Morning Musume: 20 Years of Joy

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.

As recounted here in previous entries, I discovered Morning Musume on August 29, 2005 when, on a whim, I picked up a VHS tape of the Hello! Project 2004 Winter Concert at a Japanese video store, took it home and watched it and was hooked from the start as MM did the first three numbers. Half of them performed as MM Otomegumi to do “Ai no Sono ~Touch My Heart!”; half performed as Sakuragumi to do “Hare Ame Nochi Suki”; and the whole group performed their then-latest single, “Go Girl! Koi no Victory!,” seen here:

Later in the concert, the group did “Ai Araba It’s All Right,” “Shabondama,” “Souda! We’re ALIVE,” and “The Peace.” I loved every number. Then there was Natsumi Abe’s graduation ceremony, which turned out to be quite an emotional spectacle. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but a second viewing the next day clarified it for me, along with a little research on the web.

That week I scoured every Japanese store in Manhattan, looking for Morning Musume and Hello! Project-related material, buying everything I could find in HQ Video (where I’d gotten the first tape), Book Off, Kinokuniya Books and Asahiya Books: R2 DVDs, CDs, VHS tapes… Over the next few weeks I picked up concerts, albums, singles, music videos, stage musicals, backstage videos, plus a few tapes of the girls just sitting around talking (untranslated, of course). If it had them on the cover, I bought it. The first few Morning Musume concerts I acquired dated from 1999, 2001, 2002 and 2004. Within four days of viewing that first concert tape I had these three concerts:

Morning Musume First Live at Budokan ~Dancing Love Site 2000 Haru~

Morning Musume Live Revolution 21 Haru (2001)

Morning Musume CONCERT TOUR 2002 Haru “LOVE IS ALIVE!” at Saitama Super Arena

Within two weeks, I had two more:

Morning Musume Memory ~Seishun no Hikari~ 1999.4.18

Morning Musume Concert Tour 2004 Haru The BEST of Japan

I gradually figured out that I was watching different configurations of the group with new members added and older members disappearing. It was like going back in time, but lurching back and forth to different years. At some point, I grasped the concept of different generations joining at different periods, noticing that some groups of members were not in the earlier concerts, while other individual members were missing from the later concerts. Yuko Nakazawa was in three of these concerts but not the others. 5th Gen was in two of them, but 6th Gen was only in one. 4th Gen seemed to be in the background in one concert and not up front like they were in others and they certainly looked younger. It was, in fact, their debut concert. I saw Asuka Fukuda, the youngest of the founding members, in only one concert, her graduation show. The other seven members seemed to be sad at her departure, but she didn’t seem to mind at all. Since then, I’ve seen only one other concert with her.

It was some time before I realized what the current membership of the group in fall 2005 was. Mari Yaguchi was gone, as were Kaori Iida, Rika Ishikawa, Nozomi Tsuji, and Ai Kago. All of 5th and 6th Gen were intact, but only one 4th Gen member remained (Hitomi Yoshizawa). There was one new member–the sole 7th Gen’er–Koharu Kusumi. I finally got it straight, although it would be nearly a year before I actually watched a concert with this lineup.

I joined MM-BBS, the one forum where I got the most thoughtful responses to my questions. I became a regular there (and remain one), asking lots of questions, posting my thoughts and getting reprimanded when I went on too long.

Here’s an excerpt from one of my earliest posts, from 9/3/05, written after watching the Spring 2002 Love Is Alive concert:

I worry that I might get spoiled by the newer stuff. I sampled the older DVDs I picked up (LIVE REVOLUTION 21 SPRING 2001  and FIRST LIVE AT BUDOKAN—DANCING LOVE SITE 2000 SPRING) and am a little apprehensive that they might suffer from the absence of Ai Takahashi, Risa Niigaki, Asami Konno and Makoto Ogawa, who all joined after those concerts. The younger crew really provides a nice contrast to the older group of performers making for far more interesting numbers. Youthful teen pop energy set against the classic Asian beauty and elegance of Natsumi Abe and Kaori Iida. All the performers are delightful, although a few have emerged as favorites and I was grateful for any close shots I could get of them. (My favorites, for the record, are Rika Ishikawa, Ms. Takahashi and Ms. Niigaki, with close honorable mention going to Ms. Ida and Ms. Abe.)

