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Friday, March 13, 2009

ENTERTAINMENT SPOTLIGHT

Morning Musume not ready to graduate yet

Three members of the Japanese pop phenomenon (and their manager) insist their mornings are far from numbered


Special to The Japan Times

Most artists dream of longevity, but few are afforded significant time in the limelight. The paradox of all-girl group Morning Musume, 12 years since they began, is the enforced time-limit its members face in order for the group to remain forever young.

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Pop parade: The eighth generation of Morning Musume is the longest-running incarnation, having served all of two years.

Generation eight of the group, with nine members, is the longest-running incarnation so far, celebrating its two-year anniversary this month. Yet under the tutelage of producer Tsunku, "graduation" is likely never far away.

The institution that is Morning Musume (Morning Girls) began under inauspicious circumstances in 1997. TV Tokyo's celebrated morning show "Asayan" ran a segment in which a contest was held to find a solo female singer for Tsunku, then of pop-rock outfit Sharan Q.

The winner, Michiyo Heike, fared badly, so Tsunku challenged the five runners-up to sell 50,000 copies of their debut indie single, "Ai no Tane" ("Seeds of Love"), within five days. The girls captivated the nation as they sought to achieve the feat by asking strangers on the street, family and friends to help them out.

Success on the fourth day won them a deal with Tsunku as producer of their debut proper, and the single "Morning Coffee" hit No. 6. However, it was Tsunku's decision to boost the group with three more girls for the second single that began the tradition of "generations" and a phenomenon known as Hello! Project, an enterprise made up of innumerable, member-changing girl groups.

Sitting squeezed together on a cafe sofa in central Tokyo, wide-eyed and eager, are "band leader" Ai Takahashi, age 22, "subleader" Risa Niigaki, 20, and one of the group's two Chinese members, Lin Lin, 17. One might think the members of this chart-happy Japanese institution would be run off their feet, but they show no signs of it.

"We get winter, summer and New Year holidays for five days each, though it depends on the situation," explains Niigaki.

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Girls interrupted: Morning Musume members (left to right) Ai Takahashi, Risa Niigaki and Lin Lin pull an instant pose for the JT at a Tokyo cafe. ROBERT MICHAEL POOLE PHOTO

Exuding self-confidence, Takahashi bursts out, "I went to New York! I saw Blue Man Group and Broadway musicals like 'Phantom of the Opera,' 'The Producers' and 'Chicago!' "

Morning Musume's music has rarely changed, perhaps not surprising given that one man has produced every song. The hollow keyboard-driven productions may epitomize everything non-Japanese tend to hate about J-pop, but the catchiness of No. 1 hits such as "Happy Summer Wedding" (2000) and "As For One Day" (2003) endear the group to even hardened critics.Takahashi and Niigaki are now the longest- serving members in the group's history, both having joined in 2001 as part of the fifth generation.

"In my case," says Takahashi, "since I was little I've loved singing in front of people. So, when I saw Morning Musume, I wanted to join them. But more than that, I just wanted to be a singer.

"There was an audition at a training camp for three days and two nights. We got a new song, new dance steps and a new script and had to remember them all," explains Takahashi. "There were nine girls for the final screening, out of 25,000 applicants. So I was really surprised when I passed the audition!"

Lin Lin (real name Qian Lin), from Hangzhou, China, had an entirely different entrance experience, as the group's management sought to expand across borders.

"At first, I liked Japanese animation and fell in love with Japanese music," she says. "So I was very lucky to get an invitation from Japan to join Morning Musume."

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Hail Musume!: The J-Popsters strut their stuff.

Established as a TV host and drama actress in China, she was recommended to Tsunku by a friend of his. "And so I came to Japan to join the Hello! Project Egg!" she says.

"The Hello! Project Egg is a kind of training center for pop stars-to-be, where they practice singing and dancing," explains Takahashi. "Lin Lin became one of us from there, and some join the other groups."

The "other groups," such as Tanpopo, Mini Moni and Happy 7, are usually side projects featuring a combination of new and old Morning Musume members and other Hello! Project girls. Most only last for a single or two, but all are produced by one man: the all-controlling Tsunku.

"He decides everything," explains the group's manager since September 2008, Kouichi Nishikata. "Usually an artist is controlled by their management, but this group is formed by the producer. It is a rare case."

Nishikata admits, "I think that the group could never survive without him. Tsunku really produces the songs, concepts, costumes, makeup, live shows, CD-sleeve designs — you name it! I had thought there was a stand-in or something to do all that."

"Recently, the songs Mr. Tsunku gives us are kind of mature and lonesome," says Niigaki.

Asked how they may differ if they were in control, Niigaki replies: "If I could write a song, I'd like to write a little funny and jolly tune!"

"(I'd do) something cool. A danceable tune!" says Takahashi. "Like Destiny's Child."

