A Unified Theory of SweetS: Lolita Strawberry in Summer

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

The striking thing about SweetS’ first single and PV – and something taken for granted now, at least by me – is how blatant they were about the rorikon image.To actually use the word “Lolita” in the song title, repeat it in the chorus, and then throw in the ridiculously suggestive “Strawberry in Summer” like a prepubescent cherry on top – there was no way for the creators to claim ignorance or misunderstood themes here. One can’t help but wonder if Avex Trax ordered this as the image for the group or if they shit themselves when they saw what was being planned. What seems now like a canny move could have looked like potential marketing suicide back then.

The PV seals the deal, albeit in a subtler, more ironic manner. While the actual song bleats its rorikon fascination overtly, the PV engages in the grey area of child sexuality in a more indirect fashion: by observing the girls of SweetS at play, in dancing as well as dress-up. Since children require adult supervision, the PV provides this in an unexpected fashion as well – another twist that complicates any reading of this video.

Of course, what fans of SweetS most emphasize is the pure skills of the group: though the overt nature of “Lolita” makes it compelling conceptually, the actual singing and dancing matches it. The girls are excellent dancers, the song is highly dramatic… but if that was all they had going for it, would people have paid attention? I’d like to think so, of course – but the hook of their rorikon image certainly made SweetS stand out from the rest of the Jpop crowd.

The PV starts with the girls walking down a hallway. There’s a slow pulse of bright light throughout the video; along with some time lapse effects, it gives the PV and song a more dreamlike nature. They pass a staircase between themselves and the camera. This not only serves to emphasize the two floors on which the PV takes place, but also momentarily divides the girls’ bodies into distinct sections.

I’m not sure if this was intended, but the divided body is a tactic often used to emphasizes female bodies as objects – that is, they’re parts that we assess and not whole human beings. (For another, less guilt-inducing example of this, look at dream’s “Solve” PV.) But then, how often are children overlooked as humans and simply considered the property of their parents? The statement on objectification can run at least several ways: they belong to the viewer, the parents, the consumerist society driving their shopping / grooming needs.

If objectification is what these girls face, it seems their visit to this place – and their actions in the video – is an assertion of autonomy, the child’s longed-for assertion of “I’m old enough now”.

The girls stop, face the camera, and strike a confrontational pose. Not meaning to recycle the Lord Byron cliche time and again, but these girls seem mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Straight up and down, all five of these girls manage to combine a heady mix of youthful roleplaying, ice queen glamour, and nascent sexuality in a way that courts controversy.

The only other person to have any significant identity in the PV: a white woman reading a magazine and somehow observing the SweetS girls. We never see her actually interact with SweetS, but her reactions are clearly intended for the girls.

Still looking dead serious, the girls resume walking, Aya and Haruna taking off their sunglasses like FBI agents approaching a crime scene. This emphasizes that they’ve arrived from outdoors – which itself may be significant, given the notion that children should “play outside” and obviously these girls haven’t been doing so – but also works as shorthand on their determination as they go about their business.

Cut to a shot of the dancing area, where the girls are in different clothes and strike model-esque poses against the glass, looking down upon… well, we’re not sure. The white woman, certainly, but anything or anyone else?

Another visual effect is introduced with the dancing sequences: a distortion circle rippling around the girls, adding to the sense of surreality in a dreamlike setting.

There are two main perspectives for the PVs dance shots: on a level stage with no obstacles between dancers and camera, and through the paneled glass, from slightly below – as if looking up from a first floor to a second floor.

That white woman looks up, curious and perhaps upset. She’s the enigma of the video: is she waiting for her turn? (In which case, did the girls cut ahead of her?) Does she own this place? The girls never deal with this woman directly – perhaps because her sequences were filmed at a different time, but perhaps also to keep her at a slight remove symbolically. She seems to be the one source of authority the girls encounter in this PV, so to have her impose too much would be to take away the autonomy the girls exert throughout the video.

Tthere is significance to her being older – if not quite a maternal figure, she is a source of approval from the adult world, the acknowledgment of maturity that immature people require. But is there any special significance to her being white? Is it a nod to consumerism and Western standards of beauty? Or is this a knee-jerk reliance on Western exotica, a white woman as a kind of cosmopolitan sophistication by which the girls aspire?

