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Idol Watch #10: September/October 2021
Covering the best idol singles from the past two months, featuring KAQRIYOTERROR, MIC RAW RUGA, Sakurazaka46 and more
Hi! Welcome to Idol Watch, a bi-monthly companion to This Side of Japan that’s all about Japanese idols! You can check out previous issues of Idol Watch from this year here: January & February / March & April / May & June / July & August
The trailer for In Those Days captured the attention of idol fans through flashes of Hello! Project merchandise and memorabilia circa 2004. The film follows the twenty-something Tsurugi develop a bond with a group of Hello! Project otakus through his newfound love of Aya Matsuura. And in the scene at the group’s monthly idol-talk events, you can spot a person-sized cutout of former Morning Musume member Rika Ishikawa; an otaku from the crew then holds up a huge placard of Miki Fujimoto as he delivers his speech. The movie-makers establish solid credibility through their attention to detail, building a sense of trust that they are well-equipped to tell a story involving a niche subject as touchy as idols.
Apart from flaunting the idol gear, the trailer convinces of its integrity through a scene of Tsurugi watching a music video of “Momoiro Kataomoi” for the first time. After he hits play on the DVD of Matsuura’s music videos which his friend bought on a whim to cheer him up, he immediately bikes to a record store to buy every one of the idol’s singles. It’s a casual, unassuming event like this that kick-starts a life-changing obsession. The tear-filled reaction of Tsurugi from watching the music video already feels good to watch, and his discovery leads into an even better outcome: a community of peers who are as passionate about his obsessions as him.
Despite how heart-warming the first act can be, especially for an idol fan, In Those Days turns out not to be a celebration of shameless pursuits over one’s obsessions or the friendships formed along the way. The film instead remains skeptical about the degree of investment into one’s passions until the end. It doesn’t seem interested in the value of living in the present, enjoying the company of like-minded peers, as much as it’s fixated about how both your passion and relationships will eventually all fade away.
With the limited knowledge I have, it’s difficult to say whether or not the film’s perspective of idol fans accurately resembled the people’s perception in 2004. What I do know is that the movie is based on the autobiographic comic essay of the same name, which illustrates the experience of the author, Mikito Tsurugi, the early days of his Hello! Project fandom and the relationships he formed through it; Tsurugi is the author himself in the original work. The movie also makes no claim to speak for anything beyond its own main characters.
All that said, In Those Days puts in effort to depict idol fans as unappealing to society at large. As Tsurugi brings his group’s idol-talk event to his college campus, his female classmates look in disgust at both the panel and the crowd they’ve drawn. The friend who bought him the Matsuura DVD talks to Tsurugi after the event like he doesn’t recognize who he is anymore. Once it looks safe for Tsurugi to fully subscribe to his obsession, the film throws him something to second guess his choice of interest.
As a fan of Hello! Project as well as Aya Matsuura, I hotly anticipated In Those Days since the trailer dropped. Needless to say, I was very disappointed at what I was actually given. But it at least inspired me to write a straight review of a film, which I haven’t done in a couple years. I thought it’d be a good enough excuse to try it again for this column being that the movie dealt with idols and their fans, specifically Hello! Project — a company whose group make it here for this edition of Idol Watch!
Oh, and heads up: this will be the last edition of Idol Watch for the year because next up on the agenda will be our big year-end list for idol songs! For newcomers to this column, you can check out last year’s list in the mean time.
Here are the 10 idol singles from September and October that I enjoyed.
“melt melt” by POMUM [self-released]
“My right brain is melting / My left brain is melting / My heartbeat is melting”: POMUM are singing here about their irresistible love for a significant other, but they might as well be describing the sensation after hearing the massive, extended drop deployed during the chorus. Reminiscent of the festival EDM carnage of, say, Masayoshi Iimori, the wobbly, buzzsaw bass line sounds much harsher against the dreamy, orthodox idol visuals (so far the music video is the only way to listen to this track), and it gets even more wild and aggressive come the second round. “Melt melt” heads in a different direction from the typical summer-idol jam, but it should bring some delicious damage for those who consider brain-melting EDM drops a treat.
“Tsukamaete So To Heart” by Otoha Totsuka[Sony]
Otoha Totsuka’s new solo single sounds surprisingly modest for a track by Kiyoshi Ryujin, who has a penchant for writing idol songs that turns up the silly and camp to 11. The songwriter adjusts the levels accordingly for the track to fit alongside the stoic funk of the idol’s main group, The Dance for Philsophy. That said, he still adds whimsy in “Tsukamaete So To Heart.” While the pianos lay down a chilled-out atmosphere, the string plucks and skittering drums underneath suggest it wants to be more zany than it initially appears. Paired with Otoha’s high-pitched vocals, the quietly zigzagging lounge-funk resembles a current-day take on Shibuya-kei. More subdued and cool than expected for Otoha, but it’s an impressive new look.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Nagaredama” by Sakurazaka46 [Sony]
While Sakurazaka46 continue to sing didactic anthems inspired by society at large as they did as Keyakizaka, they’ve been exploring more playful tones of delivery than the brooding self-seriousness once defining of their former name. “Nagaredama” finds the group rambling about a familiar topic of social anxieties and the harm that words can inflict. But rather than write pensive music that focuses all the emotional tension into a single point, they ride the beat of a jovial brass-funk dispersing of any potential pressure. The idols, too, sound in on the bit, with a set of lyrics self-aware of its own obnoxiousness. If Keyakizaka’s humor came from them being so blind to their own dramatic seriousness, Sakurazaka humor seriousness itself in “Nagaredama,” that though their concerns are surely alarming, maybe they could also chill out a bit.
