Morning Musume Returns to Handshakes

Filed in Cult of Pop 1.0

The latest news from Idolizing St. Anna: for the first time in many years – since well before any of the current members joined – Morning Musume will do a handshake event with fans. It’ll only be for fans who buy the upcoming single, “Iroppoi Jirettai” – which will also be seventh gen Koharu’s debut – and will involve a lottery of 15,000 winners. But it’ll still be a major handshake event and a switch in marketing strategies for Momusu. Santos sees this as a positive sign of innovative marketing and a threat to other Jpop groups such as Hinoi Team, who still rely on handshake events to generate interest.

I’ll be a little blunter than Santos: I see it as a sign of desperation.

But maybe a bit of desperation is what Morning Musume needs right now. Their sales have been dropping, though it had a nice perk with “Osaka Koi no Uta” – and with the new member on board as a miracle girl, the expectation to deliver bigger sales is stronger than ever. (Which Santos also points out.) A handshake event will make a huge splash – but why only 15,000? The original Morning Musume challenge involved selling 50,000 copies of “Ai no Tane” – surely most of those sales involved handshakes as well. Why not a return to humble roots?

Or for that matter, a return to glories past. I look at the new ten member line-up of Morning Musume and can’t help but compare it to the last ten member line-up, circa “I Wish” and “Renai Revolution 21”. This was Morning Musume still at the top of their game, still selling huge numbers and setting Japan pop on fire as super-idols.

Let’s go over the line-ups in 2000 and in the present.

Morning Musume 2000: Nakazawa Yuko, Iida Kaori, Natsumi Abe, Yasuda Kei, Yaguchi Mari, Goto Maki, Ishikawa Rika, Yoshizawa Hitomi, Tsuji Nozomi, Kago Ai.

Morning Musume 2005: Yoshizawa Hitomi, Takahashi Ai, Asami Konno, Ogawa Makoto, Niigaki Risa, Fujimoto Miki, Kamei Eri, Michishige Sayumi, Tanaka Reina, Kusumi Koharu.

On average, the 2000 line-up had less experience as Morning Musume at that time than the 2005 line-up has now. And yet the names from 2000 are something to conjure by, they had an aura even at that time that 2005 doesn’t have… yet.

What have we got with 2000? We’ve got the big gestures and catch phrases: “Sexy Beam!” and the L hand gesture and “Congratulation!”. We’ve got the Tanpopo of “Koi wo Shichaimashita” and the Petit Moni of “Baby! Koi ni Knockout” and (soon after) the Minimoni of “Jankenpyon!”. We’ve got the bold personalities of different members and the characters they played. And of course, we’ve got million-selling singles.

I know I’ve played this game before and constantly found the new version wanting… but I’d say that, on some level, so has much of the group’s potential audience, the ones who stay away and don’t pick up the albums but remember what Morning Musume used to be.

Let’s look at these points in closer detail.

Big gestures and catch phrases. The new Morning Musume doesn’t have an identifying meme or seme (for lack of a more appropriate term) that captured the public imagination the way the 2001 line-up did. Musically, they don’t have the same catchy gimmicks as the 2001 Morning Musume. Strange as it sounds, I think one of the reasons the songs of Morning Musume’s prime – from “Love Machine” to “The Peace!” – worked so well is because they encouraged a kind of hooliganism in the audience. I can imagine being at a concert and waiting for the chance to yell, “Sexy Beam!” with Mari or the “Congratulation!” at the start of “Happy Summer Wedding”. What the hell, I do this at home when I watch the old concerts. Even the choruses have a lot that you can scream along to, from the “Whoa whoa” of “Love Machine” to the pseudo-military shouts of “The Peace!”.

The songs of the current Musume line-up may be more sophisticated or at least less raucous, but at what price? It’s one thing to sing along to the chorus of songs like “Ai Arraba It’s Alright” and “Joshi Kashmiashi Monogatari.” But perhaps it’s more satisfying for the audience to be shouting along with something less complicated, something more akin to sports team cheers and rallies?

Subgroups. The subgroups were a way for members to try out a different style both musically and fashon-wise. The rock-oriented Petit Moni had their girl-next-door and Village People modes; Tanpopo’s classic girl group harmonies had an odd Swinging London daintiness; and the children-oriented Minimoni had a lot of plaid playclothes that just fell short of diapers. By being in a smaller unit, the girls were also able to stand out more than they would in the larger Musume line-up. Certainly, it helped make the lesser members more prominent, as well as expanding the appeal of Morning Musume by diversifying the sound associated with the collective.