Cutting back, the girls are shown waiting patiently, langorously… With Haruna holding a glass, one would assume they were hanging out at a fancy dance club – except, of course, they’re too young for that. Though if you see this PV the first time, that’s not quite clear.

And then there’s another time lapse effect. Why? To emphasize the relative nature of time – and in doing so, emphasize “age ain’t nothing but a number”? To emphasize the dreamlike nature of this setting, and of the unreality of these underage sirens? If this was a nightclub scene, it could even be shorthand for the intoxicating effect of whatever Haruna’s drinking – though that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Miori looks pensive… The stillness in the waiting room sequence and the subsequent salon scenes add a clear gravitas: throughout, the girls assume different kinds of quiet, sometimes submissive but not always. The nature of each girl’s quiet is evident on her face and stance and helps individualize them.

That stillness is is in stark contrast to the energetic performance of the girls during the dance sequences. The dancing seems more like a kind of “play”, though by no means is it childish: their moves are very dramatic and at times suggestive. It’s worth noting that, right from the start, SweetS placed a high premium on their dancing abilities and were very, very good from the beginning. It helps having Mr. Amuro Namie as your choreographer, after all.

And yet the salon sequences are also a kind of play, as well: little girls love their make-up as much as big girls – actually, they love make-up because it makes them feel like big girls.

Speaking of which: we return to the white woman, now from an angle below her. If anything, it makes her more imposing, scarier. There’s another shot of her from the level of the sofa, as if sneaking up on her. While she doesn’t quite seem the object of a voyeuristic gaze, she isn’t positioned as solidly, as authoritatively, as we first believe.

Finally, the setting is made clearer, the reason for the girls’ arrival in this place becomes obvious. We see the girls are in a beauty salon: the dimensions here are closed-in, cramped, while in other shots it’s wide open, spread out. Notice the look on Mai’s face: not one of joy or happiness, but a kind of jaded wariness, looking into the mirror, making sure the nameless, faceless woman taking care of her is doing the job right.

A pecidure emphasizes the decadence of this visit to the beauty salon. Intended or not, this scene also brings to mind the Kubrick film adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita, when Humbert gives Lo a home pedicure, showing how completely he’s fallen under her sway.

Haruna and Miori look bored as their needs are tended. Are they jaded? Is this not important to them? Or is this how they believe they’re supposed to act?

The question of sophistication and knowledge is one of the interesting aspects of growing up. While adults envy “childlike wonder” and the ability to see things anew, actual children want to already know things, to not look foolish by seeming so naive or stupid. How often does one encounter children who pretend to know more than they do? (Or adults, for that matter.)

In this PV, there’s no wide-eyed wonder. There’s a kind of jaded boredom in the salon sequences, one tinged with consumerist desire. And in the dance sequences there’s an exuberance, a joy of movement, that avoids any sense of being juvenile. But all of this has a been-there done-that kind of feel, purposely so.

Miori has a blank kind of smile on her face as make-up is applied. Immediately one thinks of dolls, children being used as canvases to create artificial, pretty objects. Think porcelain dolls or Jonbenet Ramsey.

From what I gather of the Japanese sections, the lyrics are a relatively innocent paean to young love in summer. (But I could be horribly wrong here.) The English is more ambiguous. There are several lines in English in the song, including, “Knight on, knight on / Hold me baby / Kiss me kiss me / Do you know me?” One has to wonder: even if the general meaning of these words are understood by the girls (very likely), is the subtext equally understood?

Never mind the Biblical sense of the word “know”, there is an implication of physical intimacy before emotional intimacy. Perhaps an acknowledgment that children may indulge in physical intimacy but suffer because they don’t know the emotional consequences? That’s something of a stretch, given the nature of the song – but it’s a benefit of the doubt worth considering.

For someone outside Japanese culture, this strikes me as a variation of the Amuro Namie effect: using English to create a certain attitude and feel, but one still jarringly strange, foreign to a native speaker of English. In this case, the disconnect comes, not from the syntax or grammar (or the oochie poppin la la coochie), but from children saying something so suggestively promiscuous. “Do they know what they’re saying? How can they be allowed to say such things?”

