H!P Shuffles on Utaban; or, Philosophy in the Dodgeball Circle

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

Once again, my love of Utaban and its maniacal host, Ishibashi Takaaki, is confirmed by an act of senseless – and hilarious – violence. The July 7 episode included a ten-minute segment with this year’s Hello! Project shuffle units – but the shuffles were just a cover for the real drama that defined this show. This episode was all about Ishibashi and Yasuda Kei. Everyone else had small roles supporting these two, but it was ultimately about this star-crossed couple and seeing Ishibashi beat the crap out of Yasuda with a green plastic dodgeball.

The segment begins with Ishibashi and co-host Nakai Masahiro talking about the Hello! Project shuffles. Thinking of past shuffles, Ishibashi looks forward to seeing his favorite H!P stars such as Ayaya, Nacche, Gocchin, and Tsujikago. I’m glad he did this. While it’s obvious he knew who’d be showing up – the girls are behind him in another room, after all – he obliquely expressed the same basic disappointment that many fans felt about this year’s shuffle not having enough fan favorites. The shuffle should be a full shuffle, at least in the mind of many fans (myself included), and it’d be nice to see a wider range of personalities thrown into the mix. That said, a rule of H!P is that Morning Musume graduates don’t appear in shuffles, so the only one Ishibashi named who’d “qualify” this year would’ve been soloist Ayaya anyway…

The first to come out are Sexy Otonjan: Mikitty, Megumi, and Miyabi. Ishibashi acts surprised and asks who the two little girls with Mikitty are. When they mention they’re from H!P Kids, they’re asked “Kinki Kids”? The hosts also points out that these girls are too young to be sexy – which I must agree with, but Megumi is still so adorable in that hairdo and get-up. (Miyabi… blah.) Mikitty is a gracious leader, in a very good mood and even a tad playful with Ishibashi. Then again, I’m pretty sure she’s right behind Gocchin as Ishibashi’s favorite Hello! Project idol. She has nothing to worry about here.

Next out are Elegies: Satoda Mai, Shibata Ayumi, Reina, Takitty. Reina looks much older than usual, which is a big plus. At one point, Ishibashi asks Ayumi where the rest of Melon Kinenbi went. He also points out that the theme for this episode is “Sweat” – even pulling out a sign to emphasize the point.

Last but by no means least, Puri Puri Pink arrive. They’re too old to be idols, as far as Ishibashi is concerned, and he gives them an even harder time than the first two units. It’s fascinating to see how the four Pinks behave: Iida and Atsuko are quiet and unassuming, Yuko is assertive but a good sport, while Kei actively curries Ishibashi and Nakai’s favor.

Last time Kei appeared was for last year’s super shuffle of the Hello! Project All-Stars: Ishibashi got a few good punches on her, but she still kept trying to get the hosts’ attention and even played the flute for them. Part of it is undoubtedly that she wants the kind of attention all idols believe they deserve – on some level, they’re all egomaniacs starved for attention. (Why else would they want to be idols in the first place?) But I think that there’s also an odd sadomasochistic top-bottom dynamic between her and Ishibashi, and this is what makes her the ideal Utaban guest to me. I’m not saying she wants a man who’ll abuse her in her romantic life, but in this context – on a TV shows she shows up on once in a blue moon – it suits her well and she likes to play to it.

Quite frankly, any type of exposure probably suits her at this point. Which is a shame, since she’s looking even more attractive than usual in her Puri Puri Pink outfit – not quite grown-up, since even Yuko looks a bit childish in those prom gown from hell costumes, but she’s positively shining and proud when she appears. Also, she looks in even better shape than she did from her Musume days.

Apparently Utaban won’t have all three shuffles perform their songs today. Instead, they’re going to make the different shuffle units compete in a game of dodgeball. Ishibashi refers to this as “Survivor” and the reality show’s signature horn plays when he mentions this. Even Nakai makes a snarky comment about Ishibashi’s behavior at this point.

Dodgeball commences, with the hosts getting to hit the girls with what I hope are very light balls. Ishibashi is very much into the game, and watching him nail the girls, there are clear moments of savage hunter’s glee in his eyes. Using the balls for – well, balls – he even recreates the gesture from his one American movie, Major League 2 at the beginning of the dodgeball competition. (That said, Ishibashi never shies away from genitalia jokes, so I’m sure that was just coincidental.)

