12 Years of H!P Fandom: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

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.

 

However, we’ve been hit with a number of departures and changes this year that have been thoroughly disrupting.

C-ute has disbanded.

Momoko Tsugunaga has left show biz entirely to teach Kindergarten.

Haruka Kudo, one of my favorite MM members, has announced her graduation this fall.

Rio Fujii was expelled from Kobushi Factory.

Rena Ogawa, also from Kobushi, is on “hiatus” after a minor scandal (since explained away as an “anxiety disorder”), which, to me, means her expulsion is impending.

Maho Aikawa’s anxiety disorder has prevented her from performing with Angerme this year. I’m not at all sure she’s coming back.

Masaki Sato has been in the last two concerts I’ve seen with Morning Musume, but her continued participation is in doubt because of chronic back problems that kept her out of some concerts last year.

Juice=Juice announced a world tour promising dates in the U.S., but no such dates have ever been finalized. Right now, it looks to me like they’ve canceled any plans for the U.S.

J=J’s star performer, Karin Miyamoto, has been diagnosed with functional dysphonia and is out of action for the time being. In the last J=J performance clip I’ve seen, she was not there.  [ADDENDUM: Karin’s back singing with J=J again. Yaaay!!!]

Country Girls has been virtually sidelined while two of its members, Risa Yamaki and Mai Ozeki, concentrate on their studies. The plan is for them to keep performing as a group at the ensemble events (Winter and Summer concerts and Hina Fes), but the other three members have been transferred to existing groups to keep them busy the rest of the time. In the process, they’ve broken up the formidable duo of Musubu Funaki and Nanami Yanagawa and parceled the two out to Angerme and Juice=Juice, respectively, while Chisaki Morito has been placed in Morning Musume.

In the cases of Musubu and Nanami, each was joined by a member of Hello! Pro Kenshuusei (formerly Hello! Pro Eggs), Ayano Kawamura with Musubu and Ruru Danbara with Nanami. This has made the already crowded groups, Angerme and Morning Musume, even more crowded, and the addition of two new members to Juice=Juice upsets the carefully crafted dynamic its five members have established over the last four years. Now, granted, with Miyamoto out of action, Nanami might fill the vacuum left in her wake, but I have to see more performances by the new lineup to see if that’s a possibility. I’ve only seen one so far and the jury is still out. I’ve seen a performance by Angerme with the new girls and I was very disappointed. Poor Musubu just might get lost amidst all the outsized talents dominating that group. And Ayano didn’t register with me at all. I was very upset that Musubu and Nanami were split up that way. Since they remind me so much of Ai Kago and Nozomi Tsuji from MM’s glory days, I was hoping they’d be put into a duo like that formed by Kago and Tsuji—W (remember them?)

Also, Reina Ichioka, a long-standing member of Hello! Pro Kenshuusei (formerly Hello! Pro Eggs), has been promised her own group to consist of other Kenshuusei. Still no word on who, what, where and when. Another broken Up-Front promise?

So what are the reasons to remain a fan?

Morning Musume

This is still a great group and my favorite within H!P. I enjoy listening to their recent songs, especially “Mukidashi de Mukiatte,” “Brand New Morning,” and “Jealousy Jealousy.” As long as Haruka is still performing with them, every show is a winner. Once she’s gone, others will have to step up to the plate. Erina, Ayumi and Kaga are my other favorites and each brings a lot to the table. I enjoy watching and listening to each of them. Sakura contributes more than her share and her vocal talents are indispensable. Mizuki works hard, although she’s just a competent singer-dancer. Haruna Iikubo brings beauty, class, poise and a gracious smile and that’s more than enough on her part. Keep it coming. While Kaga hit it out of the park on her first time at bat, her 13th Gen partner Reina needs to prove herself. She’s pretty and charming and has great stage presence, but she needs a little more. I have yet to see a performance by MM with new member Chisaki in it, so I’ll have to wait and see how she fits in, although her work with Country Girls was exemplary.

Which brings us to 12th Gen. I’m still waiting. Miki has shown marked improvement and I expect good things from her. Maria is an attractive and spirited performer and can go a long way on that alone, but I fear that she may be overshadowed by 13th Gen. I’m worried for her. She has the potential to break out as a star performer with MM if she sticks around long enough, but Kaga may get that spot since she’s a far better singer and dancer. As for Akane Haga and Haruna Ogata, if they left tomorrow, I wouldn’t miss them.

Angerme

I lost my two favorites in this group when Kanon Fukuda left in late 2015 and Meimi Tamura left six months later. But there’s enough talent on hand to keep this high-energy group soaring for a long time. My current favorites are Mizuki Murota and Rikako Sasaki, Mizuki for her vocals and dancing and Rikako for her dancing and remarkable stage presence. Ayaka Wada, the group leader of Angerme and supreme leader of H!P, just gets more and more beautiful, dances more energetically and sings better than she ever did, in addition to having extraordinary stage charisma. I was dismissive of her in the early days of S/mileage, but something clicked in 2014 and she just kept getting better and better. Akari Takeuchi is a superb singer and dancer and is such a strong, dependable anchor for this group. Kana Nakanishi and Moe Kamikokuryo may not do the heavy lifting, but they don’t have to and their beauty and stage presence add so much to the group’s performances. I’m a huge fan of both. I like Maho Aikawa a great deal, but her absence makes her less important to the group. Momona Kasahara is good in the dance numbers but her singing leaves a lot of room for improvement. Rina Katsuta is okay, but she’s never registered strongly with me. If she were to leave, I wouldn’t miss her. Of the new girls, Musubu Funaki is one of H!P’s most delightful performers and I worry that she’ll get overshadowed here alongside Murota, Sasaki and Takeuchi. She needs a smaller group where she can command more of the spotlight. The jury’s still out on Ayano Kawamura. The little I’ve seen of her so far did not impress me.

