From Gravure To Rock – What We Learn About Idols From Shihono Ryo and Okamoto Rei

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I know the comparison will seem misguided to most, but whenever I watch Okamoto Rei, I find myself thinking, “That’s the career Shihono Ryo wanted.” I’m probably wrong on this – Shihono is one of the leading junior idols in Japan, after all, with a very loyal following. (Myself included.) 

Shihono and Okamoto are both junior idols who have tried their hands at a singing career, particularly in rock music – or pop rock, if you want to be more exacting. Examples of Shihino’s gravure work can be found plentifully on the interwebs, including my worship site; as for Okamoto, MorningBerryz has a post from last year with some wonderful shots.

Let’s start with Ryo’s first and – so far – only single, “Sweet Sunday”. The PV begins with an alarm clock going off and Shihono waking in her jammies…

Then cuts to some kind of rehearsal space where Ryo and her band perform the song.

You see that guitar Ryo’s holding? She’s never seen actually playing it in this video. It’s just a big ol’ accessory, like a belt or earrings.

I’m really not sure if this speaks of cynicism or naivete. Naivete in the idea that just wearing a guitar will be enough to make people think you’re a total rocker chick. Or cynicism in that you don’t expect anyone to call you out on such lame use of a prop.

Because Ryo is who she is and because it’s highly unlikely her single was sought out by anyone who didn’t know of her junior idol superstardom beforehand, I’ve wondered if her experience as a gravure idol influenced her attempt at being a rock star.

I can be a bit of a dick and say that the music is competent but unadventurous, the kind of song you’d hear as an instrumental during the “wilder” swimsuit sequences in a junior idol or adult gravure DVD. That and the tinkly piano bullshit for the “softer” lingerie and nightgown sequences are why I often watch gravure videos with the volume turned down and something else playing in the background.

But faulting “Sweet Sunday” for not being more like Dial M For Motherfucker or Bad Moon Rising is completely unfair, I know. This vanilla MOR  is probably what Shihono actually enjoys in terms of rock music, and all I can say is that she’s young and if she’s lucky she may actually develop more interesting taste over the years.

The other thing that strikes me is that her waking-up scenes aren’t very good. I mean, they’re like the corny parts of a gravure DVD which are supposed to be mildly comedic before we get to the slow, lingering shots that drift over her half-naked body as she lounges around in a bikini or something.

One thing about gravure videos, whether junior or adult, is that they’re not very plot-driven. If you’re lucky, there’s a premise of some sort – maybe a location or setting for the whole DVD, maybe a theme – but for the most part it’s the girl in a state of semi- or un-dress, and the camera basking in that glory.

The audience doesn’t care, they would take any excuse to watcha favorite gravure idol in her natural habit, unclothed and unconcerned by the eyes upon her. They have more important things to think about than some kind of plot thread to tie a DVD together.

Unfortunately, “Sweet Sunday” doesn’t gives us the gravure goodies, so we are left wondering about plot threads. I mean, why bother with the shots of her getting ready in the morning? How does it tie into her performance with the band? In a gravure video, that morning routine’d be a prelude to Ryo lying around in her undies and just lounging a while, and her audience’d be happy. That’s the point of gravure, a tease followed by another tease. No such teases are involved here, so instead of feeling aroused or even blue-balled, one is simply left dully perplexed.

And then there’s this: I’m not sure what to make of these scenes, where Ryo lounges around and does… nothing. However, she’s dressed in her rocker rehearsal outfit, so… is it after the morning stuff and before the rehearsal? After the rehearsal?

And again, why can’t I help but think she’s too well clothed at the moment? 

Okay, now if this was a typical Ryo video and not a PV, this microphone would be getting a lot more play.

Ryo’s singing is weak, but not embarrassingly so. At least, not by my standards, which are admittedly low. She’s better than early Michishige Sayumi, but perhaps not as good as current Sayu.

I think she could’ve benefited from more voice lessons perhaps. Or maybe she just wanted to sound laid back and laconic, in which case she succeeded but didn’t make anything exciting of it anyways – so I guess that’s ultimately a fail.

