It’s been three weeks and I still haven’t entirely gotten over it.
And something tells me, I don’t think I ever will.
When the news of Yuuka Maeda’s graduation broke, I was standing in line waiting for the SNSD fanmeet in New York, which was pretty much the weirdest feeling in the world because I was super excited for one event while SIMULTANEOUSLY having my heart broken. And if anyone wants to know what happened next, well, after they herded everyone into the performance hall and started playing SNSD videos, I finally let the tears stream down my cheeks, in the dark, where no one could see.
It was the one goodbye I never wanted to face. And now it was just over two months away.
I first came to know of Yuuka in the summer of 2008, when High-King was formed as a one-off unit and mostly I was interested because of O Captain My Captain! and then-Momusu-fave Reina. Trailing behind the aces/leaders of Hello! Project was this 14-year-old kid, with a fuwa-fuwa marshmallowy face and a squeak of a voice that stood out amongst the rest of the group. The funniest thing about “Cinderella Complex” was that you could always pick out Yuuka’s lines because no one else in the group sounded remotely like Yuuka.
But if you ask anyone what they notice first when they actually see Yuuka Maeda, it’s the neckmole.
At first I just thought of it as a distraction, and everytime I watched High-King’s video I’d be like
O Captain My Captain! DAT NECKMOLE GET IT AWAY FROM ME harharjustkidding. But no one could deny that she had a ridiculously cute face—and a personality that would inevitably come to mean so much.
It was later in the fall of 2008 that DAT NECKMOLE re-emerged, this time as one-quarter of Shugo Chara Egg, which at the time I really resented because they were replacing Buono! as the OP theme song singers for Shugo Chara! and I was like NOOOO BUONO SHOULD DO EVERY SHUGO CHARA THEME EVER. And I pretended I really DID NOT WANT “Minna no Tamago” because obviously Buono! is TEH BESTE, but you know, by the third week or so of the new Shugo Chara! season I was just like
But the summer of 2009 was the moment everything changed forever.
My most distinct memory of EARLY early S/mileage (aside from the group being formed and their first indies single being announced) was listening to “aMa no Jaku” in the car on the way Anime Expo 2009, which if you know your convention history … is the year that Morning Musume came. And there’s all sorts of drama and weirdness behind this; if you remember my posts about AKBquest 2009 I was all bitter about Momusu after having to deal with Stupid Ass Wotas and I guess that was the summer I kindasorta ditched them. I mean Reina and Koharu were the main reasons I was still interested in them; Koharu would be out the door a few months later, and Reina’s charm just started to stagnate after that year (plus she stopped doing photobooks so BAH).
It was at the moment, then, that S/mileage kept my hope in Hello! Project alive.
S/mileage was 3/4ths of the Shugo Chara Egg I had come to love, plus they changed out the one member I liked the least—although to be frank I was never that big a fan of Saki Ogawa either. But gosh did I feel bad when she graduated in August 2011; I mean, after a while a certain idol-group lineup starts to grow on you even if you don’t love all the members equally. And if losing Saki was a hit to my heart, imagine how it was going to be to lose Yuuka.
It really was a matter of them being in the right place at the right time. “aMa no Jaku” was a pleasantly cute song, but by “Asu wa Date This Title is Freaking Long” I was sold (and “Suki-chan” confirmed it even further); S/mileage instantly captured the youthful aesthetic that had been drained away from Morning Musume (remember, this was the heart of the EmoMusume era) and that BeriKyuu were growing out of. Someone had to remind us of the freshness and vivacity that only U-15 girls could bring, and it came in 8 letters and a punctuation mark: S/mileage.
My favorite S/mileage moment of all time probably is (and always will be) the Japan Record Awards 2010, when
Saki Ogawa tripped coming up a flight of stairs the Flawless Four inexplicably stopped the Korean Wave in its tracks and beat out SNSD for Best New Artist. To this day I find it utterly improbable—these high-school n00blets beating out an incredibly polished Korean act?—and of course I support both groups now, but my heart always lies with S/mileage. BECAUSE OF YUUKA REASONS.
