Hello Morning 257: When Koharu Met Momusu

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

I saw the latest Hello! Morning on Monday but am watching it again because it’s such an important historical document. Someday I know I’ll be asked, “Where were you when you found out Koharu joined Morning Musume?”

And I’ll say, “Sitting in front of my computer, like everyone else not in Japan who gave a rat’s ass.”

Anyway, this episode was solely focused on the seventh generation audition and the reveal of the winner. No comedy skits, no live performances, nothing about W’s musical or any soloist’s upcoming singles or anything like that. No Erik or Elise, which is especially sad. It’s just Tsunku, the girls in the auditions, a keyboardist, a spare parent or two… and several hundred kids in blue track suits.

The episode starts with a recap of everything that happened before, from the announcement to Morning Musume while they were in Hawaii last year (it looks like they were at the Sheraton, but I could be completely wrong), detours through the fifth and sixth gen additions (I never tire of that footage, especially the sixth gen reaction to all of them making the cut), and the five current contenders for seven-point-five gen. (Should I keep calling it 7.5? I want to pay respect to the girls who didn’t make it in the original Lucky Seven auditions. Well, not pay respect, but acknowledge that this is the second go-round and could technically be called Gen 8.)

I still like this girl best, the fifteen-year-old. She’s the only one who gave me an idol thrill, who looked like she had it all together. I’m not going to bother to learn her name, though, mostly because if I attach a name to the face I’ll be bitching about the injustice done to her for the next few months. But for the last time: she’s very cute, she’s the right age to fit right into Momusu, and she did a really nice “Shabondama”. If I had my druthers, Tsunku will surprise everyone and visit her hometown and have Momusu sing at her school.

We can call her gen seven-point-seventy-five if we have to.

The current line-up of Morning Musume talks among themselves about the finalists. I like how they discuss having yet another Ai joining them (Suma Ai, the other 12-year-old), what with Takahashi and Kago (who of course is now with W). I can’t help but think of the shock and repressed delight on several faces when Tsunku announced after the last round of auditions that nobody made the cut. “Nasshi.”

I doubt they were hoping that nobody would be chosen at the original Lucky 7 auditions, but it does mean the spotlight stayed on them a while longer and wouldn’t shift to the latest H!P addition. As thrilled as these girls must be with the new blood, they must also want as much of the spotlight for themselves as possible. They’re pop idols, after all – and why be into that particular form of entertainment unless you have a large ego? It’s that egotism that brings outsized personalities to the stage, that projects a certain attitude, and that also makes you hungry for attention. (I think Gen 5 has always been less interesting than other generations because their egos weren’t large enough. Still aren’t, by the look of things.)

Tsunku, that inscrutable bastard, decides to go to the hometown of the one girl he thinks has something special, that can be his Ace, his Miracle. So he heads off in a van, gift bag in hand, knocks on the door..

And there’s Koharu to greet him, which means he rode all the way to Niigata. If I hadn’t known before watching the episode, I’d have been mad as hell. Tsunku pays his respect at the home shrine (which shocks the Momusu girls), then he and Koharu talk with her parents present. He asks how many she thinks will join as seventh gen and she says two or three, and that she hopes the other 12-year-old makes it. Tsunku laughs and says, As long as you’re in, too, right?

Koharu sings “Furusato” (her audition song) again as Tsunku arranges for a one-on-one singing lesson, bringing in the writer of the song (or so my wife tells me, though I thought Tsunku wrote all of H!P’s songs) to play keyboard accompaniment. This is actually very cool and the point where I begin to like Koharu. You can hear her improve under Tsunku’s tutelage, and he seems patient, calm – an excellent teacher. For her part, Koharu is taking this very seriously and appears very focused. She doesn’t want to blow her chance, she wants to prove she can sing.

Actually, watching Tsunku work with any of his artists is always satisfying – there’s footage I saw recently of Tsunku teaching Mari to do “Sexy Beam” on “Koi no Dance Site” and it’s one of the funniest things I’d seen with Momusu. (The funniest – and sexiest – is watching Ishiguro Aya vamp it up for the “Love Machine” PV.)

So. There is hope for Koharu, it would seem. This whole visit to her house is played out as an audition, as a test to see if she’s good enough for the final cut. Nothing definite is said about if she’s in or out.

One last thing: I hate “Furusato”. Along with “Hyokkori Houtan Jima”, it’s probably my least favorite of Momusu’s single. The original PV is fun, and the song’s been done as a solo by so many of the Momusu girls, but I just can’t get in it. That said, the bare-bones version that Koharu does is strangely effecting – perhaps because her parents are actually there, watching. Perhaps because the electronic tinkly sound effect throughout the produced version of this song is so annoying.

