What makes a “genuine” idol for the true idol fan with a discerning eye? And what on earth are the differences and the similarities between male and female idols?
The Johnny’s-loving editorial department of Cyzo Woman went over to Hello Tribe in Akihabara, a music bar frequented by fans of Hello! Project. We sat down with three regulars and chatted about Hello! Project, Johnny’s Entertainment, and the dreams that idols allow us all to have!
Roundtable discussion participants (names changed):
Shibata Kyoko — 30’s, female, loves H!P and Johnny’s equally (favorite members: Sugaya Risako (Berryz Koubou), Onishi Ryusei (Kansai Johnny’s Jr.))
Murata Shigeyuki — 50’s, male, exclusive fan of H!P as far as idols are concerned (favorite members: Miyamoto Karin (Juice=Juice), Yamaguchi Tatsuya (TOKIO))
Otani Junichi — 30’s, male, has lots of friends who love Johnny’s as well (favorite members: Shimizu Saki (Berryz Koubou), Nakajima Kento (Sexy Zone))
── To start off, I’d like to ask all three of you to tell us how you first got into idols.
Otani: I’m from the generation where seeing idol songs ranked on the Oricon charts was an everyday occurrence in my childhood. Inspired by Hikaru GENJI, I got my parents to buy me rollerskates back in kindergarten, and SMAP started appearing on TV regularly by the time I was in elementary school, so I was constantly exposed to them. As for H!P, I got into them when everyone around me was listening to Morning Musume, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
Shibata: I was watching idols on TV when I was in elementary school, and I remember just feeling so envious of them in all their sparkliness. Morning Musume’s “LOVE Machine” came out in my first year of junior high and suddenly everyone around me was completely hooked, so naturally I started to like them, too. I’m a year younger than Goto Maki, and it just felt so new seeing someone my age being in the spotlight.
Murata: I’m in my 50’s which means I’m from the Matsuda Seiko generation, but originally I didn’t have any interest in idols whatsoever. It was only four years ago that I became hooked on Morning Musume when I happened to come across videos from the Platinum Era (a period of time between late 2007 and the end of 2010 when the group was barely appearing in the media and were instead focusing on polishing their performance skills on long, exhausting tours.) Just as when I was younger, I still obviously never see them as objects of romantic interest. (laughs) Instead, it feels like I’m cheering on my nieces or so.
── It feels like there are quite a lot of idol fans out there who profess to liking both H!P and Johnny’s. Is there something that fascinates you with both companies, something that other idols lack?
Murata: H!P is built in a way that lets members constantly improve their singing and dancing, and it’s fun to be able to observe their growth. I personally have no interest in any other idols besides H!P so I can’t speak for Johnny’s, but it does feel like they, too, don’t simply get popular just because of their good looks, but they really work at their entertainment skills, which might be quite similar to H!P. But as far as Johnny’s goes, rather than listening to their songs, I enjoy watching them on variety shows. People like TOKIO’s Yamaguchi Tatsuya, I’d love to be friends with that guy.
Otani: Yamaguchi seems to be really popular among gay fans, too — he just has the kind of “older brother” aura. I believe H!P and Johnny’s are similarly entertaining, and they’re both so much fun to watch perform.
Shibata: There’s definitely that thing about getting to watch them grow up. Sato Shori (Sexy Zone) just looked like this average country bumpkin at first (laughs), but he kept getting better and better before he finally became worthy of being the center! It was so worth seeing him make it that far. I love seeing the road they take towards refinement as idols. Only problem is, I tend to lose interest when they become too perfect… (laughs)
Murata: The thing with Johnny’s, though, is that they don’t have a graduation system, right? Both groups introduce new members when they’re around elementary school aged, but in H!P’s case, they tend to graduate from their respective groups when they reach their top level as performers, right? And for me, personally, I think it’s necessary to have that alternation of generations. What do you two think about that aspect with Johnny’s?
Otani: It’s amazing how even with the older performers in Johnny’s it still feels like they’re “current.” For example, Shonentai are doing almost nothing nowadays music-wise, but they’re still very popular today. I’m not sure if any of the Morning Musume OG had any comparable level of success with their solo careers… In comparison, when Matchy came out during the Johnny’s Countdown Live, everyone was like “guys, it’s Matchy!!!“
Shibata: I’m not sure how I feel about that as a Johnny’s wota though. The Countdown Live is supposed to be this big thing for all of their performers, but suddenly it felt like it just became Matchy’s thing. (strained laugh) There are times when it feels like Matchy is almost too almighty…
── Shibata and Otani, how do you view Johnny’s and H!P when you’re watching them?
Otani: For Johnny’s, there’s just this overwhelming glitz about them that is fun even from a male point of view. The other day I went to see Sexy Zone in concert, and even when Kikuchi Fuma came on stage — someone who’s not the traditional handsome guy — I was like, “oh wow, this guy is cool as hell!” Johnny’s is the kind of environment whose traditions allow their performers to gradually attain more and more of that sort of personality, confidence and charisma. Their performers don’t stay shy for long.
Shibata: From a female point of view, though, for me it’s the shy boys who are especially adorable.
