State of the Hello! Project Address
With 2020 finally in our rearview mirror, we can look forward to a fresh start for all of the Hello! Project groups and idols going forward. 2020 was a strange and turbulent year that saw H!P wave goodbye to a slew of talented idols, many of whom seemed to leave well before their time. While this was a massive drag for fans, it does offer unprecedented opportunity for the back-liners and newer girls to establish themselves and take on larger roles within their groups. Some are already taking advantage of this opportunity, and as more of H!P’s long-term talent approaches their mid-20s, I expect more such opportunities to present themselves in 2021. So with that in mind, here’s where I’m at on Jan 2, 2021:
GRADUATIONS I WANT TO SEE
Might as well get this out of the way right off the bat. I don’t dislike any of the girls I’m going to list here, I just think their time has come to move on for various reasons. You will notice a pattern immediately.
Mizuki Fukumura, Erina Ikuta, Ayumi Ishida – Yep, I’m ready to move on from Morning Musume’s 9th gen plus Ayumi, and if you told me I could have all three of them graduate on the condition that I also sacrifice Masaki Sato and Sakura Oda, I’d take that deal. Mizuki Fukumura has had a hell of a run. She’s among the better singers in the group’s history, and among the most reliable, too, but I’m over her. I care more about Erina’s golf show than Erina’s idol career. I’ve lost that Daishi Feeling. Of the 9/10 gens, only Masaki still interests me, because you still can’t be sure what she’s gonna do at any moment. The emergence of Kaede Kaga and the 15th gen has made Morning Musume interesting again, but they’re all held back by the presence of this now decade-old guard. I don’t want to see any of them held back, I want to see them unleashed and in charge. Fuku, Eripon and Daishi are all great idols in their own way, but none of them have anything more to show me. I’m just over them. Tsunku going on about how Fuku should stay in MM into her 40s actually pissed me off a little, lol.
TOP 5 UNDER 18
The overall talent level of H!P is pretty high at the moment, and much of that is due to a wealth of younger talent brought in over the past few years. Some have kind of snuck up on me, while others made their presence felt immediately. These are my five favorites under 18:
5. Riai Matsunaga (15) – All Riai did was slide right into H!P’s most talented group like they were saving a spot just for her. With seemingly no awkward adjustment period, Riai just fit right in and delivered the goods, rarely looking or sounding out of place next to Sayuki, Ruru, Karin and the rest. Riai is not yet on their level, but at just 15, she’s on track to get there.
4. Wakana Matsumoto (13) – True, she’s a small child that looks nothing like an idol right now. True, there are only a few performances with which to judge her talent, however, those few snapshots are enough to convince me that Wakana is gonna be ridiculously good. Everything I’ve seen of so far tells me she’s going to be one of the best singers the Hello! Project has ever produced, because she just turned 13.
3. Layla Ise (16) – Up-Front took a flyer on Layla after she washed out of the Beyooooonds “Only You” auditions in 2018. Angerme is the better for her losing out on Beyooooonds, because she has become an important firewall after the group’s two-years long membership bloodletting. Layla’s solo recording of Ayaka’s “Mikazuki” showcases a young singer finding her voice and confidently showing it off. I still get the sense that she’s learning to be an “idol,” but just two weeks shy of her 17th birthday, Layla’s got time, and I predict 2021 will be a breakout year for her.
2. Momona Kasahara (17) – Along with Layla, Momona has taken advantage of the pared-down top-end of Angerme, having moved out of the shadows to stake her claim to the spotlight moving forward. She’s not the singer that Layla is, but she’s thrice the idol. Kasa is not superb at any one thing, but she has become above-average at everything, looks very comfortable as a performer, and has grown into a stunning young woman. I could see her someday leading Angerme.
