Tanaka Reina and Tanned Rika, a Couple of Pussies, and a Flaming Faggot

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

I love Tanaka Reina. Not the deep, abiding love that will last beyond life and common sense. (No, I save that kind of love for members of SweetS and W.) But she’s my favorite member of Morning Musume’s current line-up and all the blogging I’ve done on Avex girl groups recently has made me forget that there she is, the greatest thing since sliced bread – and just about as thin – and I haven’t really dwelt on her wonderfulness the way I have on Haruna or Tachibana or Amuro.

Then a damn pussy woke me up to the truth and reminded me of just how wonderful Tanaka is. But it may be too late… too late…

Anyway! Ishikawa Rika and Tanaka Reina have been chosen to host some segment on a Miyazaki Hayao event of some sort. I didn’t want to be bothered with details like the name of the show, when it played, or the exact nature of the Miyazaki event. It looks like a museum display of some sort, which is deserved because Miyazaki is up there with Tezuka Osamu as a key architect of the Japanese imagination…

But never mind the geniuses. I’m amazed at how tan Rika looks – pretty damn ganguro, if you ask me. Even darker than Berryz’s Chinami.

And apparently, she has the impulses of a ganguro girl, as well. Some slick-looking motherfucker in a suit comes by with his fat friend – okay, they’re both guys in Miyazaki cat costumes, but whatever – and Rika lets herself get escorted away by this Pink Panther wannabe. Rika thinks this is okay, leaving Reina with the slick fucker’s fat friend.

I’m struck at how this is exactly the nightmare I barely avoided in Amuro Namie’s “Wo Wa” PV. Cartoon cats and Jpop idols should never, ever mix. That’s all there is to it.

As it turns out, the cats were just leading the girls to the displays at this event. At one of the displays, Tanashikawa (no, doesn’t roll off the tongue like Ishiyoshi or Tsujikago) strike up a conversation with a flaming faggot. That is, with a bunch of sticks set on fire.

They are soon joined by a human who I’m sure says something informative about the flaming faggots. The man must be a part of the Miyazaki event, since his hair and facial features indicate either a desire to emulate anime or a really faaaaabulous sense of style. Like Dean Stockwell in Blue Velvet fabulous, actually, which is kind of creepy.

This is only a five-minute segment and a good minute or two was devoted to footage of such classics as Spirited Away and, um…Whatever. Okay, I don’t think I’ve ever paid strict attention while watching any Miyazaki films. I’m more of a Satoshi Kon fan, even if he’s not a national institution like Miyazaki or Tezuka.

So what was I getting at?

Have I mentioned how beautiful and natural Reina appears in this segment? She’s just your average girl-next-door yankee kind of idol, right? And her outfit is so adorable… Not what she’d typically wear by any means, but it looks nice on her.

It looks nice on Ishikawa, too, but Rika’d look even better if Yui was hanging onto her leg, or Yossi hanging onto her breasts. Which has nothing to do with the outfits, but I’m just saying that’d help, is all.

Anyway, in the closing seconds of the segment, Ishikawa and the guy who looks like Moe from The Simpsons are saying something and then turn towards Reina to find a surprise!

Reina has jumped into the arms of the slick white tuxedoed cat motherfucker! I know it’s a recreation of that anime shot earlier in the segment, but I’m filled with a jealous rage at this point. Which is pointless, of course, but who can control the whims of the otaku heart?

I mean, Good Fucking Lord on a Crutch, I can’t believe how jealous I am of a man in a goddamn cat costume. Seriously. Being able to hold Reina in your arms and run around with her holding onto your neck… that’s what disturbing night-time smiles that provoke arguments with the wife the next morning are made of.

And perhaps most surprising of all, Reina in this position looks chunkier than Rika. Which is like comparing a #2 pencil to a twig, considering how skinny both of them are… But Reina’s natural skinniness has always alarmed me slightly, despite whatever erotic undercurrents bony girls can evoke in the properly sadistic mind. So maybe this means she’s putting on a little weight? Or that the outfit is just way padded. Who knows.

Setting aside all the ranting, this was a pretty fun segment in its own way. I know I felt like I was missing out some on the wonder of Miyazaki, but it was great seeing Tanaka almost on her own. She may have played second fiddle to the considerably older and more experienced Rika, but in the end it was her playfulness that sticks with me.

And the inexplicable, burning rage at seeing someone else clutch her like this. Maybe if it was SMAP’s Shingo or Gackt, I’d be okay with that… but a guy in a cat costume? Someone who tried to run off with ganguro Rika first? Those aren’t the arms you want to jump into, Reina.

But there’s a silver lining to such dark clouds, of course.

Seeing Tanaka in another man’s arms – even if the guy is probably worried more about suffocating under that cat head than copping a feel off a skinny teenage girl – has shamed me into remembering how precious Reina is. The girl who led Aa! and made that Otome Gumi punk song truly rawk and the plaything of Satoda Mai in that shuffle video and one of the best voices in Morning Musume after Fujimoto… as well as one of the more interesting personalities in Morning Musume, behind Fujimoto and Yoshizawa.

Anyway, I’m just saying: Reina won’t be ignored by me again like this.

And at least it wasn’t Deputy Dawg whose arms she jumped in.

Next: Tanaka Reina reminds me of a living Japanese national treasure who isn’t Miyazaki Hayao. You may want to miss this one.

Sunday Blog Roundup: Miki meets Viyuden, Santos sees SweetS, Metal hearts Enka…

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

While this has been a crap week of blogging for me – I’ll cite extenuating circumstances and assure that I’ll be more active this week – this has been a very good week for other bloggers. Miki of Miki’s Sorcery met Viyuden at the airport in Singapore and took tons of pictures! Not to fall back on internet acronyms, but OMG OMG OMG! It’s definitely worth a look at. And Santos, who’s blogging has entered new heights of dedication these past couple months, has now fallen sway to SweetS and attended the last concert of their tour.

Between these two events and the Morning Musume handshake event – there’s several accounts, but I especially like this one from the MM-BBS – it seemed like I was the few people I knew who didn’t meet an idol this weekend.

In related news, ikimasshoi.news is back in full force this week, with some particularly good news for Yossi fans here and here.