The next day, 9/4/05, I posted the following, but please bear with it, since they’re the words of a newbie:

Okay, third one in a week. After watching the HELLO! PROJECT WINTER 2004 CONCERT and MM: LOVE IS ALIVE! CONCERT TOUR SPRING 2002, both of which I did posts on, I watched my first pre-Fifth Generation MM concert: LIVE REVOLUTION 2001 SPRING – OSAKA.

I expressed fears in the earlier post that maybe I’d been spoiled by what I’d been watching. My fears were justified. The one I just watched really suffers from the absence of the Fifth Generation members (Ai Takahashi, Risa Niigaki, Asami Konno, Makoto Ogawa). Too many of the older members are too much alike. There’s not a lot of diversity or contrast. As for the younger ones here, Nozomi Tsuji and Ai Kago, they look so much alike, I’d swear they were twins. And they’re kind of stuck here in their overly “kawaii” act. The only one of the ten I really paid close attention to this time was Rika Ishikawa. Although I must say this is the first time I’ve seen Yuko Nakazawa—this is her graduation concert—and she’s quite a looker. She’s also quite a bit older than the rest, which is kind of nice for a man my age.

There are a few genuinely catchy numbers (I think one of them is called “Love Machine”), but they’re few and far between. The songs are, overall, just not that interesting. Nor is the choreography as good as it is in the other, later concerts I’ve seen. There’s a lot of movement, a lot of frenetic activity, but it all seems kind of rushed, slapped together.

I would argue that the better choreography in the later concerts may simply be a result of the Fifth Generation members inspiring the choreographers. They’ve got more energy and more—dare I say it?—rhythm. These girls, especially Ai and Risa, can really MOVE. They’ve got the stuff. They can WORK it. The older girls are pretty and charming and competent (Maki Goto, Natsumi Abe, Kaori Iida, Hitomi Yoshizawa, etc.), but they don’t SELL the numbers as aggressively as the younger girls and I think their own performing improved when the younger girls came on board.

This is all speculation, of course, and I’d have to see a lot more than the three concerts and one music video (Go Girl) I’ve seen to make a more fair assessment. But those are my thoughts.

I did enjoy a lot of it, but it pales next to the high entertainment value of the other ones I’ve seen.

One thing I noticed about this concert in Osaka: there were actually girls and women in the audience. First time I’ve noticed this.

I do cringe re-reading that. Needless to say, I changed my tune the more I watched the older concerts and would never misjudge Maki Goto and the others like that again. Still, even early on, it was obvious to me that the group was at its best during the 2001-2002 season after 5th Gen had joined but before Maki Goto graduated. The Spring 2002 Love Is Alive MM concert quickly became my favorite. During my first month of fandom, I found the “Do It! Now” PV on VHS and it quickly became my favorite MM song of the ones I’d heard, followed closely by “Souda! We’re ALIVE” and “Ai Araba It’s All Right.” I found copies of the group’s two Best albums and those quickly became the most-played albums in my household.

I discovered “Hello! Morning,” the weekly TV show featuring the girls and I bought my first tape of the show, containing the April 17 and 24,, 2005 eps., on October 25, 2005 at HQ Video. These episodes included Nacchi singing her then-newest single, “Yume Naraba,” and Morning Musume singing their then-newest single, “Osaka Koi no Uta” (above). The first ep. featured a long sequence with a middle-aged man taking Risa, Kei and Asami to various eateries and fish-growing places in Tokyo, while the second ep. offered audition footage of Koharu. I began buying up older copies of the show and getting new editions as they arrived. The 2005 Christmas special (pictured below) would become an annual event in my household. Gradually, I began following current developments in the group and current singles, concerts and other releases.

One of the members on MM-BBS, Cyrene, started me on my Live Journal blog later that year and my first entry (Dec. 28, 2005) was devoted to the episode of Hello! Morning which shows Koharu Kusumi’s induction into the group.

Like so many of you, I found my efforts to interest other people, aka “civilians,” in this music completely futile. I soon learned to stop trying.