That said, how different is it from hearing American kids singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time”? And does it make a difference if a girl is mimicking the songs of an older singer or singing those lines for herself? And does it matter whether or not the girls understand it? Again, there are issues of play and pretend: adults may be worried about children mouthing such lascivious lines, but to children it’s simply words and just fun things that are cool. Kakoii is more important than sekshi, even if what’s kakoii is sekshi.

But to say adults make too much of a deal about something that children consider harmless is… well, stupid. And dangerous in a pragmatic here-and-now manner. There’s a grey area between innocence and knowledge, between being too cautious with children and risking too much by over-trusting them. Some adults want to treat children like idiots who know nothing, others are too willing to concede more autonomy and understanding than children actually possess. You see it in the news with alarmed parents on one side and abusive teachers on the other…

This is a very real, very immediate subtext of SweetS in this first phase of their career, blurring the lines and then turning it upside-down (to mix metaphors). What they provide isn’t a position one way or the other, but a constant unsettling of any firm positions or beliefs inherent in this debate.

The brightly colored bottles of nail polish are hypnotizing in their beauty, as one bottle moves suddenly across the table. One is reminded of marbles and again of childhood games. If playing dress-up is a childhood game, then what of this elaborate treatment? They’re no longer playing, they’re getting beauty treatments any adult would envy and that many pay good money for. Is adulthood – or a child’s perspective of adulthood – merely an elaborate kind of play, then, a set of rituals and actions no different from what children go through?

The PV is masterful in timing itself to the song’s eccentric rhythms, for example taking advantage of the sounds to better time the pulsing lights. In this shot, a distant view of Miori suddenly rushes much closer when the song gives off one of its sudden bursts of undulating bass.

The song itself opens with a rushing sound akin to angels appearing through breaking clouds, then moving to the girls’ voices over pseudo-classical instrumentation. As the song kicks in, there’s a skittish synth running throughout much of the song, balanced against a rolling, sensuous bassline – along with sudden flights of classical music and harsher variations of that beginning rushing sound, the song creates a complex emotional soundscape.

Quite simply, the songwriting team of Bounceback have a very refined, very strange sense of humor. Given the song titles for the first three singles, they knew precisely who they were writing these songs for – both the singers and the intended audience. To have what amounts to a children’s chorus intoning “Lolita” must have seemed very funny or an intended slap in the face – most likely, both. It’s easy to find a satiric edge to these songs, but that only seems to enhance the songwriting skills on display.

Listening to the song, there are many disparate elements, held together by the girls’ voices more than anything else. Sometimes the skittish synths take over, sometimes the bass overwhelms everything else, or there’s a quiet moment with the classical motif, but it’s the girls’ chorus and especially Aya’s solo lines which give it a sense of unity, of coherence.

This is my favorite sequence in the video: Aki is having her nails done, looking quite serious…

Haruna looks over her shoulder, a mysterious Mona Lisa smile on her face, which breaks into a wider grin…

And Miori smiles at her with a complex smile of satisfaction, pleasure, and a certain knowingness.

These girls are clearly in their element and loving every second of it. In someone older, this would perhaps look smug, but that isn’t the effect reached here: more like a moment of bonding and suppressed delight.

To me, this is the heart of the PV: if there’s a joke being played, the girls are in on it. If there’s a role they’re expected to play – or really, the multiple roles necessary to be an idol singer – they will slip into and out of these roles as they please. There is some control on their part, their willingness to play along and to enjoy what must often seem like an elaborate game of make-believe that’s no longer make-believe.

The girls together on a line, which segues to a series of portraits for the girls, looking at the camera and staring it down.

Miori is the second youngest of the group, only a couple weeks older than Mai. She’s the deer-in-the-headlights and the group’s innocent. Really, the innocent among innocents.

Aya is the starpower of the group, with a voice enviable by singers twice her age. That said, she doesn’t seem to naturally dominate: hers is a persona that’s at once diffident and self-confident. Her idol career is guaranteed well into adulthood, given her looks and talent.