Over at jrocknyc, go describes a heavy metal show host swooning for an enka singer. Correction: considerably older enka singer. For some reason, this both touches my heart and makes the enka singer real hot in my book. Also, go made a nicely ironic note on structuralism that tickled the recovering academic in me.

In other blogs, Thea broke the news on SweetS’ first full-length album while Jarret of I’m bad at naming things adjusts nicely to Japan. Continuing the Top 10 lists, Akiramike relates a wonderful new addition: Top 10 Japanese Celebrities to Fcuk (his mis-spelling, not mine). I’m still mildly amazed at the distinction of having a girlfriend and having someone to sleep with, but that’s just my silly moral system. Nice to see two of my favorite gravure idols (Hoshino Aki, Kumada Yoko) on the list, though – means they’ve still got careers ahead of them.

Also, found a new Morning Musume / Hello! Morning site, Sekushii biimu – A Morning Musume Blog, that bears watching.

A Unified Theory of SweetS: Lolita Strawberry in Summer

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

The striking thing about SweetS’ first single and PV – and something taken for granted now, at least by me – is how blatant they were about the rorikon image.To actually use the word “Lolita” in the song title, repeat it in the chorus, and then throw in the ridiculously suggestive “Strawberry in Summer” like a prepubescent cherry on top – there was no way for the creators to claim ignorance or misunderstood themes here. One can’t help but wonder if Avex Trax ordered this as the image for the group or if they shit themselves when they saw what was being planned. What seems now like a canny move could have looked like potential marketing suicide back then.

The PV seals the deal, albeit in a subtler, more ironic manner. While the actual song bleats its rorikon fascination overtly, the PV engages in the grey area of child sexuality in a more indirect fashion: by observing the girls of SweetS at play, in dancing as well as dress-up. Since children require adult supervision, the PV provides this in an unexpected fashion as well – another twist that complicates any reading of this video.

Of course, what fans of SweetS most emphasize is the pure skills of the group: though the overt nature of “Lolita” makes it compelling conceptually, the actual singing and dancing matches it. The girls are excellent dancers, the song is highly dramatic… but if that was all they had going for it, would people have paid attention? I’d like to think so, of course – but the hook of their rorikon image certainly made SweetS stand out from the rest of the Jpop crowd.

The PV starts with the girls walking down a hallway. There’s a slow pulse of bright light throughout the video; along with some time lapse effects, it gives the PV and song a more dreamlike nature. They pass a staircase between themselves and the camera. This not only serves to emphasize the two floors on which the PV takes place, but also momentarily divides the girls’ bodies into distinct sections.

I’m not sure if this was intended, but the divided body is a tactic often used to emphasizes female bodies as objects – that is, they’re parts that we assess and not whole human beings. (For another, less guilt-inducing example of this, look at dream’s “Solve” PV.) But then, how often are children overlooked as humans and simply considered the property of their parents? The statement on objectification can run at least several ways: they belong to the viewer, the parents, the consumerist society driving their shopping / grooming needs.

If objectification is what these girls face, it seems their visit to this place – and their actions in the video – is an assertion of autonomy, the child’s longed-for assertion of “I’m old enough now”.

The girls stop, face the camera, and strike a confrontational pose. Not meaning to recycle the Lord Byron cliche time and again, but these girls seem mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Straight up and down, all five of these girls manage to combine a heady mix of youthful roleplaying, ice queen glamour, and nascent sexuality in a way that courts controversy.

The only other person to have any significant identity in the PV: a white woman reading a magazine and somehow observing the SweetS girls. We never see her actually interact with SweetS, but her reactions are clearly intended for the girls.

Still looking dead serious, the girls resume walking, Aya and Haruna taking off their sunglasses like FBI agents approaching a crime scene. This emphasizes that they’ve arrived from outdoors – which itself may be significant, given the notion that children should “play outside” and obviously these girls haven’t been doing so – but also works as shorthand on their determination as they go about their business.

Cut to a shot of the dancing area, where the girls are in different clothes and strike model-esque poses against the glass, looking down upon… well, we’re not sure. The white woman, certainly, but anything or anyone else?

Another visual effect is introduced with the dancing sequences: a distortion circle rippling around the girls, adding to the sense of surreality in a dreamlike setting.

There are two main perspectives for the PVs dance shots: on a level stage with no obstacles between dancers and camera, and through the paneled glass, from slightly below – as if looking up from a first floor to a second floor.

That white woman looks up, curious and perhaps upset. She’s the enigma of the video: is she waiting for her turn? (In which case, did the girls cut ahead of her?) Does she own this place? The girls never deal with this woman directly – perhaps because her sequences were filmed at a different time, but perhaps also to keep her at a slight remove symbolically. She seems to be the one source of authority the girls encounter in this PV, so to have her impose too much would be to take away the autonomy the girls exert throughout the video.

Tthere is significance to her being older – if not quite a maternal figure, she is a source of approval from the adult world, the acknowledgment of maturity that immature people require. But is there any special significance to her being white? Is it a nod to consumerism and Western standards of beauty? Or is this a knee-jerk reliance on Western exotica, a white woman as a kind of cosmopolitan sophistication by which the girls aspire?

Cutting back, the girls are shown waiting patiently, langorously… With Haruna holding a glass, one would assume they were hanging out at a fancy dance club – except, of course, they’re too young for that. Though if you see this PV the first time, that’s not quite clear.

And then there’s another time lapse effect. Why? To emphasize the relative nature of time – and in doing so, emphasize “age ain’t nothing but a number”? To emphasize the dreamlike nature of this setting, and of the unreality of these underage sirens? If this was a nightclub scene, it could even be shorthand for the intoxicating effect of whatever Haruna’s drinking – though that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Miori looks pensive… The stillness in the waiting room sequence and the subsequent salon scenes add a clear gravitas: throughout, the girls assume different kinds of quiet, sometimes submissive but not always. The nature of each girl’s quiet is evident on her face and stance and helps individualize them.

That stillness is is in stark contrast to the energetic performance of the girls during the dance sequences. The dancing seems more like a kind of “play”, though by no means is it childish: their moves are very dramatic and at times suggestive. It’s worth noting that, right from the start, SweetS placed a high premium on their dancing abilities and were very, very good from the beginning. It helps having Mr. Amuro Namie as your choreographer, after all.

