An anonymous stupid ass wota once said that Morning Musume went down the hole in popularity because the lineup became stagnant sometime around 2007. That is a hilarious LIE. If anything, the group’s decline—not just in sales but also in pop-culture relevance—began much earlier than that. As early as 2003 you would see manga or TV show punchlines along the lines of “I can’t remember who’s in Morning Musume anymore because all the members changed.” In other words, the general public’s problem was not the lineup always being the same, but the lineup changing too much. It was a dynamic, unusual way to run a idol group—but it also confused the hell out of people. (It also led to condescending, English-speaking J-entertainment writers making unfortunate comparisons to Menudo.)
IN REALITY, if I were to list the causes of Momusu’s current trajectory in the Japanese pop culture landscape, it would go something like this:
1) the natural showbiz cycle
2) everyone’s original favorites left
3) Tsunku ran out of great song hooks and the producers ran out of good arrangements
4) Poor marketing management
HAHAHAHAHAAAA!!!11 about that last one, btw.
It is almost too daunting to answer the question, “What does The Great Ai Takahashi Graduation of 2011 mean to Morning Musume?” You have to go back to basic principles and answer things like, “What is Morning Musume about? Who are they? WHAT are they?” Of course, you can Wiki things like that and give perfectly neutral, factual answers, but THAT’S NOT THE POINT.
The point is, Aichan was one of the remaining members who came in at the height of the group’s popularity, and now that she’s gone, only Risa Niigaki remains as someone who personally remembers the era of the group’s hundred-thousand sellers. (“AI WO KUDASAAAAIIIIIII~”) More importantly, Aichan stood firm as group leader when it really did seem that Teh Entire Hello! Project was on the verge of collapse—when Tsunku tried to pass off a derpface and two pandas as a “generation” and then shrouded them in obscurity; when a spaztastic Miracle could move copies of her anime tie-in single but never had the vocal chops to support Morning Musume as a whole; when the entire Old Guard was forced to leave the organization because it no longer made financial sense for the likes of Rika Ishikawa and Natsumi Abe to sit on their asses and shoot photobooks every 14 months while collecting checks. To add further insult to injury, a certain miniskirted schoolgirl army from Akihabara insinuated themselves into the public consciousness, and the rest—as they say—is Japanese music history.
Or is it?
Through it all, Aichan weathered the changing fortunes of Hello! Pro, taking on a workload that involved being a lead vocalist, the face of the group, and—after Miki Fujimoto slunk out the back door—its leader by seniority and age. And she did it for longer than anyone else in the group’s history, hanging on during their darkest moments. Bad personnel decisions, bad songwriting, a drop to near-total irrelevance—shouldn’t have anyone with a sane mind said “Screw it” and jumped ship?
But the fact that Aichan had to be asked by Tsunku to consider leaving shows how much she did all of this out of love for her fellow groupmates. Her supposedly bland personality, that humble country-girl demeanor that made her ill-equipped for superstardom, may have been the very quality that kept Morning Musume on life support. The dwindling sales, dwindling fans, and lack of media attention never seemed to bother her—she just wanted to get out there and perform with her girls, every day and night, living the the dream of being on stage.
So perhaps it’s only appropriate—and many fans seem to have made a big deal about this—that when the time finally came to wake up from the dream, Aichan did so in street clothes, rather than the sparkly-ass ballgowns that had become a Momusu graduation tradition. For Aichan was a tradition unto herself—when you’ve been the leader the longest, when you’ve made it to the age of 25 (which is YEARS past the usual “idol expiration date”), when you are not just the spiritual cornerstone of your group, but all of Hello! Project, and even rival idols outside your organization look up to you, you’ve damn well earned the right to graduate on your own terms. And if you want to do it in a t-shirt and jeans, that’s fine.
In a way, that outfit made the moment even more touching—that we weren’t just saying goodbye to an untouchable goddess in sequins and frills, but to an old dear friend, who had decided to embark upon the next step of her life. There was a deep, satisfying fullness in watching her take those final steps off the stage, leaving this life way she had entered it: as a humble country girl, in a t-shirt and jeans, just someone you could walk up to and be friends with.
The very definition of an idol.
Funny, that name, Takahashi. It means “high bridge.” And literally, she was, bridging an entire generational shift in Japanese entertainment culture from the Hello Pro era to the AKB era—and doing it with a grace and level-headedness many stars lack.
Her final act as the “high bridge” was to help Morning Musume’s 10th generation of members cross over, a changing of the guard that had been maybe two years in the making. The bleeding of mid-decade Momusu members—Koharu, Eri, Junjun and Linlin—and the rapid-fire addition of two new generations (the 9ths haven’t even been around a year yet!) signifies a dramatic refresh for the group. As the sun sets on one era, so it rises with another.
It is the End of Morning Musume. And it is the Beginning of Morning Musume.
Before we go any further I would just like to say that Haruka Kudou is MY DAUGHTER and boy am I glad that she got in while Karin Miyamoto is nowhere to be found, because quite frankly Kudou and Miyamoto are about equal levels of cuteness but Miyamoto has these DEMON CHILD EYES which I’m sure is the reason why Tsunku is keeping her from making a major-group debut in anything.
While it is most likely that no amount of new members will ever return Morning Musume to their former glory (unless Atsuko Maeda, Yuko Oshima and Minami Takahashi all join), the fact that they even had a former glory is still something to be proud of. And the fact that plenty of girls still audition for each new generation, that “getting into Morning Musume” remains a badge of honor among that fanbase, speaks enough for itself. I think, deep down inside, one of my strongest-held beliefs is that getting into Morning Musume will always be a bigger deal than getting into AKB48. If you run the math, the 48-system runs auditions every several months and admits something like a dozen girls each generation. It can even be dramatically more if they are starting an entirely new group in Jakarta or Taipei or Reykjavik or something. Momusu, on the other hand, is sparser and more unpredictable with their audition system, and no generation (aside from 1st) has ever admitted more than four new members.
Perhaps a more correct analogy would be to say that “getting into the 48′s” is like “getting into Hello! Project Eggs,” and conversely that “getting into Morning Musume” is like “getting into AKB48 senbatsu.” Entering the flagship group is an exponentially more difficult task than simply entering the idol agency’s training system; one needs to demonstrate a skill set, confidence and charisma beyond the average teenage girl. Or you can just be Sawako Hata because GOD KNOWS how she ever got into anything.
However you slice the math, it means that Haruna Iikubo, Ayumi Ishida, Masaki Satou, and Haruka Kudou (can we just call her Kudzu? Because her name sounds so much like Kudzu lmaoooo) all accomplished what only 29 other young women have done in their lifetimes. So yes, it is clearly a big deal. And regardless of how many singles they sell, how many fans they have, how many years they remain with the group, it will remain—as a certain High Bridge Love will tell you—an experience that will remain with them forever.
It is the end. And it is only the beginning.