Time to give up the straightforward approach!
One of the great things about Morning Musume I’ve discovered through working with them is how there’s no sense of anyone in the group ever fishing for attention. It’s a group of young girls so there’s obviously a strong sense of rivalry and of everyone always trying their hardest to learn, but none of them will ever come up to me and go “look how hard I practiced!” or something.
You know how there are some kids who will only try and look good in front of the teachers? “Hey, you were being lazy a minute ago! Why are you suddenly pretending like you’re helping with the cleaning?!” Kids like that — the same ones who will then go up to the teacher and ask, “teacher, what should I clean up next?” There’s no one like that in Morning Musume. They’re lovable, they’re earnest, they’re constantly trying their hardest, but there’s no feeling whatsoever of them trying to get others to notice. They’re always prepared for what might come, but they’ll show no signs of it during the day. That’s something that makes them so lovable for me.
For example, imagine that your girlfriend came up to you and she didn’t say something like “I did some cleaning,” or “I prepared your lunch box for you.” Instead… say you asked her, “could you prepare me my lunch box for tomorrow?,” and she’d just answer you “sure thing” like it was nothing. And then while she was preparing it for you, she wouldn’t be making a big deal out of it — she’d simply get it done, just like that. That’s how the atmosphere is within Morning Musume. They’re truly doing their best, but they deliberately make it a point to not show it. They do it all in a nonchalant manner, making it so that no one around them has to be concerned about them either.
You know, if a girl rolls up her sleeves and she cooks me something and then she asks me for my opinion, going all, “Well? Well?!“… I’m just someone who’s not a fan of that sort of thing. Her sitting there directly in front of me, staring at me as I eat… Even if the food does taste good, there’s something about that situation alone that makes it taste just a little bit worse. There’s something annoying about how she’s expecting you to tell her how good it is. The same also holds true if she prefaces you tasting it with a “I’m terrible at cooking so I guarantee it’s going to taste bad…” Then it’s like you’re forced to say “no, it’s good” no matter what. It’s the same thing.
I’d think the best approach for a girl in that situation would be to not make the guy feel like he has to say something. Although, to be fair, when I think about the girl’s feelings when she nervously asks him “how is it?,” I do recognize that it’s coming from a good place.
To me, each member of Morning Musume has something praiseworthy about her. They’ve all been through lots of trials and tribulations, beginning with their auditions, they all work so hard, and they all have to endure and tolerate certain things. I think it’s that all-encompassing lovability of theirs that has made so many guys think, “I have to support these girls.” The people who first saw them on ASAYAN, too, must’ve seen them attempting to sell those 50,000 CD’s in order to debut and think to themselves, “I have to go and buy a CD just for these girls’ sake!“
Now, someone who I felt was on the complete opposite end of this spectrum in her early days was Taiyou to Ciscomoon’s RuRu.
Back then, she was constantly trying her hardest to get our attention. Even though I knew the cause behind it was really just pure enthusiasm on her part, what it actually made her come across as was not enthusiastic but egotistical. Even when they were off to train in San Francisco, while everyone was equally as eager to sing lines that made them stand out, she would literally start crying and complaining to us about it. “But I want to sing this part! Why won’t you let me?!“
Even with group activities she’d often be out of step with the other members. She’d stay behind when everyone else was going to eat together, and just moments later she’d be going “I’m hungry.“
With Japan having a culture that places heavy emphasis on the spirit of cooperativeness, to foreigners it might seem like we’re almost too cooperative with each other, to the point where the individual never gets to shine. That’s the extent to which we value the “wa.” I do think it was also partly because RuRu was in a group with Japanese people that her attention-seeking habits stood out as much as they did. Rather than it being an issue with RuRu’s personality per se, a lot of it must be the character of her home country. Nevertheless, since she was being put in a unit — a place where one really needs to get along with other people — RuRu’s ego did make me worried. “I wonder how this is going to play out…?“
Another thing RuRu would do in order to try and get attention — unsuccessfully — was smile. Whenever the cameras were pointed at her, or even just when her eyes met someone else’s, she’d give this big, forced smile. Even when she was singing she’d often smile during these completely arbitrary moments. When people see smiles that aren’t coming from the heart, it just makes them think, “why is this person smiling?” So I’d ask her, “RuRu, what’s so funny? Does something about this make you smile?” and she would just say “no.” And yet, the next time they’d go on TV she’d be pointlessly smiling once again. So then I’d show her a recording of that TV appearance. “Look, right there. You’re smiling again.” Only then would she realize how she was doing so. “Ah! You’re right!“
She was doing it unconsciously. It was a conditioned reflex; something ingrained in her during her past career as a talent. “Okay, everyone smile! Let’s all sing happily!” But you can’t thrill nor make audiences enjoy themselves with a fake smile. And the thing is, RuRu herself was constantly thinking about the audience and she was trying as hard as she could for them. I only hoped that she would show them a genuine smile to convey those feelings to them.
