Hello! Morning 258: What Charmy Wants…

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

I’d started this post a couple days back but kept getting distracted – the hazards of combining long-winded posts with a short attention span. This morning I was going to finish it when I read a couple of posts on Idolizing St. Anna about another Morning Musume scandal in the making – an audio clip of Fujimoto Miki making fun of Ishikawa Rika backstage during last year’s Ecology-themed musical and then a follow-up audio clip where Rika and Yoshizawa Hitomi discuss a possible double-date that Yaguchi Mari and Mikitty went on before Abe Natsumi’s graduation concert last year.

Listening to the clip with my wife (who was very patient about the obvious panic I was in) and going over a transcript of the second clip (both provided by chancha at the Morning Musume BBS), that second audio clip talks about Yaguchi’s indiscretions but doesn’t really implicate Mikitty. As for the first clip – well, I don’t think it’s such a big deal. People who work together sometimes snipe like that – and, not to be sexist or ageist, but teenage girls tend to be more snippety than other groups.

So until something more definite – like another inappropriate Fridays pictorial – is shoved in my face, I’ll be in denial. My fanboy nerves are still frazzled over the past couple months and the thought of more turmoil is too much for me. A return to normalcy and happiness is all I really want in Hello! Project right now.

Speaking of which…

I’ve already talked about it a little in earlier posts, but this past Sunday’s Hello! Morning is worth looking at in closer detail since it was so damn good and was an excellent reminder of what makes the show worth watching. This special Ishikawa graduation episode let Rika do whatever she wants. This would be mildly interesting with some Musumes, but in the case of Rika it’s a chance for her unique personality – and her unique position in Morning Musume – to shine.

The episode begins with Charmy in a darkened studio, looking quite beautiful and speaking in a romantic, melodramatic manner.

The lights go on and we see the Hello! Morning set now has a row of huge Rika portraits hanging in the background. The other girls flock to Charmy, playing around with her and taking her picture with Polaroid cameras.

The main thing I notice is Tanaka Reina’s shorts.

The Polaroids become a motif that runs throughout the show, and actually tie the show together in a wonderful way. Anyway, after a bit of fussing and playing, the other Musumes run off the stage just as quickly as they appeared. Rika looks confused, hoping to have gotten some help on her special episode, and runs off the stage as well.

This highlights Ishikawa’s role in Morning Musume – she was the too-cute member, the one who loved pink and lapsed into odd moments of romantic longing. As a result, she also became the butt of many jokes – picked on for being an airhead, rarely taken seriously, an example of looks over talent and smarts.

And this was her strength. Rika knew she came across as a creampuff and learned how to use it to her advantage as a media personality. She and Yossi would often riff off each other, Rika saying something cute and romantic with Yossi immediately cutting it down in an overtly masculine manner. An exagerration of her cutesy cluelessness was the basis for her Charmy character on the Hello Pro Newshour, the most memorable foil for Nakazawa Yuko. Her high-pitched voice may not have been the best for singing, but she could do spoken parts in the single with a kind of ingenue freshness that others weren’t as good at. In some ways, Rika was the personification of the worst suspicions about pop idols – and yet instead of trying to hide from it or claim she was any different, she embraced it and made herself a larger-than-life character.

Taking this a step further, I’d say that all the fourth gen members were especially gifted in that way. They had certain personality traits – Yossi the tomboy, Tsujikago the terrible twins – and played it up to become characters, memorable and loveable for being so cartoonish at times.

Kei and Gocchin are the episode’s hosts, two-thirds of Petit Moni. Morning Musume are to the right of the hosts; the remaining ex-Musume are to the left of the hosts. Yuko is the only H!P Musume missing, which factors into the episode later on. Mari is nowhere to be seen, so I’m guessing she isn’t part of Hello! Project after all. And of course, the three who left H!P and Momusu permanently – Fukuda Asuka, Ishiguro Aya, Ichii Sayaka – are nowhere to be found. If I recall correctly, the fourth gen debuted at Sayaka’s graduation concert at the Budokan.

I like how the graduates are separated from the current line-up for this episode, it’s a reminder that one’s status does change after graduating from Morning Musume. More than that, it also points out something a little more problematic: the starpower is definitely more noticeable on one side of the stage than another. Consider one side: Nacche, Iida, Kei, Gocchin, Tsuji, Kago. The other side: Yossi, Takitty, Konno, Makoto, Risa, Mikitty, Sayumi, Eri, Reina. The stars on the graduate side – Nacche, Gocchin, Tsuji, Kago – were stars before they left Morning Musume, and merely shined brighter afterwards.