And yet the salon sequences are also a kind of play, as well: little girls love their make-up as much as big girls – actually, they love make-up because it makes them feel like big girls.

Speaking of which: we return to the white woman, now from an angle below her. If anything, it makes her more imposing, scarier. There’s another shot of her from the level of the sofa, as if sneaking up on her. While she doesn’t quite seem the object of a voyeuristic gaze, she isn’t positioned as solidly, as authoritatively, as we first believe.

Finally, the setting is made clearer, the reason for the girls’ arrival in this place becomes obvious. We see the girls are in a beauty salon: the dimensions here are closed-in, cramped, while in other shots it’s wide open, spread out. Notice the look on Mai’s face: not one of joy or happiness, but a kind of jaded wariness, looking into the mirror, making sure the nameless, faceless woman taking care of her is doing the job right.

A pecidure emphasizes the decadence of this visit to the beauty salon. Intended or not, this scene also brings to mind the Kubrick film adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita, when Humbert gives Lo a home pedicure, showing how completely he’s fallen under her sway.

Haruna and Miori look bored as their needs are tended. Are they jaded? Is this not important to them? Or is this how they believe they’re supposed to act?

The question of sophistication and knowledge is one of the interesting aspects of growing up. While adults envy “childlike wonder” and the ability to see things anew, actual children want to already know things, to not look foolish by seeming so naive or stupid. How often does one encounter children who pretend to know more than they do? (Or adults, for that matter.)

In this PV, there’s no wide-eyed wonder. There’s a kind of jaded boredom in the salon sequences, one tinged with consumerist desire. And in the dance sequences there’s an exuberance, a joy of movement, that avoids any sense of being juvenile. But all of this has a been-there done-that kind of feel, purposely so.

Miori has a blank kind of smile on her face as make-up is applied. Immediately one thinks of dolls, children being used as canvases to create artificial, pretty objects. Think porcelain dolls or Jonbenet Ramsey.

From what I gather of the Japanese sections, the lyrics are a relatively innocent paean to young love in summer. (But I could be horribly wrong here.) The English is more ambiguous. There are several lines in English in the song, including, “Knight on, knight on / Hold me baby / Kiss me kiss me / Do you know me?” One has to wonder: even if the general meaning of these words are understood by the girls (very likely), is the subtext equally understood?

Never mind the Biblical sense of the word “know”, there is an implication of physical intimacy before emotional intimacy. Perhaps an acknowledgment that children may indulge in physical intimacy but suffer because they don’t know the emotional consequences? That’s something of a stretch, given the nature of the song – but it’s a benefit of the doubt worth considering.

For someone outside Japanese culture, this strikes me as a variation of the Amuro Namie effect: using English to create a certain attitude and feel, but one still jarringly strange, foreign to a native speaker of English. In this case, the disconnect comes, not from the syntax or grammar (or the oochie poppin la la coochie), but from children saying something so suggestively promiscuous. “Do they know what they’re saying? How can they be allowed to say such things?”

That said, how different is it from hearing American kids singing “Hit Me Baby One More Time”? And does it make a difference if a girl is mimicking the songs of an older singer or singing those lines for herself? And does it matter whether or not the girls understand it? Again, there are issues of play and pretend: adults may be worried about children mouthing such lascivious lines, but to children it’s simply words and just fun things that are cool. Kakoii is more important than sekshi, even if what’s kakoii is sekshi.

But to say adults make too much of a deal about something that children consider harmless is… well, stupid. And dangerous in a pragmatic here-and-now manner. There’s a grey area between innocence and knowledge, between being too cautious with children and risking too much by over-trusting them. Some adults want to treat children like idiots who know nothing, others are too willing to concede more autonomy and understanding than children actually possess. You see it in the news with alarmed parents on one side and abusive teachers on the other…

This is a very real, very immediate subtext of SweetS in this first phase of their career, blurring the lines and then turning it upside-down (to mix metaphors). What they provide isn’t a position one way or the other, but a constant unsettling of any firm positions or beliefs inherent in this debate.

The brightly colored bottles of nail polish are hypnotizing in their beauty, as one bottle moves suddenly across the table. One is reminded of marbles and again of childhood games. If playing dress-up is a childhood game, then what of this elaborate treatment? They’re no longer playing, they’re getting beauty treatments any adult would envy and that many pay good money for. Is adulthood – or a child’s perspective of adulthood – merely an elaborate kind of play, then, a set of rituals and actions no different from what children go through?

The PV is masterful in timing itself to the song’s eccentric rhythms, for example taking advantage of the sounds to better time the pulsing lights. In this shot, a distant view of Miori suddenly rushes much closer when the song gives off one of its sudden bursts of undulating bass.

The song itself opens with a rushing sound akin to angels appearing through breaking clouds, then moving to the girls’ voices over pseudo-classical instrumentation. As the song kicks in, there’s a skittish synth running throughout much of the song, balanced against a rolling, sensuous bassline – along with sudden flights of classical music and harsher variations of that beginning rushing sound, the song creates a complex emotional soundscape.

Quite simply, the songwriting team of Bounceback have a very refined, very strange sense of humor. Given the song titles for the first three singles, they knew precisely who they were writing these songs for – both the singers and the intended audience. To have what amounts to a children’s chorus intoning “Lolita” must have seemed very funny or an intended slap in the face – most likely, both. It’s easy to find a satiric edge to these songs, but that only seems to enhance the songwriting skills on display.

Listening to the song, there are many disparate elements, held together by the girls’ voices more than anything else. Sometimes the skittish synths take over, sometimes the bass overwhelms everything else, or there’s a quiet moment with the classical motif, but it’s the girls’ chorus and especially Aya’s solo lines which give it a sense of unity, of coherence.

This is my favorite sequence in the video: Aki is having her nails done, looking quite serious…

Haruna looks over her shoulder, a mysterious Mona Lisa smile on her face, which breaks into a wider grin…

And Miori smiles at her with a complex smile of satisfaction, pleasure, and a certain knowingness.

These girls are clearly in their element and loving every second of it. In someone older, this would perhaps look smug, but that isn’t the effect reached here: more like a moment of bonding and suppressed delight.

