C-ute Disbands and an Era Comes to an End

C-ute Disbands and an Era Comes to an End

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.

During those three days, I also watched for the first time another recent C-ute concert, C-ute 12 Nenme Totsunyuu Kinen -C-fes ! Part 1 9 Gatsu Itsuka Mo C-ute No Hi At Nippon Budokan, which was held at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo on September 5, 2016. At two hours and forty minutes it was another long one, which meant, of course, more C-ute, and another great concert to boot. My only complaint about these two concerts is the omission of my favorite C-ute song, “Midnight Temptation.”

In all these years, I’ve watched the members of C-ute grow up and become an expert performing unit, dancing and singing their hearts out and giving it their all in concert after concert and single after single. Maimi Yajima, Airi Suzuki and Chisato Okai have only gotten better and better over the years, especially in their vocal abilities, but also in their stage presence and command of an audience.

Saki Nakajima and Mai Hagiwara were absolutely adorable in their adolescence and teens and they were a delight to watch and listen to, but they peaked in those years, when they were given solos, duets, and lots of lines.

I liked listening to their voices back then and I was in J-pop heaven when the two joined Erina Mano in a revival of Pucchimoni in 2009. This unit, officially named Petitmoni V, is one of my all-time favorite H!P special units.

However, when their voices changed, they didn’t become better singers and the difference in vocal range between the other group members and these two has become more pronounced.  Still, they continued to serve as solid, dependable performers for the last few years and have made extraordinary contributions.

 

Saki’s always been the best dancer, along with Maimi, but she’s had fewer opportunities to show us these talents in recent years. (Remember when they used to get dance solos at concerts?)

She’s been part of the Dance Station numbers in some of the recent H!P concerts, but she’s just part of an ensemble there and they’re staged in darkness so you can hardly tell who’s who.

Mai has extraordinary charisma and a cool, unflappable manner about her as if no matter what she does she’s thoroughly satisfied with it and expects us to be also but doesn’t really care if we’re not. I love that but such a stance was a lot more appealing when she was younger. I used to think as I watched her in those years that if I had been a fraction as cool when I was an adolescent as she was, my life would have been sooooo different. If I could be a girl, I’d want to be Mai Hagiwara.

The real standout in the group is Airi whose vocal abilities and stage confidence have made her a singular star in the Hello! Project firmament. I can’t take my eyes off her in the recent concerts and part of that is due to the sheer amount of joy she radiates onstage. She clearly enjoys being there and wants us to enjoy it, too. I would relish a solo concert of hers, as well as a solo album or three, and I can only hope she gets the opportunity. She didn’t always hold such esteem in my eyes. I remember a period, roughly 2010 I think, where I thought that Saki and Mai—and all the others–outshined her on stage. She seemed to be going through an awkward phase. But then something happened in 2011 and she blossomed. As fellow fan Josh Mosby put it as we discussed C-ute while enjoying the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Sakura Matsuri that year, “She got her groove back.” And what a groove it’s been.

I don’t think we would have had the chance to see Airi improve this way and last for such a long time if Up-Front hadn’t kept the core of C-ute pretty much intact all these years. If they’d taken her out and made her a solo artist in, say, 2011 or so, I fear that C-ute would have lost their luster without her and eventually disbanded much sooner and that Airi’s solo career would have suffered from a lack of proper support from management and she would have left H!P a lot sooner. I think it helps that they put her in Buono! during this time, joining two members of Berryz Kobo, Momoko Tsugunaga and Miyabi Natsuyaki, so she had another showcase for her vocal talents. If she embarks on a solo career, as promised, I’m hoping I get the chance to see and hear her perform again.

It also helps that C-ute members never seemed to compete with each other over lines or spotlight space. Everyone seemed to know and accept their places in the group and were confident they’d get the chance to shine when a song played to their strengths. I imagine they all recognized Airi’s superior vocal talents and deferred to her when the song would be most enhanced by her taking the lead. Sure, Chisato had to push for more lines as her vocal talents became more recognizable, but I don’t know what the backstage negotiations were like or how management finally noticed her contributions and gave her more to do. For all I know, it could have happened with absolutely no conflicts between any members.

In looking back over old blog entries and early writings on H!P, I find, somewhat distressingly, that I wasn’t as big a fan of C-ute in my early years as a Hello! Project fan. In my blog entries of 2007 and early 2008, I was often quite critical of the younger groups, Berryz Kobo and C-ute, as well as the Eggs, and lamented when they got more exposure during the Winter Wonderful Hearts concerts than Morning Musume. Here’s an excerpt from my review of the Winter 2007 Wonderful Hearts Concert:

I had problems with the first concert, “Wonderful Hearts,” in which Berryz and C-ute predominate. Morning Musume is overshadowed by all the younger girls and is seen performing, as a unique and separate entity, in only three numbers near the end, “Ambitious,” “Do it Now!” and “Morning Curry,” and even then, they have to share the stage with the Hello! Project Eggs in the last one. Some of the individual MM members are seen in duets or in songs with other H!P performers, but as the headline act of H!P, MM gets serious short shrift here. Also, because the stage is so small, the performing area got incredibly cluttered whenever the Eggs came out and filled up the place. They really got underfoot and it’s a miracle no one tripped over them.  I believe there were 23 of them, which is way too many. And when you add in all the Berryz/C-ute girls appearing in so many different numbers (I count 17 songs out of a total of 28), it means less time for the performers I really care about here—MM and the only two graduates at this show, Rika and Tsuji.

