Why Jpop? Part Seven: The Collector

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

Winding down this series, there are some broader, abstract pleasures to Jpop that have made it so compelling for me. Unlike most of what I wrote earlier, these are qualities not unique to Jpop and can be applied to most any enthusiasm a person develops.

For me, at least, there’s something highly attractive about finding an intersting subculture and learning what you can about it. The cool part is how one piece of information leads to another, opening up systems of information that were previously unknown. You learn the jargon, you understand chains of reasoning, and the growing sense of order is itself satisfying and rewarding. It’s the anthropological equivalent of solving a logic puzzle: what once seemed obscure or unfathomable suddenly becomes an undeniable key in the overall equation.

So just knowing Morning Musume wasn’t enough, there was also specialized terms such as “shuffle groups” and “generations” and “graduations”. It took me a little while to figure Tsujikago wasn’t one person but two – and why those two earned such a label. (Speaking of which, why is fourth gen the only one to combine duos for names? Tsujikago, Ishiyoshi… Well, there’s Gomatto, but that was the group’s name and not a nickname for these girls. You don’t hear of Takagaki or Erisayu.)

Jpop is just the latest example of such discovery in my life. There was punk music when I was growing up, rap music in my college years, country music a few years back… or different kinds of cinema, such as European art films and anime and of course pornography. (Come on, anybody’s life is enriched by knowing what a “fluffer” is.) And of course, there’s comic books: I don’t speak “fanboy” as fluently as I used to, but the history and idiomatic quirks of comics is deeply ingrained in me. Given enough time, maybe the same will occur with Jpop after a decade or two.

But you can’t do it alone, of course. Or rather, it’s not as much fun if you do it alone. It’s natural when one has a passion to seek out like-minded people who share this interest. And thank God for the internet, because it’s easy enough to find others who love Jpop. Fan sites, forums, blogs… information gets passed along, questions can be answered, and goods can be traded.

Which brings another component that makes Jpop or any other interest so enjoyable: collecting. Maybe it’s possible to enjoy a subculture or hobby without owning any tangible objects related to it. But what would be the point? Collecting can have fetishistic extremes – as a fanboy and anime otaku, I’ve seen plenty of examples of this. Okay, I’ve been guilty of it time and again. I still have a Marmalade Boy Miki doll that I paid $100 for at Anime Expo 2000 – and I remain unrepentant of this rather absurd purchase.

The great thing about Jpop – as opposed to other musical genres – is it’s pretty damn shameless about marketing and licensing its goods. Most of the music I listened to in my youth were of a purist bent, wary of consumerism and thus not willing to sell photo sets of Dinosaur Jr or Page Hamilton photobooks. Sleater Kinney never hosted their own variety show and Sonic Youth didn’t hold a graduation concert when Bob Bert was replaced by Steve Shelley. Wu-Tang merchandised as far as they could, but I’d look ridiculous in Wu-Wear. The best I could manage was an incredibly cool poster of Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising cover and clippings from magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone.

By comparison, Jpop can be ridiculously immersive. The main way I collect Jpop is media files from the internet – I think I download a good two or three gigabytes a week, when you consider TV shows are half a gig each. But there’s also CDs, DVDs, photobooks, and a whole crapload of Hello! Project photosets and random plastic knick-knacks. And of course, the Japanese entertainment industry encourages this with extras included in first editions of CDs and DVDs – I’ve got my Shuffle 2005 photobook, my Zone Clips 03 film bookmark. They make me a happy camper, even as they collect dust. When I ordered the first SweetS mini-album, I prayed to God that I’d get the Haruna sticker. I did, and was very pleased. When I ordered the 1st X-Mas CD-DVD, I prayed for a SweetS trading card. I got Dream instead, and was disappointed… though not any longer, now that I’m a Dream fan. But did I consider buying the 1st X-mas CD again, just to get the SweetS card? Of course! I still do, sometimes. The idea of official SweetS merchandise existing that I don’t have is just… painful. (Now that I think of it, I could get all the other stickers for the first SweetS album, too.)

Because the best part about Jpop collecting is that we’re talking about idols here – performers who want that kind of attention lavished upon them. It’s difficult to imagine someone becoming an idol singer and claiming, “This is too commercial. Maybe we shouldn’t do a commercial for Pocky or Chupa Chups – it’d ruin the music, the integrity of our sound.”

In some ways, I’m actually not that diehard a collector. On the non-internet front, I have limited financial resources. And as for all the downloaded goodies, I won’t pick up a media file just because it’s got a favorite idol – chatting on a TV show in a language I don’t understand is far from “must have”. (Though W have a better chance than most, considering how much fun they are to watch when they’re on a roll. In contrast, most of the other Musumes, past and current, are much more sedate and thus not as much fun.) I’ve got general guidelines: all PVs of a favorite idol or group, whatever lives I can get of favorite songs… and in the case of Morning Musume, all the footage of auditions, graduations, and of course their weekly show Hello! Morning.

Now, Hello! Morning is a project in itself. Right now I’m about thirty episodes short of the 265-and-counting episodes of Hello! Morning, having just downloaded episode 147. Thanks to a project on Hello! Tracker, I’m coming close to having a complete collection of episodes. But when am I going to find the time to watch them all? Well, I know I’ll make the time, but still… Here we’re at the edge of excess, I think. But without these episodes, how can I really understand the full history of Hello! Project?

And then there’s the quirks that develop as you get deeper into your field of interest. I treasure my black Lois Lane comic – you see, she turned herself black to find out what it’s like to be African American; writer Robert Kanigher apparently was on some major drugs. And I mentioned the Miki doll already, right?

Being a Jpop fan, I’ve found there are some things I want that has nothing to do with music. At least, not the music I listen to. I try to get every new episode of Utaban because Ishibashi is so damn funny. And then there’s Gackt. I don’t particularly care for his music one way or the other, but I make sure to have any interesting clips of him. He’s a funny son of a bitch, even as he maintains his dark and brooding persona. I love him to death when he shows he’s got a sense of humor about himself. Para para dancing. Speaking Chinese to Vivian Hsu. Doing a Gundam impression. Being harassed by Momusu’s Kago, of course. Discussing his guitar and underwear collections – this in the same feature, mind you. Confronting a Gackt impersonator.

And of course, the Gackt appearances on Utaban are some of my favorite clips in my collection: two guys making fun of another, very pretty guy. If I had to choose between the Utaban Gackt clips and the Alo-Hello clips of H!P girls in bikinis, there’s no question: Gackt and Ishibashi win.

It may not make sense to you, but it makes perfect sense to me.

Next: That Whole Japanophile Thing