To me, this is the heart of the PV: if there’s a joke being played, the girls are in on it. If there’s a role they’re expected to play – or really, the multiple roles necessary to be an idol singer – they will slip into and out of these roles as they please. There is some control on their part, their willingness to play along and to enjoy what must often seem like an elaborate game of make-believe that’s no longer make-believe.

The girls together on a line, which segues to a series of portraits for the girls, looking at the camera and staring it down.

Miori is the second youngest of the group, only a couple weeks older than Mai. She’s the deer-in-the-headlights and the group’s innocent. Really, the innocent among innocents.

Aya is the starpower of the group, with a voice enviable by singers twice her age. That said, she doesn’t seem to naturally dominate: hers is a persona that’s at once diffident and self-confident. Her idol career is guaranteed well into adulthood, given her looks and talent.

Haruna… oh, jeez. I’ve never hidden my love for her, she’s my favorite idol bar none. And as I’ve said before and will probably have to repeat again, I’m very aware of the differences between imagination and reality. The clips of Haruna practicing dance steps show an exuberant child practically bouncing off the walls in gleeful delight. That’s reality – but the idol persona she presents? That’s sui generis at this stage of SweetS.

First is the stare: vulnerable and yet challenging at the same time. There’s the beautiful dyed hair, which sets her off even more from the others visually. And there’s a self-possessed confidence, the way she carries herself, that makes her the dominant personality of SweetS. Out of all of them, she seems the most professionally minded, the most careerist – and at this stage in the game, it’s a virtue and not a hindrance.

Mai is the baby of the group, but I also get the sense she has the Nabokovan bloom which makes her my second favorite. For those not familiar with Lolita the novel, narrator Humbert explains that nymphophiles aren’t by any means attracted to the most beautiful girl in a group, or the most vulnerable, or the most child-like. Rather, there is an X factor, a “bloom”, that the nymphophile sees and which other adults cannot detect.

For me, at least, Mai seems to possess that bloom. Aya and Haruna would be the obvious choices – but that’s the point, they are the obvious choices. Is the bloom quantifiable in Mai? Perhaps in her smile, in her sudden flashes of playfulness, and especially in the reserve she holds – when she pouts, it doesn’t even seem like a pout, but an act of infinite patience. At those moments, one sees the ghost of Mrs. Schillinger in her.

Aki is the oldest of the girls and has always struck me as the most self-satisfied in her persona. It took me a while to warm up to her, but I realized the flipside of this childish arrogance is a playfulness that’s matched only by Mai. Aki is the one who flirts with the camera most, who wants you to notice her.

And yet for all this, consider: the girls are never portrayed in an overtly compromising manner. They have never, to my knowledge, posed in swimsuits or revealed anything that a decent young girl wouldn’t in other situations. (Not even the skinny legs and all displays in later PVs are unusual. Just unfortunate and silly.) To do so would not only cheapen the girls, it would also ruin the effect: the temptation would be more clearly justified, the rorikon would be a brusque come-on instead of an ironic tease, and the sophisticated image of this group would be forfeit.

Aya lying down, eyes closed, huge headphones emphasizing two things: how small she is, still a child, and how she’s able to block out the world if she wants to.By depriving her of sight and hearing, there’s a heightened sense of voyeurism, a sense of temptation… This shot is another reference to Lolita the Kubrick film, as I seem to recall a scene with the title character listening to music in the backyard, oblivious to the machinations around her.

While we have several shots of Aya singing from this position, eyes wide open and relatively animated, there’s also a mildly startling shot where she opens her eyes, as if waking or noticing something. A moment of sudden awareness, of innocence lost? If we take innocence as an Edenic lack of knowledge, then at what point will these girls bite into the fruit of the forbidden tree? Have they already, by indulging in these actions, by being idols? Does it even matter?

The dance moves are breathtaking, especially for the debut of an idol group. Let’s emphasize this so that it gets the proper respect: they actually move, they’re coordinated, and they’re not sliding by with stylized poses. Which isn’t to say all their moves are perfect – Aki and Miori struggle a little to keep up in the dance sequences – though their joy more than compensates for this. Haruna’s already the leader in that sense, and will continue to be the best dancer up to now.

As the song heads to a close, the girls in the salon sequence sing as their beauty treatment continues. They now look much more animated, much less sullen or bored or self-satisfied. They seem to come alive with their voices, in a way that the ministrations haven’t achieved.

Perhaps, perhaps… this is about the transformative power about art? Or at least of entertainment as postmodern art? That singing gives these girls not only a release, but a way to express both their youthful energy and their nascent maturity: it provides the bridge between childhood and adulthood. Music can be pure while still being seductive, dance is the beauty of bodies in motion that can be both intensely sexual and also emotionally removed.

After all, this is the dream come true, isn’t it? These little girls get to become idols, singing and dancing into the hearts of Japan. If we take a step back, consider the glamor in the midst of all their work. If Jpop has often been dominated by young teenage girls – Wink, Speed, 4th gen-eraMorning Musume – perhaps it’s because of the proper mix of malleability and willfulness? The desire for glamor and attention without the egotism that makes older talent more difficult to work with?

If anything, that meta level – the PV as a reflection on the birth of a new idol phenomenon – makes that exchange of smiles between Haruna and Aki that much more significant, that much more of an in-joke.

Aya framed in after image reflections of herself – perhaps to indicate the glass facing them in the other dance shot sequences, but again an emphasis on time lapse.

Here, we have the signature sounds of SweetS: Haruna and Aya alternating lines back and forth. As the lead singers, their voices are distinct enough to make the line-swapping feel like rapturous dialogue. Aya’s certainly got the richer, more powerful voice, but Haruna’s voice packs an emotional punch, a wistful edge well beyond her years. You can listen to just about any of Aya’s vocals from the very beginning to appreciate what she’s capable of. The depths of Haruna’s gifts won’t be as obvious until she gets to lead for “Love Like Candy Floss”.

More head shots of the girls singing…

Then we return to their entrance shot, again suffused with the light. Clearly, they are the symbolic source of the radiance, and the pulsing is – what? Their hearts? Their attention spans? Their innocence? Their starpower?

