Death to Cult of Pop

The year of kaisans has taken its toll on me. This is the last post I’ll be making on Cult of Pop.

Put simply, the blog’s been more miss than hit for me in the past couple months. I’ve been enjoying it less, and the sense of obligation was slowly overwhelming the sense of fun. I found I was creating a massive backlog of potential posts but not making myself sit down and actually write them. The posts I did complete became more scattershot and less what I wanted them to be, growing more and more distant from my personal vision of the Jpop blog I want to nurture.

Beyond that, I need to simplify the online part of my life as outside concerns take up more of my time: mostly, freelance writing is picking up for me and little Haruna will be arriving in two months. (Chinami is now out for the baby name, Haruna and Nozomi are in. Unfortunately, my attempt to name the child Eydie Ameen Mescallado has been torpedoed.)

Realizing all this earlier this week, I thought long and hard about what I should do next, and ending Cult of Pop seemed the best answer.

I think this blog had an excellent run in Version 2.0, and I’m proud of many entries that I’ve written for the past eleven months. The Favorite 2005 PVs series comes to mind, as does the H!P Science entries (especially the one for Berryz, when I finally learned to love them), the first “Momoko O Momoko” (before I beat it into the ground with extra cantos), and the U15 Battle Royale Generator.

Since blogging is about community, I want to thank everyone involved. First and foremost, I thank you regular readers for supporting my opinions and views on Japanese pop music. It wouldn’t be worth it without an intelligent, active audience, and you were certainly that. I also thank profusely my co-bloggers Ian Hirokawa and Sami, and apologize about that position being something akin to drumming for Spinal Tap.

And last but by no means least, I thank all the Jpop bloggers and other sites who’ve shown their support to Cult of Pop by links and mentions . Extra special thanks to Zush of Kakko-ii, CJ Marsicano of Stuck in a Pagoda with Motoko Aoyama, Johnny of The Mind, Thea of Made in Paradise, Santos of Idolizing St. Anna, HANABI.1984 at J-Pop CD Cover Art, and the crews at group blogs Channel-Ai,, and Your Opinion Doesn’t Count.

So. That’s it. Cult of Pop is dead. See you at my new Jpop blog!

Sunday Blog Roundup

Kago is alive and well – and yeah, it does look like her Mom’s a hottie, too! Anyway, Ikimasshoi has news and scans of what Kago’s been up to, based on a tabloid article. The site also has news of Goto Maki performing in South Korea and the success of Takahashi Ai’s downloadable solo single.

In other Hello! Project news, CJ Marsicano of Stuck in a Pagoda with Motoko Aoyama writes a well-informed and highly thoughtful review of Berryz Koubo’s new album. Even if you’ve already bought the album – and all Berryz fans should (I did this weekend!) – it’s worth a read. Johnny of The Mind provides a great Morning Musume wallpaper and even breaks it down by looking at each girl individually… and yeah, Koharu does look cute in those shorts. Johnny also has better quality shots from Risa Niigaki’s new photobook. Béné of Béné Blog likes the new Berryz mini-album and has lyrics for both the upcoming Berryz and Kusumi Koharu singles… HANABI.1984 of J-Pop CD Cover Art has Goto Maki’s “Glass no Pumps” single and single V DVD. Luna Tech covers the release of Morning Musume’s Rainbow Seven concert DVD. Your Opinion Doesn’t Count’s J-Music Clip of the Week features Hello! Project mastermind Tsunku, with a bonus of Morning Musume’s gam-a-licious Pop Jam performance.

Several of these bloggers have also had interesting non-H!P entriesworth reading. CJ writes about Akiakane, a group I never heard of but which now intrigues me, and even provides a clip of this all-girl Jrock group. J-Pop CD Cover Art has two very early Hamasaki Ayumi album covers, LOVEppears and Duty, as well as Utada Hikaru’s “Automatic”, while Johnny has the lyrics to two Hikki songs, “Wings”and “Blue”. At Your Opinion Doesn’t Count, Tsuji_Eriku has been watching a whole lot of doramas recently and admits to liking it when dorama girls cry… Also, Hikaru_Doumuoji covers the Hyde concert at the Fillmore!

Santos of Idolizing St. Anna looks at cat idols versus dog idols and breaks the news about a new Caless girl group, which balances just a little all the kaisans from this year. Santos also considers the problem when a young gravure idol brags that her hobby is sex… Ahh, the jokes for this are too easy. I’ll leave it to you to write your own. Santos follows up with some more amusing thoughts on the topic and why idols can’t say it aloud. And on a sorta-related note, Craig of the delightfully quirky All in 1 has made a decision that reminds me of that episode of Seinfeld… and also automatically disqualifies him from the upcoming O-na-ni-i celebrations! Craig also reviews the Initial D movie.

Shay of SparkPlugged has revamped the site’s look and considers the recent collaboration of Utadu Hikaru and Yamada Masahi of The Back Horn. Go of jrocknyc considers L’Arc en Ciel’s Live in U.S.A. DVD, the new PV from High and Mighty Color, Miyavi’s latest single, and Dir en Grey’s new single. About that last one, gotta love the hat!