Ishibashi taking actual shots at the shuffle girls is Utaban stripped bare: a strange love-hate relationship with musical talent, wanting to praise their talents – or in the case of idols, to lavish attention on their young womanly charms – while at the same time humiliate them, strip them bare of their integrity for the sake of some very cheap (if satisfying) laughs. Perhaps best of all, Ishibashi doesn’t pretend to be above the talents he torture. While he’s adept at pointing out absurdities mouthed by his guests during interviews, he also likes to emphasize that he’s cruder and baser than they could ever hope to be. As a result, he can go from subtle repartee to outright slapstick within a matter of minutes.

As the game begins, Iida hides in a “safe zone” dog house outside of the circle while the rest of Puri Puri Pink gets nailed by Ishibashi and Nakai. Ishibashi complains that the balls aren’t very good for kicking, even as he continues his fusillade. Finally, the two hosts decide to nail the dog house as well, sending it crumpling down over poor Iida. Even they can’t believe how successful they were in nailing the dog house.

Having eliminated all of Puri Puri Pink, the other two teams rejoice for some reason. Did they think they were off the hook? Ishibashi goes to join them in their group hug, of course. I’m jealous of the bastard, being able to nuzzle up against these young, sweaty, teenage idols. But that must have been part of the whole plan, right? “Sweat!”

Ishibashi’s happiness is interrupted quickly, however, as Yuko points out that Puri Puri Pink were unfairly singled out in the competition. This is a pretty sexy moment, as Yuko is positively fearsome when her temper is provoked. One can only wonder what the girls from the other shuffle units must be thinking, as Yuko’s the leader of Hello! Project and has a stature none of them comes close to approaching. (Gocchin and Nacche, perhaps – but not these girls, not even Shibata.)

Yuko’s stand for fair play is actually reminiscent of a much earlier appearance by Morning Musume on Utaban. During the time of “Koi no Dance Site” – that is, when none of the current Momusu line-up were a part of Momusu – there was a slippery slide quiz where Yuko was unfairly picked upon by Ishibashi and Nakai. Usually, she just puts up with the ribbing and laughs along with the jokes. But when there’s competition involved, she’s going to make sure she gets a fair chance and isn’t singled out just because she’s H!P’s obasan. She did it then, five years ago (and lost the competition anyway), and does so again now.

So, a do-over is called.

Ishibashi and Nakai now play much more even-handedly, and they attempt to get all the different units. As my wife pointed out, Nakai is actually running into the circle to nail the girls – but it’s Utaban, so who really expects a fair fight? Elegies and Sexy Otonjan are quickly eliminated and soon it’s only the Puri Puri Pinks who are left; perhaps being singled out in the first round actually paid off. Ishibashi and Nakai make note – in less than glowing terms – of how the Pinks are the only ones left and then get back to work.

One by one, they pick off the Pinks until only Kei is left. Considering the history between Ishibashi and Kei, you know that this is destiny. Alone in the dodgeball circle, Kei is panicked and afraid of getting pasted on both sides. She does get hit, but as she stands alone in the aftermath, Ishibashi has a green ball thrown to him and he kicks it right to Kei. It bounces off her and flies through the air. He does a victory dance and kisses the sky in thanks to God, proclaiming, “At least I scored one goal!” (Or so my wife translated.)

So, Puri Puri Pink ended up winning at dodgeball and were the one shuffle group allowed to perform their song on Utaban this year. The performance was nice enough, though the song remains boring. I’m still excited to see these older members of Hello! Project get such attention – but quite frankly, they could’ve done something which emphasized just how young they are in reality.

And I must admit, I’m becoming more and more attracted to Atsuko as time passes. She may not have a traditionally beautiful face, but there’s something about her that I find… lovable, perhaps? Familiar? I don’t know.

But clearly, this episode belonged to Kei and Ishibashi. It’d be great if she showed upon the show more often and Ishibashi figured out new ways to make her life miserable while she smiles and begs for more attention. In an odd way, it reminds me of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine – a constant cycle of seduction and horrid abuse, as the heroine never learns her lesson and her tormenters always find a new way to lure her in.

That said, I haven’t read de Sade in a long while.