1. Momohime Kiyono (16) – The original 13 year-old phenom, Momohime is a power-idol with a bit of a goofy personality. She’s still learning to control that high-octane voice of hers consistently, but those moments when she does are really special. Only a couple weeks past her 16th birthday, she already has more soul and electricity of any H!P singer not named Sayuki or Ruru, and no H!P singer attacks a mic with more passion (well, maybe Yumeno Kishimoto.) Kiyono’s J-Melo performance of Eito’s “Kosui” shows what she’s capable of when she strikes the right balance of power, passion and control. Momohime possesses all of the intangibles that a singer can’t learn, and enough of the tangibles required to become a legitimate pop singer. She’s also young enough that she might be capable of making that leap in a few years.
Honorable Mention: Rio Kitagawa, Minami Okamura, Mei Yamazaki, Yume Kudo
HP IDOLS I’M PAYING ATTENTION TO MOST
Just assume everyone listed in the previous section is included here, too, because I’m only going to elaborate on the following girls.
1. Ruru Danbara – The future is now for Ruru, and despite being in the same group as arguably H!P’s all-time best singer (Sayuki Takagi) it doesn’t feel like she’s in Sayubee’s shadow. I can’t say for certain that Sayuki was better at 19 than Ruru is now, but considering Ru’s consistent improvement from year to year, it’s not impossible to consider that she might eclipse her elder by the time she reaches Sayuki’s current age four years from now.
2. Kaede Kaga – No H!P star has risen faster over the past two years than that of Kaede’s. Carving out a niche as the “bad bitch” of Morning Musume, Kaga fills a void that had been lingering since the departure of Hitomi Yoshizawa, and she does it with more style and talent than Yossi. Were she a couple of years younger, I’d have her pegged as a future group leader.
3. Yuhane Yamazaki – It will be interesting to see what effect her role as Aya Matsuura in the upcoming film Ano Koro: Danshi Kashimashi Monogatari has on her popularity, both inside and outside of the H!P fandom. She’s around middle of the pack as I write this, despite being one of the more well-rounded idols in a group teeming with well-rounded idols.
4. Yumeno Kishimoto – I’m praying that the recent unpleasantness in Tsubaki Factory doesn’t metastasize like it did with Kuboshi Factory, because watching Kishimon’s growth since TF’s 2017 debut has been a lot of fun. At 20, she’s well into her prime idol years, but her consistent improvement shows no signs of abating, and as her talent has risen to match her passion, her ceiling has risen with it, if not disappeared altogether.
5. Kokoro Maeda – Kokoro reminds me of a young Rikako Sasaki in this respect: she never seems to take a single moment off during performances, regardless of her position on stage. Always “on” and always focused, Kokoro is another all-around, high-level talent that we’ve come to expect from Beyooooonds.
Others of interest: Mao Akiyama, Saya Eguchi, Shiori Nishida
THOUGHTS ON EACH GROUP FOR 2021
Beyooooonds – 2020 was a lost year for H!P’s newest group, robbing them of a level of momentum most new groups would kill for. March 3rd will break a 15-month new-release drought with a triple A-side single, the first song of which (“Now Now Ningen”) was performed on their Premier Seat showcase and at the year end concerts. The song is kind of a letdown for me, but I’ve always said that expecting a group to maintain an insanely high level of quality is unfair, and BYNDS’s debut single and album were both insanely good. Plus, there are two more A-sides to come, as well as three B-sides across different editions, so I’m not writing this release off just yet. Hopefully we’ll get at least one more single this year, too, because this group is too good to keep mothballed like they were last year.
Tsubaki Factory – Risa Ogawa’s departure is troublesome for TF fans mostly due to the circumstances that lead to it. Aside from losing one of their more talented members, the episode leads one to surmise that there are real fractures within the group, and with three-quarters of the the members now into their 20s, it’s not outlandish to imagine one or more of them deciding to graduate, if only to extract themselves from an uncomfortable work situation. TF has built one of the more consistently good catalogs in H!P — I can count the number of tracks I don’t like on one hand and have fingers left over — and it would be a shame to see that pissed away over interpersonal drama.