Yet when I re-watched this concert this year, I was overjoyed at all the exposure accorded the members of Berryz, C-ute and the H!P Eggs, especially when the latter featured so many future members of S/mileage.

In March 2008, I even dismissed C-ute as “a loose collection of idols-in-the-making,” a sentiment I’m not sure I understand anymore, although I was often critical of their scanty costumes, which I found inappropriate for girls that young, and some of their sexier dance moves. While Berryz Kobo was given a more wholesome, girl-next-door image, C-ute was given a sexy image, reinforced by their costuming and dance moves, although it never struck me as more than just a style imposed on them by management. I never thought that they were actively promoting desire or ecstasy in any way, just play-acting at sexy poses. Certainly offstage the girls were just as wholesome as Berryz.

I didn’t really start to come on board as a fan until mid-2008 when I started buying C-ute singles in earnest and started reviewing C-ute concerts with some enthusiasm. And I’ve started re-watching a lot of them and enjoying them all over again. As great as the five core members got in later years, there was an unpolished youthful spirit and raw energy in their teen years that’s exciting to watch and impossible to recapture. And the members were treated more or less as equals then, with Saki and Mai getting to do a lot more than they’ve done in recent years. Mai even takes the lead on a few songs in one of the 2007 concerts I recently re-watched.

 

I liked Erika Umeda and Kanna Arihara and found them to be  delightful, energetic and spirited performers, but I wasn’t too upset when they left the group in 2009, simply because I thought the five core performers made a perfect unit that couldn’t have been improved. Still, I’ve been enjoying revisiting the group when it had seven members.

A previous member, Megumi Murakami, is on another level entirely. I thought she was the absolute best in the group before she was unceremoniously drummed out in 2006 for reasons never adequately spelled out. (The official story was something about wanting to devote more time to her studies. She was 14 at the time.) Because of my late conversion to C-ute fandom, it took me a while to catch up to events from C-ute’s first year when Megumi was still in the group and only then was I able to witness her dazzling displays of talent and star power. After just over two years as a Hello! Project Kid, she emerged as a polished stage performer, a superior singer and dancer, when C-ute began in 2005. She was a standout within Hello! Project and is sorely missed.

Of course, I had to go back to even earlier concerts to see the members of C-ute and Berryz Kobo when they were known as the Hello! Project Kids. In fact, they were in the very first H!P concert I ever saw, Hello! Project Winter 2004:

I began buying C-ute singles and concert DVDs in 2008 and stopped buying the singles sometime in 2012 but continued buying the concerts. I remember the excitement I used to experience when a new C-ute single came out and I would often buy more than one version, so I could have the regular version of the PV (performance video) as well as the Dance Shot Version. (This was long before Up-Front began releasing new music videos to YouTube.) I remember how much I liked that run of hits in 2008 that included “Forever Love,” “Namida no Iro,” and “Edo no Temari Uta II.”

I finally got the opportunity to see C-ute live when I went to Paris in 2014 to see the joint concert of Berryz Kobo and C-ute at Japan Expo and also got the opportunity to interview them for Otaku USA, the magazine I was writing for at the time. As a member of the press, I got to watch every signing and handshake event they did in the course of those three days. Just being in their presence was breathtaking. There was a palpable aura about them, especially with the Berryz members alongside them as well. 12 of the original 15 Hello! Project Kids. They were just so sweet and friendly in person and dynamic on stage. Just unforgettable. And they gave a great joint concert there as well.

I also got to see them perform live at two of last year’s Hinamatsuri concerts at Pacifico Yokohama in Japan. So I got to see them live three times.  I was somewhere in this crowd:

So now it’s over. And when Momoko Tsugunaga graduates from Hello! Project at the end of this month, every performer who was in H!P when I became a fan 12 years ago will be gone. But it was a good run for C-ute while it lasted. And as long as I’ve got their concerts, PVs and albums, the group will never officially disband in my household.

I’ll be doing a follow-up entry with a gallery of favorite images of C-ute members and their performances from over the years, including shots I took. Click on “Follow” so you won’t miss it.

P.S. Upon completing and posting this entry, I heard the door buzzer and opened it to find the mailman delivering my latest shipment from CDJapan, including the 4-disc C-ute Complete Single Collection, with concert excerpts on a supplemental Blu-ray. The fun never stops.

 

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