Another thing I told her she absolutely shouldn’t be doing was to purposefully speak in broken Japanese just because it was earning her laughs. RuRu’s awkward Japanese had previously been praised as being “cute” and “funny,” and she’d even been asked to demonstrate it during their appearances. However, her being constantly thought of as funny because of that sort of thing was going against the direction the group was aiming for. So I told her: “it can’t be helped if you make a mistake, but you can’t keep speaking in broken Japanese on purpose anymore.“
Ever since then RuRu’s speaking no longer sounds unpleasant at all, and now when she makes a mistake with her Japanese, it actually is endearing.
But it’s not just her smile and her Japanese either. RuRu’s entire essence as an artist has been going through a rapid transformation.
RuRu was 16 when she moved here, saying she wanted to be a successful singer in Japan, and for six years she worked part-time as she kept looking for her big break. That’s when she got into Taiyou to Ciscomoon — although I do feel that she had not yet at that point reached the level of a professional singer. Her singing was great, sure, but she still had so many obstacles she would have to overcome. I was thinking to myself “this girl has a tough road ahead of her…“
That all began to change one day when I sat her down and had a talk with her. “Listen, being a professional singer means…” That must’ve been a painful discussion for her, but when I saw her starting to outgrow her former self after that talk, I could clearly see her level of dedication. “This girl really wants to be a professional singer.“
Here’s one lesson on discpline that led to RuRu shedding her former self.
When we were recording RuRu in the early days, she would constantly be making excuses like “I can’t help but mess up during this part” or “this rhythm is difficult” — she would be seeking attention even when it came to excuse-making. So I had no choice but to give it to her straight.
“RuRu, if you’re a professional, then own up to your mistakes. Just do it as you remember it — sing it like that. When you try to just half-assedly mimic the others and you sing in a tiny voice like that, sounding all apologetic, no amount of fixing it on any equipment is going to help. What you’re giving us now is unusable. A professional is a professional even when they make mistakes, so start acting like one already.”
There were plenty of tears. A big part of it must have been simply because I had never gotten angry at her like that before — previously it had just been “don’t worry, we’ll find the answer together.” It must have been a shock to her, suddenly being told that while it was okay to fail, she had to start doing so like a professional.
Later, on the first day we were recording “Uchuu de La Ta Ta,” RuRu’s voice was completely gone. Being a singer myself, I knew full well how that kind of thing is just an unavoidable phenomenon. It’s sort of like how a sudden injury would affect a baseball player. It just happens. Yes, it’s possible that she’d been careless about her health which had then led to that situation, but she was a professional — I’m sure she’d tried to be careful. I knew all that. But I realized I needed to say something. So, once again, I hardened my heart and got angry with her.
“If you’re a professional, you can’t let yourself get so bad you can’t even do one take of a song. You’re telling me you’ve been a singer for all these years, but what I’m seeing in you right now is not a singer. Not even close. Right now, you’re just an amateur who happens to be okay at singing.”
I’ve personally experienced times when I’ve seriously had to worry, “what am I going to do if I lose my voice…?” I hated having to say what I said to her, but she needed to understand what makes a professional a professional.
Still, I feel that it was this kind of tough, daily discipline that allowed RuRu to change. Whereas previously all of her enthusiasm had been focused on trying to draw the most attention to herself, she became able to steer that passion in another direction. RuRu’s energy and her ambition had been the driving forces behind her struggle for attention, so when she could instead focus those qualities about herself towards overcoming her weaknesses, they then suddenly became a huge source of power for her.
She also went on to learn how to maintain peace within her group. In the beginning RuRu was very, very confident in her own singing, but as time went on she started to notice her shortcomings more and more. She developed a humility about it. “Oh, wait. I’m actually not as good of a singer as I thought I was.” Now, she gets to make good use of her skills in their songs, such as with her Chinese lines and her vocalizations. That must give her some peace of mind as well. Just as how it is with Shinoda and her backflips, RuRu is respected by everyone for the things that only she can do. That might be what gives the group its balance.
There certainly are some situations where you need to draw attention to yourself. But even when you do, I strongly believe that it’s best if you do so by using your true abilities and your presence. That’s the stance that RuRu, too, has been showing as of late. Even when she does try to seek attention, it’s never all “me, me, me.” Now, the only attention-seeking she does is along the lines of: “Everyone in Taiyou to Ciscomoon is a big eater, but I’m the biggest eater of them all! I’ve been gaining so much weight — look how huge my belly has gotten!“
It may have been her awakening as a professional artist that gave birth to RuRu’s new, better way of attention-seeking.
So this is why we have a Masaki Sato