Idol Watch #11: January/February 2022
Rounding up the best idol songs from the past two months, featuring TEAM SHACHI, The Grateful a MogAAAz, lyrical school and more
Hi! Welcome to Idol Watch, a bi-monthly companion newsletter to This Side of Japan that’s all about Japanese idols! You can check out previous issues in the archives.
Midnight drama Mayonaka Ni Hello! drew hype upon announcement with the show revealing plans to feature all of the Hello! Project groups throughout the series. What roles the idols would exactly have in the show, though, remained unclear aside from them performing some songs, and the synopsis provided by TV Tokyo made little narrative sense on paper. Here’s what the program’s home page writes (translation mine):
Passionate Hello! Project fan Mariko (Momoko Kikuchi) runs a guest house with her daughter Misaki (Yuno Oohara). Though their business gets mixed reviews online, one comment notes about a mysterious door. The door suddenly appears in front of the house guests, who each carry life problems of their own, and it leads them to the green room of Hello! Project on the other side…
Six episodes in at the time of this writing, each episode of Mayonaka No Hello! follows the same arc. The show introduces a new guest resident and their current problem. Mariko recommends a Hello! Project song that suits their situation, alluding to how they will need it for when “a door arrives when you least expect it.” The magical door arrives in front of the resident when they think they’ve reached rock bottom, and out comes the Hello! idols to perform the song. Inspired by the song and performance, the resident is now ready to face their worries and head into a brighter tomorrow.
You have to just roll with the premise, especially the magic door, which is admittedly a half-baked concept for the show to shoehorn in the idols to their own drama series. But each episode of Mayonaka Ni Hello! illustrates the roles that idols can play in people’s lives and how their music can speak to listeners when they least expect it.
Take the pilot episode with Azumi, an aspiring manga artist who’s struggling to get published. An opportunity finally arises to potentially land her work when her editor reaches out if she can cover another artist’s spot in short notice, and so she grinds overnight to turn in a draft the next morning. Mariko of course is blasting Morning Musume songs downstairs while Azumi tries to focus on her all-nighter. And there, ignoring Azumi’s complaints to turn the music down, she introduces her house guest to Morning Musume’s “Mikan,” specifically because of these particular lyrics in the hook:
A bright morning, whoa-oa a chance!
Oh, yeah! You’ll get a chance!
Off to tomorrow’s journey, whoa-oa a chance!
Oh yeah! You’ll get a chance!
Azumi unfortunately gets rejected; unbeknownst to her, her editor had also assigned the work to another artist, who turned in a more satisfactory draft. With her down on her luck, the magic door appears to lead Azumi into the green room of Morning Musume, who reminds her to keep holding on to her childhood dreams to become a manga artist and performs the chorus of “Mikan” in front of her:
People, everybody, love, you only live once
Luck arrives to a home full of laughter, life is one time.
Like a newborn crying to live
Hope you remain so pure and genuine
How Mayonaka Ni Hello! depicts a song’s power to uplift spirits can admittedly seem too on the nose, like they reverse-engineered each episode by picking a lyric out first to then flesh out a narrative. Though, the most obvious of lyrics sometimes can be the most dependable very much from how clearly it relates to a situation.
I empathize because I’ve personally experienced more or less of what happens to the residents in Mayonaka Ni Hello. My episode would center on me working monotonous stocking shifts at my old retail job, and Morning Musume would perform “Jinsei Blues” during the climax. “It will be all good / you’ll get through / what you think are the toughest situations,” sing the idols, whose words further resonated with me seeing them in the music video working menial jobs in pursuit of their dreams. “So if you give up, you’ll just be like everybody else.” I used to play “Jinsei Blues” on my commutes home, listening in on Morning Musume remind themselves that there’s no glory in giving up and telling myself the same. The idols tough out the most unsatisfactory times like the rest of us, but what sets them apart as inspirational figures is their ability to take it all in stride in order to grow into a better human being.