On the other side, who are the stars of Morning Musume now? Mikitty, who’s proven herself in a solo career. Takitty and Reina are two stars in the making but don’t have the same aura that others had when they were in the group. Reina’s still proving herself (and I’m rooting for her, dammit – did you see those shorts?) and Takitty… she’s got the looks and pipes and the moves, but even after four years she doesn’t compare to Goto Maki or Abe Natsumi at similar stages in their Morning Musume careers. Part of it is that she joined Morning Musume at the end of their hottest career streak – some would argue, however, that the addition of fifth gen helped contribute to Morning Musume’s decline.

Rika, sitting on her throne between current Musumes and graduates, is now leaving to be a full-time Viyuden. Morning Musume more than ever looks like a farm team for future H!P soloists and (more likely) team units like Viyuden. But I know this is nostalgia talking, and it’s only a matter of time for the current Musumes to step up and make their senpai proud.

Back at the show, there are several quick segments that are fun and illuminating in their own ways. Rika narrates her own history of Ishikawa Rika in Morning Musume, which is both odd and hilarious, as Ishikawa tells us about the dramatic moments in Ishikawa’s career. If no one else will do it for her, Rika will tell you how great she is – a joke about her ego, but also a comment on her flexibility and competence.

Rika then listens as a friend – soon revealed to be Melon Kinebi’s Shibata Ayumi – tells a couple of stories about Rika and showing off some souvenirs bought while traveling with Morning Musume (one from Okinawa and I think one from Hawaii). The above photo is Rika watching as her souvenirs are carted on-stage, looking very regal and less than thrilled at how her special episode is being derailed. Then Rika stages a one-person imitation competition, only to be upstaged by an impulsive Tsuji. It was cute and shows how the imitation contests were such an integral part of Hello! Morning in the past. I’m not sure it’s as important now… though maybe it’s just a matter of not watching it in the right weeks.

One of Rika’s wishes is that she and Yossi switch places in a familiar recurring skit, where Yossi traditionally plays the cranky old man whom Rika’s gentle housewife must placate and please. The skit begins with Kago and Tsuji sneaking into a room as a couple of no-goods, then Yossi enters dressed up as the housewife, sounding feminine and fluttery but sometimes making the face which indicates she’ll be playing the cranky old man instead. Rika then enters as the cranky old man, demanding to be massaged by Yossi, slapping around everyone who enters the room, and overturning the tea table in front of her.

Rike has a fun time going on a rampage, and it’s funny to watch her slapping around the other girls for a change. Nacche can’t keep from smiling throughout her “abuse” at the hands of cranky old man Rika. Finally, Rika slaps Yossi and seems to feel very good about it. That’s when Yossi strikes back, shoving Rika to the floor.

Above is a pose quite common to Rika, a camera shot that invokes Japanese melodramas where the heroine is forced to face unhappy truths. (At least, that’s the cultural context I’ve always assumed it was taking from.) In the early Bus Stop skits, Rika played a schoolgirl who’d be upset over one minor problem or another – a small blemish, raccoon eyes – only to have somebody slap some sense into her, sending her reeling into the camera shot above. The person who bitch-slapped Rika would then tell her to straighten up and it’s not such a big deal, and she’d immediately take this advice to heart.

Variations of this joke would persist over the years, almost always playing up Rika’s vanity and flightiness. And this case, after her mini-rampage, is no different.

At last, Yossi becomes Yossi and Rika becomes Rika – that is, Yossi becomes the bossy masculine half of the couple while Rika becomes the subservient feminine half. Yossi demands that Rika set up the tea table yet again, only to overturn it in rage. And for some reason, all seems right in the world after that.

This whole skit reminds me of carnival, where serfs pretended to be rulers and vice-versa – it allowed a chance for unexpressed desires to finally rise to the surface, only to return the hierarchy back to normal once those pent-up urges have been allowed. Rika certainly had a chance to act out – even if only playfully – some revenge, and the Ishiyoshi dynamic was turned on its head for beautiful effect.

