Zone Plans to Disband

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

Zone is breaking up on April 1st.

This discovery began with mild curiosity. I downloaded a clip from last week’s Pop Jam of Zone performing “Secret Base”. That was odd: why would Zone perform an old song, even if it’s their most popular? It had been a long while since the group released their last single, the ballad “Glory Colors,” in late autumn 2004. It had been even longer since their last good song, “Taiyo no Kiss” from late spring. I assumed the band was on a short break when lead singer Miyu released two R&B singles in December, neither of which was particularly memorable.

So how about some new material? A quick check on YesAsia.com showed that they had a forthcoming single, which got me excited, and were contributing to an anime-related compilation album.

Then, my usual check of Jpop forums led to the ugly news: Zone’s official site announced their breakup after one more single and a short farewell tour, ending at the Budokan on April 1st. My wife translated the handwritten messages each of the four girls posted on the site, and it became clear that the reason the band is breaking up isn’t Miyu’s solo career. Drummer Mizuho stated that three of the four current members – herself, bass player Maiko, and singer/guitarist/keyboardist Tomoka (Miyu is the youngest of the group) – are graduating from high school this year and Mizuho wants to explore new possibilities in her life. The band considered continuing as a threesome, decided that Zone was always about four members, and that it was time to break up the band.

Mizuho’s decision sounded familiar: Zone’s oldest member, singer/guitarist Takayo, left at the end of 2003 to pursue a college education – making space for Tomoka to re-join. (Zone started out with six members but cut down to four when they went professional; when Takayo left, the other members asked for Tomoka to come back. Since then, she’s become my favorite member.)

Zone was the second Jpop band that I fell in love with, though Momusu had an indirect hand. I first noticed them on the Pop Jam Valentine’s Day special last year: along with hosts Tsunku and Yuka, H!P solo artists Matsuura Aya and Goto Maki, and some comedians, they were part of the Pop Jam All-Stars that did a cover of “Love Machine.” One of the Zone girls – I later found out it was Miyu – was wearing a Ramones T-shirt. Their exuberant take on Momusu’s classic single so charmed me that I downloaded Zone’s performance from that same special of their then-current single, “Sotsugyo.” The mix of upbeat rock guitars and Jpop girl group sensibilities was something I hadn’t seen before.

I was hooked from there. While I’ve cared less and less about the cult of authenticity over the years, I love that Zone play their own instruments and play them well. Being a skilled band as well as quirkily adorable, the band have their own unique blend of kawaii (cute) and kakoi (cool). As a result, I found the upbeat songs preferable to slower ones: “Good Days” and “True Blue” and especially “Akashi.” For Zone, both “Akashi” the song and its PV are surprisingly dark, despite the hopeful ending. The driving rhythm and impassioned singing – Miyu sang with an urgency and pain that required no translation – became a benchmark for what I expected from the band. Solo versions of the “Akashi” PV (the only Zone song to earn that odd distinction, which apparently tied into a video game) heightened my awareness of just how well each member played their instrument.

Miyu’s solo “Akashi” PV also made crystal clear how she was the budding rock goddess of the group. All the members of Zone are down-to-earth and playful – if not the prettiest girls in Jpop, they often seemed like the most fun and the most likeable personalities. That said, Miyu had something special, a composure and gravitas that the other members didn’t have. This was driven home by the “unspoken lines” of “Akashi,” where Miyu mouths lyrics that aren’t actually sung – a silly conceit that she manages to pull off convincingly.

So when Miyu did her recent solo turn, it was disappointing that she chose such generic R&B to express herself. It was as if she was aping a post-Speed Hiro, opting for a little more toughness instead of sexiness but otherwise not setting herself apart. (If anything, Akane of Folder 5 has a better grip on this kind of image and music, and even she chooses more distinctive material and presentation.) If the songs were stronger, or if Miyu wasn’t so intent on changing her image so radically, I would have enjoyed it more. As it was, I felt mildly embarassed by the effort and put away the PVs soon after downloading them.

But with news of the imminent breakup, I’ve found myself watching Miyu’s solo PVs again – not with much enthusiasm, but with something approaching hope. My initial reaction to these songs haven’t changed, it’s the context which is different. Miyu’s solo music is no longer a sideline from her main role as Zone’s frontwoman – soon it’ll be all she’ll have. Will she survive? Will Zone’s fans follow her? Can she find better material and find some midde ground between her Zone self and her solo R&B self?

And what of the other members? Mizuho may be happy to move on, but what of Maiko and especially Tomoka Maiko has her own radio show, so she’s likely to continue that. But Tomoka has only been with Zone proper for one year, a brief time that she noted in her farewell note. It seems wrong that she hasn’t had a chance to distinguish herself the way the others have.

Actually, I’m holding out hope that the band will re-unite after a year or two, maybe even sooner. While I’m sure Takayo and Mizuho left with a sincere desire to expand their horizons, there’s actually so much more that could be done with Zone. On a baser level, the life of a rock star is so highly coveted that its siren call may bring back these errant souls. It’d be even better if they returned as a five-member band, with Takayo back and Tomoka on keyboards.

In the meanwhile, there are tears to shed and a last single to anticipate – one that supposedly rocks out, which is a fitting end. No other band can fill the void Zone will leave behind, but that’s exactly why they’ll be missed.