SweetS’ “Bitter sweets” PV

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

As much sense as SweetS’ upcoming breakup holds for me logically and aesthetically, I know I’m still processing it emotionally. I may be focusing on the aspects of the breakup which makes sense because the part that doesn’t want to let go is still in denial…

The first time I was aware of SweetS was on the much-lamented, now-long-gone Bunko tracker, back in early 2004. I was still discovering the joys and complexities of Morning Musume but also looking around for other sounds. Soon after Momusu, I discovered Zone with their Valentine’s Day Pop Jam special, where they did “Love Machine” with Gocchin, Ayaya, Tsunku, Makoto of Sharan Q, and some others (including Dandy Saekano, that bastard).

But I noticed a PV from a group called SweetS with the outrageous title “Lolita Strawberry in Summer”. Not daring to download it, I figured it to be a rather crude piece of pandering rorikon pop fluff. And of course, I continued to resent the appropriation of Vladimir Nabokov’s best novel in the attempt to define a “complex”.

Of course, curiosity got the best of me and I downloaded the PV for that and a second PV, “Love Raspberry Juice”. The name, the use of fruits in the song titles, it all seemed real kitschy and manipulative – but what the heck, right?

The first time I watched “Lolita”, I was horrified. It was so obviously rorikon, the girls were so obviously young, and the way they danced was clearly suggestive. I remember fast forwarding through the clip, jumping ahead in large chunks, wondering if it got any worse.

Right off the bat, SweetS scared the hell out of me. (So did Ogura Yuko, actually, the first time I downloaded a video of hers under the wrongheaded impression that it was a Nakazawa Yuko clip.)

I was both fascinated and repulsed. But that’s always been the formula for long-lasting love for me – at least with my pop culture. I find something that I can’t stand, that I can clearly explain why I can’t stand, and yet I keep going back to it, fascinated… And in trying to understand it, learn to love it for what it is.

As I kept returning to the SweetS PVs – and found a third one recently released, “Love Like Candy Floss” – I began to see a method to the madness. Astoundingly, I not only grew to love the music and the lush beauty of the videos, but also to see a guiding method to all the rorikon madness.

The first SweetS mini-album was one of the first things I ever ordered from YesAsia. The poster still hangs up on my wall – I was so proud of it, I remember showing it to a friend at the time and bragging, “They’re twelve years old!” I was proud at just how wrong it would lookto others.
Obviously, I got over the rorikon guilt thing real fast.

And of course, I got to know the individual girls quickly. Haruna and Aya were the most obvious, as they were the most strikingly beautiful even then.

Mai was also easy to figure out, especially as I detected the Nabokovan bloom on her. I initially had a problem telling Miori and Aki apart, though it didn’t take long to sort that out…

I was surprised at the lack of TV show appearances, finding only a live performance of “Love Raspberry Juice” at first… But as time passed, I knew there was something fiercely intelligent, ironic, even postmodern about the packaging of SweetS. Maybe that was too much for people? I could see the rorikon image alienating as many people as it attracted, as it almost shut me out from even trying them.

When “Grow Into Shinin’ Stars” came out in mid-2004, I was excited at the prospect of more SweetS. However, I was appalled by Haruna letting her blonde hair grow dark. And then I saw the song and the PV were a departure from the earlier work, and was… unsatisfying. It didn’t fit with what I expected, though it was nice to see the girls doing more TV performances for this single.

“Sky” came out while my wife and I were settling in to our new lives in Hawaii, and the PV hit the torrent sites when I had no internet. When I finally got around to watch it, the anomalies of “Grow Into Shinin’ Stars” were now a definite pattern. They had moved away from pomo rorikon to a more innocent schoolgirl image – and yet the talent of the girls were still clearly on display, there was no denying it.

“Countdown” left me completely baffled when it was released, and the PV both amusing and maddening. The girls started with a sophisticated look and concept, and were reduced to bad disco and fairy tales?

However, the start of a theory about SweetS was forming in my head. I had to have some kind of theory, something to explain the two very different images – the one leading up to the first minialbum, and what happened after. Thanks to j-poop, I was alerted to the importance of Bounceback as SweetS’ early production team – and the importance of arranger ats- to their success – as well as their last great contribution to the group, “Into the Daylight” (which I still insist should have been a single).