The thing is, Ryo’s whole performance in this video seems… lifeless to me, I guess. I mean, yes, she’s being lively and active in front of the camera, striking up her rocker girl poses on cue and 

I find it difficult to pin down Ryo’s virtues as a gravure idol. Her looks certainly factor into it – but not as much as one’d think. She’s pretty, but not outstandingly so. Her figure is slim and appealing, but it’s also not as curvy as it could be, and even makes her look awkward in numerous poses. One can then go on to the next logical step: it’s the fact that she’s willing to pose and be photographed in a sexually enticing manner and is underage, playing upon the taboos and restrictions of culture. Well… okay, that’s a small part of her appeal, as it has to be. But the junior idol world is filled with dozens – if not hundreds – of plain-looking and even homely underage females posing in a sexually enticing manner. More often than not, they leave me unimpressed and uninterested.

No, what it is about Ryo – and I’ve noted this before – is an uncanny control over the reactions she projects to the camera. Most gravure idols – especially the U15 variety – have a considerably more limited repertoire than Ryo: they can look guarded, they can look happy and carefree, they can look sorta sexual but not quite. Ryo brings an intriguing intelligence to her gravure work – sometimes playing up vulnerability, other times bemused at the situations she plays out, always acting very much her age and not seeming either too child-like or annoyingly precocious. There is a self-awareness in Ryo’s gravure work that I find engaging, that makes me want to see more of her – not just in terms of skin, but in that Humbert Humbert-ish way where a casual cruelty can be as delightful as a throwaway kindness. She creates a sense of intimacy – one charged with the tension of gravure – by being so expressive, whether she’s eating some snacks or talking to the camera or simply lying around on the floor.

In short, what makes Ryo a legend in the junior idol world is the persona she projects – and that’s how it should be, because all idols are marketing their personae more than any other product. It’s the one thing that approaches uniqueness for them, the one thing that can suffuse the wide range of merchandise they sell to their faithful wota audience.

Unfortunately, that intelligent deployment of her idol persona is nowhere to be seen here. She limits herself in pitifully obvious ways: in her bedroom sequences, she’s playful but one-dimensionally so. In her band performance, she doesn’t move very freely, holding on to her unused guitar or clutching the mike, but very little else beyond that. 

Which brings up another contrast: the camera isn’t as adventurous as I’d like in a Ryo video. There isn’t the kind of intimate, imposing angles and close-ups one associates with gravure, nore does Ryo react to the camera in the manner of a gravure idol. If anything, she’s mostly cool to it, as one would expect a nascent rock star to be. Is it admirable for her to give up such an asset for this single and video? Is it taking a stand for her music, or simply being a hold-out and refusing to give the audience what they want?

This is the closest we get to the usual objectifying gravure shots. Then again, the fact that there’s these bandmates playing music behind her may make sexualizing her in the usual U15 fashion a bit too disturbing for all involved. Nobody’d want to get into their heads the idea that Ryo’s a sex kitten servicing the band – and I’m sure her band would bolt at the first such implications, as common sense would dictate. (I’m a great believer that behind the scenes of the gravure world, there has to be a mundane kind of professionalism, or else the whole industry would collapse under scandals.)

The song is good in its own way and I’m impressed that Ryo wrote the lyrics to it, even if I don’t know what the lyrics translate to. (If I did, I’m afraid my opinion may drop. Not everyone can be Chris Cornell or Paul Westerberg, after all…) However, there’s not really much of a hook to the song – it rocks out some, but it doesn’t stay in your head for too long.

Further, this video also suffers from a similar lack of hook. I find Ryo irresistable in just about anything she does, yet this video can be painful to watch at times because it feels so… indulgent. Okay, all her work is indulgent, but this one is indulging herself and not her audience. And yeah, I’m willing to give her that and buy multiple copies of this CD (which I did), but it’s more out of loyalty than true enjoyment on my part.

Honestly? For all the professional shine given to “Sweet Sunday”, both song and video, it still feels like a vanity project. Something Ryo probably wanted and so her agency figured, “Let’s keep her happy and do this. We can at least get her fans to buy it.”