Haruna… oh, jeez. I’ve never hidden my love for her, she’s my favorite idol bar none. And as I’ve said before and will probably have to repeat again, I’m very aware of the differences between imagination and reality. The clips of Haruna practicing dance steps show an exuberant child practically bouncing off the walls in gleeful delight. That’s reality – but the idol persona she presents? That’s sui generis at this stage of SweetS.

First is the stare: vulnerable and yet challenging at the same time. There’s the beautiful dyed hair, which sets her off even more from the others visually. And there’s a self-possessed confidence, the way she carries herself, that makes her the dominant personality of SweetS. Out of all of them, she seems the most professionally minded, the most careerist – and at this stage in the game, it’s a virtue and not a hindrance.

Mai is the baby of the group, but I also get the sense she has the Nabokovan bloom which makes her my second favorite. For those not familiar with Lolita the novel, narrator Humbert explains that nymphophiles aren’t by any means attracted to the most beautiful girl in a group, or the most vulnerable, or the most child-like. Rather, there is an X factor, a “bloom”, that the nymphophile sees and which other adults cannot detect.

For me, at least, Mai seems to possess that bloom. Aya and Haruna would be the obvious choices – but that’s the point, they are the obvious choices. Is the bloom quantifiable in Mai? Perhaps in her smile, in her sudden flashes of playfulness, and especially in the reserve she holds – when she pouts, it doesn’t even seem like a pout, but an act of infinite patience. At those moments, one sees the ghost of Mrs. Schillinger in her.

Aki is the oldest of the girls and has always struck me as the most self-satisfied in her persona. It took me a while to warm up to her, but I realized the flipside of this childish arrogance is a playfulness that’s matched only by Mai. Aki is the one who flirts with the camera most, who wants you to notice her.

And yet for all this, consider: the girls are never portrayed in an overtly compromising manner. They have never, to my knowledge, posed in swimsuits or revealed anything that a decent young girl wouldn’t in other situations. (Not even the skinny legs and all displays in later PVs are unusual. Just unfortunate and silly.) To do so would not only cheapen the girls, it would also ruin the effect: the temptation would be more clearly justified, the rorikon would be a brusque come-on instead of an ironic tease, and the sophisticated image of this group would be forfeit.

Aya lying down, eyes closed, huge headphones emphasizing two things: how small she is, still a child, and how she’s able to block out the world if she wants to.By depriving her of sight and hearing, there’s a heightened sense of voyeurism, a sense of temptation… This shot is another reference to Lolita the Kubrick film, as I seem to recall a scene with the title character listening to music in the backyard, oblivious to the machinations around her.

While we have several shots of Aya singing from this position, eyes wide open and relatively animated, there’s also a mildly startling shot where she opens her eyes, as if waking or noticing something. A moment of sudden awareness, of innocence lost? If we take innocence as an Edenic lack of knowledge, then at what point will these girls bite into the fruit of the forbidden tree? Have they already, by indulging in these actions, by being idols? Does it even matter?

The dance moves are breathtaking, especially for the debut of an idol group. Let’s emphasize this so that it gets the proper respect: they actually move, they’re coordinated, and they’re not sliding by with stylized poses. Which isn’t to say all their moves are perfect – Aki and Miori struggle a little to keep up in the dance sequences – though their joy more than compensates for this. Haruna’s already the leader in that sense, and will continue to be the best dancer up to now.

As the song heads to a close, the girls in the salon sequence sing as their beauty treatment continues. They now look much more animated, much less sullen or bored or self-satisfied. They seem to come alive with their voices, in a way that the ministrations haven’t achieved.

Perhaps, perhaps… this is about the transformative power about art? Or at least of entertainment as postmodern art? That singing gives these girls not only a release, but a way to express both their youthful energy and their nascent maturity: it provides the bridge between childhood and adulthood. Music can be pure while still being seductive, dance is the beauty of bodies in motion that can be both intensely sexual and also emotionally removed.

After all, this is the dream come true, isn’t it? These little girls get to become idols, singing and dancing into the hearts of Japan. If we take a step back, consider the glamor in the midst of all their work. If Jpop has often been dominated by young teenage girls – Wink, Speed, 4th gen-eraMorning Musume – perhaps it’s because of the proper mix of malleability and willfulness? The desire for glamor and attention without the egotism that makes older talent more difficult to work with?