Otani: I see. For guys it must be different because we admire them as members of the same sex. Like, “I want to be like this person” or “I would’ve been so popular if I’d been born as this guy.” But it’s not jealousy — it’s respect.
Shibata: I feel that way towards H!P members. I like the center girls who are able to lead others. I’m drawn to the girls who have something I myself don’t. Conversely, I don’t have much interest in the ones that don’t stand out or the ones that aren’t reliable.
Otani: For me it’s the opposite: when it comes to H!P, I like the girls who are in the background. It looks like we perceive idols of the opposite sex the same way.
── Some time ago it made the news when A.B.C.-Z’s Tsukada Ryoichi did a perfect dance cover of Morning Musume’s “Wagamama Kinomama Ai no Joke.” How was the reaction to that from H!P fans?
Otani: Everyone was like “oooh!” We all felt kind of grateful.
Shibata: Yeah. “And it was Sayashi’s part, too! This guy really did his homework!” Everyone was happy about it.
── Johnny Kitagawa is considered the absolute head of Johnny’s Jimusho, and for H!P fans, a man of similar stature would be Tsunku♂. How do H!P fans see him, and is he well-liked?
Otani: While he may not be a match to Johnny as far as their individual achievements go, and while I might be a bit biased, I do think Tsunku♂ is doing a terrific job, too. Even the H!P Kids who joined when they’d all just started elementary school when you didn’t know what to make of their looks, they all became so cute when they grew up. Same thing for Johnny: he recruits members into his company when they’re just kids. It feels like in their role it’s crucial to be able to recognize talent in its very early stages.
Murata: Tsunku♂ really is amazing when it comes to that. I’ll be honest: sometimes he’ll give us members who I would’ve never picked myself, but as time goes on and they continue to develop, they gradually get better and better. He puts all his bets on their potential. Also, he likes to pick girls who are really persistent — the girls who make you feel warm inside because they’re trying so hard.
Shibata: With Tsunku♂, it’s often because you know the girls were picked by him that you know it’s okay to like them.
Otani: Yes! Even if it’s a girl who doesn’t seem all that special right away, you know that she’ll eventually be something great because she was chosen by Tsunku♂.
Shibata: Johnny’s likes to pick boys who excel in something, such as baseball, and H!P, too, often chooses girls who have a special skill, like ballet or English. That’s another similarity between them.
Otani: Another commonality between those two men is their fondness for American culture. Tsunku♂ loves to take American pop music from the 60’s and on and arrange it to Japanese tastes, and the Johnny’s structure was initially based on Broadway musicals. Tsunku♂ is a musician so he puts those influences in their music, whereas Johnny is a producer so he makes his influences very clear in their stage play and concert productions.
Murata: Tsunku♂’s songs are surprisingly high quality, too. He never takes the easy way out. His music is never the stuff that’s specifically made in an easy key for everyone to sing in karaoke with lyrics whose message is just “I love you” or something. He never does the expected thing. It’s a miracle that there’s someone like him making music like that in Japan — and specifically making it for idols to sing.
Otani: There seem to be quite a lot of fans who were originally fans of Western music before becoming fans of H!P.
Murata: Also, the amazing thing about Tsunku♂ is that it’s this middle-aged guy who can write lyrics that perfectly portray the feelings of teenage girls. “I like food,” “universal peace,” “I have a crush on him” — all of it gets equal representation. Who else other than Tsunku♂ puts all of that stuff in one song? (laughs)
Shibata: That’s true! Good food is one of the basic joys of life — it’s a theme idols should sing about. Johnny’s has a lot of completely incoherent songs with weird titles, but the way they present them, they just start to appear cool. It’s almost like they cast a magic spell on you. Even their outfits: if you take a good, neutral look, they all look so uncool, but the people wearing them are so cool, even those outfits suddenly strike you as being really stylish as well. (laughs)
Otani: Johnny’s, too, has a lot of songs with themes like “the world” or “the universe” or “Japan.” The bigness in the scale of the lyrics of both companies is the same. Oh, and there was that Kobushi Factory incident some time ago! (A person who was in the audience of a recording of NHK BS’s “The Shounen Club” tweeted that a group by the name of “Kobushi Factory” would be making its debut with nine members from Johnny’s Jr. This information was widely reported despite it being a false rumor.)
Shibata: But that is a group name you could imagine Johnny using, too, so it was funny how so many people in the Johnny’s fandom never doubted it. That’s another common point with the two: their sense for naming groups. It’s odd how the names they give them can seem so strange at first, but as time goes on, you eventually come to fully accept them.
── Could I ask you all to list some songs that you feel are most representative of “Tsunku-isms?”
Shibata: Berryz Koubou’s “100kaibun Aishite Kudasai.” This one is like THE Tsunku song. There are some lyrics in there that are completely undecipherable, it has a weird choreography, and overall it’s just a very silly song — but at the same time, it’s so bright and so fun. At the time, Berryz Koubou were still in elementary and middle school, but it’s a song that could’ve only been sung by those girls. With that said, I’d like to see the boys from Johnny’s Jr. sing this song. (laughs)
Murata: For me, it’s Taiyou to Ciscomoon’s “Uchuu de La Ta Ta.” It’s just such an incredibly high-level, stylish song.