The first graduations to occur after I became a fan were in the summer of 2006 when 5th Gen members Makoto Ogawa and Asami Konno both left MM. The next ones would be in spring 2007 when both Hitomi Yoshizawa and Miki Fujimoto left the group a month apart, leaving Ai Takahashi as the group leader. (Above, L-R: Makoto, Asami, Miki, Hitomi) Three new members joined in 2007 forming the 8th Gen (Aika Mitsui, JunJun, LinLin). Two of them were Chinese, a first for MM. L-R: JunJun, Aika, LinLin:

When Yossie and Miki left, however, some spark left the group. Both of them carried themselves with a high level of certitude and attitude, qualities the group sorely needed. Yossie was the last from 4th Gen which, I’d gradually determined, had thoroughly energized the group when they joined. Something was missing and the new girls didn’t quite compensate for the loss of two of the group’s strongest members. Ai-chan was now the best vocalist and best dancer in the group, with no real competition from any of the others, although Risa and Reina would improve greatly during their tenure. The newer songs were geared to group performance, with little opportunity for individual personalities to shine through.

Koharu had the most noticeable personality, bordering on manic, which presented quite a contrast with the other girls and rubbed a lot of fans the wrong way. She had a side career doing voice and vocal work for the lead character in an anime series called “Kirarin Revolution,” so she developed a kiddie-friendly persona that burst out in her own singles and PVs as she became quite a controversial solo artist.

I loved her first solo album, the others less so, although I bought them all. I knew few other fans who felt even a modicum of the mild enthusiasm I felt for her.

Yossie and Miki were indeed the last outsized personalities in the group from MM’s first decade. With them gone, Reina and Sayumi (above) gradually sought to fill that gap as they got older, and both really came into their own after all of 5th Gen had left. At some point, Sayumi became the public face of MM and showed up on TV shows to promote the group and become a charismatic public personality in her own right. She was a weak singer and dancer, but she was beautiful, sexy, charming and witty and knew how to project the kind of idol persona that flourished in the Japanese media landscape. She truly blossomed during her tenure as group leader and became the longest-serving single member of MM, serving 11 years, 10 months and 7 days, a record not likely to be broken in the next decade.

I enjoyed some of the singles that came out during this period, particularly “Sexy Boy,” “Kanashimi Twilight,” “Egao YES Nude,” “Mikan,” “Resonant Blue,” “Nanchatte Ren’ai,” and “Kimagure Princess” (above), but only “Mikan” from 2007 is ranked on my list of favorite MM songs. The next one that would be a favorite would be “Ren’ai Hunter” (below) in 2012. That’s a gap of five years.

Eventually, I got to see MM live when they came to Los Angeles in July 2009 to do a concert at Anime Expo. I managed to wangle a journalism assignment for Otaku USA and applied for an interview and pressured the press liaison in email after email to assure me I’d be getting the interview. As it turned out, the interviews would all take place the day before the Expo was to begin, so I had to change my flight to get there much earlier than I’d planned. In fact, as soon as I got to the hotel from the airport, I had to rush with my recording equipment to the press room, where I learned that you had to sign in for each interview and there was a long list of people ahead of me. The interviews were to take place on one of the upper floors and the girls had just gotten in from the airport and were getting coiffed and made up for the interviews which were scheduled to last only until 5:30 PM and it was already 1:00 PM. They wouldn’t start until they were ready. I got really nervous. There was a good chance I wouldn’t get the interview. At some point a group of us waiting for the opportunity to interview them were herded into an elevator and ushered into a hotel room next to the interview room. Not all of us would be called. I had to go to the bathroom, but there wasn’t one in the room. If I went looking for one, I might miss my name being called and I’d lose my spot. Sure enough, not long after that, close to 5PM, I was called and told I would be next and the Press contact urged Otaku USA to give Anime Expo a good writeup. I assured him we would. I was to have the next-to-last interview.

I was ushered in and there they were! Nine little smiling goddesses. I sat down and proceeded to greet each of them by name and pointed to them in their proper order: “Ai-chan, Risa, Eri, Sayumi, Reina, Koharu, Aika, JunJun and LinLin.” They shrieked with delight and applauded. An American journalist knew who they were! I started with the questions, one for each girl in order. To be honest, they weren’t the best of questions. I hadn’t figured out exactly the best approach to get decent answers from the girls, since I’d never interviewed idols before and all the REAL questions I had about Hello! Project’s corporate management and their tactics would be completely inappropriate here. But the girls were game and very polite. The interpreter wasn’t the best, either. He spoke in a very low voice and he didn’t always interpret everything they said. (I had to play the audio to Japanese-speaking friends afterwards to find out what they REALLY said.) Finally, we got to LinLin and as she answered in Japanese and I waited for the interpretation, I turned to JunJun, who was gazing at me as if I were the only man in the world. I melted on the spot. And she was so BEAUTIFUL! In fact, up close they all were.

