Yesterday, Momoko Tsugunaga gave her final concert as a member of Country Girls and the Hello! Project, and in so doing, ended one era while severing the link to another era long-past. After C-ute disbanded earlier this month, Momo became the final remaining member of the original Hello!Project Kids, the precursor to the Hello Pro Eggs and eventually, Hello Pro Kenshuusei. She was also the last link to H!P’s Golden Era. Her 15 year career ranks as the longest ever in Hello! Project history, surpassing the recently graduated members of C-ute by 18 days. To put this into perspective, from her debut as a member of H!P Kids in 2002 until her graduation, Momoko saw the debut-through-graduations of four full Morning Musume generations — 5th (minus Miki Fujimoto) through 8th — and two members of the 9th, five members of S/mileage-ANGERME, not to mention those of every member of both Berryz Koubou and C-ute.
She leaves to pursue her goal of becoming a kindergarten teacher. How perfect is that?
It’s difficult to overestimate Momoko’s legacy within H!P, having played significant roles in no fewer than three full time groups during her tenure. Two of those groups – Berryz Koubou and Buono! – are among the most beloved H!P groups ever, and Country Girls had solidified their place in H!P under Momo’s leadership. Love or hate her sugary-cute “Momochi” character – and there are many on both sides of that divide, and precious few in the middle – it set her apart and brought attention to herself and Berryz Koubou. Her trademark Momochi twin-tail hair and “Yurushite nyan!” catch phrase were instantly recognizable even to those outside of the H!P fandom.
I’m not gonna lie, I wasn’t a big Berryz fan. I loved their first album, then only the odd song here and there after that. What I truly loved was Buono! They alone kept my interest in the Hello! Project alive during what I thought was Morning Musume’s most lackluster period — the paradoxically named Platinum Era — until their resurgence with the release of One•Two•Three. Over 14 singles, Buono!’s hit-to-miss ratio was a perfect 14-to-0. Over three full length albums, there were almost no filler tracks. They lasted over four years as an active side group on the strength of this astounding catalog and the equally strong vocals and personalities of Momo, Airi Suzuki and Miyabi Natsuyaki. As the weakest of the three singers, Momoko nonetheless held her own next to two of H!P’s stronger vocalists, and her ability to suit her personality to that of the group’s “cool” image showed her flexibility as a performer.
When Momo was announced as the “playing manager” of Country Girls, there were a lot of chapped asses in the H!P fandom, thinking that they would use this modern incarnation of Country Musume as a vehicle to push Momoko at the expense of the new girls. Instead, the veteran idol played an equal part in the group, which quickly became darlings of H!P fans. If anything, Momo took a back-seat, allowing her juniors to grow in the spotlight while she mentored them behind the scenes. I can’t think of a better way to close out her idol career as she transitions into her new career as a kindergarten teacher.
Her graduation concert (available at aidoru-online) was pure pink Momoko goodness, and showcased her ability to work both the crowd and the stage. She really does have solo-idol chops in this regard, although her voice is the epitome of not-bad-for-an-idol, and it really shows over the course of her 2+ hours on stage. For this night, though, that hardly mattered, as 8,000 fans gathered to give Momo the send-off she earned for 15 years (to the day!) of hard work entertaining millions of fans worldwide. The medley highlighted her career in reverse-chronological order, starting with Country Girls’ “Peanut Butter Jelly Love” and working all the way back to Tanpopo’s “Koi wo shitchaimashita”, her first audition song, and several Berryz and Buono! songs along the way.
The most endearing part of this concert for me, though, was how Momoko saved the Country Girls set until the very end, even keeping her graduation for the first encore. She could have easily gotten this out of the way earlier in the show and moved on to MOMO TIME, but she didn’t. It showed a lot of class and respect toward a group of juniors that she didn’t have to show, but she did, anyway. She even wept a little during the graduation, which was a break from her usually stoically-cute personality. It was a great night for a great performer who will be missed by millions.
What are some of your fondest Momoko memories ?