Gail of the impressive Himitsu goes over upcoming Jpop releases, eagerly anticipates the m-flo Best Album in two weeks, and does her Weekly PV Screencaps with AAA, Miyavi, and Sunmin. Rinoa of Channel Ai reviews Olivia’s “a little pain” from the Nana anime, while Jordi of Subliminal Beats takes pleasure in the strong Oricon showing of the Rip Slyme / QURLI singles. KagoFeet of Don’t touch my jpop! celebrated the Fourth of July with Zone’s lovely “Hanabi” PV, and his Sunday PV Picks are from Rie-Fu and Tommy Heavenly6. Meanwhile, shiroi heya is back with a review of L’Arc en Ciel’s Awake, while Karakui is excited about Yamada Yu’s blog.

The usagi incidents are back, and usagi starts off with a look at the final episodes of Suzumiya Haruhi. Also on the anime tip, Akiramike of the mighty HamsapSukebe looks at the live action movie adaptation of Saikano

On the eyecandy front, Barely 18 Movies has a clip of Sawajiri Erika and Ichikawa Yui dressed up as schoolgirls and – come on, that’s all you really need to know, right? Cute Cosplay Angels has more great Tairi Airi photos here and here. Sister site Sexy Japanese Idols has their share of photos of Airi, as well as some rather nice shots of one Sato Hiroko

There are several new Jpop-themed blogs that we should all frequent on a regular basis. Though no longer writing for the Jpop blogosphere, Thea of Made in Paradise has inspired a new Jpop blog with her magnificent example: jankenpyon! debuted this week, and deserves all our encouragement. Yossitelua is a new Yossi-oriented blog from Finland.

And last but by no means least is Tonari dooshi anata to atashi sakuranbo!, which has a very interesting post today on that whole Tsujikago Cosplay porn thing. It includes this great line about AV: “Apart from the sheer pervertedness, there is also sheer genius.” Ahh, welcome to my world! Anyway, sakuranbo! seems to be written by two bloggers, Angela in black and Kayla in blue. (And yes, Angela or Kayla, feel free to use whatever images you like from this blog! Hotlinking won’t work, but I have no problem with fellow bloggers using the pics and videos on this site if they download it.) There’s a thoughtfulness and penchant for listmaking that I find especially enjoyable – I also liked a recent post on most-underrated Momusu members – and I hope this tag team keeps up with the interesting posts for a long while.

Cult of Pop Subtitles: Tsuji Kago Elevator Skit with Goto Maki

Tsuji and Kago as the Musix Elevator girls with guest Goto Maki, from 2001. It’s a little over a minute long and 10 MB. More of the elevator skits will eventually follow, though it’ll be quite scattershot as we pursue larger projects.

Just right click on the picture above and save the link. As always, please don’t link directly to the file on other websites, though if you want to upload it somewhere else or Youtube it or whatever, feel free to do so.

Cult of Pop Forum members can also now get a preview of the first big subtitle project we’ve completed: it’s a meeting of East and West that’s pretty damn amazing. It’ll debut on the blog in a few days, once I write up an entry on why I like the clip so much.

Testing the Limits of Kawaii: Kawabe Chieco’s “Sakura Kiss”

Before “Sakura Kiss”, I was only vaguely aware of who Kawabe Chieco was. I knew she was part of the live-action Sailor Moon TV show – which I actually had several episodes of, a couple years back – though I couldn’t tell you which of the girls she was. I knew she released pop singles that were heavy on the cutesy stuff. And I knew there were photos of her in cute and funny situations.

None of it really interested me – well, actually, the Sailor Moon did, it was a pretty fun show (and I used to be a dedicated Sailor Moon fan, many many years ago) – but Chieco herself struck me as just another geinou trying to stand out from the crowd and failing. “Sakura Kiss” hasn’t changed my opinions too much – but if not making me a Chieco fan just yet, it’s made me appreciate what she’s capable of, given the right song and situation.

The PV’s concept is simplicity itself: Chieco dresses as a frog. Two buddies dress up as rabbits. They run around the city, toting a video camera, and film themselves around people who fall in love and kiss. Chieco has lunch afterwards. (Or maybe before, who knows.) The End.

In and of itself, the concept’s a bit too cute, a big whopping kawaii overdose waiting to happen. At first I told myself that Chieco in an animal mascot outfit must fulfill some wota’s sweat-soaked-polyester-felt fantasy out there, so maybe there’s a fetish thing going on here… But what could have been too saccharine for my taste – and keep in mind, a steady diet of Berryz has left me with a very high threshold for the unbearable lightness of kawaii – is actually heartwarming and fun because it knows exactly when to go too far and when to hold back.

For starters, I do appreciate that Chieco in her frog outfit never actually meddles in the interaction of the lovers. They don’t seem to even notice her, so wrapped up in each other that the presence of a pop idol in a huge artificial frog head is off their radar.

As a result, there is just a slight gesturing towards the idea of Chieco and her bunny pals being otherworldly emissaries of love – modern-day Cupids, unobserved but doing their part to ensure that true love finds its way.

The fact that such Cupids look so silly… well, a baby with wings and an archery set is pretty silly, too, right?