Even though it’s Rika’s wish to reverse roles, Yossi is the one who steals the skit. Rika isn’t nearly as convincing as the old man: despite all the fun she had in that role, her body language and voice isn’t scary so much as a cute approximation of scary. Yossi, on the other hand, was masterful: her constant vacillation between her usual role (cranky old man) and her given role for this skit (gentle wife) played out wonderfully on her face. It’s really amazing how she makes herself look scary and ugly when she assumes the face, then looks quite pretty and feminine when she has to do the housewife – all from scowling or smiling. She makes her old man as convincing as her gentle wife. Yossi’s got a gift for comedy and it’s nice to see it used so well.

Next is the return of Hello Pro News and the different alter egos of its newscasters. Yuko isn’t present but they use a cardboard stand of her for most of the skit – that is, until she calls by video phone to address everyone, even encouraging Charmy to dance. Charmy does so, then encourages Yuko to dance who, talking through a phone, indulges her as best as she possibly can.

Oddly enough, I don’t miss the Hello Pro News hour as much as I thought I would. The new H!P shill sequences with Yuko and Eri are just as much fun and less of a drag at times. After all, sending a ridiculously-dressed Konno to interview other H!P members was amusing but not that amusing. I mean, it helped me like Konno, but it wasn;t the best way to kill airtime, was it? At least, not compared to Eric Kamezou shaking his maracas.

Next on Rika’s wish list is to redo a memory recitation challenge where she lost and was unable to eat some tasty meat. From the flashback clip shown, however, she apparently was allowed to have some of the food after she began to cry. But I’m guessing the fact that she didn’t earn the meat bothered her.

Cut back to the present: with a good deal of coaching for everyone who needs it, the eight Musume members play the challenge, starting with one saying / gesture and each person afterwards reciting everything that’s gone before and adding another saying / gesture. Rika is last and goes through the nine steps before her – with very little help, I should add (there are shots of her watching intently and memorizing as the girls went along) – and rectifying a past wrong. She’s delighted at clearing the “challenge” such as it is, and it’s difficult to begrudge her that – it’s her special day, after all.

Food competition! Everyone gets a reward! (But where are the Musume graduates in all this?) Ishikawa chows down while wearing a tiara!

And just look at those shorts on Tanaka!

The girls perform Ishikawa’s favorite Momusu number, “The Peace!” They look very cute in those outfits, as usual. The song makes me think of Self Defense Force recruitment, as always. And the song is still one of the group’s best – though what happens now that Rika’s gone, I don’t know.

With every graduation, something is lost. Someone on the boards pointed out that “The Peace!” was Rika’s song and now the history of the current line-up moves to Yossi’s song, “Mr. Moonlight”. This may not be completely accurate – after all, re-assigning lines is a common practice in Morning Musume. Emotionally, however, it does feel that way. It’s not that newer members can’t sing the older songs but that the older songs are strongly associated with the older members. You can have the younger H!P girls sing “Chokotto Love” but for many fans it belongs to Petit Moni (and for some, the Petit Moni line-up with Sayaka, not Yossi). Rika does a very nice cover of “Morning Coffee” but that song will always belong to Yuko, Iida, Nacche.

Back at the studio, the girls give Ishikawa their graduation gift to her: a book filled with photos from Ishikawa’s entire Morning Musume career, including Polaroids taken before and during this episode. Rika being Rika, she begins to cry. Personally, I think it’s a better gift than the one they gave Iida, which was a handcrafted clock. But I think the gifts match the graduates: Iida’s been there from the very beginning and has an artistic sensibility, making a handcrafted clock appropriate on at least two levels. Rika has always cared about appearances and played upon her vanity, so a collection of photos suits her perfectly.

The episode closes with footage of Ishikawa’s graduation concert – parts of the concert and, of course, the hugs and tears of the final graduation goodbyes to Ishikawa. Leaving the stage, Ishikawa breaks out in tears and is comforted by the other girls. They all pose together for one last group shot Polaroid, which we can all safely assume is the last image in the photo album given to Rika.

Okay, I’ve been talking a great deal about the old Morning Musume and how the current Morning Musume can’t compare to them. With Ishikawa graduated and happily leading Viyuden, I think I’ve said enough on that front. It’s time to look towards the new Morning Musume and see how they’ll reach greatness – not if, mind you, but how. They’re destined to live up to their legacy, led by Yossi and Takitty and Mikitty and Reina and their new ace miracle girl, Koharu. They’ll turn around the slow downward spiral of sales and galvanize Japan the way they did with “Love Machine” and “Happy Summer Wedding” and “The Peace!”.

And really, this isn’t denial talking.