The awful part is that she shows an overall comfort and skill that surpasses another gravure idol who’s released several singles – Ogura Yuko. I love Yukorin – not as much as Ryo or even Rei now, but she’s an absolute dear in her own whacked-out way. She has one song I absolutely adore – “Vitamin Love” – but she’s clearly out of her depths when she’s not posing half-nekkid and looking as loli and as fuckable as she can. The PV for “Vitamin Love” tries to make this into a virtue, but even that bit of media-akido doesn’t hide the way she has to think out her moves and lines as she performs them. Her Pop Jam performances – both the Tsunku and TM Revolution eras – were wince-inducing, your heart just reached out to her and hoped she could make it through the song without fucking up too badly.

But. What works in Yukorin’s favor is that she’s so obviously a bad pop idol performer – her movements too stiff, her skill set too limited – that you do indeed root for. Without meaning to, she gives you a narrative worth investing oneself in.

And Shihono Ryo didn’t even give us that in “Sweet Sunday”. I don’t know, maybe the thinking was, “The song should carry itself on its own merits” or something else terribly unrealistic. Well, if the song was more memorable, okay. But even then, Gypsy Rose Lee was right: “You gotta have a gimmick.” And it’s surprising that a junior idol, of all persons, would not keep in mind such a thing.

Now let’s look at the songs and videos for Okamoto Rei’s first two singles, starting with her debut “Teenage Days”.

Apparently, the video is set at Hogwarts Academy…

Right off the bat, some interesting visual cues – the plugging in and turning on of a guitar amplifier…

Is accompanied by shots of somebody placing HELLO MY NAME IS stickers on random objects.

The funny part for me isn’t even the sticker, but the fact that the part where one fills in the name has plaid instead. I may be missing something here – is it supposed to identify a person based on the pattern of their school uniform? On their ethnicity? (Are there a lot of Scots in Japan?) Or affiliation with the 3M corporation? Or a fetish for bagpipes?

Then we cut to Ryo wrting in a room… perhaps a letter thanking the Plaid Name Sticker Company for their generous contribution to her school?

We catch up with her in the stately Wayne Manor castle, looking for the secret batcave…

And Rei fastens another name sticker on a suit of armor’s ass, when –

Watch out! Snape’s coming down the hall! (Or Alfred? Wait, are we going with the Harry Potter or the Batman riff now?)

Oh noes! She’s actually attending a Catholic school. What if the nun at the end of this line sees the Plaid Name Sticker Of Rebellion?

Now, I must confess that I know little of Rei’s modeling career besides the MorningBerryz piece. So when I call Okamoto a gravure idol, I may be overstating her oeuvre somewhat.

However, this may work in her favor. After all, she doesn’t bring nearly the amount of baggage that a Superstar of Junior Idols would to a debut. My expectations aren’t nearly as defined, and so Okamoto can surprise me with less chance of disappointing.

I think this works in her favor, because this is a pretty stupid video if you think about it for a second. Really, name stickers? Plaid name stickers, at that! Who cares? It’s not like in my teenage days, when we’d carry around flasks of gasoline to set bums on fire. This is just stupid.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s the right kind of stupid…? I think of one of ZONE’s PV for “Dai Bakuhatsu NO.1”, which is basically the girls running around town and putting up flyers for their show and pissing people off in an amusing fashion. What it does for prefab pseudo-garage cred, “Teenage Days” does for sorta-anti-authoritarian pseudo-rebellion. Okamoto comes across as being a rebellious type, but the rebellion she engages in – especially given that Japan isn’t exactly a Christian country – seems harmless, even endearing.

Hey, people – she only wants to know everybody’s name. Don’t let the Catholic Church bring her down for that!

Even the signature line of this song – “Kiss my ass and say goodbye” – is a clever pun, as pengie explained in her own post about the video. In terms of wit and sophistication, it’s maybe a step above those “Miss Mary had a steamboat” rhymes from grade school.

In the world of pop music, that isn’t a bad thing, though. Kishidan’s best line is the idiotic “Can you master baby?”. Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling” remains a classic to this day. And in that spirit, Rei’s “Kiss my asu / ass” is so damn memorable – so carefree and silly – that it’s a perfect pop hook, and she delivers it with the right amount of energy and satisfaction to make you want to sing along with her.

