In the short span of two-and-a-half weeks, the six remaining members of the original Hello! Project Kids graduated from their groups and from H!P. Now that all 15 Kids have moved on, let’s take a moment to assess their legacy, both within the Hello! Project and in JPop generally.
Full disclosure: I wasn’t a huge fan of most of what the Kids were involved in until Buono! blew my mind in 2007. I loved the first Berryz Koubou album and C-ute’s third album, but I mostly loved them for the music and the arrangements. The girls were just too young for me to care about as performers or to connect with on any level. It took until C-ute’s final year before they truly won me over. It was the Naze Hito wa Arasoun Darou? / Summer Wind / Jinsei wa STEP! single that did it. “Summer Wind” was one of the best Tsunku songs in ages, and ” Jinsei wa STEP!” was as infectious as the sour cream dispensers at Chipotle. Overall, it was one of the strongest singles to come out of H!P since Morning Musume’s Wagamama Ki no Mama Ai no Joke / Ai no Gundan. What really put me over the edge, though, was “Mugan Climax”. I won’t go too in-depth here, but let’s just say that I consider “Mugan Climax” to be the greatest single achievement in the history of the Hello! Project. It’s post-idol music. Shiina Ringo could have recorded this, and no one would’ve blinked an eye. That an “idol” group pulled this off is unfathomable.
Okay, let’s look at some numbers:
All of the original 15 H!P Kids lasted at least 3 1/2 years; 14 lasted 4 1/2 years; 13 lasted 7 1/2 years; 12 lasted just under 13 years; and 6 lasted 15 years. In an industry that has come to value youth over seemingly all else, and where girls are “graduated” out of constantly changing group line-ups on the regular, this is astounding. It’s rare enough to have one group continue with only original members for ten years, but the H!P Kids managed groups of nearly 13 and 15 years. One would expect a washout rate much higher than this for any given group of 15 audition winners.
Between Berryz, C-ute and Buono!, the original 15 H!P Kids contributed to 43 Oricon Top 5 singles (although surprisingly no number 1s) and total sales of over 5.5 million singles, albums and DVDs combined. Berryz and C-ute performed at the 58th Kohaku Uta Gassen in 2007as part of a Hello! Project 10th Kōhaku Anniversary Special Group with Morning Musume. C-ute’s popularity with female fans during the second half of their run was a foreshadowing of the growing female fan bases of all other Hello! Project groups. The MoWota creep-fests of the late 2000’s are, happily, a thing of the past.
The Kids’ successes fueled the growth of what would eventually become the Hello! Project Kenshuusei (KSS), H!P’s training system for aspiring idols. The members of Berryz Koubou and C-ute served as constant reminders of what was attainable for these trainees with hard work and dedication. Dozens of KSS trainees have gone on to have successful careers of their own as members of Morning Musume, S/mileage-ANGERME, Juice=Juice, Kobushi Factory, Tsubaki Factory, Country Girls, THE Possible-Ciao Bella Cinquetti, and v-u-den. The Kids paved this road for all of them.
What all of this speaks to is Tsunku’s (or Up-Front CEO, Naoki Yamazaki’s, depending on who you believe) uncanny ability to identify potential talent and drive in very young girls. Where others might have chosen more obviously cute girls or more advanced talents, Tsunku has always looked for something beyond that when choosing audition winners, and his track record speaks for itself. With the H!P Kids, he pretty much pulled off the equivalent of hitting the Trifecta on all three Triple Crown races two years in a row. It just doesn’t happen except by dumb luck, but this wasn’t dumb luck, at least not for the most part. I suppose having 12 audition winners out of 15 stake out 13 to 15 year careers in an industry that sees idols as disposable commodities requires a little bit of luck, but Tsunku got luckier than most in this regard. At a certain point, you make your own luck.
Tsunku also created a “family” culture within the Hello! Project, and members dating back to the original Morning Musume speak fondly of it to this day. H!P girls were treated as professionals and family members by a company invested in their success, and that culture was set at the top by Tsunku. Yes, some individual girls had scandals (Hi Kago-chan! Hi Yaguchi!), but there have never been any accusations of hanky-panky within the Hello! Project under Tsunku, or even since he left his role as Producer. Perhaps this culture is the “luck” responsible for the success and longevity of 80% of a single audition class in the throw-away-and-replace J-idol world.
As Momoko Tsugunaga, the last Kid, has taken her final bow, I think the legacy of the H!P Kids will continue to be felt mostly within the Hello! Project, as their lack of a career-defining hit single among their groups will likely leave them mostly forgotten outside of the H!P fandom before long. Within the Hello! Project, however, their lasting impact will be immeasurable. Their successes, both within and outside of H!P, will be held up as the ultimate goal for current and future KSS members to work towards, and of what is possible. With several former Kids continuing their careers in the entertainment industry as adults, this message will only become even more powerful.
Who’d have thought, 15 years ago, that we’d just now be saying goodbye to the last of these 15 little munchkins?