been relegated to side gimmicks (Coconuts Musume and Minimoni) and “lesser” members such as new girl Miki or, as it eventually turned out, all of 8th gen Momusu. Now imagine if H!P sent their current golden child on a hero’s quest to combine all this international experience with her own star power! It would be like when LeBron James ran off to the Miami Heat to level himself up before going back to the Cleveland Cavs! (except I wanted LeBron to stay with Miami, just because of how fucking stupid the backlash against him was when he was there…but that’s another story altogether)
These attempts by the company to reach beyond Japan had to have been quite the learning experiences for them, experiments in themselves on how to survive the current J-idol market, testing the resolve of the H!P brand. But it’s not just with this outreach that H!P has been experimenting, as the previous Momusu single shows: “Oh My Wish” not only pushed longtime buttmonkey Kanon Suzuki to the forefront AGAIN HOLY CRAP DID YOU SEE HOW BEAUTIFUL SHE WAS ON THE COVER AND IN THE MUSIC VIDEO MY GOD, it also silenced Riho completely, assigning her to a non-singing dance division with Mizuki, Erina, and Ayumi for that particular song’s music video and live performances. Another song on that single, the aptly-titled “Ima Sugu Tobikomu Yuuki”, similarly had Riho taking a backseat to a couple well-known-but-still-not-ace members. The single seemed like a test to see how a new lineup configuration could fly, and with its subsequent success, management probably now has enough faith in the rest of the group to allow a bit of a shake-up. This past year has already been a test to see how well H!P can fare without Tsunku calling the shots; can Morning Musume ’16 survive without their longtime star? Perhaps a new ace within the ranks is already waiting to rise, and if Riho’s time is up, this girl’s time is now.
AND HER NAME IS JOHN CENA
Beyond the concerns of Morning Musume and Hello! Project, I also feel for Riho as an individual. She’s been performing on stage for almost her entire life, coming up from Actors School Hiroshima and being thrust into a very important role for an idol group many had written off as “dead”. Getting all this pressure thrown upon you as a teenager has to be tough, and being a Japanese idol is a non-stop job, so I can’t blame her for needing a breather, especially if it’s taking a toll on both her physical and mental well-being. And I can’t help but feel excited for her if going overseas to learn English and further her dance craft really is her plan. Rather than the standard New Zealand vacation that Aika and earlier member Makoto Ogawa went for, Riho could instead opt for the United States, home of prime time TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew, and immerse herself with the top-tier dancers and teachers of the world’s biggest media market. Maybe she’s still embarrassed by “Watsugozara Kamozaland” becoming a thing, or how she completely flubbed her English intro at last year’s New York concert (whereas most of the group managed their English lines comparatively well), so learning English properly could be a hurdle that she’s determined to conquer. There’s also been a lot of issue about her weight, as she may feel insecure about having a few extra pounds in the image-conscious J-idol industry, so it might bode well for her to explore cultures where one doesn’t necessarily have to be delicately stick-thin to be considered “healthy”. (plus she can clearly see how her buddy Kanon gets treated SERIOUSLY ISN’T IT AWESOME HOW ZUKKI CONQUERED THAT ISSUE EVEN IF JUST FOR A BRIEF PERIOD HOLY SHIT SHE LOOKED AMAZING)
And again, regardless of what Riho’s actual plan is for 2016, she’s still going to remain on the official H!P roster. She will still have a home to come back to when all is said and done, and whatever role awaits her when she comes back will be very interesting to see. There’s no reason to worry about her completely disappearing on us, even though it’s gonna be weird to see her as an independent entity from the group she fronted for the past 5 years.
Of course, that part still hurts. The fact that her time in Morning Musume is coming to an end so abruptly is such a strange, crazy thing to think about and accept, and it’s especially sad to see Momusu’s 9th generation, who at this point may have possibly surpassed the 4th as my favorite generation, get broken up so soon. To invoke the Miami Heat again, it would be like if that team suddenly lost franchise face Dwyane Wade…and just like I wrote two years ago, Riho is definitely the Dwyane Wade of Momusu and H!P. Of course, I also mentioned Monta Ellis as part of that same analysis, and just as the Golden State Warriors needed to dump Ellis in order to give rising star Stephen Curry a chance to shine, Momusu too may need to make room for their own Curry equivalent to take over and lead them to the next level. Until then, we still have just short of two months left at the time of this writing, and everyone involved, from the fans throughout the world to the girls themselves, should try to make the most of Riho’s presence while she’s still present.
In the previous entry I talked about a new era for Hello! Project beginning this year as several key figures of the old guard were on their way out. We have certainly seen some notable ups and downs in 2015 to ring in this new era, and 2016 is certainly shaping up to be chock full of its own share of mystery and excitement that I’ll be doing my best to witness and take in.
(this would be the part where I’d throw in a certain Tsunku image macro, but sadly he’s not calling the shots anymore
so who do we blame now when shit like this happens)