If anything, that meta level – the PV as a reflection on the birth of a new idol phenomenon – makes that exchange of smiles between Haruna and Aki that much more significant, that much more of an in-joke.

Aya framed in after image reflections of herself – perhaps to indicate the glass facing them in the other dance shot sequences, but again an emphasis on time lapse.

Here, we have the signature sounds of SweetS: Haruna and Aya alternating lines back and forth. As the lead singers, their voices are distinct enough to make the line-swapping feel like rapturous dialogue. Aya’s certainly got the richer, more powerful voice, but Haruna’s voice packs an emotional punch, a wistful edge well beyond her years. You can listen to just about any of Aya’s vocals from the very beginning to appreciate what she’s capable of. The depths of Haruna’s gifts won’t be as obvious until she gets to lead for “Love Like Candy Floss”.

More head shots of the girls singing…

Then we return to their entrance shot, again suffused with the light. Clearly, they are the symbolic source of the radiance, and the pulsing is – what? Their hearts? Their attention spans? Their innocence? Their starpower?

Like Nabokov’s novel, this PV is all about falling in love. But falling in love with what? A manufactured image, certainly, but is there anything more than that? And should these manufactured images be objects of affection, or should common sense and a strong moral compass repulse us? Which is exactly the point, and exactly how SweetS mirrors Nabokov’s own masterpiece.

Haruna on the dance floor. One thing that strikes me is: why the change in costumes? The outfits they wear during the dance sequences are more street, less formal and sophisticated than their salon clothes. They more closely resemble “play” clothes – and yet it’s worn for the more obvious performance in the video, not for their more “natural” scenes. Keep in mind, they “enter” the PV dressed up in the finer clothes.

But as any clothing style is a reflection of image more than identity, a desire to appear a certain way rather than a direct expression of one’s self, perhaps these distinctions aren’t as important as the pageantry in itself. The girls are as comfortable in their street clothes as their salon clothes, can assume these guises with an ease that has nothing to do with who one “really” is but what expectations a person wishes to fulfill for others.

There’s a small dance move here, both hands form a heart over their chests, then fluttering out to their shoulders. It’s the closest thing we’ll get to a kawaii moment, but even then it’s got a precision (and a knowing impertinence, based on some of the facial expressions) that sets aside notions of juvenile behavior. This group is all about sophistication, of acting older than their age – yet, paradoxically, this works best by teasing out the implications of their real age, of the forbidden desires that rorikon invites.

For the second time, we’re treated to a series of close-up shots of each girl, split-second portraits of the members of SweetS.

Taking place towards the end of the PV, this second series of close-ups is very much like the first series, emphasizing that the hair and make-up hasn’t changed them. Yet this is a visit to a beauty salon, so where is the before / after effect? But then it becomes clear: they arrived as glamorous girls and they remain glamorous girls throughout. Before and after isn’t the point, but now and now. What they’ve undergone at the hands of the stylists is an affirmation of their glamour – not a bestowing of it. The salon isn’t an attempt to bring out beauty, but to assert the beauty’s always been there.

So now consider this: a beauty salon meets a dance floor, under the eye of an approving adult. Taking that meta step back again, is this setting simply what it is in reality: that is, an idol factory? The girls were chosen from an extended audition process, much like dream in 2000, and this video can be seen as a comment on the girls’ actual initiation into the business of idol singers.

It would be a way to have the PV make more sense as a story: they arrive as young starlets, they have their make-up done, and they slip into their dance “costumes” (street clothes designed to look young and casual) to perform for the approval of the decision-makers and definers of taste (i.e., the white woman in white).

Aki, with that flirtatious smile. More and more, the girl grows on me.

The song ends with a semi-classical flourish, and the girls assume a tight-knit pose to close the song, elbows and knees akimbo, wrists frozen mid-flap.

Arms folded, the white woman gives her seal of approval. But approval of what? At the song and dance, at the girls’ attempt to act more grown-up? At money well-spent at a beauty salon? At the successful launching of a new idol group?

