Hasebe Yu’s Idol Video

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

Hasebe Yu has released her first idol video (IV), Natural. This is interesting, as it reverses a trend where gravure idols – women famous for posing in various states of undress – sometimes try to become pop idols. Ogura Yuko and Ichikawa Yui are two examples of such crossover, and there are several others. But now we have a pop singer trying to become a gravure idol… which I’m sure has happened before, but is a first from my own experience.

Hasebe is best known as one of the original members of Dream. A trio of female singers – the other two were Matsumoro Mai and Tachibana Kana – chosen from a nationwide talent search by Avex, Dream released strong R&B singles that had a loyal following but didn’t chart well. Showing a depth that most wouldn’t attribute to such singers, Matsumoro Mai began writing lyrics for the trio as well. When Matsumoro left the group, Avex held another talent search and added six girls to the line-up, in effect making the group similar to Morning Musume. The Momusu comparison is not just in the sheer number of the expanded line-up, but also the relative youthfulness of the new additions and the seeming reliance on two or three strong singers to carry the group musically while others seem to be present for their cuteness. Since then, one of the new additions has left the group, making the current Dream a seven-member outfit.

Female Jpop singers often do photobooks and – less often – videos. Photobooks are a clear measure of popularity – if you do one, you’ve reached a milestone of sorts; if you do more than one, you’ve got a solid fan base. The original Dream have at least one photobook as a group, Peaceful Dream, which I have a copy of. And while there’s swimsuits posed in Jpop photobooks, these books are clearly an extension of the person’s popularity as Jpop idols, not just a reliance on cheesecake for its own sake. And that’s a significant difference with gravure.

To me – and maybe I’m reading too much into this (again) – there’s a generic difference between a pop idol video and a gravure idol video. The Alo-Hello videos for such Hello! Project artists as Matsuura Aya and Takahashi Ai have their share of cheesecake, but there’s a lightness to the whole proceeding, and often a musical interlude or two to remind you of what this person’s famous for. (Matsuura Aya does a wonderful ukulele version of “Nee” in her second Alo-Hello.) Gravure idol videos, on the other hand, seem much more obsessive about the way the viewer is supposed to gaze at the idol – the way the shots are focused to emphasize voyeurism, the way the models are positioned, the kind of music that plays. It’s all about the body, and “personality” is meant to facilitate that stare.

From what I’d seen (I downloaded the video but didn’t feel like sitting through the whole hour of it), Hasebe’s Natural falls strongly into the gravure IV category. Even the title evokes a gravure video, with the connotations it carries about how one is seen (in “natural” surroundings – much the way an idol video often emphasizes a sense of voyeurism) and how one looks (“natural” as in bare, or even as in not having plastic assets). Hasebe is well-suited to this, she’s undeniably beautiful and has a lack of self-consciousness in her performance that suits the project. Any signs that she’s a talented singer are incidental, at best – btu really, in the context of the video, who cares?

A skillful gravure idol imposes her personality, but the essential stare – the gaze of the viewer – is about the body at an almost exclusive disregard for the personality. Which isn’t to be mistaken with the way gravure idols play off certain subgenre roles, such as cosplay and OL, for their photoshoots. That’s part of what facilitates the focus on the body, a reliance on set rituals and expectations. There’s a facile interchangeability between gravure idols – precisely because what they’re famous for is their bodies and their bodies alone – that having additional talents, such as singing and acting, make more difficult. We associate these other talents with having more defined personalities while having a beautiful body is simply a gift void of personality.

Whether or not that’s fair is a judgment call. Those who like gravure idols and IVs have their favorites, and there are reasons for that. Mine are Yuuka and Kumada Yoko – give me a choice between a gravure video by one of these ladies or by Hasebe Yu, and Hasebe would certainly lose. I like how they look better than Yu, I like the playfulness, but they all inhabit the same context. However, as a viewer, I decide what else I see in the IVs, what makes their enjoyment and comfort stronger. Yuuka and Yoko better fit the bill for me, Yu doesn’t.

We’re talking degrees of objectification, of course – pop idols are often more popular for their looks than for their singing or dancing – but it’s a nuanced difference worth considering. And this isn’t to criticize gravure idols for the degree of objectification they inhabit but rather to acknowledge that the function they serve is distinct (if in many ways similar) to the function Jpop idols serve in popular culture. I love Yuuka and Kumada Yoko, but by no means do I want to see either of them sing or dance or act, either. (And for the record, Yuuka co-hosting Pop Jam doesn’t involve much more than light patter and looking good.)

So why did Hasebe Yu do this? Again, I don’t mean this as a “why stoop so low” criticism but out of honest curiosity about this rather significant career move. Is it meant to expose her to a new audience and hopefully earn her more money? And would exposure to a new audience be part of boosting sales for Dream? Would that even work? (I’d say yes, actually, as apparently the most popular gravure idols provoke rabid fan followings of their own.) Is this part of a larger plan to sell Yu to an even wider audience, perhaps to get her into acting as well as modelling? Is it a way for her to prove that she’s grown up, the way American teen idols from the 80s wind up posing for Playboy?

I wish Yu the best with this and hope the video sells well in the gravure market and not just to Dream fans. Personally, I’d have preferred a Mai video, but that has more to do with my Jpop otaku side than my gravure otaku side. Still, it’d be interesting to see who else would follow this career choice and how they turn out.

I don’t think many other Jpop idols can pull this switch off, actually. It takes talent to succesfully make the crossover from gravure to singing, but the ability to move from singing to gravure also takes certain abilities and gifts, a certain risk-taking and attitude (and, let’s face it, certain body proportions) that isn’t for everyone. For starters, I’d say roughly 95% of the Hello! Project ladies would fail miserably as gravure idols – or at least, not achieve the popularity they do now as idol singers. And despite her bravura use of sexuality in recent PVs, Koda Kumi wouldn’t be able to pull it off either, if you take away the dancing and singing. Hamasaki Ayumi would look ridiculous, and Ueto Aya would be out of her depths.

So in a sense, Hasebe Yu has distinguished herself by pulling this off. Where it goes from here, though, I have no idea.