Afterwards, I presented Ai Takahashi with a signed copy of my book on anime, “Anime Classics Zettai! 100 Must-See Japanese Animation Masterpieces” (2007, Stone Bridge Press), in which I mention Morning Musume twice. Yaz Noya, the L.A.-based coordinator for their trip, then asked if I wanted to take a picture with them. Did I! And here it is:

Another fan asserted that I was the first American to take a picture with them. (Don’t know if that’s true or not, but it certainly sounds good.)

Afterwards, I waited in the hallway as they did their final interview because I had asked Yaz if she would answer some questions I had about their trip to L.A. As I waited, the final interview crew left and not long afterwards, the girls came trooping out and passed me, all of them smiling and waving at me as they did, with one exception: Koharu. She was busy complaining loudly about something. My first glimpse of how high-maintenance she was.

Graduated member Hitomi Yoshizawa (above) joined MM on the trip and I got to interview her one-on-one for a half-hour. Yaz Noya did the interpreting for that one. Here’s a link to that interview:

“Hangry Comes to AX”

MM did a Q&A the day after the interview and it was loads of fun. One little girl declared, “Koharu’s my favorite. I love you.” And Koharu jumped up from her seat on stage and shouted to her, “I love you!” What a gorgeous memory that girl must be cherishing.

The next day they performed a great concert for about an hour, followed by a half-hour taken up with some contest winners who’d created new PVs for one of their recent songs. Something like that. Yossie and Tsunku both appeared onstage for that. The concert part was too short, but never less than thrilling, my first chance to see them perform live.  After it was over, the crowd chanted “En-cor-OO,” just like fans do at Japanese concerts, and the befuddled Anime Expo staff kept insisting to the crowd that the concert was over, really over!

I met a number of other fans during that trip, mostly from MM-BBS, including several who remain friends with me to this day. Plus, I’d meet more fans at future events who’d been to L.A. for this concert. Many are among my Facebook friends.

Ironically, this all coincided with one of my least favorite periods in MM’s history. I gave a scathing review on my blog to MM’s Spring 2008 concert, the one where they performed every one of their singles up to that time, but in a most dispirited fashion. (Only Koharu seemed to shine in that one.) The concerts and CD albums from Ai-chan’s period as leader are among my least-watched and listened-to of any MM releases, despite the fact that I absolutely loved Ai-chan as both a performer and a personality. Granted, I very much want to go back and re-watch those concerts and listen to those albums, but one of the problems I faced back then was a matter of timing. That period of MM coincided with my growing interest in Berryz Kobo and C-ute, two groups I’d delayed following until I was convinced of how good they were. They kind of took my main attention for a while. And then S/mileage came along and I followed them. So MM kind of got put on the back burner for a while.

Also, there were no changes in the lineup from June 2007 to December 2009 when Koharu graduated and no further changes until December 2010 when we got the triple graduation of Eri, JunJun and LinLin. The group was now five members, but not for long. Fortunately, a new generation was waiting in the wings to inject new life, energy and enthusiasm into the group.

In late 2010, we saw the audition footage of the finalists for 9th Gen. Three new members would be picked from this group. I’m proud to say that I predicted on MM-BBS who the new members would be and was right on all three counts: Erina Ikuta, Riho Sayashi, Kanon Suzuki. They were soon joined by one of the Hello! Pro Eggs, Mizuki Fukumura.

I liked all four of them a great deal. They had charm, spirit, enthusiasm and charisma, although it would take a few concerts for three of them to get their bearings and find their place in the group. But not Riho Sayashi (above, center), who hit the ground running right from the start. I remember a dance number in one of 9th Gen’s early concerts where she performs with Ai-chan and Risa and I was stunned. She was every bit as good as they were! She soon became my all-time favorite member and remains so. I loved her dancing right from the start and her powerful spirit. Gradually, I got used to her singing and welcomed it every time I heard it. She may not be the best vocalist in the group’s history, but I found her voice and singing style pleasing. The more lines she got the happier I was. Sadly, her five-year tenure in the group was way too short.