The song itself is not great, but it’s got a very catchy build-up and a chorus I can’t get out of my head. Technically, I guess it’s really solid, though I’m not equipped to be any more specific than that. It sounds solid to me, at least. And it’s got a lot of great touches – I love the guitar riff recreating the classic school chimes (something ZONE also did in “Sotsugyo”, I should add), and the interludes which sound kind of menacing in their use of cheap effects.

But more important, the song just sticks with me. I won’t forget this song anytime soon. There are days where I walk around singing the chorus to myself, just because it’s fun to do so. And such persistence in memory is what makes for great pop culture, never mind great pop music.

Now here’s something else Okamoto has that Shihono is – quite oddly enough – lacking in her music video: some playful, mischievous sass. Ryo came across just a little like an ice queen in “Sweet Sunday”. Rei comes across as a shit-kicker, complete with a fucked-up shit-eating grin.

Hey, is that Kashiwagi Yuki walking in front of sister?

I guess now’s a good time to point out that Rei, like Ryo, isn’t overwhelmingly beautiful in a traditional sense. She’s pretty, no doubt, but it’s clear to me that what carries her – just like what carries Ryo – is a control of her persona that seems intelligent, engaged in the act of performing one’s self, but also remaining quintessentially adolescent in her demeanor. And unlike “Sweet Sunday”, these are shown to good effect throughout “Teenage Days” and its various scenes.

Rei just standing out in the cold in her school uniform elicits a range of responses: serious one moment, playful and a tad bored the next, defiant and indomitable in another.

As for her performance with the band, she doesn’t seem intent on striking the proper cool pose – which is all Ryo was doing in her case – but just getting into the music and going balls-to-the-wall for it. Again, the range of reactions are impressive: she snarls, exults, laughs, and gets silly. But more than anything, she conveys the idea that she’s feeling the music and passing along those feelings to the audience. She’s excited and wants us to be excited. Ryo is more distant in comparison.

Andshe actually does seem to be playing her guitar. But honestly? I don’t care if she can play the guitar or not in real life. Just make sure that if she’s wearing it, she’s playing it. 

Oh, and Rei’s guitar has plaid on it. I don’t know, maybe she just really likes plaid or something.

Oh, there’s a weakness for me – she decides to try on glasses, perhaps in the belief that it’ll make her seem smarter on paper.

Ah, be still my heart…

Suddenly, all hell breaks loose in the school! Girls are rushing down the staircases! Has this become Rock and Roll High School? Where’s Joey Ramone and his doorknobs?

This is actually the first canto in Rei’s re-imagination T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland

Okay, now here’s a move I didn’t even consider with Shihono – Okamoto is playing for an audience of her peers and they’re loving her for it.

I don’t know, would this have crossed some kind of line in gravure land? As a point of comparison, it makes clear that Rei wants to reach as wide an audience as possible and is emphasizing how girl-friendly a rocker she is. Ryo is all by her lonesome, except for when she’s fronting the band.

It’s actually difficult to imagine a wild bunch of schoolgirls cheering Ryo and her band on. Again, this goes to preconceptions, but if I imagine any audience watching her sing, it’d be a bunch of pervy old dudes like me. And even worse, I can imagine a bunch of them thinking a wota-gei would be better than a mosh pit, and the rest pulling out their cameras for whatever shots they can get of Ryo and her goodies.

It took me a whole bunch of viewings, but I’m guessing now that what Rei is doing is writing an assignment she was given as punishment for her rebellious ways. You know, with the name sticker and the rock band dropping by and all that. If this was the intention, it completes the narrative in a pleasing, even sophisticated, manner.

As for where the punishment is coming from, we can see from the end of the video…

 

Rei walks up the stairs…

And does a drive-by… or rather, walk-by… um… sticking.

She looks on at her act of malice and takes deep pleasure in the blasphemy. She has taken a Bride Of Christ and claimed it as her own. Or some Scottish guy, I guess, given the plaid nametag.

Time itself has been defaced by Rei! She’s a menace to society!

Anyway, Sister catches on and literally pulls the plugs on the shenanigans. And, one may assume, forces Rei to write a long long essay explaining why she did what she did.

