It started, like so many things, with a single incident.
Sometime around spring of last year (2011), back when they were shooting the “Real Idol Zukan” photobook, they had a Ustream broadcast set up to show all the behind-the-scenes work. And this idol group came on—I don’t even remember their name now—and for the hell of it, just started dancing °C-ute’s “Massara Blue Jeans.” Because, you know, when you’ve got time to kill at a photoshoot, what do you do? You dance to old idol songs from 5 years ago. Not that I’m knocking it; I think indies-period °C-ute had some of the best songs EVRAR. But that spontaneous outbreak of dance sure came out of nowhere.
As the months went by, more incidents followed, and I started to connect the dots in my mind. You had a member of Vanilla Beans on the Kawaii Girl Japan webshow saying that she’d been inspired by Buono! to become an idol. Nico/Youtube dance sensation Kozue Aikawa, the face of DANCEROID, got her start dancing to mid/late-’00 Hello! Project songs long before the Vocaloid fandom claimed her. Rino Sashihara of AKB48 freaked out because she got to sit next to Momoko Tsugunaga. (Then again this is Sasshi we’re talking about, who freaks out over ALL the idols, but still.) Shiori Mori from Passpo gets all excited because she went to a Buono! concert. As recently as a couple of weeks ago, some random member of AeLL, who I don’t even know, mentioned on a radio show that she was a fan of Maasa Sudo.
And then there’s this.
Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, the J-culture phenomenon du jour, who has PONPONPON-ed her way into all our hearts, is deferring to the younger-by-one-year Risako Sugaya because SHE is the one Kyary looks up to. Yeah, Kyary’s got like 18 million Youtube views, but it’s Risako’s cuteness level that she aspires to reach! What is this insanity?
It’s the Berryz connection, is what it is.
There is a certain generation of female idols in Japanese entertainment right now—born sometime around the mid- to late 90′s—for whom the two-handed punch of Berryz Kobo and °C-ute are their inspiration. If you do the math, they reached their impressionable pre-pubescent years right around the mid-00′s, which according to orthodox Japanese music history was a “dead time” for idols. The flame of Morning Musume had died out, AKB48 was yet to take off, and on any given Monday the artist most likely to top the Oricon was either Ayumi Hamasaki or a Johnny’s act.
Those observations are indeed correct. But, the orthodox historians are wrong.
There is a hidden history in mid-00′s J-pop, something that isn’t revealed in the math of the Oricon sales numbers. It’s the history of “Morning Musume’s little sisters” (as the press sometimes called them), or more correctly, the Hello! Project Kids, who filled in that little gap in Japanese music history by being around 12-15 years of age at the time. And when impressionable pre-pubescent girls would turn on the TV, guess who they saw? Guess who they wanted to be?
Not Morning Musume, who had been shedding all their popular members, and were half a generation too old for them anyway.
Not AKB48, who were still in the formational stages and were too underground and unpolished to be worth taking notice of.
Nope. The little Japanese girls whose musical tastes were formed in the mid-00′s all wanted to be Berryz and °C-ute.
We talk a lot about the creepy-ass males who form the most vocal and financially powerful demographic of the idol industry. But creepy-ass males themselves cannot actually become performers. So where do the personnel who actually become idols come from? Are little girls just born on cornstalks, where they are harvested and then taken away to factory farms better known as “auditions”? Do they grow up living happy normal lives, taking singing/dancing/acting classes, until one day their parents shove them into a black van with tinted windows, ship them to Tsunku or Yasushi Akimoto (or worse, Korea), never to return? Or is it possible that some young girls see glamorous idol groups on TV, fall into the fandom, and one day audition to enter an idol group of their own?
That last answer is probably the correct one, and that’s where the Berryz connection comes in.
It’s kind of like a human-trafficking pyramid scheme, I suppose. The idol group of the previous generation lures in a fanbase of female youth who aspire to become like them, thus perpetuating the cycle of future idol groups in the years to follow. Sometimes they don’t ever reach mainstream popularity; your million-selling multimedia phenomena are more like well-planned jackpots arriving in the right place and the right time. The real gears and cogs of the idol business are being spun in the Long Tail region—the no-name acts that toil away forever in clubs, cafes and performance spaces, and the only time they’ll ever see the inside of a stadium or dome is because the local baseball team needed someone to throw the ceremonial first pitch.
If you look at the current J-idol Long Tail—groups that have debuted since the AKB explosion, in what the media have dubbed the “Warring Idols Era”—you will probably find that, for a lot of them individually, the seeds of their desire to succeed as entertainers were planted during the first few years of Berryz Kobo and °C-ute era. They saw these middle- to high-school girls who were already there, who were already pro, and they just had to get up there and become pro as well. And since both of those seminal groups are still standing, they now hold senior status among the Warring Idol Nations—so senior, in fact, that “Captain” Saki Shimizu will become the Supreme Overlord of Hello! Project after Risa Niigaki joins Ai Takahashi in eternal post-Musume bliss. If you go by years of service, Shimizu (and the rest of Berryz, for that matter) actually pre-date every other member of Morning Musume, which I guess is ironically hilarious when you consider that the “flagship group” have now had so much personnel turnover that THEY are now the little sisters.
And as you can tell from all the incidents I mentioned above, this isn’t just a Hello! Pro thing or just a 48-family thing. This is an every-young-female-entertainer-in-Japan thing. They know the industry from the inside, and they know that you defer to Berryz and °C-ute because they’ve been around the longest. (Then there’s Perfume, but they’re kind of their own thing, you know?) The smarty-pants self-proclaimed MUSICK EXPARTS who complain about all these screaming kids on their lawn will only look at the sales numbers and assume that the idol explosion is all AKB48′s fault. From a management perspective, yes. But watch these girls and watch what they say. Their raison d’etre comes from somewhere older and deeper than the uncountable hordes. Their desire comes from that little gap in Japanese music history, when Berryz Kobo and °C-ute danced their way into those impressionable grade-school hearts, and created a connection that persists to this day.