Understandably, today’s Hello! Project is so expansive that to devote energies to subgroups in Morning Musume would be difficult – perhaps even foolhardy. But imagine the possibility… Keeping an eye on continuity from the past, the subgroups could help make the current members of Morning Musume more distinctive. Minimoni could be Takitty (in a more mature, Mari role), Eri, Koharu, along with C-Ute’s Megumi and Berryz Koubo’s Risako. (I know Minimoni was supposed to be the international unit of Hello! Project, but it was first and foremost a children’s music group with adult appeal.) Tanpopo could continue with three members from the last line-up: Konno, Risa, and Melon Kinenbi’s Ayumi. Instead of Rika, include Sayumi – the closest thing to Rika in the new Morning Musume, and a perfect fit to Tanpopo’s extra-cute vibe. And while they never released a single, the revised Petit Moni of Makoto, Yossi, and Coconut Musume Ayaka could be joined by Reina, who’s certainly the most rocking of the new Musume line-up. That leaves Mikitty, who could re-launch her solo career, which would only be fair and just after all this time.

Of course, I don’t expect any of this to happen, but it makes sense.

Bold personalities. If you don’t normally read the Morning Musume BBS, check out this excellent translation (courtesy of Mink) of Rika’s “Happy Charmy Diary” from her graduation. While there’s a lot to enjoy in these musings, pay special attention to how the Charmy persona came about from the need for “a strong character” among the fourth generation.

It hasn’t happened with any of the subsequent generations, not even with the miracle girl Koharu. Part of it is that fifth and sixth gens entered Morning Musume when the number of strong personalities was already overwhelming. It’s difficult to compete with the likes of Gocchin and Nacche and Tsujikago and Charmy. In a way, fourth gen’s success was a hindrance to the generations that followed. And while we’re seeing some outsized personas emerging now – especially with the sixth gen, as Eri’s becoming a skilled comedian with her own style and Reina’s punky rebel stance teeters between sass and annoyance – the girls still aren’t as distinctive as 2000’s line-up. Here’s what we’ve got from 2000: the frustrated adult, the terrible twins, the tomboy, the annoyingly cute vanity case, the bold diva and the sweet diva, the short spitfire, the artistic one, and the ugly neglected stepchild (I don’t really think this of Kei, I actually think she’s gorgeous and woefully wronged, but that was the role she seemed to play).

Can we simplify the 2005 line-up as easily? The tomboy isn’t even really the tomboy anymore… Sixth gen has the diva with a former solo career, the punky rebel, the spaced-out comedian, the annoyingly cute vanity case… But it’s harder to pin down the fifth gen as clearly (especially now that Konno and Makoto don’t have their Hello Pro news hour personas to fall back on), and Koharu’s still trying to learn her lines and steps, never mind develop a strong character. You could give the girls the benefit of the doubt and say that they’re more rounded individuals (psychologically, certainly not physically) but I don’t think even that’s the case. I’d argue that Viyuden has done a better job of making “strong characters” as their three-person line-up can easily be broken down to certain traits and quirks (Yui’s big-breasted, Erika’s the girl next door and Rika’s… well, Rika’s now Charmy with a whip).

As for the million-selling singles… Well, it’s a distant memory now, but it doesn’t have to be. For a chance to shake Mikitty’s or Yossi’s or Konno’s hand, I bet there’ll be people picking up the single even if they hadn’t bought one since “Mister Moonlight”. The girls do need to re-assert themselves, re-connect with their fan base and seek to expand it. I’m not saying the strategies of 2000 are applicable for 2005, but I’m glad things are being shaken up. I hope the girls aren’t so much hoping for Koharu to save them and become their new Gocchin – as tempting as that comparison is for many people – but do see themselves as a distinct, new phase of Morning Musume who’ve got an uphill battle to fight.

One last thing: all the members of the 2000 10-nin Morning Musume are still active in Hello! Project. While an interviewer recently suggested to Gocchin that a Morning Nee-san be formed from the “Love Machine” line-up – again, a translation from Mink is available on the MM-BBS – that’d involve the two Morning Mothers, Ishiguro Aya and Ichii Sayaka, both no longer affiliated with H!P (much as I wish otherwise). The 10-nin line-up is actually possible right fucking now, and it’d be an easy way to re-ignite a broader interest in Morning Musume.

It’d also be a horrible step backwards, making that 2000 line-up the “real” Momusu and the current line-up mere pretenders to the throne… And you’d have to drag Yuko and probably Kei kicking and screaming to agree to this… But it’s right there, waiting to be taken advantage of. Again, like my subgroups suggestion, ultimately unworkable but there to ponder.

At any rate, if “Iroppoi Jirettai” doesn’t make the Oricon’s weekly number one when it debuts, I’ll be disappointed. I’m not sure if I’ll be surprised, but I’ll definitely be disappointed.