The release of the second mini-album furthered what woudl become my Unified Theory of SweetS, there was definitely a pattern at work and I was eager to see if it would repeat itself…

When the “Mienai Tsubasa” PV came out, I was appalled. On the one hand, it fit my theory – enough so that I began taking notes and finding new correlations, deepening my overall appreciation of the group’s career. On the other hand, it showed that SweetS were in Hawaii and I had no idea they were here. I was mad and depressed for a while, as anyone who was around me at the time can attest.

That said, “Mienai Tsubasa” was the first non-Bounceback track from SweetS that I liked a great deal. As it turned out, I’d eventually like all three singles from the schoolgirl phase as well (the charm and sophistication of “Countdown” only revealing itself to me months after its release), but “Mienai Tsubasa” grew on me much quicker than them. It felt like a return to greatness.

Then the six-month hiatus of Aya and Aki was announced, which troubled me to no end. I wanted a 3-nin SweetS single or two during that hiatus but wasn’t sure if that would be the case. “Earthship” was released, which was encouraging but not as strong as “Mienai Tsubasa”… Then 3-nin SweetS did release a single, which disappointed in unexpected ways…

Which brings us to “Bitter Sweets” and the present day. The above personal history, I now see, doesn’t even cover things like “Wings of My Heart” and the Girl’s Box Christmas singles – I still love showing the 1st X-Mas PV to people, calling it “the topless teenagers Christmas video”. And I admittedly haven’t given their concert DVD much of a chance yet, though I’m sure I will try again in the next couple months.

SweetS was there when I first started this blog, with “Love Like Candy Floss” listed as my favorite single of 2004 in the second entry I ever posted. The first mini-album remains my favorite Jpop album of all time, and perhaps my favorite album of any sort by now.

And I still believe there was something special about the Bounceback era – not just because of Bounceback, but the overall conceptual framework and how it was executed. The look, the choreography from SAM, the clothing by Penty, the cleverness of the PVs. It may have scared me at first, but even now it still strikes me with awe how carefully handled and presented the package was. In some ways, it strikes me as definitive of what Jpop is capable of, even as I also learn to give credit to what the later phases of SweetS also accomplished.

Haruna remains the definitive idol to me. Not the strongest voice in the group, but the best dancer, the most directed, the natural born leader, and the most careerist. In my U15 Top 10, she’s been the number one with nobody – not even Momoko or Maasa – coming close to toppling her in my estimation.

Aki… I actually didn’t like her at first. She struck me as a little stuck-up, a little too full of herself. (Especially in the early PVs.) Since then, I just learned that she was just being herself and that there’s a strong caring side to her as well. I think of behind the scenes shots where she’s holding Miori on her lap and it warms my heart…

Mai… is the other SweetS always on my U15 Top Ten. There’s something to her, and it’s hard to pin down at times, but she’s always struck me as compelling to watch, full of potential and ready to surprise her audience.

Aya is the most vocally talented, and listening to her on any song can give me chills. In another five or six years, I see her and Suzuki Airi dominating the Oricon charts as solo artists.

And Miori, who has blossomed surprisingly well over the course of the past three years. Like Mai, I actually don’t think her potential’s been tapped yet. If they continue as idols, it’ll only be a matter of time.

It was hard dealing with Zone’s breakup last year – devastating, even – so facing SweetS’ breakup this year seems a bit anticlimactic in comparison. SweetS seem to have more of a reason to let nature and market forces take their toll, however – their narrative feels more complete to me, more theoretically sound even, and it’s at a critical juncture where the girls are deciding their priorities. Ironically, last Thanksgiving I wrote

I thought it’d be great to see the girls blossom into young adult idols as SweetS… ironically, it was one of the things I was thankful for last Thanksgiving. I believed Avex was counting on the group to be their next Speed, and that their faith in the group was well-placed. That said, there’s a limit to anyone’s patience, though I still have no idea if the main reason for the breakup was the lapsing of a contract (as Santos theorized quite persuasively), some of the girls decided to focus on school (also likely), or some othe reason I haven’t heard.

As it is, I’m supportive of whichever SweetS decides to pursue their studies instead of continuing on the idol path. They’re all so young, any of them can make a comeback and still be young enough to handle it. And I know that some of the girls will simply keep on movin’, keep on being idols. I’d like to see them added to dream or to start a new unit.

So.

With all that said, it’s time to break out the claws. And the sledgehammer. And the bamboo for under the fingernails.