I also love the fact that the couples in the PV are from all walks of life, of all ages from little kids to senior citizens – though no middle-age couples were around, maybe they were all at work, conducting steamy affairs in stairwells and praying to God their spouses never find out – and that none of these couples looked particularly glamorous. The temptation to show a perfect couple in a perfect love match hasn’t seemed to enter the equation at all.

Here, Chieco shows she could have been a duck and not even needed an animal mascot to do it…

At some point, I guess Chieco’s love-mongering ways left her hungry. Interspersed between the shots of Chieco hovering around lovestruck couples is her having a hamburger and shake for lunch. In the proper mood, I do have a Homer Simpson-esque reaction to that meal. That is one very nice-looking hamburger, I must admit…

We also have shots of Chieco playing guitar. Unfortunately, she’s jumping around and strumming it in a very unconvincing way – it makes her look silly, and not in the good way that the frog outfit bestows on her. Luckily, her rabbit friends are holding up that blue-sky background to remind us that there are worst fates than playing bad air guitar while a real guitar’s strapped to you…

I have to say, watching the couples interact is very compelling… There is a range of behavior that’s perfectly in keeping with that prelude to a kiss. Some of the teenagers are tentative, unsure of their partner’s thoughts or desires but trying to signal their own intentions without scaring the other person away. The older couples tease and cajole, more confident in themselves and their partners as romance has stopped being so scary and actually becomes fun. The little kids have a boldness of movement, their romantic interludes just another bit of inconsequential childplay. The senior citizens have a warmth and familiarity, nestled into each other from years of togetherness.

And the wonder of it all is that the stark, almost documentarian way these couples are framed doesn’t make these interactions overly sentimental or Hallmark-esque. It is what it is, to quote a favorite reality show, and the nobility of love as a part of being human stands out in stark relief.

In that sense, Chieco and her bunny buddies have no need to interfere. Understanding the human desire for meaningful companionship, it’s just a matter of letting nature take its course. They can observe, they can revel in it – but to mess with it at all is to violate its beauty, its sanctity, its ability to blossom on its own accord. Kind of like what would have happened if some Berryz were forced to join Morning Musume…

So what function do the animal mascots perform in the video, thematically speaking? Are Chieco and pals supposed to be escaped lunatics from a nearby asylum? Are they supposed to be promoting the local All You Can Eat frog-and-rabbit-legs franchise but are goofing off on the job? Are they crusaders in the name of alternative fashion choices, brightening up a rainy day with bright splashes of pastel felt and wire meshed heads?

These rub rabbits… I’m not sure what to make of them, actually. Unlike Chieco, we don’t know who the fuck is inside there. For some reason, I want to believe Ishikawa Rika is in one of them, I’m not sure why. But not knowing anything about the people inside those costumes makes sense in that it doesn’t unnecessarily draw attention away from Chieco or the lovers… but it also causes a slight sense of unease. Like that guy in the bear costume in The Shining.

How do we know there isn’t a scowl behind the cute bunny smiles, that they’re not secretly flipping Chieco the middle finger because they have to play sidekick to her silly gadabout romps with a guitar? Who’s to say they’re not sweating up a storm and feeling claustrophobic in these outfits, ready to pass out and holding onto the sky background in the hopes of not hitting the ground just yet?

The mystery – who’s behind it, what gender these people are, how they know Chieco – adds a strange dimension to the PV. The dull truth is that they’re likely just a couple of crew members who lacked the seniority to refuse Bunny Bitch duty, and who made the best of an embarrassing situation. But as we don’t know one way or the other, I’ll continue with my conspiracy theories.

On a lighter note, it does seem that this trio of animal mascots aren’t always as on-point about their love quest as they could be. Watching them play basketball would have been amusing for a whole video, if only because such costumes are completely wrong for such movements.

If I’m hearing it right, the song has one of the greatest choruses I’ve heard in a song so effervescent: “Kiss kiss fall in love / Maybe you’re my love”. Adjusting for the accent, that first line becomes unbearably cute as it sounds more likem “Kees kees fall in lub”. It’s sweet, vaguely juvenile, remarkably optimisitic. We’re a long way from Pussy Galore’s “Groovy Hate Fuck”, boys and girls.

And the second line has what I call War Pigs Genius. For me, Ozzy Osbourne’s greatest moment wasn’t that TV show, but much earlier when he was writing the lyrics for “War Pigs” and decides the best word to rhyme with “masses” is… “masses”. So rhyming “love” with “love” here is okay, because it’s a cute song, another word to rhyme with “love” probably eluded the songwriters, and what really matters is that the bunny and frog costumes are all lined up.

And on a non-snotty note, the repetition actually does create a nice pop recitative feel to the chorus – so if something works, run with it.

Watching the PV again, I do get a sense the song runs a bit overlong. It tries to be a little more than a fun pop song, tries to push Chieco to really sing in certain parts – but those are actually weaker than the uber-buoyant boppy parts that stick in your head and never leave. I know I find myself chanting “Kees kees fall in love” at odd moments at work, even now, months after the fact.

As for Chieco herself… well, I must say I admire anyone willing to have this much fun in a big, clumsy frog costume. I had the earlier impression she’s supposed to be a light-hearted, fun-loving free spirit kind of geinou, and we do get a clear sense of that. It takes guts to appear this silly, even if one makes a living off being a wacky and free-spirited sort.