Erina rapidly became one of my favorites and remains so. She’s a solid team player and brings her best to every show. She’s gotten to be such a good dancer that she appears in the dance trio with Ayumi Ishida and Haruka Kudo that accompanies certain songs in concert. She’s also the best acrobat in the group and has shown off that skill in quite a number of H!P concerts. I love her look, her style, her carriage. I can’t get enough of her.

9th Gen was followed less than a year later by 10th Gen, Haruna Iikubo, Ayumi Ishida, Masaki Sato and, plucked from the Eggs, Haruka Kudo. Ayumi shot to the top right away, thanks to her considerable dance skills. She was noticeably more graceful and balletic than Riho. The two quickly became a team, performing the more intricate dance moves in certain numbers as a duo. They even turned up on a TV show doing a dance-off with two members of AKB48 and totally blowing them away. Haruka had already won my heart as an Egg and as she progressed in MM, she eventually joined Erina and Ayumi in the dance trio, although Mizuki sometimes stood in for Erina and, this past winter, new member Kaede Kaga stood in for Haruka. Erina, Ayumi and Haruka usually represented MM in the H!P Concert Dance Station numbers incorporating the best dancers from the different H!P groups.

Starting with “Ren’ai Hunter,” released on April 11, 2012, MM released a long string of singles I enjoyed, which continues unabated with last fall’s “Mukidashi de Mukiatte,” one of my favorite MM songs–ever, and this past spring’s “Brand New Morning.” The group’s 13th album, “13 Colorful Character” (2012), was the first to feature 9th and 10th Gens and remains one of my most-played albums of all time. The singles released since then benefited greatly from the considerable vocal skills of sole 11th Gen member Sakura Oda (below), who joined the group in 2012 and is first heard on the next album, “14 Sho ~The Message~,” which came out in 2014.

Many good songs have come out since the 14th album, but, sadly, there’s been no new album to contain them.

In 2014, MM came to New York to perform a concert at the Best Buy Theater in Times Square on October 5. It was the second time I got to see them live, although the only member still in the group from my last encounter with them was Sayumi, who was soon to graduate. The concert was great and I got some pix of them from my vantage point in the raised seating section in the back of the theater. No interview this time because I was no longer writing for Otaku USA.

12th Gen joined in late 2014 and while the jury’s still out on their overall contribution to the group, they charmed American fans when the group came to Houston, Texas for Anime Matsuri in February 2016 where fans got their closest and most frequent interaction with them of any trip by the group to the U.S.

Miki Nonaka’s English-speaking skills, acquired during a childhood stay of several years in Alabama, came in handy during the trip. I did not attend because I was preparing my own trip to Japan to begin a week after the concert, but I did see the documentary/concert DVD and got to see many of my friends in it. I wrote it up on my old blog here and here.

In Japan, I saw two Morning Musume concerts and two of the Hina Fes concerts, so I got to see MM perform live four times during the trip. What a thrill.

During all this time, two members of 9th Gen left the group, Riho and Kanon. Riho’s departure hit me hard and I’m still not sure why she felt she had to go. There’s been speculation that maybe she was just burnt out after putting in 120% for five years. I can understand that, but I still miss her.

In late 2016, two new members formed the 13th Gen, both picked from the Kenshuusei (formerly called Eggs), Kaede Kaga and Reina Yokoyama, and they both have extraordinary potential. Kaga had been an Egg since 2012, giving her four years of extensive training and experience. She’s one of my four favorites now, following Ayumi, Haruka, and Erina, although Haruka will soon be gone. In 2017, Chisaki Morito from Country Girls was transferred to MM and, although I have yet to see her perform with the group, I’m sure she’ll make valuable contributions.

I should point out that a significant factor in the group’s enduring teamwork is the respect the younger Gens consistently show the older members. Without this, the harmony that prevails would be endangered.

So, it’s been quite a wild ride being a fan of MM for nearly two-thirds of the group’s existence. To me, they’re still the greatest pop act ever. I’ve already followed them for much longer than I did my previous favorite group…the Beatles–while they were still together!! (Have hardly listened to them since.) How long will this continue? As long as they keep entertaining me. So far, they show no signs of slowing down.

Happy 20th Anniversary!

(But where the **** is that 15th album?)

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