Mayonaka Ni Hello! seems unique in the idol genre in how it ultimately focuses on the resonance of the music. Many programs based on idol culture explores the idol and her appeal that draws people in to become her devoted fan. But what drives each episode of Mayonaka Ni Hello! is the way in which the idols’ music emotionally connects with people. It’s not so much about the wonder of idol as performer as well as culture but the rapturous experience of discovering the song that will save your life. Fortunately, Hello! Project provides in sheer abundance.
Welcome to the first Idol Watch column of 2022! For those new to the program, Idol Watch covers the 10 best idol songs from the past two months. If you want to catch up with idol, or this side of the newsletter, you can check out the Best Idol Song of 2021 list. I don’t plan this column to be a Hello! Project-centric series by any means, even if I’ve now written three short pieces related to the company in the past year on the intro space, but Mayonaka Ni Hello! just has been surprisingly good—better than it needs to be as a vanity project at least.
Anyway, happy listening! Here are the 10 best idol songs from January and February.
“Y” by Yua Uchiyama [self-released]
A member of shoegaze idol group RAY (and avid music reviewer), Yua Uchiyama sings an enchanting, jazzy number for her solo single. The whimsical production that stacks frantic keys atop frantic keys is unmistakably the work of Yukichikasaku/men, and Uchiyama rides the producer’s slippery melodies with ease and verve. “Watch this wing, as I add it with more, deepening in violet,” the idol sings, the lyrics alluring from its very impenetrability, just like the song’s sonic make-up. The kitchen-sink physicality of “Y” seems like a direct opposite to the gauzy shoegaze of Uchiyama’s main group. But they both evoke hypersensuality, with the music of each overwhelming the senses in its own seductive way.
See also: “TEST” by RAY
“Alstroemeria” by UP UP GIRLS kakko KARI [T-Palette]
While UP UP GIRLS kakko KARI usually stay busy serving up fun via bubbly, party-ready pop, “Alstroemeria” reveals a side to them that you don’t get to often see. The earnest pop-punk immediately sets a different impression than their main output, and the digital single finds the group in a rather solemn, self-reflective headspace. “I don’t know since when, but I’ve started to feel this way / Is it something that dulls over time,” they ponder in the chorus. “Alstroemeria” displays an ambivalence UUG understandably hides from plain sight, though this rare glimpse into them behind-the-scenes only adds their music more credence.
UpGaYabai is out now. Listen to the album on Spotify.
“HORIZON” by TEAM SHACHI [Warner Music Japan]
TEAM SHACHI is ready to let go of the strict specifics of their sound in “HORIZON.” Their brass band takes more of a back seat, but that’s not to suggest TEAM SHACHI lightens the volume in the slightest. The group’s trusted ensemble sets the stage for a glitching EDM production that bursts with full power come the chorus. “There’s no such thing as paradise / but there’s still purpose for us here,” the idols triumphantly shout as the synths explode behind them like the finale of a firework show. While their brass-centric sound gets devoured by a new EDM arrangement, “HORIZON” keeps intact the bombast that has defined them since their name change.
TEAM is out now. Listen to the album on Spotify.
“BLUE WIND” by The Grateful a MogAAAz [Gollipop]
The Grateful a MogAAAz new BLUE WIND EP is this year’s idol album to beat so far especially if you’re looking for big, groovy rock riffs. Guitar-centric pleasures like the one in the title track shouldn’t be so novel coming from the sister group of rockabilly idols Melon Batake A Go Go. The MogAAAz, however, polishes the swampy blues riffs familiar to their older siblings into a sharper, more vibrant weapon. The result is a slick, glorious power pop that sings like a theme song, perhaps made for this teenage band of vigilantes themselves.
BLUE WIND is out now. Listen to the album on Spotify.