Revealing their very different personalities, the perky Lin Lin suggests "rock music! A very crazy song! And the lyrics would be written in Chinese, Japanese and English!"

Morning Musume have recently been on a slow decline in terms of sales, and the group's revolving-door regeneration has had the negative effect that few consumers today recognize individual members. However, the girls' different personalities are highly apparent, and it's clear the management is keen to cultivate their individual abilities to reverse the slide.

"Each one should be recognized as being in Morning Musume in her prime," says Nishikata. "It used be like that. Morning Musume were well known, but also (original member) Natsumi Abe was well known (in her own right). But nobody knows who is in Morning Musume anymore."

Each member's forced "graduation" as they are deemed too old or mature, or the group need a fresh face, is the point by which they must have established themselves enough to go it alone. The inevitability of their young retirement from the group, though, is something the current crop barely consider as a limitation.

"I can't think of my graduation at all," says an animated Niigaki, before conceding, "I think of it a little now that I'm one of the longest-serving of the group, but when I first joined, never! I only thought about how to catch up with the other girls."

"I'd really like to make sure each one of them continues to work after their graduation," explains Nishikata. "We have promoted them as a group so far, but from now on, we'd like to promote them one by one, so I hope they can do more personal work after this summer."

Takahashi's willingness to answer quickly and authoritatively, supported by the considered approach of Niigaki, reflects in their older-sisterly roles as leader and subleader. In reality, they admit that the titles translate to little extra work.

"We sometimes form a circle before a live show or something. And we shout for self-encouragement, like, 'Ganbatte-ikemasu!' ('Let's go do our best!') " says Takahashi.

Niigaki continues, "There is nothing I have to do as a subleader, but I want to support Ai when she's got a problem. So I have no pressure!"

Meanwhile, the other members of the group seem to be as diverse as Takahashi, Niigaki and Lin Lin.

"The naughty one is Mitsy (Aika Mitsui, age 16). She won't let us sleep on a plane!" reveals Niigaki. "The funniest is Koharu Kusumi" (16) — the only girl selected in the audition for the seventh generation. "So her nickname was 'Miracle Koharu.' Eri Kamei, 20, is the messy one. She can't put things in order!"

Despite spending so much time together, the girls admit that even in their free time, they are rarely separated. They are rather coy, though, on the topic of seemingly inevitable group in-fighting.

"We always discuss a problem all together," says Niigaki.

"Sometimes one of our staff advises us to discuss a problem," adds Takahashi. "We are doing fine!"

At Morning Musume's inception, the group's fan base was diverse, attracting young girls, boys and parents. But another probable reason for their recent decline can be attributed to the resurgent otaku (obsessive fans). At a recent Hello! Project show in front of around 14,000 in Yokohama Arena, barely a single woman could be spotted among the dedicated and exuberant middle-age male crowd.

In April 2004, audio footage recorded backstage reportedly captured then-member Rika Ishikawa exclaiming: "Look at them. Grownups screaming like that! I can't believe it. So stupid!" Although such a scandal is rare in the micromanaged Musume life, standing in front of such frenzied supporters clearly affects the girls.

"I've been doing this for eight years but I still get as nervous as I did the first time," says Takahashi.

"I get a little nervous," states Niigaki, "but I love live shows so much, and being able to see the joyful faces of the fans."

Lin Lin, meanwhile, finds it "too enjoyable to stay nervous!"

"The fans know about us in great detail," continues Niigaki, "and they can perform all our dance moves perfectly at the live shows!" Nevertheless, all the girls surprisingly admit that they walk comfortably on the streets without a disguise.

Conversely, "there are a lot of female fans in China and Korea," says Takahashi. "So we get to hear fans shouting in high-pitched voices, not the usual low (otaku) voices!"

"Chinese people applaud a lot and we all love (them waving) glittering light sticks," says Lin Lin. "You can't see the applause, but you can see the lights!"

Morning Musume's move into China has been seen as the next logical step for the group. However, all has not gone according to plan.

"The attempt to launch Morning Musume into China hasn't gone very well," admits Nishikata. "CDs don't sell well, because they are soon pirated. Two years ago, when Lin Lin and Jun Jun (22) joined, we tried to push them hard to China, but it didn't go so well. We are still trying to find a way."

The future of succeeding generations of Morning Musume is clearly something Nishikata is working hard to secure. And a move to the West is a definite possibility.

"In Europe and the U.S., there are many fans of Morning Musume and Japanese idoru (manufactured entertainers), thanks to the Internet," says Nishikata. "(We) were invited to an event in L.A. called A.X. (Anime Expo) as a music guest this July. There are already a lot of fans of Japanese animation (in the U.S.), so it might be easy to get in through that."

No matter where they go next, the curiosity is that Morning Musume, the concept, will no doubt continue to outlast any of its members.

Morning Musume's ninth album, "Purachina 9 Disc," ("Platinum 9 Disc") is out March 18.

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