Otani: Morning Musume’s “The Matenrou Show.” It’s a perfect example of how to do heavily funk-tinged American pop with Japanese lyrics. It’s a song that’s impossible to do well without great dancing ability and a good sense of rhythm. I’d like to see Kis-My-Ft2 cover this!
Shibata: Not Tsuka-chan? (laughs)
── What are your thoughts on the topic of idols and dating?
Otani: Of course people are going to fall in love. It’s completely natural. Yet, it feels like most people out there would not want idols to date as long as they are idols.
Murata: Personally, with H!P, I feel like it’s a good thing that they abstain from having relationships while they’re still in the group. I used to be a fan of Takarazuka, and they, too, prohibited having relationships while you were with them because they were so focused on one thing: becoming top stars. I quite like that sense of stoicism. On the other hand, though, male idols’ popularity doesn’t really suffer much even if they’re found to have relationships, right?
Otani: It depends. With NEWS’ Tegoshi (Yuya), when that scandal of his happened, I heard one of his fans saying “Tegoshi loves all women. This just means Kashiwagi Yuki is on the same level as us.” Hearing that, I just thought Tegoshi and his fans’ perception of him is something else entirely. I think that might’ve been a special case though.
Shibata: Well, I assume most of the guys have girlfriends, but I just hope they keep it on the down low. If it’s just a girlfriend that’s fine, but I hate it if they start paying tribute to her! Like, it’s a huge turn-off when you see them carrying items you know they’d never be able to afford on their salary, like they were hosts or something.
Otani: Interesting. So do you also pay mind to the type of girlfriends Johnny’s members might have?
Shibata: I do! I hope they aim high. Like, “please, don’t date some no-name underground idol!“
Murata: So you want them to go for something like top-level entertainers. Does that mean average, non-celebrity people are no good, too?
Shibata: No, average people are okay. I can respect that. But if they date people from their trade, then I wish they aim for the top. To summarize, I just hope they avoid the underground idols. (laughs) It’s not jealousy so much as it’s just thinking they can do better than that. If it’s some top-class actress or something, then you almost have to accept it.
Murata: I see. If we found out that a H!P member was dating a Johnny’s member, I think that might make me think “ooh, good for you!” Although, like I said, in my case I hope they only start dating after graduating.
Otani: Sort of like how Satoda Mai married Maa-kun (Tanaka Masahiro). I was like “oh, now that’s a good catch!” (laughs)
Murata: With male idols, even when they get married and have kids, they’re still perceived as like this ideal adult guy type, but with female idols it’d be really difficult to upkeep that idol image at that point. It’s commonly thought among male fans that when a girl stops being someone you could potentially see as an object of romantic interest, that’s when she stops being an idol. Then they just become singers, sort of like Ayaya (Matsuura Aya).
── So for you, the girls stop being idols when they get married.
Murata: Morning Musume has a song called “Maji desu ka Ska!” in which there’s a lyric about how “surely even I will have a family just like my mother did,” and that was 9th gen’s debut song. Of course you want them to succeed as idols, but eventually you want them to get married, give birth and attain happiness as women, too. And that’s Tsunku♂’s vision, too.
Otani: Tsuji Nozomi is a good example of that. She appeared in the music video of S/mileage’s “Onaji Jikyuu de Hataraku Tomodachi no Bijin Mama” where she was the mother of the protagonist’s friend and rival in love. That might be a good example of Tsunku♂’s message you were talking about.
── Last question: what is the thing you most want and expect to get from idols?
Murata: A feeling of happiness. Watching them and feeling happy. That world of “I like food.“
Shibata: That feeling of being energized and wanting to do your best thanks to them.
Otani: Euphoria. I have this weird thing of calling those members that stand out — the ones who can draw out those feelings of euphoria — “sun members,” and the members who support them “moon members.” But when you think about it, you can’t have a group with sun members only. It’d be no good. Just like with Kisumai and BUSAIKU, you need that balance to give them their appeal.
Shibata: With idol groups, it’s fun to take a closer look at their methods and analyze their strategies. But because Kisumai make their strategy so obvious — it’s like they specifically tell you to “please enjoy the group in this context” — there are a number of Johnny’s wota who don’t really like that.
Otani: Ah, yeah, it feels like they’ve taken out the joy of analyzing groups and trying to understand the story they’re trying to tell. That’s the sign of an interesting group when you can analyze them and find all sorts of things to talk about them besides just their music.
Murata: That’s a big part of idols: analyzing and talking about them with other people. Talking to other people who come to this bar, it’s like you’re able to sort out your own thoughts regarding this hobby, too. There’s not a lot of places where you can get together with fellow fans, so it’s good that we’ve found a gathering place in this bar.
Shibata: Johnny’s fans don’t have a place where we could get together like this. Some fans just want to watch videos or listen to the songs, but really, getting together and talking about idols with others is a lot of fun. Yeah, “having something about them that makes you want to discuss them with others” — that might be another thing I want from idols.
Henkka: Edit: Figures: just hours after me posting this, it’s announced that Tsunku is composing and writing the next Kisumai single!