After all, there’s something of a jackass quality to wearing an animal mascot, no matter who you are. At the very least, it makes me think of the poor schlubs who’re stuck with promoting their fast food employer in such outfits, suffering abuse at the hand of passing pedestrians and motorists as they pray to God nobody recognizes it’s them.

And while it’s a little different when an idol does it, there’s still that whiff of debased integrity to consider. (Anybody besides me remember Paul Simon in a chicken suit? Not the politician, the singer.) Either you fight against it or you embrace it and run wild with it. Good idols know to enjoy it with a child-like simplicity and a manic sense of bull-in-a-china-shop aggression, and your fans will likely love you even more for that. (Hello! Project is actually really good about this, now that I think of it: all of their best and brightest seem to have done stints in animal mascot outfits and had a ball with it.)

And now that I think about it, there’s maybe something a little… erotic about the costume? Maybe it’s the shade of green. But I can picture it, “Mmm, baby. Drop the jumpsuit – but leave the frog head on. I’ll get the extra-large bottle of KY from the bathroom.”

As for the couples ignoring Chieco and her long-eared camera crew, what are we to think? Not that they’re invisible, but perhaps that they just take for granted that in the big city, there’ll be people in silly costumes running around? “At least these freaks aren’t asking me for a dollar to buy alcohol,” they may be thinking. Or, “If we ignore them, maybe they’ll go away and I’ll get this kiss.”

Or maybe they are invisible emissaries of a higher power! Though the camera is for what purposes? A blooper real of human relationships gone bad, to show to Eros or whoever these animals report to? “Oh, this is the one where she tried to feed him Nutter Butter cookies but he’s allergic to peanuts and went into anaphylactic shock…”

The funny part is, after a while a person in an animal costume gets boring real fast. I think that’s why we see Chieco running around and doing exercises and dance moves and so on, trying to keep the camera’s interests. As for the burger break sequences, we at least get a clear view of her face, how cute she is, the luscious pillows that are her lips… It’s a shame to hide such features – though really, if you have to hide it, a frog costume is a good choice.

The payoff of the video is when the couples start to actually kiss… again, a potentially cutesy moment is given a bit of dignity with the documentarian handling of the subjects, as well as an edge of absurdist humor with Chieco and the bunnies cheering in the background.

Is the kiss what Chieco and company are waiting for? To set things into motion, before moving on tothe next couple?

For that matter, perhaps there’s an aphrodisiac quality to frogs and bunnies? Or perhaps all these couple harbor their own cosplay fantasies and are whispering it to each other, sealing the deal with a kiss. Like this couple: “I’ll dress up as a moose if you’ll dress up like a French maid,” the woman says. He agrees, and they go smackity with the lips.

Or maybe there’s a bit of Mickey and Mallory to some of these couples. Maybe they’re trying to throw that frog freak girl off their track and, when Chieco least suspects it, make themselves some quality French cuisine of the idol, one leg at a time. Now there’s an alternate PV to conjure with…

Though I do have to wonder, what does she get out of this? What does Chieco get by being a Kermit-esque Jenny Appleseed of amour and spit-swapping?

The obvious answer is, she gets to be in a love song without alienating her fans by having a male love interest. She gets to act in a wacky cute way, which I assume is what her fans want, and charm the socks off viewers without having most of us wonder who gives her her own sakura kisses.

Because really, if you see anybody in an outfit like this, questions of their romantic life tend to fly out the window.

Unless you’re a plushie, of course.

Of course.

The food sequences does take on a different air, though, given that she denies herself love in this PV. Is it just hunger for food that drives her snack time, or is she sublimating, desiring something else?

Sure there’s the companion of other like-minded animal mascots of love. Perhaps there’s some weird thing going on between them? Do they swap sakura kisses with their animal heads still on? Are there women or men beneath the bunny costume? Again, the mystery of who’s in there takes on a new dimension!

And what does it mean that she can’t fit the burger in her mouth? Has the sublimation gone wrong? Do large lips mean a small mouth? Or is the attempt to substitute love with food shining a light on some other, more suggestive issue?

On the one hand, the obligatory Lexington Steele reference has to be made here. (And there it is.) On the other hand, it makes me want to eat a burger like that. Mmm… Lexington Steele burger…

Oddly, this video does not make me want to see more of Kawabe Chieco. The genki kawaii kowaii thing seems calibrated just so for thise PV, and it doesn’t spark any curiosity about her beyond this video.

Though it’s worth noting that with the video almost done, the burger goes pretty much uneaten. Freudians, take notice. Mmm… Freud burgers…

As a singer, she doesn’t stand out particularly. I never get a sense that she’s any more talented in that respect than as a model or actress or animal mascot or guitarist.

And while the song suits her well, pop confections as light as “Sakura Kiss” tend to stand on their own. Either you find it catchy or you don’t. This one caught me, but who’s to say that the next pop confection won’t come from some other actress / singer?

Maybe if she does a sequel to this video, perhaps with an army of multi-colored bunnies following her around on mopeds…? Hey, we may have something there!

