Last week, Morning Musume celebrated its 20th anniversary. Given that I’ve been a fan for twelve of those years, I thought I’d take a look back at the group’s changes during this period and recall my own ups and downs as a fan and reactions to those changes. First, a little history. Back in 1997, pop singer-songwriter Tsunku staged a contest on the talent show, “ASAYAN,” to find a female vocalist for his band, Sharam Q. A young lady named Michiyo Heike won, but Tsunku was so impressed with the five runners-up that he rehearsed a song with them, took them into the studio and recorded them singing it (“Ai no Tane”). He then instructed them to sell 50,000 copies of it in a week and if they succeeded he’d give them a recording contract and manage them. The rest, as they say, is history. Those five girls, Yuko Nakazawa, Aya Ishiguro, Kaori Iida, Natsumi Abe and Asuka Fukuda, became Morning Musume and Michiyo Heike became a sad footnote in J-pop history, never once recording a song with Sharam Q, but reduced to doing a few solos at MM concerts and releasing a handful of singles.
I became a Morning Musume/Hello! Project fan on Monday, August 29, 2005, twelve years ago today, after watching a VHS tape of the Hello! Project 2004 Winter “C’MON! Dance World” concert that I’d picked up on a whim while looking for anime tapes in HQ Video, a New York Japanese video store. It was the first time I’d ever heard any MM/H!P songs and after hearing “Go Girl! Koi no Victory” (above) and “Ai Araba, It’s All Right” (below), I was hooked.
Cut to 2017, when it has become a rather trying time to be a fan of Hello! Project. On one hand, there are many talented young ladies sprinkled among the six major groups in H!P and an abundance of enjoyable new songs coming out from them. The concerts I’ve seen from this year have all been wonderful and are ripe for multiple viewings: C-ute Saitama Super Arena Final Live, Hello! Project Winter 2017, Hina Fes 2017, and the H!P Countdown Party from Dec. 31, 2016-Jan. 1, 2017. I’ve still got Momoko Tsugunaga’s final concert and Morning Musume’s Spring 2017 concert lined up to watch. For every favorite member that leaves H!P, there are plenty of potential new favorites lined up to take her place.
I’ve got so much material on Momoko Tsugunaga, who recently departed Hello! Project after 15 years to teach Kindergarten, that I’ve decided to break it up into different parts. This first will be devoted to pictures I took of her: in New Jersey, Paris and Yokohama. I had a press pass for the first two trips, but not the third. I was fortunate to be able to see her and photograph her with all three of her H!P groups, Berryz Kobo, Buono! and Country Girls.
On Monday June 12, 2017, C-ute gave their final concert. After it was over, the group was disbanded. They’d been together twelve years, a long time for a Hello! Project group, the longest for a group in which all the members at the end of its tenure were all in the group at the beginning. One can make the case that Melon Kinenbi had the longest tenure for a group with intact membership, but since five of the same girls were in C-ute at the beginning and were still in C-ute, minus any others, at the end, that makes them the longest running group in H!P with the same members, at least in my book.
In any event, I managed to see the last two hours of the concert as it was broadcast live through some server and then, finding it on-line two days later, I caught the part I missed and re-watched the whole thing—three-and-a-half hours! What a great concert. A sad and emotional spectacle. Numerous friends of mine were in the audience there, surrogates for the rest of us overseas fans.
One of the great things about re-watching older Hello! Project concerts is the chance to see graduated favorites when they were in their prime. It’s as if they never left! And since I haven’t re-watched these shows in years, it’s like seeing them for the first time. So I put in my Blu-ray of Hello! Project 2014 Summer Part One: Korezo! and there were Sayumi Michishige, Riho Sayashi and Kanon Suzuki back in Morning Musume; Kanon Fukuda and Meimi Tamura back in S/mileage (pre-Angerme); and there was all of Berryz Kobo. Twelve missing performers suddenly restored to their former glory! In addition to C-ute and Juice=Juice. My only lament was…no Country Girls, no Kobushi Factory and no Tsubaki Factory. But then the first number with the Eggs, aka Hello Pro Kenshuusei, began and who should I see? Future members of Country Girls, Kobushi Factory and Tsubaki Factory, as well as future members of Morning Musume and Angerme. Everybody was represented! What a thrill. And there was even a moment where Rikako Sasaki danced backup for S/mileage, her future teammates in Angerme.
Eager to see the new girls in performance for the first time, I ordered the Hello! Project Winter 2017 concert and watched the first disc in the set, the “Crystal Clear” concert, recorded on January 8, 2017 at Nakano Sunplaza. Morning Musume had the two members of 13th Gen performing with them for the first time: Kaede Kaga and Reina Yokoyama. Tsubaki Factory had their three new members performing with them, the first time I’ve seen them with the group: Mao Akiyama, Saori Onoda, Mizuho Ono. (All three had performed with TF at the H!P Countdown Party on New Year’s Eve, just a week earlier. I’ll be getting to that concert soon.) Angerme had Momona Kasahara, although I believe I’ve seen her perform before. She just hasn’t registered strongly with me yet. Of these six, only Kaga and Akiyama are immediately recognizable to me. Both were very impressive in this concert. These are the most auspicious H!P debuts I’ve seen since Riho Sayashi in MM and Rikako Sasaki and Mizuki Murota in Angerme. As Maria Makino jockeys for the “ace” position in MM, I believe she’ll get serious competition from Kaga, who’s given one of the lead dance positions in “Oh My Wish!,” the first MM song in the concert. And Akiyama takes the lead in this concert’s performance of TF’s then-newest single, “Just Try,” already outshining her seven teammates, at least in my eyes.
As much as I love current Hello! Project concerts with all the new groups (Angerme, Juice=Juice, Country Girls, Kobushi Factory, etc.), I sometimes get nostalgic for old-school H!P and pull a concert disc off the shelf to revel in the label’s golden age. For this journey, I picked the Summer 2003 H!P concert, Hello! Project 2003 Natsu ~Yossha! Bikkuri Summer!!~
Remember a time when there were five—count ‘em—five soloists in one concert? And three shuffle units? And Berryz Kobo and C-ute were all still lumped together as the Hello! Project Kids. And Minimoni was still a thing. And Morning Musume got to close the show with a six-song set? I can’t believe it’s been ten years since I last saw this!