Because “Bitter sweets” the song and PV disappoints me to no end. If this was the single they went out on, I’d be furious.

I was excited at first by a couple of things: the return of Aki and Aya, of course, and the CD cover that recalled the DVD cover for “Lolita”. Even the title of the song with its allusion to food and flavor seemed to recall the Bounceback era.

Well, the song was definitely reminiscent of the first mini-album. Except what it reminded me of – not surprising, since it was the same songwriting team – was “Neverending Story”, one of the two non-Bounceback tracks on SweetS. Or as I liked to call them, “filler material”.

Okay, lemme sheathe the claws just a little. As much as I keep hoping and praying for Bounceback to return – along with Free Mikitty, it’s one of the recitatives of this blog – it’s not likely mostly because that initial era of SweetS sold disastrously. And “Neverending Story” – ironic title now, isn’t it? – isn’t necessarily a bad song, it’s actually quite catchy (and for some reason, the song is always associated in my head with a bawling Mai). That said, the person who wrote the music for it also wrote “Shochuu Omimai Moshiagemasu”, the single most annoying track on 5 Elements…and one of the tracks performed on the “On the Way” bonus DVD that made me rethink buying the concert DVD.

It isn’t that the girls don’t do justice to the song. If anything, my faith in the girls has always been buoyed by their talent: even if I consider a song mediocre, it’s encouraging to hear how well the girls sing, how much they commit to the song. If anything, that’s the basis on which the post-Bounceback singles have generally grown on me…

And who knows, maybe “Bitter sweets” will grow on me over time. As much as I disliked the “On the Way”, I found myself humming it to myself often in anticipation of “Bitter sweets”.

But wouldn’t it be nice to be swept away by a song soon after hearing it, to feel an initial thrill instead of a hopeful trepidation? Wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t have a trial basis duration by which to let a song work its magic? “Mienai Tsubasa” did that for me, “Earthship” also was a step in that direction.

I would’ve been happier with “Pieces of Peace” as the single instead of the c/w track. It’s not exactly setting me on fire, and the repetition at beginning annoys me to no end, but it’s a much better showcase of the girls’ voices. It also is a nice change-up of the typical SweetS single, going calypso instead or R&B lite.

So the nicest thing I can say about “Bitter sweets” the song is that I’m willing to concede it may eventually grow on me. If “On the Way” can crawl into my head, so can this song. Maybe.

As for the PV, I find it oddly… uncompelling. The PVs were always beautiful and well-handled – even “Countdown” and “Mienai Tsubasa”. But the CGI cityscapes of “Earthship” seemed kind of chintzy to me, the lack of walls in certain scenes of “On the Way” struck me as just plain cheap, and this… well, they did the best they could, but again it’s the girls themselves that make this PV at all watchable.

Whoever thought of putting the girls in a shiny red car must have been smoking crack or had a very strange sense of humor. Seriously, it just highlights how none of them are old enough to drive yet and makes the video seem more juvenile than mature or sophisticated. Of course, we don’t see the car move, just the camera tracking around it in an attempt to mimic driving…

That said, at least it continues to affirm the pecking order of SweetS. It’s only fitting that Haruna is behind the wheel, with Aya as her co-pilot.

And for some reason AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” played in my head whenever the car shots came up. Why, I’m not sure, but it seems fitting.

While it was nice to see the girls re-enact their poses on the rug for the “Lolita” DVD cover, I quickly figured out why they didn’t use that pose in the actual PV. Quite simply, they look silly singing from that position. It’s kind of funny for the hint of kink of singing with other people’s body parts in your face, but I’ve never considered kink a strong point for SweetS.

One big plus of the PV is seeing how much Aya’s matured in the past six months. I still think she’s a bit too young to go solo, but she’s got all the elements to become a superstar in another couple of years: the looks, the voice, the persona.

However, that brings up another thing that annoys me about this video: the close-up shots of the girls make them look horrible. I wonder if it’s a fisheye lens or something, but their faces seem… off, somehow, in these shots. Especially Miori, who looks like her nose is huge in these shots but otherwise looks fine throughout the PV. The only one who looks good in those close-up shots is Mai.

Seeing the girls place all their hands together was cute, and I have to wonder if these keys are a reference back to the notorious key of “Love Raspberry Juice”. If anything, this image seems spring out of nowhere…

And the ride through the group’s past was the best part of the PV, almost justifying the driving gimmick.

