The Kremlinology of Momusu

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

There are times when being a fan of Morning Musume in particular – but also Hello! Project in general – feels like kremlinology to me. This shouldn’t be a surprise since Bilal and Christin’s The Hunting Party is one of my favorite graphic novels. At any rate, I was watching some Morning Musume clips today and found myself slowing down the DVD player, pausing, making instinctive statements that seem to have no bearing on reality but which other Momusu fans could agree with…

For those not familiar with the term, Kremlinology was the study of the Soviet power structure, symbolized by the Kremlin. During the cold war (pre-Gorbachev and glasnost), the secretive nature and mystifying (to outsiders) decisions made by the Soviet government turned Kremlinology into an arcane artform more than a social science. The announcement that Premier Andropov isn’t feeling well means that Andropov is dying; the announcement that Premier Andropov is beginning to recover means he’s already buried in the ground. Random news pieces in Pravda became sources of great speculation; seemingly innocuous gestures from one person to another become windows to hidden divisiveness. Keeping track of who’s who in the party hierarchy – who’s in, who’s out, who’s got strong KGB connections, who doesn’t – was often a complex treasure hunt.

All this should sound familiar to fans of Morning Musume. The constant changes within the group, the different factions in persona lives and subgroups, the drama that is often generated by the geino press and fandom, and especially the seemingly bizarre decisions made by Tsunku and the Up-Front Agency make the appreciation of Hello! Project – and especially their flagship group – an exercise in finding and deciphering various hints and signals.

So for example, I’ve been watching the PV for the new single, “Osaka Koi no Uta,” and absolutely loving it. I finally figured out that the electronic music sounds a whole lot like Depeche Mode circa Violator and certain motifs of the PV bear this out, from the opening view of the sky to the deep red background while the girls danced in silhouette, only occassionally illumined by an ever-moving spotlight. If it was a pure Depeche Mode emulation, I’d have been happier. To me, the song gets too repetitive and a bit too cabaret melodramatic by the end, going from nihilist new wave boogie to campy bleeping synth-pop mediocrity. (A thin line the early DM often crossed, by the way.)

But as I said, there’s weird connections and interpretations to be found in this PV. Here’s the highlights that fascinated me tonight.

For starters, there’s the beginning of the PV where Yossi is clutching Rika’s chest. Is it a reference to the strong bond that exists between these two Gen 4 members? Rika’s surely being clutched because she’s the one who’s graduating from Momusu next month – but she’s also clutched by Yui in Viyuden’s “Kaccho Ii Ze! Japan” PV. Will there be more PVs where people clutch at Rika, and is that a sign of Hello! Project’s dependency on her? To backtrack further, she was the weakest voice to get a solo line in the Hello! Project All-Stars single – should that be factored in, as well?

(The H!P All-Stars PV is a clear reading of the pecking order in the collective, as the performers deemed most popular or important to the group were given solos: Natsumi Abe, Matsuura Aya, Goto Maki, Kago Ai, Tsuji Nozomi, Ishikawa Rika, and Fujimoto Miki. In short, Nochiura Natsumi, W, the most idol-esque of Momusu who’s als the leader of Viyuden, and the solo star relegated to Morning Musume.)

And what’s with the look on Yossi’s face? Someone on MM BBS has already made clear how she looks like Frodo in Lord of the Rings but is it more than that? Is she upset to see Rika go, and if so is there a lesbian undertone to it? If so, do we bring this back to Yossi’s most magnificent cross-gendered performance, the PV of “Mr. Moonlight – Ai no Big Band”? And does any of this connect at all to Yossi’s current assumption as MM’s leader?

Another big concern is the sequences where each member is striking a pose while her name circles her like the rings of Saturn. This is a very cool effect, made even cooler by how sexy the girls try to look. But as with most things in Momusu, the apportioning of these sequences is not evenly distributed. And from watching again and again, pausing and slowing to try to recognize faces or read names, it seems that Niigaki Risa has been given only one such spinning-name-logo sequence and it’s towards the end. Ogawa Makoto has two such sequences, both at the end. Takahashi Ai and Yaguchi Mari seem to get the most, which makes sense as Takitty is the lead for this song and Mari is the leader. But is there anything else that can be deciphered here? Why are fans always so quick to place Ogawa at the bottom of the pecking order in Momusu? And why Risa at this point?

Takahashi Ai, as I said, is the lead for most of this song and she’s also been made the sub-leader for the group with Yagu-chan’s sudden departure.

If I start talking about Mari’s quitting the group, I won’t stop. This post will be too long as it stands, but certainly the events of the past two weeks – and the way fans try to figure out what really happened and are left to semi-educated guesses and a whole lot of baseless speculation – makes the Kremlinology analogy that much more vivid.

Back to Takahashi, she does a great job with the song and is striking in the emotion she evokes visually in the PV. She looks pained throughout, truly heartbroken and holding back some anger.

That said, the whole topic of Takahashi Ai is worth considering in further detail. For starters, she’s been the heavy hitter of Gen 5 since the very beginning – she can dance, she can sing, she’s very pretty… but also very boring, in some ways. It’s harder to see the attention-hungry diva in her that’s necessary to endure the life of a Jpop idol. (Though if anything, this lack is something that can be noted about all of Gen 5. In some ways, they’re like the caretaker presidents of the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, striking little emotion in the populace and having little immediate influence.)