Nagaredama is out now. Listen to the single on Spotify.
“Full Time Dive” by KAQRIYOTERROR [Codomomental]
KAQRIYOTERROR settle into a fresh alternative from their usual combo of metal and EDM in “Full Time Dive.” The group’s new punk track looks at emo and indie rock for inspiration: the sharp, twangy chords seem plucked out of the quieter tracks of a late ‘90s Modest Mouse record. Their foundations don’t go away entirely, though, with the song later ushering in a drum ‘n’ bass break as well as their signature death-metal growls. The change into this softer, leaner sound is overall a welcome one for KAQRIYOTERROR, especially for those who were overwhelmed by the group piling heavy with more heavy.
Full Time Dive is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“Go Forward” by MIC RAW RUGA(laboratory) [VIDEOTHINK]
MIC RAW RUGA(laboratory) steer a full 180 from their usual backpacker raps as the group’s chief producer E Ticket Production hands the trio an obnoxious club beat scattered with siren raids. Pulled away from their comfort zone, the three push it to their limits in their rapid-fire verse: “Say all the cool things you want, but you’re still full of mistakes in this test,” they rap, verbally challenging a foe but also themselves. MIC RAW RUGA may be getting used to how their new clothes fit. But for all that they engage in constant self-critique, their cadences remain stoic while they nail some athletic deliveries.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Ranman” by Kinopo [KOTO]
I haven’t come across a concept for a low-tier idol group as ambitious as Kinopo’s in recent times. Self-described as “a real-time 2.5D idol story,” Kinopo and their trajectory are intertwined with their own manga series: once the comic versions of the idols moved into a dorm together, the real-life members, too, all moved into a shared house.
But how about the music? The group refrain from getting too outrageous when it comes to their style of choice in their self-titled debut EP, and they instead keep it sincere as one may imagine from an idol group central to a wholesome comic story. “Ranman” in particular reminds me of youthful T-Palette acts like Caeca or the now-defunct Idol Renaissance via the earnest, breezy pop-rock but also their radiating innocence. Sure, it lacks tension and drama, but their wholesomeness hardly calls for conflict as a hook to reel people in.
Kinopo! EP is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“Shoudouteki S/K/S/D” by Dempagumi.inc [Toy’s Factory]
Again and again, I harp on about how Dempagumi go as hard as your favorite thrash metal band or hardcore punk act. “Shoudouteki S/K/S/D” is the most explicit case in point yet with Tamaya 2060%’s scrappy speed-metal coded more rock than his synth-laced stuff; Rito Amasawa and Nagi Nemoto’s intro vocals get fed into a scratchy filter for an extra lo-fi punk feel. As if the electric-guitar scrawls and pummeling drum fills didn’t already overwhelm with information, nine voices of different character send the track in all sorts of directions. Despite the overt metal dressing, “Shoudouteki S/K/S/D” remains classic Dempagumi at its lyrical core: “The more unpredictable it gets, you’ll be going ‘hey, this is fun,” they remind. “And that’s what life’s all about.”
Shoudouteki S/K/S/D is out now. Listen to it on Spotify.
“LASE” by Dai Dai Dai [Demon Tapes]
Last time Dai Dai Dai made an appearance in this column, I noted how their dip into hard trance teased an exciting pursuit alternative to the rest of their industrial-tinged new EP. Well, I now got what I asked for with the group diving deeper into that very direction in “LASE.” Like “Yuukai,” the instrumental favors atmosphere as much as pure power, though they apply a tad more emphasis on the latter with the high-BPM drum breaks. “So with that, throw away our entire past / even if we won’t be able to remember a thing,” Dai Dai Dai sign out in the song’s climax, like they’re ready to close their eyes and fully indulge in the throes of the aggressive beat. And the twinkling synths cascade the track with a sweet, mesmerizing riff as if there isn’t chaos stirring underneath.
Listen to it on Spotify.
See also: “Coro Da Noite” by Migma Shelter
“Blue Baton” by YUP YUP [Taiyo Ga Kureru]
YUP YUP’S foray into funky dance pop for “Blue Baton” can initially suggest a timely pivot coming from their slow, jangling lead track of their debut EP, with the group’s personnel getting cut down from a four piece into a duo since their last outing. But it’s less a style change than a return to square one to recalibrate: Elsewhere in the YUP YUP in JP EP, the group teased stylish R&B as a potential future direction, which they now indulge here in “Blue Baton” to see where it will lead them. “Dance will come to an end / I can’t stop the loneliness feelings,” the duo sigh in the chorus. “But it’s OK / This time your future self will save you now.” YUP YUP coolly take it all in stride and prepare what’s next.
Listen to it on Spotify.
“Yakusoku Renraku Kinenbi” by Tsubaki Factory [Up-Front Works]
Each single from Tsubaki Factory’s stacked triple A-side showcases a unique standout element: I file “Namida No Heroine Koubangeki” as the “funky one” and “Garakuta DIAMOND” as the “Showa pop revival.” “Yakusoku Renraku Kinenbi” meanwhile best nail what I seek in a Tsubaki Factory single, mainly a piece of over-the-top woe-is-me drama. While the dance-pop production is more poised than the glitz and glamor of their recent drops, the idols sound no less tortured as a victim of their own stubbornness. “I couldn’t get used to being loved / so can you be the one to cool off?” They selfishly plead, leading on this poor significant other just because they couldn’t be honest about their feelings. I groan as an audience looking in—just let him go already!—and yet I can’t help but to tune in.
Namida No Heroine Koubangeki / Garakuta DIAMOND / Yakusoku Renraku Kinenbi is out November 11.
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