Sympathy for Ogura Yuko

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

Ogura Yuko scared the hell out of me.

When I started my Jpop otaku thang early last year, I was on a torrent site – most likely, the now-on-hiatus and much-missed Bunko – and found a video titled “Yuko” available for download. I figured it had to be about Nakazawa Yuko, at the time my favorite Momusu member. Imagine my surprise when I opened the clip and saw what looked like a twelve-year-old girl walking around in a bikini, answering questions with thoughtful innocence during interview segments.

At first I thought this must have been Nakazawa at a much younger age… And then I realized it couldn’t be, she didn’t look like Nakazawa at all.

And then I began to worry about the police busting down my door and finding this video on my hard drive. A real Pete Townshend moment of my own.

It wasn’t that there was anything illegal about this video. No sex acts, not even nudity. But it was the way the camera handled its shots, the emphasis on a certain kind of angle and mood, and the way the interview questions seemed disturbingly intimate for someone so young – I don’t even understand Japanese, but the tone was quite clear. It felt like the video was intended for pleasuring oneself – and the object in question being apparently under eighteen was just too much for me.

(Weeks later, I’d have a very similar kind of freak-out when I first encountered SweetS. Unlike Ogura, I got over that freak-out quickly and now love SweetS to death. But that’s a whole other story.)

I later found out this was Ogura Yuko, not Nakazawa, and had nothing to do with Morning Musume. Further, I found out Ogura was a leading gravure idol – that is, an idol whose claim to fame is posing in a bikini, not singing or dancing or anything else as superfluous. Ogura was born in 1983 and specializes in looking as young and schoolgirl as possible. There is a sizeable market for such gravure idols in Japan. The video I’d downloaded was likely made after she was eighteen, or at least around that age.

As noted earlier, I’ve developed a fondness for certain gravure idols since, particularly Yuka and Kumada Yoko. Ogura didn’t interest me at all – in part because of that first encounter, but also because she just wasn’t what I’d want to watch in a gravure video.

Anyway, at some point in her career Yuko-chan wanted to become an idol singer as well as a gravure idol, and she set about doing so. Her talent for running around in a bikini looking underage and innocent, unfortunately, did not translate well to actual singing.

A month or so back, somebody posted on Jpopsuki torrent a clip of Ogura performing “Vitamin Love” on Pop Jam last September. This person uploaded the clip because he was fascinated at how horrible the performance was, holding it as an example of the absolute worst a Jpop idol can be. The tone of the description made it sound like watching the Zapruder film over and over again, trying to figure out what went wrong and how anybody could have let it happen.

Morbidly curious, I downloaded the clip and, yes indeed, it was a real Grassy Knoll “back and to the right” kind of event. Ogura looked like a deer in headlights – a deer in a tiara and a ridiculous blue ass-high party dress, with dozens of colorful bands around her legs. Her voice was horrible, nasally and out of tune half the time. Perhaps worst of all, she had “choreographed” dance moves that involved teetering back and forth like a spastic toddler, pointing up and down, and looking to the upper right reaches of the stage the entire time. The last part was perhaps not rehearsed – if anything, it looked like she was trying to concentrate and make sure she was doing all her moves correctly. In only the most mechanical sense, she did.

After her performance, she spoke to two of Pop Jam’s hosts, Yuka (the gravure idol I adore)and Tsunku (the founder of Morning Musume and mastermind behind Hello! Project). Ogura did her teetering toddler move again and admitted to being very nervous while she performed.

I watched the video a few times and was as horrified and fascinated as the person who uploaded it. That said, I’ve also found myself humming “Vitamin Love” to myself ocassionally in the weeks that followed. The chorus is annoyingly catchy and if somebody else sang the song, it could even be worth listening to. But I figured such a horrible performance meant Ogura wouldn’t be seen on Pop Jam again any time soon.

I was wrong. Somebody uploaded this week’s Pop Jam – April 8th – and the opening act was none othan than Yuko-chan. This time she was at the top of a staircase, wearing a relatively tame outfit and clutching onto her mike. She didn’t sound any better than last time and her song, “Aitakute,” was boring – it wasn’t even catchy in an annoying way, just completely forgettable. She was as stiff as she was in her last appearance and continued to keep looking up and to the right as if trying to remember something. (Her lines? Her now non-existent dance moves? To keep breathing?)

After her performance, which received hearty applause, Yuko was interviewed by the new hosts of Pop Jam – Yuka, Tsunku, and the goofy emcee were all replaced a couple weeks back, and the show has a sort of new format. (I’d be upset, but at least Yuka and Tsunku don’t have to worry about finding work.) The hosts asked Ogura point-blank why she kept looking up the way she did, even recreating the look for her. Ogura said that she didn’t know she was doing that. (Thanks as always to my wife for translating these inanities.)

My God. Didn’t her managers point this out to her last time? Couldn’t they have spent some money on voice and performance lessons? How can somebody who’s so good in manipulating a camera when wearing a bikini be so unskilled when wielding a microphone? Is it because her managers consider this Jpop idol career a mere whim that they’re allowing Yuko-chan to follow, so she can be happy and do more bikini videos? Or do they think it’s hopeless and know that only the diehard fans of Yuko’s gravure work would even bother to pick up her CDs?

I don’t know. Maybe the audience was genuine in their enjoyment of Ogura and she’s doing well as a Jpop idol singer. Or maybe she’s an agreeable enough laughing stock, her fame in gravure work mitigating this excursion into other forms of entertainment. Kind of like Michael Jordan playing baseball.

A part of me wishes she’d stop being an idol singer and embarassing herself. Another part of me wishes she’d get lessons and improve. (It’s possible, you know.) And a part of me – a significant part of me – wishes she’d stay the same, giving me something horrible and fascinating to look forward to every few months, something that makes the hands-off gravure idol more sympathetic and recognizably human. But if that happens, at least make the songs quirky and memorable – throw me some kind of bone, for God’s sake.

All of which shows that I have a lot more to learn about the Jpop world before I can say I truly understand its machinations and whims.