Like Nabokov’s novel, this PV is all about falling in love. But falling in love with what? A manufactured image, certainly, but is there anything more than that? And should these manufactured images be objects of affection, or should common sense and a strong moral compass repulse us? Which is exactly the point, and exactly how SweetS mirrors Nabokov’s own masterpiece.

Haruna on the dance floor. One thing that strikes me is: why the change in costumes? The outfits they wear during the dance sequences are more street, less formal and sophisticated than their salon clothes. They more closely resemble “play” clothes – and yet it’s worn for the more obvious performance in the video, not for their more “natural” scenes. Keep in mind, they “enter” the PV dressed up in the finer clothes.

But as any clothing style is a reflection of image more than identity, a desire to appear a certain way rather than a direct expression of one’s self, perhaps these distinctions aren’t as important as the pageantry in itself. The girls are as comfortable in their street clothes as their salon clothes, can assume these guises with an ease that has nothing to do with who one “really” is but what expectations a person wishes to fulfill for others.

There’s a small dance move here, both hands form a heart over their chests, then fluttering out to their shoulders. It’s the closest thing we’ll get to a kawaii moment, but even then it’s got a precision (and a knowing impertinence, based on some of the facial expressions) that sets aside notions of juvenile behavior. This group is all about sophistication, of acting older than their age – yet, paradoxically, this works best by teasing out the implications of their real age, of the forbidden desires that rorikon invites.

For the second time, we’re treated to a series of close-up shots of each girl, split-second portraits of the members of SweetS.

Taking place towards the end of the PV, this second series of close-ups is very much like the first series, emphasizing that the hair and make-up hasn’t changed them. Yet this is a visit to a beauty salon, so where is the before / after effect? But then it becomes clear: they arrived as glamorous girls and they remain glamorous girls throughout. Before and after isn’t the point, but now and now. What they’ve undergone at the hands of the stylists is an affirmation of their glamour – not a bestowing of it. The salon isn’t an attempt to bring out beauty, but to assert the beauty’s always been there.

So now consider this: a beauty salon meets a dance floor, under the eye of an approving adult. Taking that meta step back again, is this setting simply what it is in reality: that is, an idol factory? The girls were chosen from an extended audition process, much like dream in 2000, and this video can be seen as a comment on the girls’ actual initiation into the business of idol singers.

It would be a way to have the PV make more sense as a story: they arrive as young starlets, they have their make-up done, and they slip into their dance “costumes” (street clothes designed to look young and casual) to perform for the approval of the decision-makers and definers of taste (i.e., the white woman in white).

Aki, with that flirtatious smile. More and more, the girl grows on me.

The song ends with a semi-classical flourish, and the girls assume a tight-knit pose to close the song, elbows and knees akimbo, wrists frozen mid-flap.

Arms folded, the white woman gives her seal of approval. But approval of what? At the song and dance, at the girls’ attempt to act more grown-up? At money well-spent at a beauty salon? At the successful launching of a new idol group?

Is she the symbolic bitch queen of a culture hell-bent on entertainment and consumerism? The Boadicea of scorched earth Postman-esque amusements – or perhaps the Medea?

The PV ends in silence as she walks off-camera, again under a time-lapse video effect.

Time is at a premium: not only are idol groups novelty-driven and have highly limited lifespans, but the youthful energy and rorikon vibe hinges on a small window of these girls’ lives. In a few years, the songs from this first phase will be conceptually stunted, more contrived with the girls older, more sure of themselves, and more developed both physically and emotionally. The songs themselves will remain beautiful, but will they have the same resonance with an older SweetS?

In that sense, this PV stands more starkly as a document of a specific time and specific phase for the group. And the fact that it shines like very little else in the Jpop firmament at the time…? Well, it makes the song that much more precious.

Sunday Blog Roundup: Team Dream Wins, More Lists, Sexy Korean Boys and Sexy Gravure Girls

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

My favorite blog entry this week is from Santos of Idolizing St. Anna, as he let loose the news that Team Dream has finally won a game!. Hopefully someone will upload this game on the torrent sites, because it’ll be sweet, sweet happiness to see the Avex girls taste victory on the futsal field.

Santos also provided his Top 10 – Plus 3 – Idol Girlfriends list. The extra three are for the under-fifteen set, a couple of whom would be on my Top 10 Little Sisters of Girlfriends Who’d Accompany Us to the Movies and the Mall Because She’s So Cool In Her Own Underage Way list… if I ever deliver on it. Thea has provided her Top 10 Boyfriend and Top 10 Idol lists and I continue to delight in reading a blog so dedicated to the Avex Girl Groups.

At undoing the meractor projection, crs provides a rather amusing account of homoeroticism in Korean pop music: though the pictures have since been taken down, the text provides plenty of juicy details to delight and amuse. Wapiko at Musings of a Fan Girl discussed the latest gravure model to try her hand at singing, then gives a run-down of past attempts at such crossover – all accompanied by some rather luscious images.

On a personal note, Jarret of I’m bad at naming things has arrived in Japan and describes his flights over. It’ll be fun to read of his experiences in Japan and his inevitable attempt to pick up that second Konno Asami photobook.

Over at morning feed, an announcement has been made concerning a second issue – and a possible print run of that issue. And, thanks to Technorati keyword feeds, I found a couple of interesting blogs this week: kirakirachoco and the SweetS-centered amai desu.

Full Moon Sagashite and Hello! Project

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It was a slow week for comics and, as I was looking for something extra to read, Anthony at Last Sanctuary suggested a manga: Full Moon Sagashite by Tanemura Arina. Anthony liked the anime and, knowing I enjoyed Shojo Beat, figured this was right up my alley.

So I read it on the way to work yesterday and in the first chapter, there was a creator’s note stating that the main character Mitsuki’s hairstyle is based on Kago Ai. Then I found mentions of Matsuura Aya in the notes, including an incident involving the proper placement of “Love Namidairo” on a mix CD. It quickly became clear: Tanemura and some of her assistants are Hello! Project fans. This was further confirmed by a gag strip at the end of the volume, with shout-outs to Morning Musume in general, as well as Gocchin, Nacchi, and Kago.