But instead she wrote the song.

So she’s telling a nun to kiss her ass.

Which is funny for some people. Mostly Catholics of a certain sort, I’d guess. Luckily I’m part of that group.

The second single “Railroad Star” is a whole other story – both literally and metaphorically. Instead of something light and frothy and silly, we have a song that’s more angsty and plaintive, with a video that is – relatively speaking – powerfully dramatic, even heart-wrenching.

Longtime readers know I have some favorite stuffed animals which I talk to and who talk back to me. So seeing Rei taking a peek through a window with her teddy bear was something I could relate to, in a weird twisted way.

I think the more obvious reading of the teddy bear is that it’s a sign of the Runaway Rei’s innocence. Myself, I’d like to think that the teddy bear was the one who convinced her it was a good thing to run away, and even made the arrangements to get past the armed guards and the barb wire. Or something.

My heart goes out as much to the teddy bear as to Rei. Poor fella.

Again, we see a lot of shots of Rei playing her guitar with her band. The song itself, meh. It’s good, perhaps the best rock song of the three we looked at here – it drives forward with a nice grind, then slows down for the more serious singing parts – but it doesn’t make me forget the guitar rock I most enjoy. I won’t ever opt to listen to this over Badmotorfinger or In the Meantime, though I definitely would listen to “Teenage Days” in the car just to sing along with it at the top of my lungs. Music – like idols – may have a multitude of nuances and complexities, but it has to be a simple pleasure first before it can be lived and appreciated in full. Of the three songs, “Teenage Days” is the simple pleasure, the one that I carry around with me for uplift and enjoyment.

I guess it doesn’t help that “Railroad Star” tries so hard to be a downer, albeit an ediying one. This song being so melodramatic, Rei is more po-faced throughout her singing shots than the smirky little troublemaker in “Teenage Days”.

Doesn’t she look a lot like Sowelu in this shot?

What makes the video for me, though, is the whole runaway at the railroads thing.

This really isn’t playing fair by any means, but that’s what makes it fun. This isn’t a tug at the heartstrings, it’s a big tug-of-war yank. And like a tug-of-war, you can fight it and expend needless energy, or you can give in to the tug and fall down, wallowing in the mud of treacly invocations of lost childhoods and the resilience of youth and the power of innocence and the spirit of pedoliciounsess.

I, of course, chose to wallow.

Look at what she brought with her! Oh, how cute…! But wait, didn’t the teddy bear pack any of his shit as well?

When she listens to her music for solace, she looks so… much… younger… and… so helpless… and in need of a… a… hug…

What? Was I saying something? Sorry, got lost in thought there.

And blowing bubbles? Oh, come on! That’s guilding the pedolily just a bit too much don’t you think?

“Teenage Days” may be the most fun of the three songs, and even the most enjoyably silly of the three videos. However, the runaway sequences from “Railroad Star” are probably the most quintessentially idol-esque of the trio. At the very least, it forces its hand so that the audience either embraces it completely – feeling for Runaway Rei and enjoying this postmodern complicity, this artificial pathos which hinges on a cute girl pretending to be in a Boxcar Willie styled distress – or simply shrugs and not give a damn.

I can’t not give a damn. This is just too good to refuse. You don’t find this quality of emotional-wringing bullshit very often, and I’ll not let the opportunity pass!

Meanwhile, guitar playing Rei gets her groove on, seeming somehow older than her runaway persona. She’s also a much better singer than Ryo – part of it is perhaps technical, she doesn’t sound as painfully one-note as Ryo. But more of it just has to do with passion – she comes across as impassioned and pained and again does a great job of conveying feelings from the song to the audience. In comparison, Ryo – oh, it pains me to say this – is lifeless. Dead fish.

There she is again, listening to her music and… and… really, she just needs someone to take care of her, and…

What? Was I saying something again?

In reality, I’m guessing a runaway hanging around in a train yard would be beaten up and even sexually assaulted by guards and other homeless people. She’d also risk getting maimed with all the moving cars and stuff. So thank God this has nothing to do with reality, right?