I also believe that S/mileage itself was built Because Of Yuuka Reasons—that the group was constructed around her voice. The way I figure is this: she had that distinctive squeak, and you couldn’t just stuff her in any lineup and expect it to automatically work. She was one of the Eggs’ most polished and ready members by the late 00′s, and a future ace in the making: she could hold a note, had that neckmole charm working in her favor, and had been a lead in the Shugo Chara! musical. So they found her a set of groupmates whose voices would blend with the squeak, like an oboe quartet, creating the sound that kept hope alive in Hello! Project: the S/mileage sound. It’s something you can hear especially well with the non-single songs on the Warugaki 1 album, although they also sound like they’re forcing it at times—which I blame more on Tsunku writing songs in the wrong key (it wouldn’t be the first time) and the sound engineers having the levels turned up too high. In the right range, and with the right arrangement, the [original] S/mileage Sound is something distinct that the group can call its own. And we have Yuuka to thank for that, for being at its core.
Sometimes I’m not sure if this is a S/mileage tribute post or a Yuuka Maeda tribute post. But maybe that’s an essential part of it—that they are inextricably linked, that you can’t talk about Yuuka Maeda without talking about S/mileage and vice versa. A stupid ass wota once asked me: “To you, what is S/mileage without Yuuka?” My response: “WHAT IS LIFE WITHOUT AIR?”
What is life indeed.
And now S/mileage faces a future without Yuuka, which in a way is even more daunting to look at than a future without Saki Ogawa—half the original members gone, a future handed over to a new generation of n00blets, who we hope can carry that youthful spirit for another few years. If they should see disbandment somewhere down the road … well, that’s the ultimate Bad Ending I don’t want to think about, but they also have the new Musume generations to help support each other, promising a new Hello! Pro wave that will last past the maturation of the Hello! Kids. (CAN YOU BELIEVE RISAKO SUGAYA IS TURNING 18 THIS YEAR. NO, ME NEITHER.)
And as for Yuuka, it will always be the greatest regret of my life that I never got to meet her in person. I knew wasn’t going to make it to Japan for her graduation show, not when I had just blown all my money on going to New York for SMTown … oh the irony. I thought I had done what I could do as a stupid ass wota IN AMERICA. Momusu. Berryz. AKB twice. SMTown twice. But there will always be that blank spot in my heart, a spot where I should have met the original S/mileage and told Yuuka in person that I loved her—it will remain a wish forever unfulfilled, all because she had the rest of her life to get on with.
It’s a shame we’ll never get to see her finish growing up, into the beautiful young woman she’d already started to become. Looking through the last few photos of her, of the final memorial photobook and the last UTB shoot, I realized that she had already changed so much from that marshmallow-faced, neckmoled kid that had stolen the spotlight during the Shugo Chara! years. And part of me hates to say it, but she sounds like one of those kids who’s going to go to school in a totally different field of study and never be heard of in the entertainment world again. It’s the Maiha route. Some part of her personality just says to me that she’s had her fun, and chosen to move on. I hope I’m proven wrong, but … if not … then I wish her the best of luck.
Her blog goes down at the end of January, so I hope all the obsessive-compulsives have finished downloading the data. Eventually we’ll only have memories left of her, saved in every form of media (digital or otherwise), but never quite adding up to the experience of actually having her around. It already weirds me out just to look at the “Please Miniskirt Postwoman!” poster and realize that lineup is gone forever. I mean, at least when Saki left there was the arrival of the 2nd generation to distract us and add spark to the group. But with Yuuka leaving, there is only a spark going out, an emptiness that we must face alone.
What is S/mileage without Yuuka? A S/mileage forever changed, but one I will still support and hope the best for. But what is Yuuka without S/mileage? A young woman now moving on to next stage of her life, yet with a whole other lifetime of memories to take with her. And the best part is, she left these memories with her fans too. So let us not mourn what we have lost, but rather, smile as we remember the good times past. To smile beyond the tears: I suppose it’s what she would have wanted.
For all the smiles, Yuuka, thank you.