The bunnies rush off, as they have blind dates at the Overlook Hotel…

The trio of animal mascots wait at the railway, strike a last pose…

… the train rushes past.

And like the supernatural emissaries of love I thought they could be, they disappear.

I like this video and song a lot. It has definite traction, and who knows? Maybe I’ll keep an eye out for Kawabe Chieco’s next single and video. If it’s anywhere as deep-dish strange and heartwarming as this one, I may still wind up a fan of hers…

A Belated Birthday Sonnet for Sudo Maasa

I’m two days too late, now the special day’s passed!
July third marked the start of your own fourteenth year.
Statuesque Sudo Maasa, still so young – Alas!
For you, time’s winged chariot draws nowhere near.

Your virtues are many, your smile luminescent,
Your shoulders frame firmly your gorgeous physique.
So clearly much more than a mere adolescent –
O Maasa, sui generis, so luscious, unique!

From a distance I watch in sheer worship and awe
As a touch of maturity emboldens your soul –
Yet holding fast to youthfulness’ own charming flaws
You’ve become coltish and playful, a spirited foal.

So best wishes to Maasa, my sweet Berryz amour,
May this year give you all that your heart wishes for.

The Best Morning Musume Line-Ups Of All Time?

I decided a long time ago that the best Morning Musume generation is the fourth one. And the best subgroup ever? Easy, Tanpopo Gen Two – the Johnson, Mari, Kago, and Charmy line-up. But what’s the best line-up of Morning Musume, member for member?

The impending departures of Konnogawa and the 30th single “Ambitious!” got me thinking, and I did a quick tally earlier today: by the time that Ogawa graduates, there would have been fifteen distinct line-ups of Momusu that have released singles. If you count interim line-ups that didn’t release singles – the 16-nin at Kei’s graduation, the 10-nin when Mari left, the 9-nin when Rika left before Koharu officially joined, and the 9-nin when Konno leaves (I’m assuming there’s no final single with Ogawa beyond “Ambitious!”) – that’s a total of nineteen different line-ups, not counting the 8-nin team that will emerge at the end of this summer.

It should be noted that the current 10-nin line-up that’s going to end soon has been the most productive singles-wise, with an astounding four singles released under that formation. In comparison, four line-ups released three singles each, five have released two singles apiece, while five of the line-ups only released one single before a change occurred. That said, four of those five singles were #1’s for the group… but more on that later.

I couldn’t quite narrow it down to a single greatest line-up – though if forced to choose, I know which one I’d run with. However, it became clear to me that there were four very distinct eras when Morning Musume shined. In order of greatness, starting with the very best:

The Golden Age Line-Ups. It’s kind of cheating to put the five line-ups from “Love Machine” to “The Peace!” under one grouping. After all, the 8-nin line-up at the beginning of this era and the 9-nin line-up at the end only share five members. (Ayappe, Sayaka, and Yuko all left, while fourth gen joined midway through at “Happy Summer Wedding”.) However, I’d argue that the constant change in line-ups – four of the five line-ups released only one single, with this 10-nin Musume releasing “I Wish” and “Renai Revolution 21” – was part of what made the Golden Age so powerful, so idiosyncratic, and even so popular. The departure of members was exciting, as was the introduction of new members. There was an energy, a momentum, that was part of having the group constantly change before Japan’s eyes. And it seemed all of Japan was indeed watching at the time.

And for the record, the best line-up of all time – in my opinion – is the original “Love Machine” team, that second 8-nin line-up. As much as I love fourth gen, I’d have given them up to keep Ayappe and Sayaka around for considerably longer. Especially Ayappe – she seemed to have found her groove with “Love Machine” and the decision to leave the group before another single is just heartbreaking to consider now.

After 8-nin, I’d say that the 10-nin of “I Wish” and “RR 21” are second, then the 9-nin of “The Peace!”, the 7-nin of “Koi no Dance Site” and then the 11-nin of “Happy Summer Wedding” – if only because the fourth gen seemed tacked-on vocally, though they were cute as the dickens in the PV. But even talking about these line-ups in such a manner – while they remain distinct, the sense of ongoing evolution and adaptation is so much more a part of this era than the more stable eras that followed, especially when fifth gen joined and right after Gocchin left. I’m not saying a newfound stability is what depleted Momusu – but once the group settled down with fifth gen, Momusu changed, and not always for the better.

That said…

15-nin Line-Up. When I listen to older Momusu songs, these are the ones I gravitate towards: “Shabondama”, “Go Girl! Koi no Victory”, and “Ai Arraba It’s Alright”. To me, at least, they are all astoundingly great singles and the ones that I most enjoy – perhaps even more so than the Golden Age singles, though the Golden Age singles are more satisfying on a thematic and intellectual level.

In some ways, 15-nin Musume should be all wrong. Too many girls, not enough differentiation. This is excessive, it’s how you end up with girls in the group who aren’t as strong at singing or dancing and hope they can hide among the more talented idols, there’s a reason why Tsunku claimed he’d never make Momusu this large again. Further, the new additions of sixth gen seem questionable at first – Mikitty didn’t seem too happy about joining, while Sayumi couldn’t sing. It seemed less like a singing group than a very cute mob, wayward and unwieldy in its size. When I think of minna-lag – that visual jet lag when you wait for all the members to make an appearance in a PV sequence – this is the line-up that comes to mind.