At first I didn’t see the Kago hairstyle on Mitsuki – but pictures from Kago’s earlier years seem to indicate what Tanemura meant. Kago was such a cutie back then too, wasn’t she?

The manga itself is enjoyable. Mitsuki, is a 12-year-old girl, orphaned and with a tumor in her throat. Though her voice is weak, she wants to be a singer because she loves Eichi, a boy who moved to America. Mistuki’s grandmother opposes singing of all sort, but two death spirits help Mitsuki enter a singing contest by turning her into a healthy 16-year-old with no vocal problems. Under the name Full Moon, she becomes a Jpop idol and faces the rigors of the geinou industry, helped by the death spirits – a combination of deus ex machina and comedic relief – and facing a rivalry against another potential idol, Madoka.

Full Moon Sagashite is fun and I’ll be trying out the second volume. H!P shout-outs may not be enough to keep me reading, but the premise is fun and if the series continues to deal with the idol industry, that’ll keep my interest.

New PVs – 18 and Under Division

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Looking at the new PVs from the 18-and-under division, I’m surprised at how much catchier the songs are. With the exception of Otsuka Ai’s “Neko ni Fuusen,” the actual songs from the Clearly Legal idols suffered from blandness to varying degrees… The three songs below, however, I can imagine myself listening to for months to come. They’re bolder, more aggressive songs, with better hooks.

First up is Berryz Koubou’s “21 ji made no Cinderella”.

Really, I should hate this song and PV. It doesn’t match up to the last two singles, especially not against “Special Generation” – still the benchmark for Berryz, both the song and the PV. The first thing that strikes me is: these poor girls, forced to wear such horrible, ugly outfits. They look like pastel-colored street beggars, and not very skillful ones at that. Real underage street beggars would invoke pity, not derisive laughter. One has the urge to scoop the girls up and take them to an Old Navy – even that’d be better than what they have on.

The song also shouldn’t work: it’s kitschy, sounding retro and gimmicky instead of smart and sophisticated. Is this a step back for Berryz, then? A reminder that they’re just a kiddie group?

Well, they are a kiddie group, still maturing and allowed lapses into silliness, and so they can get away with this, as far as I’m concerned. The girls are quite strongly vocally here, after all, and the song has grown on me quickly for its energy and risky forays into goofball instrumentation. It’s a dopey song, but a good kind of dopey. I find myself singing that odd “yoroshiku” to myself, kind of like the way Ogura Yuko’s “Vitamin Love” crept in my head and beat against my skull – unbidden, but pleasurably so.

The PV has the girls go to a diner to eat and laugh and have fun – typical Berryz PV fare – as a clock reminds them of time marching along, like something out of an Eliot poem. The girls are adorable despite dressing so horridly, and I’ll also admit: I’m beginning to like Momoko more. I’d encourage Yurina to be moved to Morning Musume – except, you know, that’d be more of a demotion nowadays. But damn, Yurina towers over Saki, she’s already looking more mature than all the other Berryz even though she’s the second youngest (after Risako, still my favorite), and she’s got the best voice in the group. She’d be doing Morning Musume a favor by joining that unit.

W’s “Miss Love Tantei” is fabulous. Like Nacchi’s “Koi no Hana” this sounds like it could be Avex, which is meant as a compliment. Tsuji and Kago are in excellent vocal form here, both solo and when they harmonize. The song itself is very catchy and a marked improvement from… well, everything they’ve done since “Robokiss”. This also marks a swing towards a more mature image, balanced nicely against the shenanigans of the PV.

The rapping on the song is okay, but it’s more along the line of the “Yo yo yo / yeah yeah yeah” method from 7Air instead of the wordplay and rhythm of Salt5. I know Tsuji is capable of more than that, and Kago has done better – but it’s not like they’re Halcali and rely on their mad skillz, so I can live with it.

There’s too much to love about this PV. The girls are back to doing silly costumes and multiple personalities, including a remarkable foray into ganguro ko-gal-ness. The detective shtick is still fresh to me, but I don’t watch Oha Star clips. And Kago’s looking incredibly lovely now that she’s mostly given up the pig tails.

A scary-ass dog is running around in the PV that I want to beat repeatedly over the head and across the back, especially since I know there’s a man underneath and it’s not a real dog, making it battery and not animal cruelty. Because animal cruelty would be wrong, of course.

Special love has to go out to Tsuji. I used to be afraid she’d become Andrew Ridgeley to Kago’s George Michael, or John Oates to Kago’s Daryl Hall, but that’s clearly no longer the case. She’s become a beautiful young woman with a confidence and persona that matches anyone else in H!P right now. If she decides to go skanky in future photobooks, she may even surpass Kago Ai as my favorite H!P. She can strike those really obvious come-hither / backdafuckup poses and make them work, and she’s one of the few H!P girls who I want to show more skin.

And best of all, she’s funny as hell. She’s definitely the more interesting personality in this PV.

Maybe she should’ve beaten the dog over the head and back.

Last but by no means least, there’s SweetS’ new single and PV, “Earthship Uchuusen Chikyuugou”. This is great, of course, and everybody should support SweetS because they made the greatest Jpop album ever two years ago and they’re still pretty good now if not nearly as good as when Bounceback was taking care of their songs… and… and…

Ah. Who are we kidding? I’m still smarting from the “Mienai Tsubasa” PV. The pain is still fresh in my heart.

Imagine a music video by your favorite idol and you recognize the setting as your front yard… then the street where you work… then the bus stop you go to every day, followed by the mall where you do your shopping. This is pretty much what it feels like when I watch the “Mienai Tsubasa” PV in my more vulnerable moments: “They’re walking down Kalakaua. Hey, that’s Iolani. They’re performing on that tiny stage at Ala Moana. And where was I during all this…?” And okay, they might not have been right at my front yard, but they were maybe a five minute walk from there.

Luckily, “Earthship” takes place in a CGI-created cityscape. Buildings and idols flash in and out of the shot like a video game with very, very bad draw-in issues. Unfortunately, the dance moves aren’t as strong as in other recent PV’s – I didn’t really like “Countdown” but the dance solos were a lot of fun – and there’s something oddly… generic about the video overall.