Juice=Juice

I’ve only seen one performance clip of Juice=Juice in their new incarnation—minus Karin and plus Nanami and Ruru. It wasn’t a great quality clip, so I’ll have to reserve judgment until I see the H!P Summer 2017 concert on disc. But I’m skeptical. Juice=Juice without Karin is like C-ute without Airi. And, like C-ute, Juice=Juice had established themselves as a perfectly functioning five-member unit that didn’t need any changes. I even dropped my reservations about Akari Uemura and Yuka Miyazaki, since they’ve both been so great in the J=J performances I’ve seen in the last year or so. My favorites remain, of course, Karin (as long as she’s in the group), Sayuki and Tomoko, three wonderful performers.

Country Girls

I thought Country Girls would continue to thrive even without Momoko, since the entire group embraces the spirit of the music they’ve been assigned. I thought Risa Yamaki would rise to the challenge and be as enthusiastic a leader as possible while falling short, as anyone would, of Momoko’s boundless energy. Mai Ozeki, no doubt spurred on by the competition provided by the formidable duo of Nanami and Musubu, improved greatly as a performer in the past year. But, alas, the virtual breakup of CG, except for special occasions, may undo the particular dynamic these girls have developed over the last three years.

Kobushi Factory

With the expulsion of Rio and the “hiatus” of Rena, their numbers have been reduced to six, but those six include the most dynamic performers of the group: Ayano Hamaura, Minami Nomura, Rei Inoue and Ayaka Hirose. In fact, it would still be a great group with just these four, since the remaining two, Natsumi Taguchi and Sakurako Wada, don’t quite match up to them, although they lend solid support. I’ll miss Rio, and was very upset when she was expelled, because she had a unique performing style and a great stage presence, but Kobushi Factory will thrive as long as they have the main four listed above and as long as they get decent songs. At last year’s H!P Countdown Party, no members of Kobushi Factory made it to the second half of the concert because of age restrictions. At this year’s Countdown Party, only one member will make it to the second half—group leader Ayaka Hirose.

Tsubaki Factory

Three new members were added to this six-member group late last year and two of those are among the best performers in the group, Mao Akiyama and Mizuho Ono. Pretty much everyone in this group is a solid performer and I have no real complaints about any of them. My favorites, as of now, are Yumeno Kishimoto, the very first member to register with me when I saw them on stage opening for Morning Musume during my trip to Japan last year and, again, when I saw them live at Hina Fes 2016, and Mao, who has extraordinary energy and spirit. Next are the leader and sub-leader, Riko Yamagishi and Risa Ogata, followed by Ami Tanimoto and new member Ono. Kisora Niinuma and Kiki Asakura are both very good and 9th member, new girl Saori Onodera seems okay, although I haven’t seen enough of her (she was absent from this year’s Hina Fes). At last December’s H!P Countdown Party, Riko and Risa were the only members to appear for the entire concert. At this year’s Countdown Party, Kisora Niinuma and Ami Tanimoto will join them.

Ogata and Ono have two of the most interesting faces in all of H!P. If there are any performers in the current H!P lineup who could have been cast in classic samurai films of the 1950s and ’60s, it’s these two. I can see Ogata as the demure femme fatale with a short sword hidden in her kimono while telling a sob story to the wandering samurai hero. And I can see Ono as the damsel-in-distress being sold by her father into prostitution to pay off gambling debts until blind swordsman Zatoichi shows up to set things right.

And if Reina Ichioka’s new group ever gets off the ground, it will give us the opportunity to see more of Ms. Ichioka, one of the more charismatic members of Kenshuusei, where’s she been biding her time for almost five years now. I had hoped she’d be the Reina to join MM along with Kaga, but no, it was the other Reina.

So, we’ve got, for now—switching to last names—a stellar lineup in H!P that includes Ikuta, Ishida, Kudo, Kaga, Oda, Konaka, Wada, Takeuchi, Murota, Sasaki, Kamikokuryo, Miyamoto, Takagi, Kanazawa, Funaki, Yanagawa, Hamaura, Inoue, Nomura, Hirose, Kishimoto, Akiyama, Yamagishi, Ogata, Ono and Ichioka, to name 26. Not bad reasons to continue being a fan. Let’s see what surprises await us in 2018.

Meanwhile, back on August 29, 2005, as I was discovering Morning Musume and Hello! Project for the first time, Hurricane Katrina was battering New Orleans and I was alternating between watching H!P concerts and news coverage of the disaster. As I write and compile this 12th anniversary piece, Hurricane Harvey is wreaking havoc on Houston and southeast Texas and parts of Louisiana. Why is pleasure always commingled with pain?

Finally, a look back at my first glimpses of the girls on that fateful night 12 years ago, as Morning Musume Otome Gumi came out to do the opening number, “Ai no Sono ~ Touch My Heart”:

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