Johnson Graduates, So Why Am I Not Crying?

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

Iida Kaori – also known as Johnson – graduated from Morning Musume today in their Winter concert. Strangely, I’m feeling less than moved by this event.

Every other Morning Musume graduation has made me cry. I’ve only been a fan for a year now, though 2004 has seen the graduation of three of the most popular members: Abe Natsumi, Kago Ai, and Tsuji Nozomi. I remember being in tears at work on the day Tsuji and Kago graduated last summer, and not being ashamed by this. (Kago and Tsuji, after all, are two of my favorites.) And watching previous graduation concerts – especially Kei Yasuda’s, where Ai Takahashi literally falls to her knees at Kei’s feet – makes me cry without fail.

It’s not necessarily that these were favorite members. I’m not much of a fan of Fukuda Asuka, after all, though I finally watched her graduation concert recently and was bawling at the end.

And it’s not like most of the graduations involved an actual physical departure. With the exception of the first three graduations – Asuka, Ishiguro Aya, and Ichii Sayaka – the members who’ve graduated remain a member of the Hello! Project family, either as soloists (Nakazawa Yuko, Goto Maki, Natsumi), emcee at Hello! Project concerts (Kei), or as part of a new group (Kago and Tsuji in W, and Rika Ishikawa graduates this coming summer but will continue to head the trio Viyuden). It’s now typical to see a member graduate from Momusu and be seen with the group on the Hello Morning show the following week.

Rather, it feels like the individual girls and Morning Musume as a whole becomes irrevocably changed with each graduation. Asuka may have been the most dour of Momusu’s first gen, but she was the heart of what Morning Musume originally was in a musical sense. When she left, the group changed in a significant manner. Yuko was the group’s leader and guiding light, Gocchin was the superstar within the superstar idol group, Nacchi was the heart of the group. Kei, while far from being a popular member, was bravely upbeat in her graduation and given a level of audience appreciation she had never gotten before. That in itself was moving – the nobility of the ugly duckling.

And of course, we can’t discount how watching pretty young Japanese girls crying can’t help but touch my heart. It’s melodramatic and – in the giving of flowers and making of speeches – staged to a certain degree. But the feelings are sincere. Rika Ishikawa merely shook Goto Maki’s hand when Gocchin graduated, and that seemed right. Obviously, those girls weren’t too close. Takahashi Ai collapses at Kei’s feet and that seems right, too – it was odd and even humorous, but also heartfelt and – as a result – heartwrenching.

But Iida’s graduation strikes me as… different. This is definitely the end of an era – after all, she is the last of the first generation Morning Musume to leave the group. Of the ones who sang on the initial singles, “Ai no Tane” and “Morning Coffee,” nobody is left in Momusu. Of the ones who sang “Love Machine” originally, only Yaguchi Mari will now be left in the group.

And yet, it seems past, present and future all conspire to make Johnson’s departure less than gripping.

The past: Iida should have left the group a long time ago. Around the time of “Love Machine,” in my opinion, as she was the one least equipped to handle the shift from serious R&B modernism to the bizarre postmodernism that Momusu’s most famous single entailed. Others believe she’s simply too old now, especially with Nacchi’s departure last year making Iida stand out even more. The sense of “what took her so long” certainly doesn’t make for as heart-rending a graduation experience as when a member leaves who still seems to contribute greatly (or to be fair, more visibly) to the group. Which seemed to be the case for just about everybody else up to now.

The present: there’s a great deal of other changes going on in the Hello! Project firmament. Unlike past graduations, Iida’s departure is not the big issue among fans at the moment, not the cause of much buzz and debate and speculation. Nacchi’s plagiarism scandal – and the resulting punishment – meant that she likely was not allowed to attend Iida’s graduation concert (I’m still not sure if that turned out to be so). Nacchi is far more popular than Iida, and her recent fall from grace has fueled greater interest than Iida’s graduation. Besides that, the recent fiasco of the Lucky 7 auditions has been a source of great debate and gossip. Along more minor lines, Hello Morning is undergoing radical changes and W has a new single about to come out.

And on today’s Hello Morning, Tsunku ended the episode by announcing new auditions for Morning Musume! Couldn’t he have waited another week, at least? Let Iida’s moment shine a little brighter from the lack of further distraction?

The future: it seems that Iida’s graduation doesn’t change the current Morning Musume line-up in a bad way at all. If anything, Johnson’s departure and Rika’s upcoming departure will serve to strengthen the group, focus it in a way that hasn’t been the case since Nakazawa left. There’s excitement about Momusu again becoming a ten-member group with Iida and Ishikawa’s graduations – a symbolic return to the glory days of “I Wish” and “Renai Revolution 21,” when the group was still at the height of its popularity. The lack of new members after the Lucky 7 auditions only served to further solidify the notion that the current members who’ll be staying around will have a chance to better hone their abilities and return Momusu to musical respectability – and perhaps musical maturity as well. With all that in mind, why not welcome Iida’s departure as a necessary step towards a greater good?

I don’t know. Maybe I’ll get to watch some footage of Johnson’s graduation and be moved to tears after all. It’s unjust, how somehow who’s been with Momusu for so long can be neglected in such a manner. And yet, I can’t feel all riled up by it, just oddly… puzzled, I guess.