The song itself is very solid. It’s the same kind of soaring, upbeat song as “Mienai Tsubasa” but with a spacey marimba-esque sound laced throughout. And if I’m hearing right, are they saying “knight on” in the chorus, like in “Lolita Strawberry in Summer”? Repeated listenings make this song more and more of a must-listen, just like “Mienai” – which is a satisfying reversal from their second phase.

And did Haruna really want to show off her bra straps? I know they’re see-through, but I thought it kind of odd.

Wouldn’t it have been cool if Miori’s T-shirt read “Don’t Fuck With Mister Zero”? Has anybody ever actually seen a T-shirt that read that? Even better, does anyone know if such a T-shirt even existed before When Harry Met Sally immortalized the phrase?

This is the last single from Aya and Aki for the next six months. I’m going to miss Aya’s voice and all, but by the time she and Aki return to SweetS, they’ll look considerably older, perhaps even legal. What the hell, most of the girls look sixteen at this point, though I may be a horrible judge of such things. (Actually, I know I am.)

That said, I’m thinking in six months, Yurina of Berryz will look older than everyone in H!P except the Puri Puri Pink ladies. Chomping on a cigar and downing shots of whiskey. Or maybe not.

And All Along I Thought Trekkies Didn’t Get Laid…

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Here’s a bit of weirdness worth noting: apparently, a “correlation” has been drawn between the original Star Trek and pedophilia, based on a study by the Toronto sex crimes unit. Further, Ellen Ladowsky of the Huffington Post suggests psychological reasons for such a link existing, drawing on motifs of the show.

This is all quite bizarre and I have severe doubts about the validity of any of these findings.

That said, I’ll also take a sick pleasure in reading enraged Trekkies defending themselves and the shows that they love – or even better, fans of spinoff series trying to distance themselves and these findings from the original show (which is the only one discussed in this brouhaha). You know, “Next Generation doesn’t encourage pedophilia. Orgies and bestiality, yes, but not pedophilia.”

New PVs – Over 18 Division: Otsuka Ai, Ueto Aya, Viyuden, Natsumi Abe

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There’s been a bunch of new PVs out lately worth mentioning. As I’ve stated time and again, I usually don’t give Jpop singles much of a listen until I see the video attached to it. I’m a shallow bastard and want eye candy to go with the pretty noises; considering that Jpop is such an overtly manufactured kind of entertainment, I also prefer getting as full a package for the latest products as possible.

First, a belated mention of Otsuka Ai’s “Neko ni Fuusen”. When I heard this was a slow song, I decided not to pick it up at Hakubundo last month. I should have, because this is a beautiful, haunting song – just listening it brings tears to my eyes. The good cathartic kind of tears, mind you, like watching the end of Titanic while snuggling with a loved one – not the bad kind of tears like Zone breaking up and wishing the world would explode in sharing your pain.

The song and PV are so distinctly Otsuka Ai in its sensibility, but it’s not the Otsuka Ai I think of immediately, not the happy-go-crazy helium-voiced sexpot diva lunatic of “Happy Days” or “Smily”. Her voice, for starters, remains recognizably hers but has a subtlety and vulnerability that contrasts to the powerful music. The CGI cats look very cat-like, but also mildly alien – they’re anthropomorphized while still remaining distinctly feline. And the title of the song is delivered in the PV in a literally uplifting, strangely surreal manner, only to return to Otsuka Ai as a kind of stray cat in her own world.

I’m tearing up just thinking of the song again. Let’s move on…

Ah. Speaking of bad tears. Ueto Aya’s “Kaze wo Ukete” is kind of ska… well, not really. It has a ska sound, but it’s a very tame, bland kind of ska. I can’t help but compare it to Morning Musume’s “Koko ni Iruzee”, which at least sounded wild and brassy and loud.

What’s important, then, is how does Ueto Aya look? Well, she’s beautiful as ever in the video. That said, her hairdo during the stage performance sequences is kinda… ugly. I mean, she’s beautiful, but that hair just seems like a bad idea taken two steps too far. At once too retro scruffy and too… poufy.

The sequences of Aya walking along and looking sassy are better, if all too brief.

I wish I liked Ueto Aya’s songs more, but they just don’t have as much personality as she does.

Next up is Viyuden’s “Hitorijime”: again, my stupid bias against Jpop ballads (which I seriously need to rethink) made me discount it from the start. Then I downloaded the PV, watched it… and found the song enjoyable. The thing is, Viyuden songs have a way of creeping up on me – I had a negative initial reaction to the last two singles, and now they’re two of my favorite H!P songs from this year.

That said, “Kaccho Ii Ze! Japan” and “Ajisai Ai Ai Monogatari” had very distinctive sounds – in contrast, “Hitorijime” is a nicely layered girl group number, but doesn’t have the same kick as those other two songs. But I can see it grow on me.

As always, the main eye candy for me is Miyoshi Erika. She looks fine here, but nothing distinctive – not the surprisingly sexy moves in the last PV, not even a distinct outfit.

Overall, the video is pretty bland – you’d have thought they were doing a Morning Musume PV – but the song itself is nice enough. And along with Berryz Koubo, Viyuden’s the most consistent of H!P units – something that still astounds me when I think about it, but there’s no denying the results.

Last, and perhaps most surprising, is Abe Natsumi’s new single, “Koi no Hana”. I haven’t really cared about Nacchi’s solo career, and last year’s plagiarism scandal was followed so quickly by other disasters and watershed changes in Morning Musume, a return to normalcy feels quite recent to me, even if her punishment ended over six months ago. Some even wondered if she could resume her career – but apparently, she’s done so, and looks to be taking a new direction.

One thing that struck me – and many others – about “Koi no Hana” is how much this sounds like an Avex Trax song. It does have that hip urban vibe, but it’s also the diva lite kind of sound that fails to make a lasting impression for me. It’s better than anything released by a solo H!P artist since at least Goto Maki’s “Yokohama Shinkiro”. And comparing it to Avex solo artists, it’s better than Hiro and Ueto Aya’s latest singles, though pales to the less generic songs of Amuro Namie, Otsuka Ai, and Koda Kumi.

The big thing for me, though, is watching Nacchi perform for the camera. While I’ve always thought Nacchi was cute and understood why so many fans love her to death, I think this is the first time I’ve been completely captivated by Nacchi’s presence. I found myself regretting not having her on my silly Top 10 Geinou Girlfriend list – like right there at #3, at least.

