Berikyuu! Episode 17: The High Stakes Of Being C-ute

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Oddly enough, watching this episode and the next one has sapped me of any desire to be snarky or gratuitously Sadean in my write-up. It isn’t that I’ve seen the error in my ways or have run out of material.

Rather, these episodes deal with the making of the new C-ute PV, and I guess I take idol promotional videos quite seriously. For me, at least, they’re the make-or-break aspect of an idol act for a couple of reasons. Idols – even pop idols – depend on the visual experience they present; so idol music on its own is only a partial representation of the main product being sold.

The visuals of an idol group is not the icing on a cake of “pure” music. It’s a key ingredient. The music is the eggs and the visual presentation is the flour and the idols themselves are the sugar. This inability to separate the image and marketing of said image often earns pop music disdain from people who like “real” music, on the assumption that “real” music should not only be allowed to stand on its own but must be forced to stand on its own, lest the commercial trappings of a certain look or style unduly taint the purity of the creative process. Music is about creative expression and the commercial aspects are a necessary evil.

Except I don’t buy that bill of goods, either. Yes, there is music created with little regard to commercial demands; I enjoy some of that. But more often than not, music for a mass audience is made with some respect to commercial interests and tastes – if not in the writing of the songs, then in selecting what gets made into a single, what makes it onto an album and what is left off, in deciding on a music video, and everything else. Editing and selection can be as as much a commercial as a creative interest; to always assume otherwise would be to label everyone from the musicians to the producers to the radio execs as ridiculously inept businessmen. (Which may actually be true in some cases, but I’m not speaking in absolutes here.)

What I love about Japanese idol music is exactly what purists hate about it: that it is so brazen in its attitude towards marketing and commercialization, that the quality of music can be an afterthought. It isn’t always an afterthought by any means, and most of the best idol groups care a great deal. But that’s a luxury they afford themselves and not a necessity of their business.

Idol music is all about combining the perfect package of idol and music and visual cues, and the balance is precarious even in the best situations. Getting the perfect combination of all three is near-impossible, I think, though arguments can be made. Personally, I’d include SPEED throughout their heyday, Golden Era Morning Musume (which is astounding if you consider that part of the appeal was the constant shifting of all three aspects), second gen Tanpopo, Bounceback-era SweetS, 3-nin dream… well, I’m clearly biased, but I clearly think the balance can be struck, and it can be a magnificent thing, for as long as it lasts. Just don’t expect it to last long.1

And so, we reach the promotional video as the purest expression of the pop idol group. Why? Because it’s got all the necessary facets of a pop idol product, unlike music. The full army of resources – wardrobe, hair, camera crew, producers – all come into play in a controlled setting. And that control is the other crucial element to PVs, the edge it has over TV appearances and even concerts. In those other settings, the visual cues aren’t as strictly defined, the balance is lopsided and favors the idol in and of herself over the other two elements. The product isn’t as well-honed, there are possible flaws in presenting the overall package when spontaneity enters the picture – this benefits the idol if she is charismatic (and she should be, that’s her job), but as an act of grace-ridden marketing it isn’t as powerful.

And so we come to the H!P Kids. Berryz and especially C-ute are interesting to me because they’ve been trained to be top-of-the-line idols. Even as the Hello! Project empire becomes a shadow of its former self, these girls were being bred into the next generation of idol stars. The patrimony waiting for them was not as bountiful as say, what fourth gen Morning Musume walked onto… but that doesn’t diminish its significance, by any means.

The interesting thing for me is how much Berryz and C-ute both seem like they’re still in the apprentice phase of their idol careers. They’re still very much workshops, even as their sales climb and they build their own fan bases. Berryz has now been around for almost as long as SPEED before they disbanded, but SPEED came into their own almost immediately while Berryz and C-ute still come across as kohai to the senpai of Morning Musume.

As a result, they’re still messing around with the formula for both units, trying to find what works best for each, and the PVs perfectly reflect that. If a pop idol group is about finding the perfect balance, there’s a certain mad scientist mixing-and-matching going on throughout the oeuvre of both Berryz and C-ute. There are PVs of sheer brilliance, that make you believe they’ve hit on that idol golden mean. For me, that’d include Berryz’s “Piriri to Yukou” and “Special Generation” and especially “Waracchaou yo Boyfriend” and “Kokuhaku no Funsui Hiroba”, while C-ute’s got “Massara Blue Jeans” and “Sakura Chirarin” and “Tokkaiko Junjou”.

But what makes this unevenness fascinating isn’t that it’s because of misfires in a set formula, that the balance was tipped off just a little. It’s that the experimentation has been so aggressively extreme in how it carries each group: looking at the PVs, there is a sense of ricocheting agendas from single to single, from video to video. This isn’t some grand experiment in postmodernist excess like Morning Musume during their Golden Age. This is trying something, being unsure if it works, then completely changing the formula to see how that goes.

Perhaps that’s what the Junior Varsity is good for, right? To give players a chance to try out different moves and strategies before getting their game down to a science when they move up to the Varsity team? Except C-ute and Berryz aren’t the JV teams anymore, they’re as important to the Hello! Project collective as Morning Musume currently is.