And yet, the musical results are difficult to deny. 15-nin worked, and I’d argue that the downward slide after this point was due in part to the graduation of three of the most popular members of Momusu in the span of six months – Nacchi, Tsuji, and Kago – leading to the depleted momentum and spirit of the group. It took the addition of Koharu and the shake-ups of last spring before Morning Musume found its way again, and only with “Chokkan 2” and now “Ambitious” do they seem completely on track…

Did these singles make the best use of all the girls? I’d say not, though I think “Shabondama” certainly gave it a solid try – and to my mind, succeeded. However, I think this is a case where the solid craft of the singles and the performances by the Momusu girls were a perfect meld. Tsunku has had better songs written for Momusu, but the songs he wrote for 15-nin were distinctive, catchy, and captured a range of emotions (the dramatic overdrive of “Shabondama”, the manic genki-ness of “Victory”, the warmer optimism of “Ai Arraba”) that other line-ups weren’t privileged to express on their singles. If not quite a narrative arc for the line-up, it certainly gestures towards such an arc in a believable manner.

The First 8-nin Line-Up. That would be when all of first gen were still together and second gen were freshly added, covering such classics as “Summer Night Town”, “Daite Hold On Me!”, and “Memory Seishun no Hikari”. This is a different Momusu than many of us are used to, but these singles still hold up ridiculously well – to me, they don’t have the manic energy or pop genius of the Golden Age, but there’s a maturity and subtle dramatic power that the Golden Age lacks for the most part.

The perception has always been that Asuka brought down the group – while vocally talented, she just didn’t fit with the way Momusu was shaping up, and she soon enough departed. That said, I think she actually made an interesting contrast with co-lead Nacchi. There was a sense of balance, and certainly the five originating members were all given a chance to shine in these songs. (It’d take a little longer for the second gen to stand out as distinctly – but hey, with Ayappe there, who cares?)

It’s worth noting that both of the previous 8-nin line-ups are on this favorites list, and I think that’s part of why I’m anticipating the new 8-nin line-up at the end of the summer. Morning Musume has done great with eight members in the past, and I feel they’ll do so again in the very near future. Small enough to be able to easily identify the members, to let the best vocals shine as leads, but also to give plenty of space to other members as well. If there was a joyous excess in the lavish 15-nin line-up, there’s something sleeker and more aggressive about 8-nin.

Morning Musume Otome Gumi. In my early wota days, I started out being biased towards Sakura Gumi because they had the “better” line-up: the future Scandal Moni trio of Nacchi, Kago, and Mari, as well as the talented fourth gen Takitty. In sharp contrast, Otome Gumi seemed to have the cast-offs: Kago’s lesser half, Yossi’s lesser half, the sixth gen vanity case, the soloist forced to join the group, the clumsy tall one, and so on…

However, over time it became clear to me: Otome Gumi were a whole lot more fun. Their songs were catchier, more propulsive, and even more experimental: the punk flavor of “Yuujou” still astounds me a little, while “Ai no Sono” is an aggressively disco number that’s a perfect match to Zyx’s “Fly High”. They also made better PVs than Sakura Gumi: “Ai no Sono” is pure sex appeal distilled into sharpened Jpop tropes, while “Yuujou” was a lot of fun with the black-and-white outfits and the play on models on the runway (and on the run).

I’d also argue that Otome Gumi did a great job of using the talent of the girls in their line-up: Miki is allowed to stand out once again, and of course Reina shines (especially on “Yuujou”). But here’s where we first really see that Tsuji and Charmy could sing within their limitations and still be engaging. And as with Tanpopo and even Salt 5, those ugly ducklings Iida and Makoto come across much better than they did in the larger Morning Musume line-ups. Iida still came across a little clumsy, but she was an undeniable hottie in her outfits and big hats. And Makoto could be both sexy and genki and stand out on her own. Sayumi probably benefited least from Otome Gumi, but even she was given more of a spotlight just by the size of the group.

At this point, I would even argue that there was a second Golden Age at that time, the first six months or so after sixth gen joined: between 15-nin Momusu, Otome Gumi, and the two H!P Kids groups Aa! and Zyx, some of H!P’s most memorable songs ever emerged. But maybe I should save that particular argument for another day.

So, how about all of you out there? Which line-ups have you liked best so far, and why?

Looking Back at the First Half: Missed PVs of 2006

Remember that really hyper review of Harenchi Punch’s “Megaphone” I posted last year? Or the sarcastic write-up on “Matsuken Samba III”? Or the detailed examination of Viyuden’s “Hitorijime”? No, no, and no? That’s cause I never got around to them. I had every intention of doing so, but inevitably some PVs just fall through the cracks here and end up going ignored.

I’ll often have the screencaps made and uploaded. There’ll even be notes written somewhere, online or on a notepad, waiting to be built upon. But my wota heart being so fickle, my attention may be grabbed by something else. (New Namie? Woo-hoo! Berryz photos? Okay, I’ll write about that other PV later…) And before you know it, there’s an old potential entry that’s been drained of any vitality or timeliness. And with the press of the delete option, it’s like it never existed.