“EVENT HORIZON” by situasion [Sanbai]
Situasion adopt edgy techno as their next new sound in “EVENT HORIZON.” “More, more, deeper, Go down,” they command over warbling synths and a thumping 4/4 beat. They claim the dark club as their haunt as though it has always been their domain, carrying no trace from their affair with maudlin shoegaze just a month prior. A drastic turn, sure, though if you are already hip to their debutante EP from 2020, such a pivot feels like just situasion doing what they have so far done best as a new idol group: jumping from one style to another in seamless transition.
Listen to the song on Spotify.
See also: “Redo” by MIGMA SHELTER
“Yume No Naka Ni Tsuretette” by Tokyo Girls’ Style [Avex Trax]
Tokyo Girls’ Style consistently shine on their B-sides, and it’s no different with “Yume No Naka Ni Tsurette.” The group escape into a lush city-pop-esque instrumental decorated with flowery horns, chirping flutes and breezy guitars. With such soft, disarming music, they can’t help but loosen up some of their stoic R&B cool and get a little selfish: “In this dream of a dream, let’s continue our dance,” they sing in the chorus as they fight to not wake up from this fantasy. Paired with the A-side, where the idols try to remain nonchalant dealing with a newfound solitude, the dalliance of “Yume No Naka Ni Tsuretette” ring a bit bittersweet, like a daydream TGS wish was the real thing.
Days ~Kimi Dake Ga Inai Machi~ is out now. Listen to the single on Spotify.
See also: “Dark Side Moon” by Ele Funk Garden
“The Light” by lyrical school [JVCKENWOOD]
A rare cloud of melancholy casts over the music of lyrical school in their new single. “The shadows start to grow, and I start to get in my feelings,” Hina sighs over a bouncy, pop-punk-channeling section of the dusky, rattling beat. “I want to stay like this until the moon comes up.” The idols can’t keep their mind off of the ticking clock while they spend time with their significant other, but the looming expiration date only lets the moment they have together feel that much more precious. Lyrical school in the end make peace with their predicament in the way they know best as the ever-optimistic idol group: “You give me the light / Raise your hand and look above you,” they sing the chorus in unison, reminding themselves that they’re never alone living under the same night sky.
L.S. is out April 20. Listen to the song on Spotify.
“Transformation” by Caeca [T-Palette]
While Caeca’s beatific pop often evokes the natural world, the group applies digital wizardry to conjure magic in “Transformation.” A wonky synth tone triggers a beat prone to sudden shifts and tics, and the jazzy pianos follow suit and sing an equally frazzled melody. The kitchen-sink feel suggests a complete opposite venture from the lush breeze of the group’s previous record, Hanauta. But the idols communicate awe and beauty from the busyness happening around them just as they do from the idyllic scenery of their past. Electronics offer new sights for Caeca, teasing out new corners of their world worth exploring further.
Oriori is out now. Listen to the album on Spotify.
See also: “Nirvana” by MAPA
“The future of the stars” by kimi to boku no kakumei [m’aiday]
Kimi to boku no kakumei played their last show ever this month—“the end of the revolution” per their parlance—and that sense of finality informs the group’s swan song, “The future of the stars.” The single unfolds like a poetic retrospective of the idol’s brief two years of activity. “I hope / my song / my love / will shine on to your future,” they sign off with the maudlin, post-rock-inspired guitars elevating the sentimentality of it all. While the idols lament about some unfinished business, they’ve done enough leaving behind a small yet exciting catalog of alt-idol music.
Listen to the song on Spotify.
See also: “gunjo to ryusei” by tiptoe.
“RETROSPECTIVE” by HATEandTEARS [Revolver]
The electro-pop of “RETROSPECTIVE” moves as urgent as the idols of HATEandTEARS, who cannot let this relationship remain as “just friends” any longer. “I want you to see me as a girl / I wanted to be by your side,” they sing as the neon synths start to bounce around. Though the tension continues to rise in the production, the idols straighten into formation come the chorus to deliver one last plead: “Turn expectations into reality / Ride on the time machine,” they cry out, their voices warping into sweet, synthesized trill.
Listen to the song on Spotify.
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