She dances a bit, wiggles a little, strikes clumsy poses… and makes it all work. All of it. She’s finally struck the magic balance between sexy and playful, alluring and accessible. She’s the girl next door and the moistest of wet dreams, and she does this while singing and laughing and flirting with the camera.

Like I said, I’m not sure if this song’ll stick with me too long… but I’ll definitely pay closer attention the next time Nacchi releases a new single. This is the direction she should be taking, and she looks more vibrant, more alive, for it. And the PV is worth sitting through to watch Nacchi in action.

It Doesn’t Stand for Audio Visual…

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I feel shame.

True to her word, Wapiko’s posted her own Top 10 Celebrity Girlfriends – it’s a great list, and it’s interesting to see how each Top 10 list so far provides a rather distinct picture of the person. I used to think you could judge a person by what books / comics they read or what music they listened to. This is way more fun.

But Wapi included Aoi Sora, who she dubs “the Jenna Jameson of Japanese porn” – that is, an AV idol. (AV standing for Adult Video, of course.) Or perhaps the AV idol, if a Jenna comparison is being made.

And I realized, the reason I didn’t include any AV idols in my list is because I don’t know them well enough. I’ve downloaded a few videos, and bought a couple DVDs at Hawaii By Night. (It’s even easier to get Japanese AV than Jpop in Hawaii, which is significant in a way I won’t explore here.) But most of what I’ve seen has involved anonymous actresses or minor leaguers. The actual big-name idols are still a bit alien to me. I could name a few, Iijima Ai (who I know has moved to the mainstream) and Oikawa Nao for starters… I’m very much aware of Monbu Ran, who does Ayaya cosplay. Man, am I aware of Monbu Ran…

But if I walked in on a thoughtful conversation about Japanese AV, what could I offer in the way of insights or opinions? If a discussion on AV and its cultural signifiers were to arise, how would I make my mark in this topic? Generalizations, cultural patterns: I know that, just like comics, the porn of Europe, America, and Japan are all very distinct in their idioms, as I explained to my friend Harumi last month. But I want to be detailed as well, and I just am not capable of that right now.

In other words, I realized: there’s a gap in my education…

A wide, moist, alluringly scented gap. (You know I couldn’t resist that joke.)

What’s even more frustrating is that I’m writing smut at 101 Nights of Wahine Trouble and yet a valuable source for inspiration is going largely untapped. In a way, it’s almost like typing with one arm tied behind my back.

And swinging off a trapeze.

I know what my taste is in Jpop – it’s still developing, but I hope I’m articulate about what I like and why. While less familiar with gravure idols – the girls who pose in bikinis but don’t actually engage in sex for the camera – I do have some favorites and know what I appreciate about them. So the next step – kind of like that mythic link from eating marijuana brownies to smoking crack to shooting up toilet water in my veins (a la Sid Vicious) – is certainly the world of AV.

So I leave it to you readers: educate me. Which AV idols would you suggest? Who are the most distinctive personalities, who are the cutest? Are there any particular videos or series that are worth trying out? I’m not a fan of large-proportion D-cup or H-cup idols, though a cute face would compensate for that. And I’m not a fan of bondage / rape scenarios, which are apparently a staple in AV. Cosplay is interesting, if not taken to ridiculous lengths.

A resemblance to favorite idols would either intrigue me or turn me off completely, depending on who we’re talking about. (And I’ve noticed how a lot of AV idol names are meant to evoke the names of Jpop idols and other geinou, kind of like American porn star names such as Lexington Steele and Asia Carrerra and Britney Rears.)

If it helps any, with American adult films, I like Kitty Yung a lot, along with Kobe Tai, Tera Patrick and Sylvia Saint (I know, I know – she’s European). I think Asia Carrera’s cool but more as a personality than as someone to watch in adult videos. And I think Chloe Nicholle is pretty damn beautiful, whatever the situation.

So, yeah. Whatever suggestions you have, I’d love to hear them. But please: no down-and-dirty explicit details in the comments and absolutely no photos. This is a serious query in the name of broadening one’s horizons.

Let’s be adults about this.

Sunday Blog Roundup: Korea & Criticism, UFA & Bought Actresses, Eri & balls…

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I spent last weekend setting up Feed of Pop and I’m pretty pleased with how it’s turning out so far. (I also spent last weekend helping to kickstart SugarHive, that bold experiment in sex wikis could still benefit from your knowledge!) And while the feed makes it easier for people to find quality Jpop blogging, that doesn’t mean I still can’t point out my own favorites from the past week.

Hands down, my favorite blog entry this week comes from crs of undoing the mercator projection. What starts as a familial anecdote becomes a download list becomes a very illuminating examination of the nature of criticism in Korean music. Even though I don’t listen to Korean music, her always-compelling discussion of the underlying cultural issues makes her mandatory reading and gives me a standard to live up to.

Santos at Idolizing St. Anna provides two very informative pieces: a history of the Up Front Agency and a chart explaining what Japanese actresses will do and for how much. I’m not sure what to make of the latter, though it’s incentive to become filthy rich and pull some kind of Indecent Proposal move on, um… certain someones. Maybe start with Hirosue Ryoko and work from there.

Miki of Miki’s Sorcery has been drawing the line between cute and disturbing with a series of images themed on Morning Musume food, including these Erikuyaki Balls. I will refrain from making any further statement that uses “Eri” and “eating” in the same sentence.

Jarret at I’m bad at naming things discusses various video-game related items, while Go at jrocknyc provided a highly amusing review of a heavy metal show (I think the only heavy metal show?) on Japanese TV. His opening line, “Today’s guest is some retard comedian,” made me think, “Oh? Is he watching a recent Hello! Morning?”

Lastly, some new discoveries! Thea does an Avex girl group blog called Made in Paradise which I love for obvious reasons, while Wapiko of the MM-BBS and DAMN forums (at least, that’s how I first met her) has started a blog of her own, Musings of a Fangirl. I also discovered an all-Niigaki Risa blog called gaki.org which bears watching, as does a Jdorama site that inspired my own Top 10 Geinou Girlfriend list, HamsapSukebe.