Is she the symbolic bitch queen of a culture hell-bent on entertainment and consumerism? The Boadicea of scorched earth Postman-esque amusements – or perhaps the Medea?

The PV ends in silence as she walks off-camera, again under a time-lapse video effect.

Time is at a premium: not only are idol groups novelty-driven and have highly limited lifespans, but the youthful energy and rorikon vibe hinges on a small window of these girls’ lives. In a few years, the songs from this first phase will be conceptually stunted, more contrived with the girls older, more sure of themselves, and more developed both physically and emotionally. The songs themselves will remain beautiful, but will they have the same resonance with an older SweetS?

In that sense, this PV stands more starkly as a document of a specific time and specific phase for the group. And the fact that it shines like very little else in the Jpop firmament at the time…? Well, it makes the song that much more precious.


Comments (Comments are closed)

10 Responses to “A Unified Theory of SweetS: Lolita Strawberry in Summer”
  1. Alice says:

    This has to be the longest entry about a single PV ever. Anyway, when I first heard about this song, I thought maybe it had to do with the Lolita fashion trend in Japan (Gothic, Sweet, Country, etc) but was sorely disappointed to find out it had nothing to do with it. I think that’s the reason I never got into SweetS at all.

  2. shidoshi says:

    I’m afraid I have nothing much worthwhile to add to all of this, beyond saying that I could never have imagined somebody would find so much symbolism in this video before reading through this entry. *heh*

    I was a SweetS fan before my recent trip to Japan, and while there I had the chance to attend a fan event where 200 people go to meet the girls and shake their hands after a small “chat” – basically, promotion for their concert the next day. Two people from the crowd were picked to win signed concert t-shirts, and I was shocked when my number was one of the two called. I got to go up and receive the shirt from Haruna, who panicked a bit when she saw a gaijin walking up on stage that she was going to have to talk to. *heh*

    Aya was always my favorite girl, and she still is – but after the meet, I have more of a soft spot for Haruna (no doubt helped by it being her who presented me with the shirt), and I was also really surprised how strong Mai came off at the talk. She seems to be a lot stronger of a person than she comes across as being in their PVs – which I’m sure is partially due to the fact that she always seems to be stuck in the background.

  3. Wapiko says:

    The video would’ve made more (yet wackier) sense had they been wearing outfits from Baby, The Stars Shine Bright or Angelic Pretty. I don’t think you could dance very well in those, though…

  4. Alice:

    I’d never even thought of the Loli Goth angle! Very interesting. And if I ever get around to it, I’m thinking an analysis of “Love Machine” will be twice as long as this one…


    I loved this story when I read it on MM-BBS and am real glad you shared it here – and with more details! (What you said about Mai furthers my bloom theory, I’d say…) And just think – they’re in Hawaii for a week and I never run into them, while you accept a gift right from Haruna’s hand. *sigh*

    No, no, I’m not crying… It’s just foggy in here…


    Don’t know those brands. Loli Goth? Can you provide a link?

  5. Akiramike says:

    OMG, those girls have no boobs. How can anyone analyse their PVs so much?

  6. Hooray for Boobies says:

    Of course they have no boobs. They are a) 11 years old, and b) Japanese.

  7. niji says:

    LOL at those last 2 comments.

  8. Alice says:

    Well true Wapiko, but Lolitas don’t really dance. My understanding is they kinda sway back and forth with the music (probably has something to do wtih the platform heels).

    Anyway, Baby the Stars Shine Bright is arguably the best Lolita brand in Japan http://www.babyssb.co.jp/

    If you get a chance Ray, you should see Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls is the english title). It’s getting a release this fall in theaters and there may be a Region 1 DVD with subtitles at some point (the region 2 dvd doesn’t have English subtitles).

  9. shidoshi says:

    I went to a few Loli (of the fashion genre) parties while in Japan, and in my experience, Loli “dancing” is just sort of standing around and bouncing up and down to the music. But maybe the “bounce” style of dance is like an Osaka-Loli kind of thing. *heh*

  10. Thanks for a very detailed and scholarly analysis of the J-pop youth culture.

    Will you be getting your Phd in this field?