In a quick blur, we see the girls drive past their achievements as a group.

The “Lolita” DVD, which is still one of my most prized possessions…

And then all the other images from their single covers… Which is kind of like a variation on old movies where people drive and various road signs they pass rush by.

Through the first phase, second phase, the third phase with “Mienai Tsubasa”…

The 3-nin single, whose cover photo I still find fascinating… If the girls had tried to go with that mature starving model look for this PV, maybe they could have gotten a lot more sales…

… Finally, “Bitter sweets”, and then the screen goes white. Which means what? They stepped into the light? Was it supposed to symbolize SweetS as a group ending?

I do like that it’s supposed to give a sense of history, of continuity. However, I’m more interested in how the group evolved – the covers aren’t any indication of how they changed, grew, developed as idols. But perhaps they’re saving that for the last PV.

The rug is also supposed to give a sense of continuity… what the heck, I didn’t think they’d be able to dig up the same rug three years later but apparently they did.

One thing that strikes me is that the present-day girls seem a whole lot less sexually charged in their pose on the rug than when they first did this for “Lolita”. Part of it is probably because the still shot from “Lolita” is so forceful and manipulative in its intentions towards the viewer, while here the girls seem more comfortable, they’re singing, and it actually feels nostalgic and heartwarming more than anything else. In an odd way, it feels like the girls are returning to the naptimes they missed by becoming idols in the first place.

Also, it’s worth noting that the girls do not dance in this PV. And that’s a goddamn shame, because they’re great dancers – it’s one of their strongest assets as an idol group – and it’s one of the best parts of any SweetS PV up to now. The dance solos at “Countdown” were great fun, the choreography of “On the Way” made it worth watching repeatedly despite itself… Most likely, the lack of dance shots was because they didn’t have time to rehearse, with Aki and Aya returning. But even 3-nin dances would have been better than nothing.

The girls do appear to be having fun in the video. The morose lapses of the last single are a thing of the past, thankfully – it just didn’t suit them.

However, the girls aren’t given very much to do in this PV, are they? Take away the dance moves and you have most of the girls lying around on a rug…

… and riding…

… and swinging back in forth. Though it’s nice that some of them, especially Aki, make the most of that. I remember when Aki began plumping a little around “Grow Into Shinin’ Stars” and worrying about how she’d take it. Now she’s an absolute looker, with a great smile. Ahh, I’m gonna miss her as much as the others. And I wanna see her in a bikini.

Despite itself – and I hate to use that phrase, but it’s the best caveat I can think of – the song and PV make me appreciate SweetS. If it had come out as just another SweetS single, I may have watched it a few times and gone back to the old stuff. But standing as the penultimate release of the girls, I find myself returning to it to see how far the girls have gone.

The girls have always carried themselves with a striking confidence, from their entrance at the opening of the “Lolita” PV to now. But what was once precocious and disturbing (in a good way) now seems well-earned, the result of their hard work and dedication. Haruna especially has a way of dominating the screen that makes me believe she won’t be taking a hiatus, that she’ll be one of those continuing her idol career in whatever way possible.

Mai, I’m not as sure about… but I find her irresistable to watch, for the smile, for the much-needed dental work, and for that special quality I can’t pin down. She justifies the Nabokov references in SweetS’ work, more than any others. I want to see more of her, and I think she’ll actually be the beauty of the Penty Five once puberty’s left its final mark on them. Not a conventional beauty, but a strikingly idiosyncratic one.

I mentioned the Aki bikini photobook I want, right? I think she’ll want to focus on school for now, having just gotten into the high school of her choice. (Same with Aya, I’m betting.) For both, I hope they remember their fans and come back when they’re ready. And if not, I wish them good lives and all the happiness they’ve already earned.

Miori seems to have the most active career outside of SweetS already, so I think she’ll be part of whatever post-SweetS idol work follows. I don’t ever see her going solo as a pop idol, but she seems the most versatile for being a geinou. We’ll see how it goes.

And this closing image from the PV is the payoff we all wanted, the shot of the girls asleep as in the back cover of the “Lolita” DVD. A piece of peace, so to speak. This does make me cry, this does make me miss the girls and wish they could stick around past June.