However, Tsunku has singled her out time and again, giving her some very choice vocals (including dueting with him on “Love Since 1999”, the song he once did with Hamasaki Ayumi). And perhaps more striking, she often seems to wear short-shorts, most notably in her Minimoni days. The other girls would be fully clothed and there’s Takitty, just shy of sporting Daisy Dukes. (The same can be said of SweetS’ Haruna for several months, from “Love Like Candy Floss” to “Sky”. I’m not sure what that signifies either.)

And then there’s the dancing-in-the-dark segments of the PV, silhouette against a red backdrop, typical Momusu group choreography, spotlight flashing around back and forth like a prison watchtower. Whatever obvious signals it sends, one thing’s for sure – it made for a truly boring and ugly Dance Version of the PV. Watching just that was truly pointless, and I hope the powers that be switch it out and decide on a whole other alternative PV, perhaps a close-up version with the girls singing individually at the mike.

On a final note, I have to say that Niigaki Risa is looking better and better. She used to be a skinny little nobody in pigtails but somewhere in 2004 she grew up, her face filled in, and now she’s incredibly attractive. What was once a goofy grin now looks like a mature, almost knowing, smile. And on a wholly surprising note, I was shocked at how attractive Michishige Sayumi looks in the PV. She’s at the bottom of my list of favorite Momusu members, but she’s certainly growing beautiful as time passes, growing in front of us the same way Risa did.

All that said, the Momusu I love remains Tanaka Reina. Even if she’s too skinny for her own good, she’s the one member who’s got my undying loyalty.

From here, the next source of video speculation is this past Sunday’s episode of Hello! Morning. Mari is in charge, as is Goto Maki – not the usual Yuko and Nacchi combination. Does this mean anything? Don’t know. Is Mari still in Hello! Project? Still open for debate.

The main part of the show is devoted to fortune telling by reading faces and palms. Which is kind of appropriate to my topic, but that’s not the source of otaku awe and curiosity.

No, what’s got everybody worked up is the prospect of a new generation being added to Morning Musume. It’s nerve-wracking because you never know who Tsunku will choose. Remember that Momusu began as a collection of losers from Sharan Q’s talent search for a female singer. Also keep in mind that the introduction of Goto Maki as 3rd Gen shocked everyone, as she was young but looked more mature than several of the other girls. And also, Tsunku has pulled other surprises from auditions – he picked a fourth girl for both Gens 4 and 5 (Tsuji Nozomi and Konno Asami, respectively), not for their talent but for the heart they brought into their tryouts. For 6th Gen, he added an H!P soloist, Fujimoto, which still seems puzzling today, though it’s a good thing she’s there in the current line-up. And with the three finalists for 6th Gen, he eliminated none of them and all were inducted.

And then – for the seventh gen search last year, the so-called “Lucky 7” – he pulled a real shocker and decided none of the finalists were good enough to be in Momusu. “Nasshi.” And just when the air cleared, when it looked like the current line-up would at least have a chance to establish itself before new members arrived and took some of the spotlight for themselves, another 7th Gen auditon was held, now narrowed down to five finalists. Is he picking one, an “ace” as he promised in the first wave of 7th Gen auditions, someone like Goto Maki who’d be the clear superstar? Or will e go for more than one girl? Whatever he says, we’d have to take it with a grain of salt.

At any rate, the only girl I really could root for is this one. She’s pretty enough (not a big factor in inducting Momusu members, admittedly), but she’s also not too young (the 12-year-old finalists seem out of place now that Berryz Koubo has that age bracket locked up tight among H!P) and not too old (the I Love Africa girl is 19, which would be a good age if she was going solo but seems too old nowadays to become a new Momusu). More important, she brought some energy and charm to her singing of “Shabondama” (once one of my least favorite MM songs, now one of my most favorites). Quite frankly, the singing was atrocious with several of the other girls, and a couple just didn’t look as interested as they should have.

But as I said, this has never stopped Tsunku before. He’ll choose as he sees fit.

Further, Tsunku has stated that he’s not putting the finalists through training camp, something that’s been done for all previous generations and has become something of a Momusu tradition. Tsunku has stated that instead he will go to the hometown of the winning girl – or is it girls? – and announce her as the newest member in next week’s episode.

Which falls on May 1st, which is May Day.

What the fuck is going on here?

Tsunku is the face of the business machinery that keeps Hello! Project running, the Up-Front Agency. Often, fans blame Tsunku for decisions which were reached at least partially with UPA’s input. This apparently includes the two big scandals in recent months, Nacchi’s plagiarism scandal and Mari’s being caught with a boyfriend and resigning. How much autonomy Tsunku has is unclear. He writes and produces all of the H!P songs practically, but his creative power does not equate to a final say in other matters. The decision to go with no winners for Gen 7 (it’s better to call this current audition Gen 7.5) may have been his way of going with UPA’s call for new members but instead wanting to keep things the same.

I don’t know. Things are very tumultuous for H!P right now, and what’s happening next could be anybody’s guess. I’m anxious to hear news about Mari’s status with H!P – is she still a member or not? – as well as the results of the auditions. I wonder how the group is going to react at Ishikawa’s graduation and what kind of image the group will project in future singles. They’re leaning towards a more mature, danceable style, but will that stick? What if a 12-year-old is added to the line-up?

Speculations, interpretation of signals, waiting and seeing what happens… That’s all we’re left with for now. It’s often one of the deepest pleasures of Momusu for me. But sometimes it can also be pretty damn frustrating.