The first half of 2006 has been no different, and again there’s some major videos lost in the mix that I do have a few thousand words’ worth of thoughts on. Sure, I can wait and see if they make my personal Top 10 at the end of the year, but why not handle it now while they still have some of their spark, when they’re not complete relics by the fleeting standards of pop entertainment? Why not remind you gentle readers about some stabs at greatness by these gifted performers?

One thing I’ve noticed in several of the PVs I missed – and I’m not sure if it’s pattern or coincidence – is the use of mascots of various sorts. We’re talking fairy godmothers, giant frogs and rabbits, someone in an ape suit, mentally challenged wrestling comedians… Does it all add up to something? Is there a trend involved here? Does it speak towards some kind of Jpop atavism, perhaps, a need for mystical or nature-based familiars on the part of Jpop idols? Or is it just that it’s fun to have tiny humans and / or people dressed up as giant animals?

Call me a fool, but I’m betting on the last option.

So in the next few days, I’m going to dive right in and make sure I’ve covered most of what I should have covered in the first half of the year. I’m not saying all these PVs are excellent – though two of them are definite contenders for Best PV of 2006, in my estimation. But they’re all quite interesting, and some of them even benefit from 20/20 hindsight and recent developments. For starters, Hinochi are looking much more luscious with the Penty Five now out of the picture, while misono’s “Koujin Jougyou” now emerges as part of a longer pattern of fairy tale interpretations on that idol’s part…

And there’s a whole bunch of new PVs to tackle, as well! The excitement doesn’t ever seem to stop, and the second half of 2006 will be as much of an uphill battle to keep up with all that Jpop goodness as the first half. So that’s good news for all of us.

All that said… have you noticed that the long, uber-analytic PV reviews on this blog stopped right around the time that SweetS broke up? It’s like I was afraid to think too much about the break-up, especially of “Color of Tears”, so I just focused on other things for most of June: my shopping, various news, Suzuki Airi, subtitles… Denial’s been a total bitch.

But yeah, I’ll definitely be getting around to “Color of Tears”. Maybe not this week, but I’ll get around to it. Just gimme more time on that one, especially. That one’ll still feel too much like goodbye.

Sunday Blog Roundup

Thea of Made in Paradise was the first one to call 2006 the year of the kaisan and now she’s counted herself among the kaisan’d as well. She looks back at the first half of 2006 and announces the end of Made in Paradise. She’ll continue with other fan projects, so keep an eye out for them. It’s always a shame to see a quality blog like hers – and Phil of Breadready, and crs of 28 hundred hours, and Wapiko of Musings of a Fangirl, among others – but its a personal decision, and we can only wish them the best. In Thea’s case, she’s got a future in nursing to consider: we know she’ll do well and good luck to her on that! Made in Paradise had a great run, and I’ll remember the blog fondly.

There’s been other passings as well that have been worth noting. Santos of Idolizing St. Anna looks at Buzy’s kaisan – they’re all going solo now (yeah, that bit of Darwinian strategy should work) – and considers the lack of new talents to arise this year. Santos also covers how one of the Hello! Project Eggs, Hashida Mirei, wrote on her blog about how she was stalked by otaku and finds them nasty. He points out that Oppai-chan may have ambitions quite different from being an idol, and that “cyborgs” (his term) such as Momoko and Ayaya would have handled the situation differently. Ero & Kawaii also covers this blog and how Hashida insults C-Ute’s Hagiawara Mai, pointing out, “I guess she’s to little to know that you can be in trouble if you bitch about the hand that feeds you.” Santos also covers the Bon Bon Blanco special live, their first in over a year. Meanwhile, E&K also looks into rumors of a Miki solo track on GAM’s upcoming single, something Ikimasshoi also picks up on.

Ikimasshoi also covers an interesting Mainichi article which threatens the spread of Japanese broadcast material on YouTube. This is of particular interest, since YouTube seems to have ushered in a new wave of Jpop fans overseas, much the same way Bit Torrents had a couple years earlier (at least, that’s what made Jpop accessible for me). Has anyone noticed this chilling effect? Is it as bad as described in the article?

Go of jrocknyc takes note of another kaisan, with Pierrot’s final PV, “Hello”. Go also looks at Kagerou’s new single and Merry’s new release, which he compares quite vividly to a Rube Goldberg machine, and a highly enjoyable look at Puffy’s Splurge. On a related note, Morning Scene has tour updates for Puffy’s Splurge Splurge tour of the States.

Channel Ai has two interesting pieces this week, a detailed review of Otsuka Ai’s Jam Punch Tour 2005 by Aprilis, and a look at Hamasaki Ayumi’s new single “Blue Bird” by Rinoa. Ikimasshoi has news of Suzuki Ami and Otsuka Ai collaborating on writing Suzuki’s upcoming single. Similarly, Gail of the is now doing a Weekly PV Screencaps feature, the first installment featuring Glay, Mr. Children, Milliyah Kato, and Sowelu, while Memento has a very nice PV review of Tommy Heavenly6’s “Pray”.

