JUICE=JUICE – DOWN TOWN / Ganbarenai yo
If anyone is curious as to what motivated my recent four-and-a-half month hiatus from blogging, this single did. More to the point, the events leading up to this single being pushed back a month to facilitate the erasure of former member Sayuki Takagi from the single and the group going forward. All because she got caught on film with her boyfriend. Yes, shock to end all shocks, a nearly 24 year old woman was dating a man. How could we ever respect Sayubee in the morning? The counter-argument to this is always something along the lines of “You’re Western, so you don’t understand our culture.” You’re right, I don’t. I’m still furious that, not only was the single greatest singer in the history of the Hello! Project (spoiler alert!) fired for the crime of being a normal 24 year old woman, but she was denied the graduation celebration that she — and more importantly, her fans — deserved. You’re right, I don’t understand that, and I never will.
I understand dating bans for younger idols, because the level of distraction a romance can cause for a teen is orders of magnitude higher than for a grown-ass adult. Who the hell really cares if a mid-20s idol has a boyfriend? For Sayubee to just be cast aside like she was Rio Fuji is needlessly strict, and it’s disrespectful to a woman who was an active legend in the company. Everyone involved deserved better than this.
So, how is Juice=Juice’s first post-Sayuki single? Not as good as it would’ve been with Sayuki, but pretty damned good just the same. H!P groups are releasing more covers as singles than I can ever remember, which I suppose is fine so long as they fit the group, but I hope this isn’t a long-term strategy. SUGAR BABE’s 1975 hit “DOWN TOWN” is an easy fit for Juice=Juice, though, and the neo-city-pop treatment is a smarter choice for H!P’s most stylish group than the original’s greasier, laid-back funk. Anders Dannvik’s arrangement retains just enough funk via spanky Strat rhythms and subtle percussion elements, while smoothing things out with electric piano, synths and a perfectly laid-back bass line. The instrumental break turns up the funk appropriately, even letting Rei unleash the beat-boxing on her first J=J single. It took a few listens, but I really love this.
The other track, “Ganbarenai yo,” was debuted at Karin Miyamoto’s graduation concert, which adds a bit of irony given the circumstances. It’s good to see J=J get a conventional power ballad, and especially one as good as this. Equally nice is to see Akari get some solo-line burn, as I think she’s gotten overlooked with the influx of new members the past two years. Her voice has a bit of Yuko Nakazawa’s airiness that suits this song well. Rei’s J=J load continues to grow, and the ease and aplomb with which she handles it makes it difficult to remember her as a member of Kobushi Factory. To put it bluntly, KF dissolving was the best thing to happen to Rei’s career, because she’s so perfect for Juice=Juice that I can’t imagine them without her now. Ruru and Tomoko are the other leads, and they do just what you’d expect them to do on a gorgeous power ballad. Not much else to say. It’s awesome.
One last thing to mention with regards to the sudden departure of Sayuki is the massive opportunity it opens up for newer members. I’m speaking mainly of Rei, Yume and Riai, as Ruru has established lines for the most part, and it’s logical to expect that she will take on most of Sayubee’s vocal gymnastics. Rei, as a seasoned and established H!P idol, was given an immediate push when she joined a year ago, and that continues with this release. Based on “DOWN TOWN” and J=J’s Hina Fes performances, though, it appears that Riai will be the main beneficiary of the re-worked line distributions. She’s earned it, too. Her growth as a singer since joining two years ago is eye-popping, particularly when you consider how good she already was when she joined. I ranked Riai fifth in my top-5 H!P singers under 17 at the beginning of the year, and if I do a half-way-point ranking, she’ll top it. She’s absurdly good and improving at an astounding rate, while still a month-and-a-half from her 16th birthday. The only thing keeping Riai from greater attention from fans, from what I can tell, is her outward demeanor, which is often times aloof and even seemingly pissed-off. Her talent, though, is undeniable and appears to have no ceiling at the moment. It looks like Riai is going to be really special.