Juice=Juice – J=J is the German engineered, well-oiled Swiss watch of Japanese idol groups. Their sole weak-link, if you can call it that, is Yume Kudo, and if you saw the year-end concerts, you saw Yume bring the fire. She looked better and more into it than I’ve ever seen before. So yeah, if that Yume Kudo is your “weak link,” you’re looking pretty good. Add to that Riai’s emergence and Rei Inoue looking like she’s been a member forever after only a couple of performances, and the most talented H!P group (ever?) is well positioned to endure whatever graduations might come their way in 2021.
Angerme – This is the group that intrigues me the most for 2021, because even though they lost two really important cogs in Murota and Funaki, other members are already stepping up and delivering on what was heretofore merely potential. Layla and Momona have both taken giant leaps forward to fill the gap left by the graduates, and I’m eager to see how their individual colors effect the overall work of art. My two main hopes for Anju this year is that Takeuchi stays to remain a steadying force for the revamped group, and that Rikako re-discovers her mojo. Maybe it’s just the lack of steady work, but her singing seems to have slipped a little bit to me. Or maybe it’s just that so many others have improved. Whatever it is, I want 2018-2019 Rikako back. I don’t expect much from Wakana this year, to be honest, and I’m good with that. I expect Shion will do well at idoling (if not singing) and Kawa-Rin will sing better than we thought she would. Hashi-Rin looked better in the closing month of 2020 than at any time in the 14 months that preceded it, and if she continues to build on that improvement, Angerme will have weathered a two-year storm better than anyone could have imagined.
Morning Musume – I’m fairly apathetic about this group in its current iteration. It’s the same apathy I felt with the Platinum Era group towards the end of their run, where each new song seemed to sound like something they’d already done, and too many faces had been there for 10 years or so. The difference this time around is that the group has exciting new blood there right now! My ideal Morning Musume ’21 would be lead by Sato and Oda, with Kaga, Nonaka, Rio and Mei in the main singing rotation, and a sprinkling of Maria for fan service. Homare needs to be pushed more slowly, but she does need to be pushed, because there’s something there beyond “cute girl.”
Also, can we let let the flagship group explore some new styles and sounds? I don’t even mind sticking with EDM so long as we get more varied styles of EDM. The “KOKORO&KARADA” single was a step in the right direction, but by following it with the “Junjou Evidence” single, they immediately took two steps back. This MM “sound” was old and busted in 2018, and I’ll never understand how literally every other group in H!P gets shit-hot material every year while the fucking flagship is saddled with the same sound and arrangements for damn near every release. I swear, Hello! Project had a second Golden Era from 2016-2019, and Morning Musume sleep-walked through most of it. When you consider that this era was fueled primarily by the music of composers other than Tsunku — including most of MM’s best tracks — it starts to make more sense. (I feel I’ve touched the 3rd Rail here, and this post is already approaching War And Peace length, so maybe I’ll explore that piping-hot take in another post!)
The most obvious thing to hope for in 2021 is many more releases from every group — at least two singles from each, and MM is about due for a long-player, as well. The lockdowns did beget one practice that I hope continues for the foreseeable future, though, and that’s the solo videos. There was no schedule to the releases, so it was like finding money on the street when one dropped, and that made it even more fun. We got some great performances that will remain classics for fans, and I’d love to see a lot more of these regardless of the lockdown situation.
2020 was set to be a year of transition for the Hello! Project, and Corona-chan stepped in to make that transition more immediate and brutal that it should have been, but even though H!P begins 2021 a few rungs lower from 2019, I’m excited for it. This feels like a soft revolution born of necessity and astute planning. It’s exciting because H!P has so much young talent ready to take on larger roles, and none of us know how that will work out. And what’s more exciting than walking into the unknown?
Oh, and bring back the old Hello! Project logo, already. That joyless corporate logo they’ve been sporting for eight years now is entirely disconnected from the fun and frivolous nature of the pop-idol product they’re producing. You’re not a mid-tier, mall-based clothing store trying to project a higher-tier image to justify over-priced clothes, you’re an idol factory. Fix your branding.