Here we go again. Mizuki Murota’s sudden announcement to graduate from Angerme after the group’s March 22 Hina Fes Premium concert has left fans stunned and confused, and wondering how many more important members the group can lose without losing their identity and high level of performance. Murota’s and Funaki’s departures will be the fourth and fifth in less than a year for a group that many saw as the tops in terms of all-around performance among the Hello! Project stable.

The dike burst in June 2019 with the graduation of long time leader Ayaka Wada, followed by Rina Katsuta in September, and Sub-leader, Kana Nakanishi in December. If the March 22 date sounds familiar, that’s because it was already set to as the graduation date for 6th generation member, Musubu Funaki, whose graduation announcement last October was itself a shock. Funaki’s exit will now be postponed until the end of Angerme’s Spring tour.

My initial thoughts are that these are not the signs of a healthy group. I had expected a high turnover in Angerme over the next couple of years as long-time members approach their mid-20s, but five in under one year is suspicious. Funaki deciding to leave just as she entered her prime idol years — and as she was showing major improvement as a singer — was strange, but could be chalked up to the unique circumstances of Country Girls disbanding and her having developed vocal nodules in July of 2019. Some moments of real depression while in Angerme that Funaki wrote about in her blog likely played a part in her decision to leave H!P, as well.

Murota’s bombshell, however, is tied to no such baggage. To the contrary, since her debut as a member of Angerme’s 3rd generation, Murota seemed like the group’s wacky life-of-the-party and Energizer Bunny of live shows. At 21, she still had several years to help anchor the quickly changing group if she wanted them, although many fans had detected a recent change in her usual happy-go-lucky demeanor. So the question isn’t so much “why” as it is “why right now?”

Statements from both Murota and management allude to her having discussed graduation as far back as the end of 2018, but that’s what they all say in prepared graduation announcements. Maybe she was, but something big had to have happened with Murota for Up Front to green-light a course of events that pushes Funaki’s already decided-upon graduation date into the future to accommodate hers. We may never know what motivated both parties to rush her graduation to this degree, but one thing we do know is that Up Front is more considerate of their idols’ wishes than any other large company in Japan.

A Business Journal article (translated by Justin Kanda) recounting former Morning Musume ace Riho Sayashi’s departure from Up Front and subsequent reappearance as a support dancer with Babymetal just six months later sheds some light on UF’s philosophy of accommodation. Two Japanese music industry insiders say that the unorthodox occurrence of an idol leaving one company to work for another — even in a freelance capacity — after just six months is explained by Up-Front’s status as a “White Hat” company. Whereas most Japanese entertainment companies will force idols to complete their contract terms, including long no-compete clauses after they depart, Up-Front is unique in that they will respect the wishes of their idols’ desires to move on from the industry. One insider bluntly described it as the “freedom to quit.”

One can only surmise that Up-Front’s attitude is that happy idols make for happy idol groups, and the general stability of their lineups based on the longevity of many of their charges seems to add credence to this philosophy. So why are so many girls seemingly itching to GTFO Angerme? Did the naming of relative newcomer Ayano Kawamura as Sub-leader upon the ascension of Akari Takeuchi to Leader — essentially leap-frogging five members with greater group tenure — create resentment within the group? Is there something about Takeuchi’s leadership that rubs members the wrong way? I find that hard to believe, but then this entire situation is hard to figure, so I suppose anything is possible.

Whatever the situation, even Wada herself found it to be disturbing enough to admonish her former mates during an interview to think more of the fans and their group:

After Funaki’s departure, Angerme will still have a solid core led by Takeuchi, Rikako Sasaki and Moe Kamikokuryo. Layla Ise appears to have the raw stuff to eventually move into the front row herself, and with the spate of graduations, could be fast-tracked if she stays focused and works hard. Angerme has been one of two H!P groups (the other being Juice=Juice) that do the best job of spreading the spotlight across all members, so it will be interesting to see if that continues. There is suddenly a herd of bulls roaming Angerme Ranch just waiting to be grabbed by the horns. Angerme will be a different group moving forward, but it will be up to the more recent additions to decide if that’s a good thing or not.

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