Mari Quits Morning Musume

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

This is unbelievable. According to various sources – though I’m relying mostly on a red-hot Morning Musume BBS thread – Mari has quit Morning Musume after having pictures of herself published in the magazine Friday. (If I recall correctly, Friday is notorious for their revealing photos of geinou, including a recent article that showed Matsuura Aya visiting the lead singer from w-inds at his apartment, carrying toilet paper.) The photos – here are scans one, two and three (taken from MM-BBS)- has her spotted on the streets of Osaka (I think) with actor Oguri Shun.

An announcement’s been made on the official Hello! Project site and there’s already been an announcement about Yaguchi starting a solo singing career. While Mari has left Morning Musume, it’s not clear if that also means she’ll no longer be a part of Hello! Project in general. Yoshizawa Hitomi, the last remaining member of the fourth generation – at least, the last with Ishikawa Rika graduating soon – has been moved up from sub-leader to leader of Morning Musume.

Finding this out at my current work assignment in Waikiki, I immediately walked a couple blocks over to the Alo-Hello store and bought whatever Mari photos were available. I was afraid they’d already be gone and a letter posted on the wall, as had happened with Nacche’s scandal. Turns out the store had sold out of most of the newest batch of Mari pics – as well as several other H!P artists, including Reina Tanaka and most of Melon Kinenbi – but there was no ban on selling them. I got one from the latest sets and some of the older Mari photos available. It was mildly irrational, I know, but I remember when Nacche was being punished for her plagiarism scandal and they stopped carrying her merchandise. I didn’t want to lose out again, if word passed down from Japan to Hawaii to no longer carry Mari stuff.

(I should also note that the clerk working there today was very helpful and was also surprised when she’d heard the news about Mari earlier today. And while I was there, not having dropped by in a while, I picked up a nifty W plastic sheet thingie and a photo of Miyoshi Erika, as Reina and Masae weren’t in stock.)

The MM-BBS had a wide range of reactions and opinions – some people think she had volunteered to leave MM because she knew as leader she had to be a role model and failed, others think the Up-Front Agency pushed her out for fear of scandal. Some are saddened by Momusu’s loss, others are focusing on Yagu’s future and wish her success in her career and life, still others are actually happy to see Mari leave (all Momusu members have their adherents and detractors, after all).

Some people think that the scandal is more than meets the eye – Ayaya was caught with a boyfriend but wasn’t punished – and that Mari is pregnant or planning to marry (or both). That said, Ayaya wasn’t a leader within H!P the way Mari is, and Mari has worked with the kids as well as Momusu itself.

I’m still not sure what to make of any of this. I have bunches of questions that will likely not get answered any time soon or with anything approaching clarity – the perils of being interested in a different nation’s pop culture. That said, I’m devastated by this news. Mari is an integral part of Morning Musume and Hello! Project. She was responsible for Minimoni, Hello! Project Kids, and Zyx – she was a driving force, a person who brought a great deal of spirit to the collective. Seeing her go – whether forced out or by her own volition – is painful.

Do I think life will go on in that little corner of Jpop? Definitely. I just posted a few days back on how H!P has reached a point where they need not be Musume-centric (the recent success of Berryz Koubo’s current single bears this out). Mari’s leadership will certainly be missed, but we’re talking four-dozen performers so I’m sure the vacuum won’t exist for long (if at all).

It’s not even as if Morning Musume itself has been destroyed by Mari’s departure, just irrevocably altered (the advantage of having an ever-changing line-up, I guess). I’d be worried about Yossi’s role as leader if actually being a leader was meaningful in the larger scheme of things (best as I can tell, it’s like being captain of a sports team rather than an actual coach – you lead on the field, but that’s about it). I do wonder who will become sub-leader – it’s most likely Takahashi Ai or Fujimoto Miki.

And honestly, I think Morning Musume will benefit from this shake-up. With Rika almost out the door, we’re now looking at nine members in the line-up, the lowest since fifth gen signed on. No first, second, or third gen, only one fourth gen (Yossi). There are two strong lead voices, Takitty and Mikitty, one rising star in Reina, the solid utility vocals of Yossi, and the rest are developing their vocal talents and establishing themselves. With Mari out of the picture, the current Momusu’s image is now even more different from the group’s heyday from “Love Machine” to “The Peace!” (the last single before fifth gen, which is no coincidence). The group can work hard to make themselves stand out on their own terms, and I know they have the ability to do so. Just please, let there be better songs for their sake.

I don’t know if Mari can hack it as a solo singer. She’s good in a mix of voices but whether or not she can build a whole career on her own is debatable. At best, she’ll have Nakazawa Yuko-level success – which isn’t saying much, as I’m pretty sure Yuko doesn’t chart high at all.

If Mari is pregnant, that’ll make her the third ex-Momusu to become a mother but throws off my theory about the Love Machine curse.

And I think that this send-off is shoddy, at best. Mari won’t be taking part in any future Morning Musume concerts, meaning she won’t be there for Rika’s graduation. And there won’t be any graduation concert for Mari (which has only happened to one other Momusu, Ishiguro Aya), and that stinks to high heaven. For all that she’s done for H!P and Momusu, for all that she means to her fans, she should be recognized and praised and thanked and thanked some more. Even if it was her own decision to leave, there should be time to consider everything she’s accomplished and to let that stand on its own.

Unfortunately, from all that I gathered about the Japanese media, once scent of a scandal sets in – and what the fuck kind of a scandal is it, where a 22-year-old woman behaves like most 22-year-old women? – then there’s no forgiveness and a demand for blood.

And I know part of this has to do with the expectations of a pop idol to be innocent and pure for the male fans who want to imagine they have a chance with her. And it’s different from “legitimate” singing artists in Japan (like Amuro Namie) who can date and marry and have children (as Amuro did) and be treated as they’re always treated. The artifice of pop idol-dom is a whole different beast, built on fantasies catering to people who want a ridiculous ideal of girlhood, complete with elaborate costumes and childish behavioral tics.

Don’t get me wrong – I like the playful aspects of that ideal, with the entertainment value and kawaii-kakoi thang it generates… but I also know it’s part of the act. If anything, this naive view is part of the imaginative space of Jpop idols and one of their charming quirks. But separate imagination from reality, okay? Having a firmer tether on the real world than some Jpop otaku, I don’t see any harm – and perhaps a lot of good – in pop idols having social lives and boyfriends and, if they choose, to have a sex life. (I didn’t write about the Ayaya thing because I considered it a non-issue.) I’ve heard that members of Momusu are required not to date while in the group; whether or not that’s true, I have no idea.

But if this whole Mari explosion is out of fear of that specific audience’s reaction to such news (i.e., the lonely older men with fantasies of a virginal Mari dancing in their heads every night), then that is a truly fucked chain of events we’re talking about.