Tsunku speaks to the parents afterwards, pointing out how he was worried about their daughter’s singing tone. The father, a really handsome man who reminds me of some American character actor I can’t quite place at the moment, mentions that Koharu was captain of some sports team.

Really, I wish more of this conversation was available. How about bringing up questions like, “So, your daughter will earn a huge income. Is that okay with you?” Or, “We may put her in a penguin outfit and act out silly skits. And men older than yourselves will have her picture on their walls and yearn for her.” It’s strange what the parents are going to be in for – their daughter becomes an overnight superstar and they’re going to have deal with it as much as her. Apparently, in Japan the parents of idols often try to keep their lives as normal as possible – the impulse to go Hollywood isn’t as ingrained, I guess.

Tsunku says goodbye to the Kusumi family, we get a glimpse of the older sister who encouraged Koharu to audition in the first place. (Apparently, she’s supposed to be hot.) Afterwards, walking by a river, Tsunku ruminates out loud and finally decides he’s found his Miracle Ace and will not look anymore.

That’s it. He’s made up his mind.

Musume World will never again be the same.

Meanwhile, back in the studio, the current Momusu girls are told that they’ll be leaving for Niigata. They’re all shocked, as this hasn’t been done before. Usually, the new member meets the group in the studio or backstage.

Ogawa Makoto is from Niigata, just like Koharu, and the others show her special affection at the thought of going to her hometown. She seems stunned or less than pleased, maybe both.

The girls take a train to Niigata and they talk about the new member and the surprise they have in store for her. Rika will be graduating in a week – between that and Mari’s sudden resignation, the group would be down to nine if it wasn’t for Koharu. Ten is supposed to be Morning Musume’s magic number, at least according to Tsunku. The last time the group was ten they released “I Wish” and “Renai Revolution 21” – towards the end of the hot streak that made the group superidols.

We also get shots of Koharu in school, where all the students wear blue track suits. My wife stresses to me that such uniforms are typical for schools out in rurual areas; I can’t stop thinking of mob bosses behind bars.

At the school, an assembly is called and Koharu sits on the floor with the rest of her class. The news of the Momusu audition is made by an announcer, and some people next to Koharu seem surprised by the news. Koharu is brought on stage and questioned a bit. The announcer, who I initially thought was the principal, is pretty sexy in an OL kind of way.

A video from Tsunku confirms that Koharu is the new member of Morning Musume. She’s happy but doesn’t quite burst into tears. I kind of liked how past inductees have started crying, even when it looks like they don’t know why they’re crying. Sixth gen seemed especially clueless about it, for some reason.

Part of it certainly had to do with training camp. If I recall correctly, all the previous generations had gone through a training camp, working together, taught singing and dancing routines to see if they have what it takes to join Morning Musume. Sleep was at a premium, the lessons were grueling, and breaking down once you made the cut seemed almost natural as a result.

The decision to not place the five finalists through training camp is kind of odd, but the whole situation surrounding this audition is odd, though the oddness all seems to interconnect. First, the original Lucky 7 audition had a horrifyingly bad training camp, which was at least one reason nobody was chosen. Second, this follow-up 7.5 audition happened very quickly after Lucky 7, enough to surprise the Momusu girls and fans such as myself. Tsunku was either told by management to get new girls into the group or he still believed he needed an Ace. Third, the membership for the group has hemmorhaged from fifteen in January 2004 to twelve at the time of Lucky 7 to nine with Rika’s graduation. Time was of the essence. Fourth, since Tsunku was looking for an Ace and decided from the final five that only one girl was suitable, putting one girl through training camp by herself would’ve been pointless.

I’m not sure how Tsunku determined the five finalists were the best of 20,000-plus. From there, I’m not sure how Tsunku determined Koharu was the only one who even had a chance. He’s always been very odd on his instincts, and lets himself be guided by them in mysterious ways. My wife told me that Tsunku was judging by girls’ auras, and I’m not sure if that was a literal translation or some figure of speech.

That said, let’s once more go over his most puzzling choices in past auditions: starting Momusu in the first place, with five losers from the Asayan singing contest for Sharan Q; for both fourth and fifth gens, adding a fourth girl who doesn’t have obvious talent but is chosen because she has heart (respectively, Tsuji and Konno); for sixth gen, making Fujimoto Miki give up her solo career to join the band at its largest incarnation ever. And yet, all of these were good ideas – some may argue about Konno’s usefulness to Morning Musume, but I believe she’s proven herself.

Which brings up another oddity about H!P: Tsunku has a thing for not appearing in person whenever he informs new members that they’re in, preferring to speak via video. He also never appears at the graduation concert for members. It seems kind of Charlie’s Angels but I always assumed it was a way to keep a professional distance, to not grow too close to the girls. Or maybe he just needs a lot of personal space or can’t stand situations with crying girls, I don’t know.