As you all know, I’ve had numerous issues with their song choices and their recent PVs, but I’ve never been able to find fault in the girls themselves as idols. If it was possible to set aside the music and the merchandising and the presentation, you’d still have five remarkable girls who we’ve seen grow into five remarkable young ladies. There’s something wondrous in that, perhaps, and that’s where the sadness comes into play. The “five as one” is like a friendship which heats up and then eventually people go their separate ways.

It’s the separate ways that gives me some consolation, I think. Even when SweetS is gone, there’ll still be Aki, Aya, Haruna, Miori, and Mai. Wherever they wind up, and I hope some of them will remain as geinou, I’m sure they’ll do fine.

And of course, there’s also the albums and videos that SweetS have left behind. Just because they’ll be breaking up doesn’t mean I’ll stop watching “Love Like Candy Floss” over and over again, or be removing their songs from my PDA. They’ve become a part of me, an integral part of how I see the world – which is an odd thing to admit, but more true for SweetS than any other idol group, including Zone and Berryz Koubo. (In my private pantheon of creative influences, that’d place them up there with Sonic Youth, Philip Roth, Enki Bilal, and yes, Vladimir Nabokov.) What they achieved – with the help of their management and everyone else around them – is not something to take lightly; what we as the audience bring out of that experience may run deeper than we know.

That’s a gift I can always treasure.

And hey, there’s still more of SweetS left to go! A single, a DVD, a photobook… God, let there be Aki bikini shots, the more I think about it the more I want it.

While time is short, there’s still a great deal to look forward to. So I’m going to enjoy it while I can, as much as I can. And I’m sure other SweetS fans feel the same way.

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2 Responses to “SweetS’ “Bitter sweets” PV”
  1. Steve Harrison says:

    Well said Ray…even though almost book length!
    I really can’t add much to your comments, as I take issue with very little, except, since I didn’t start liking SweetS from the beginning rolicon era, I do appreciate the later, post BOUNCEBACK songs as well.

    About the single Bitter Sweets..I do find it catchy, but a bit too long, and repetitive. Also, I do agree that the video (and the last few as well) is boring, and cheaply made compared to other groups, or SweetS own earlier PVs.

    It is true however, that the some of the attraction to them besides the obvious talent, was their young, precocious image. I just published a SweetS Memorial T-shirt (on zazzle.com) http://www.zazzle.com/product/235581738374219615
    and plan to wear it proudly when the friggen rain and cold weather here in SF stops…hey, people still wear apparel with images of the Beatles, and Jimi Hendrix, both now long gone…so it won’t be the same as those people I see with outdated tour T’s from 1978.
    I guess the biggest factor in my anger/upsetness, is the fact that SweetS did not achieve in sales or fame what they were capable of or worth. At Kinokuniya, I asked if they had the new SweetS single, and they looked at me ..HUH? I then said, “a girl group, like Morning Musume..” They said, “Oh..morninnnggg Mooosume..yes, wehave Mornnninggg Mooosume!” And I said it in Japanese too!!
    I don’t know who to really blame, it is just so sad…
    I must admit now, that even before the announced breakup, I actually cried when listening to SweetS.
    Music does that to me sometimes, but it is rare. Morning Musume did that to me on occasion. Being a guitarist, some amazing solo can draw tears….but NEVER has a group done that to me so much. What must people think as I am blasting SweetS from my car stereo while in the Safeway parking lot, with tears streaming down my face! My wife who does NOT share or understand my taste or her trem “obsession” with jpop (and boy, I have tried to show her the way) says I’m sick!
    I guess to the world outside of the Japanese jpop scene, a grown man listening to low and pre-teens singing with squeaky voices and in a strange language IS weird…(my wife thinks all female Japanese sound like TsujiKago) but I don’t care. SweetS are the epitome of what I love about great music…like art it must resonate deep in one’s soul. SweetS has done that to me, and a mere breakup will not change that. It is true that there was a world before SweetS, and there will be a world beyond….but no group I can dream or imagine of..will ever take the place of Aki, Aya, Haruna, Miori and Mai !

  2. kagofeet says:

    This is why I love coming to this site. Time and time again you put it down in the way that I want things said, but unfortunately my grammer skills aren’t as good as yours. haha! anyways, i’m going to miss the girls too. I hate to see them go and I hate to say goodbye. For now, all I can say is Thank You SweetS for giving us fans great music and great vibes that will hopefully continue in the future. Muah! That’s for SweetS! especially Miori! 😉