Is it me, or are there moments when it seems that Airi’s outfit for this PV seems to sap her of I.Q. points? Like there’s a brain leech stuck to the collar or something?

(MaiMai – so fucking adorable! And so adorably… no, no, I won’t say it.)

I now see that the possible argument that this image and musical schizophrenia comes from their being teenage girls – no longer a child, not yet a woman – is utter bullshit. SweetS, Hinoi Team, Folder 5, and Zone had no problems creating more unified images for themselves when they were at a similar age or even younger. A teen idol does not have to show the duality of adolescence by being hyper-childish one moment and precociously mature the next. If anything, this caricaturing of the idol caters directly to the wota’s own schizoid impulses, swaying between an ideal of purity and innocence while also contending with the base sexual impulses your typical wota can’t help but feel for these girls.

And so we come to “Namida no Iro”, which is a solid effort on the part of C-ute and is seen as a successor to “Tokkaiko Junjou”… but there was “La La La Shiawase no Uta” between the two of them, a fluffy childish single and PV that presented a wholly different C-ute. The idols remain the same, of course, but one could just as easily imagine “La La La” and “Tokkaiko Junjou” were intended for two very different groups. Further, this isn’t a sudden whimsical to try something different – it’s a pattern of constant changes, seemingly for the sake of change. And this does not mean one mode is better than another – I love “Sakura Chirari” because it’s less mature in its presentation and even a bit too cutesy for its own good, while “Tokkaiko Junjou” grabs me for being much more mature, much sexier and aggressive.

(Is it me, or does Kanna look just a little like an addict working through her twelve steps here?)

If you’re a casual fan, this is all very inside-baseball and beside the point. You like one single, don’t like another, it makes no difference. But for more dedicated fans, it’s something of a dilemma: do you stick with a group through their failures as well as their successes, if you don’t have any reliable measure beyond the girls themselves? I don’t know what the next C-ute single will be like, and based on past patterns – or lack thereof – that makes me uneasy. Do you give up when there are too many crap singles and PVs, or at the very least mentally check out on the group during their low points? (Which is what I realized I did for Berryz during their less successful singles.)

The glue that holds all this together is the strength of the idols in themselves, their skills as performers and their charisma. And indeed that is always ultimately the case in idol music – mostly because the idol persona and whatever X factor involved in a specific idol is the most difficult thing to locate, and can’t be reproduced the way a certain sound or musical style or fashion trend can be. However, there’s still a risk for idols when their image and sound is tossed around the way Berryz and C-ute are: they are impeded somewhat by making as strong an impression as they could otherwise, there’s an amorphousness where there should be something sharply defined and easily recognizable. The stars in the group can overcome it by simply being the stars and getting the spotlight, but they also have photobooks and other side projects that better define who they are. The rest, though, are at an even greater risk of becoming idol ciphers in the public eye: even less than a cute girl with an okay voice, they’re simply the support for the cute girl with an okay voice.

What is most striking to me about this Berikyuu! episode is just how serious the girls are when filming this PV. There’s fun and games around the edges, but the sound stage is very much a workplace for them. They need to work as a team in their moves, they need to be aware of how the cameras move around them, and they each need to somehow convey that X factor which is what every idol needs to project to be at all memorable. This is hard work, they take it seriously, and there’s something… stirring about this, I guess. They know what’s at stake, and I daresay that getting this PV right may be a significant turning point, a chance for them to solidify their identity as C-ute in a way they hadn’t been allowed before.

Watching the girls watch themselves on a monitor is fascinating because they’re being asked to be critical of themselves and their abilities in a way that would make many adults cringe – and yet this is part of the job, this is what they’re trained to do, and they realize the importance of being honest with themselves about how they look in front of the camera.

And I have to say, this is probably the sexiest shot of Chisato I’ve ever seen. Maybe because here we’re seeing the hardened young woman, the consummate professional, that lies beneath the goofy tomboy exterior.

Even fun and games is part of these girls’ work, of course, but there is a sense that the stakes here are high enough that they need to focus, to concentrate and do their very best. I’m not sure if they believe that the Promotional Video is the most important tool they possess as entertainers – I kind of doubt it, I would guess they place the most stock on their concert performances – but certainly, there is a refreshing gravity here.

The final results of the PV itself… Well, I’ll leave that to next time.

And as for why I had the urge to discuss “Namida no Iro” in this manner while I turned “Resonant Blue” into a freakwhoreshow – well, I care about C-ute and Berryz. Right now I can’t say as much for Morning Musume.


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2 Responses to “Berikyuu! Episode 17: The High Stakes Of Being C-ute”
  1. Wow mate, brilliant. The things you have just said, is exactly what i’m writing now about these girls, but you can put it into words, while I just waffle trying to get my point around.

    Brilliant mate.

  2. jim says:

    I think I have to make a whole post followup to this cause I’ve been thinking the idol “thing” and was stuck on how to say it. This wording helps.

    Anyway, I still care about MM more, but you’re right about this being a turning point where Resonant Blue really isn’t I don’t think, they just played it up like that.


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