That said, the oddness of Tsunku is central to its charm – and really, central to its identity. It’s worth musing over, but as much as we question it, it’s hard to argue with the results. Not impossible, mind you, but certainly hard.

Back at the school auditorium, Koharu is asked what she would say to the current members of Morning Musume. She asks them to be kind to her and she’ll do her best, or some such words. The announcer then pops the surprise that Morning Musume is backstage, and the current ten come out in single file.

As leader, Yossi gives Koharu a bouquet and welcomes her to the group. The other girls speak, one of the commenting that this is the first time somebody’s been made a member while wearing such an outfit.

This is probably the most warm and welcoming introduction between current members and new inductees I’ve ever seen. Fifth and sixth gen were trotted out onstage and formally introduced, but there were no flowers (or were there?) and it all seemed very business-like. It was even worse for third and fourth gen, if I recall correctly (I really need to watch past auditions again), where the current members arrived to work and the new girls waited nervously. In those cases, the current members eyed the new talent with something akin to suspicion and a bit of haughtiness, as if they had just joined a street gang and the leaders were planning to initiate them with a beating.

Okay, I’m exagerating here – but not much. That said, I don’t think it’s a coincidence Yuko was the leader of the group at that time. And now it strikes me as odd that Koharu is welcomed in such a kind manner by Yossi. Part of it has to do with what will be Yossi’s leadership style, I think – her personality and her age make her more accessible to the other girls. Yuko and Iida were more above-the-fray and authoritarian, and Mari didn’t have much time to prove herself as leader of Momusu. (Though as leader of Minimoni, she was excellent.) Yossi’s tenure as leader, while it’s really not a pro-active role, will be interesting to watch. Will she start to host Hello! Morning? Will she feel the need to bust some chops? (Not likely.) I wouldn’t want to see Yossi change too much, but can it be helped?

Morning Musume then perform, starting with “The Peace!” and going on to “The Manpower!”. I wish they played the full clips of this, it would’ve been fun to have watched and would’ve made up for the lack of live performances – or pretty much anything else – this week.

It would’ve been cool if they did “Osaka Koi no Uta” – who knows, they could have sold more singles as a result.

The audience of school children watch, grateful… but none more grateful than this enthusiastic li’l guy. I love this kid. You just know he’ll be a Momusu fan for the rest of his life if he isn’t one already. Someone should have done him a kindness and thrown him a lightstick to wave around.

Yes, he’s the kind of overeager freak who make Morning Musume fans look bad. On the other hand, his enthusiasm is genuine and it’s nice to see it in someone so young. What looks horrible on a middle-aged salaryman attending an H!P concert is much more palatable on a pre-teen wearing a blue track suit.

Koharu watches the performance from the audience, too, and one can’t help but wonder what she’s thinking. Soon enough, she’ll have to be with those girls, dancing and singing and doing crotch thrusts and exposing her midriff. Her whole life has changed at twelve years old, she’s got a chance that thousands of girls would love to have (well, twenty thousand, at least).

I feel a little sorry for her at this point. This is such a powerful moment, the transition between being an audience member and being the star attraction. My heart goes out to her and wishes her the absolute best.

And I wonder when her first photobook will come out. The more I watch Koharu, the more I think she’s cute and will grow into someone quite beautiful and dynamic.

Koharu and her classmates poses with her new group. I love this shot. Rika starts smiling in a second, but right here she just seems less than thrilled. Singing for kids in track suits at a school gym is probably not what she had in mind for her final week as a Musume.

As they walk back to their bus, Rika suggests to Yossi that the group wear blue sweatsuits for their next number. Yossi teasing back, asks if she still wants to stay in the group. This exchange is soooo cute and suddenly I’m wishing Rika would stick around as sub-leader for a little while. Ishiyoshi may not have been as strong a duo as Tsujikago, but it’d be fun to see the two play off each other like this on a regular basis, especially now that they’d be the two most senior members of the group.

The episode ended with Koharu making some last comments. Next week’s episode – that is, the episode airing in a couple days (I shouldn’t have put this entry off too long), will be devoted to Rika and her graduation.

This past month has been brutal for Morning Musume fans, all the changes are piling onto one another in rapid succession. I look forward to a bit of quiet as Koharu readies herself for her debut and Momusu hopefully releases a nine-member single or two in the meanwhile. I hope that no further news will upset the equilibrium too much – no surprise pregnancies, no scandals, no further announcements of graduation.

Please no more graduation announcements. At least not until late 2006. Let Mikitty pursue her solo career again, let Takitty start her own solo career… Let Aa! become active, so Reina will have her own subgroup (and so Suzuki Airin can get more attention – that child is so talented). But don’t change the group any further at this point, let some stability enter the group for a while.

It’s not so much to ask for, is it?