Here’s a mis-step, I think. The part where her suitcase falls open and all her stuff falls should have been the emotional center of the narrative, but it doesn’t quite come across that way. They already had the teddy bear and the bubbles and the headphones that make her look tweenylicious. Why not make this tumble of possessions lead to tears or anger or something? Okay, maybe I’m getting too persnickety here.

“Outside there’s a boxcar waiting / Outside the family stew…”

I think another mis-step, though it may be a calculated one, is not playing out Runaway Rei’s dilemma as much as they could have. She decided to run away, she’s hanging out at the tracks, and she passes the time. But what did she run away from? (And do we really want to know?) Does she ever ponder returning home, or is this the metaphorical end of the road for her?

The plaid guitar is back, which I guess means it’s Rei’s own personal axe or something. Also, I should add here that she looks pretty sexy in that outfit. Really, I’d like to see a photobook from her. I don’t know if she think it’d be the right career move, but… yeah. 

This get-up is nice, but it’s like this is the oldest of the Reis in this video. Runaway Rei is the youngster trying to make sense of the cruel world, Plaid Guitar Rei is the one expressing her anger and angst through her music, and this Plaid Scarf Rei is singing in a more contained, band-less setting.

Is this what Rei aspires to be after her rocker chick jones is spent? Well, that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

It’s a funny thing, but watching this video makes me sigh in relief because I know Okamato isn’t really a runaway and it would break my heart if she was. I mean, that’s stupid, but that’s how well my buttons are pushed by this PV.

So. What are we left with, finally? The main conclusion I’ve reached is that Shihono Ryo’s expertise as an idol simply wasn’t used well – if at all – in “Sweet Sunday”, and that worked to her detriment. It was like she was trying to separate her gravure self from her rock star wannabe self, but needed that gravure self’s wisdom and instinct in carrying out the rock star’s project. However, it’s a double-edged sword for Ryo: being so famous in her primary field has made her secondary pursuit seem not only less serious, but also heavily inflected with the expectation of her junior idol work.

As for Rei – well, she’s got the idol thing down to a tee in her first two videos, and used it well to promote her own rocker image. She’s got command of her persona like a true seasoned hand, going for stupidly cute rebellion in “Teenage Days” and then achingly cute pathos in “Railroad Star”. Moreover, she seems to bring more of her self and engagement with the work, than Ryo did on “Sweet Sunday”. She also wasn’t afraid to go for the obvious but memorable hook for “Teenage Days”. Though I have to admit, “Railroad Star” grows on me slowly, day-by-day. Maybe Rei’s an even smarter cookie than I’m giving her credit for already. Which isn’t to say Ryo isn’t smart – I think she’s fiercely smart in her gravure work. She just miscalculated when she tried something different.

And unfortunately, that miscalculation may have a lasting effect. Ryo released her single in February of 2007, and I haven’t heard of any more music from her since. That said, her gravure work continues unabated, which is a very good thing. However, I’d like to see her return to music, release a few more singles, get a better feel for using her assets in service of the music instead of pretending they don’t exist. Certainly, if Yukorin can release as many singles as she has, Ryo should be allowed at least a second chance.

As for Rei, her third single comes out in a month! I’m looking forward to this – I get a feeling she’s just getting warmed up, and it’ll be fascinating to see where she goes from here.

* * * * *

Update – October 6, 2008:

I just found out that Ryo had a second music release, natural, in July. I’m not sure how it ties into the naturalism DVD – which I assumed was typical gravure stuff, but it seems I’m probably wrong on that. I’ll definitely follow up on this with a future post.

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One Response to “From Gravure To Rock – What We Learn About Idols From Shihono Ryo and Okamoto Rei”
  1. pengie says:

    Awesome post! I had no idea Ryo did any singing, though… but, eh, I see why nobody would mention it I think. Heh.

    And it’s funny you mention singing along to “Teenage days” in the car–I have to confess, I’m guilty of pretty much shouting along to “Railroad star” while I drive. There’s something particularly satisfying about pulling up beside somebody while wailing out the lyrics to an idol’s wannabe rock song. … in Japanese. It’s awesome you’re interested in Rei though, I knew she’d be Ray-bait from the moment I saw her! Muahaha… ha… yeah, anyway, I love her too. 😛