Craig has renamed his blog All in 1 and has fallen rather hard for Berryz Koubo, as seen by his review of the “Switch On” concert DVD and a bit of confession that sounds eerily familiar to me… Béné of Béné Blog got her copy of Hi MA’AM! with Miori’s handprint! At Koppie Dip!!, bagofpeanuts observes that the only time he’s been inspired to blog lately has been with new AAA releases, and so he writes about the group’s latest, “Kimono Jet Girl”.

Shay of looks at Singer Songer, Cocco’s side project, and rock-rappers Yamarasshi. Jordi of Subliminal Beats is waiting for Rip Slyme’s single to release and in the meanwhile has some odds & ends to consider. KagoFeet of Don’t touch my jpop! has chosen KREVA for his June Album Pick. Sunny Day has the covers for KinKi Kids’ upcoming single and the news of a new Johnny’s unit. Karakui has news of Hawaiian Jpop star Melody’s first solo tour.

J-Pop CD Cover Art renews its design and even has a Feed of Pop button now! Thanks very much to HANABI.1984 for such support! Of course, there’s the usual bevy of Jpop art goodness with Nakashima Mika’s Cabaret-esque cover for “Glamorous Sky”, the wistfully childlike tableau of Otsuka Ai’s “Planetarium”, and the fresh-faced beauty of BoA on “Dakishimeru”.

Your Opinion Doesn’t Count has Natsumi Abe’s “The Stress” for their J-Music Clip of the Week, as well as the trailer for Ayaya’s Sukeban Deka movie. They also have some really nice Ogura Yuko shots and an article on something called “vagina in a can” that I won’t link to here but nevertheless find fascinating and disturbing all at once. Johnny of The Mind has lots of Momusu goodness, including shots from Tanaka Reina’s Shoujo R – again split into non-bikini and bikini selections – as well as the making-of clip for Niigaki Risa’s new book.

Also on the eyecandy front, Miki of Deepest Thoughts falls hard for Eikura Nana – and who can blame her? Nana even looks cute eating bagels and doughnuts! And while I didn’t know who Tairi Airi is, she’s an absolute cutie with a luscious photobook, pictures of which are split between Cute Cosplay Angels and Sexy Japanese & Asian Cosplay. No baked goods in her case, unless you count her basking in the sun.

CJ Marsicano of Stuck in a Pagoda with Motoko Aoyama notes the indefinite hiatus announced by Sleater Kinney, a band I saw live during their Dig Me Out tour and still hold fondness for. But hey, if the indefinite hiatus of the Pixies could eventually end, so may this one!

And on a personal note, I’m pretty much on the mend… so let’s just forget that thing with my pig happened, okay? It’ll never happen again. Okay, maybe it will.

I Blame Aggressive Self-Medication For This…

So I woke up around 6 AM this morning, still sick as a dog and with a hacking cough added to the mix. While the Sunday Blog Roundup should go off without a hitch later, my pig puppet Babe (I know, unoriginal name) offered to take over Cult of Pop while I’m ill.

And of course I couldn’t refuse my pig’s request.

Of course, pigs can’t type for shito here’s a video Babe talking about Gomatto for one minute: the MPG file is 11MB and the WMV file is 2 MB.

And here’s Babe talking about SweetS for thirty seconds: the MPG file is 6 MB and the WMV file is 1 MB.

I should stress that the opinions of my pig puppet are not my own. Especially about Miori, that was just mean and pointless. Though the part about Miki I agree with.

The Berryz 2006 Calendar: Goodbye to May / June, Hello July / August!

I’ve been sick as a dog since last night, but have some consolation. I look up from my stuffy-nosed, body-chilled, fatigue-ridden position and bask at a possible view of heaven, shown above. Yes, it’s time for the new sheet on the Berryz poster and it’s the best one yet! Maasa, Yurina, and Chinami – three of the loveliest non-Momoko Berryz, and looking quite U15 sexy in their outfits and bright smiles.

I waited six months for Maasa to finally appear on the calendar, and I can at least take comfort that she’ll be on every sheet until the end of the year. She’s wearing a rather adorable dress here, and while her shoulder is obscured by Yurina’s hand, Yurina’s hand isn’t a bad thing to look at either.

I must confess that the May / June sheet, pictured above, wasn’t as inspiring as past sheets. First, the girls were at more of a distance than the other shots. The difference between distances may not mean much, but Second, none of the girls looked quite… comfortable. Saki’s smile is especially stiff, which is a shame since she was smoldering sexy in January / February. Chinami and Yurina look wan, leaving only Risako seeming genuinely enthused. That said, one can only suspect that Risako was in just one of her peppier moods the day they shot this calendar.

More to the point, Chinami’s wearing that hat. I never liked it, my wife made fun of it, and it just kind of got in the way of enjoying Chinami’s presence. Chinami goes hatless on the current sheet, and her smile is considerably brighter – as is Yurina’s. Chinami’s figure is also emphasized subtly by her outfit, which makes her pep even more gratifying. Or that may just be the sickness talking…

Anyway, I’m hoping to feel better tomorrow and back in the swing of things. And the next two months will be great, now that I’ve got the Twin Towers and my child’s potential namesake to look at every day.