I’ve avoided writing about the new members selected for Juice=Juice and Tsubaki Factory because I didn’t really have too much to say in the immediate wake of the announcement, but now that we have some audition footage, I have something I can sink my teeth into. First off, I’m stunned at how many girls were added to both groups (not to mention the as-yet-to-be-named new unit.) I was expecting no more than two for either, so a total of seven new members across two existing units is a major move, and likely a foreshadowing of multiple graduations.
Three new girls swells the membership of J=J to ten, which is still the fewest of any active H!P unit, but it actually makes sense considering how heavy they are with 20+ year olds. Tomoko breaking the 25-year-old glass ceiling is cool, but she’s the exception and will probably remain so well into the future. Risa Irie joins as J=J’s first ever addition through audition, and while we still don’t have any footage of her singing, H!P has been putting a premium on strong vocals recently so I’m optimistic that they wouldn’t choose a tin-ear for their premier vocal group.
Or would they? Kisaki Ebata is not the KSS trainee that I expected to join J=J precisely because her performance at the KSS Shinden Test didn’t scream “future Juice=Juice member” to me. Mostly it was her inability to sing in tune, and while her voice has raw strength, she has zero control. This is literaly the only time I’ve heard Ebata sing, though, so maybe it was nerves or an off night, but I’m still shaking my head over this one. That’s okay, though, because the other KSS addition is obviously the trainee who blew everyone away at the Shinden Test, Runo Yofu, right? Everyone knows she’s a shoe-in for J=J.
This is the Hello! Project, son; we do things different around here. Stick around, you’ll get used it. That’s not to say that decisions like leaving their strongest singing trainee out of the group whose entire purpose for being is “strong singing” won’t leave you shaking your head when it happens, but after the initial shock you just laugh and say, “of course.” Instead, J=J gets 17 year old Ichika Arisawa, an intense performer whose mature appearance looks more appropriate for J=J than Ebata’s (who looks way more TF than J=J), but her voice is no more advanced. I actually hold out more hope for Ebata, who I think has more raw talent, and at just 14 years old, more time to hone her craft.
I do worry that Juice=Juice’s role as the H!P “Avengers” will soon be consigned to lore as their vocal prowess continues to be watered down. They’ll still be above average so long as Ruru, Rei and Riai are around, but the days of J=J being special are probably over. Having lost their heart (Karin) and soul (Sayuki) in the span of two months, Juice=Juice had already become a different group, but their legacy should be honored by never allowing them to become an ordinary group.
FRESH FLOWERS FOR THE FACTORY FLOOR
If J=J is being watered-down vocally, Tsubaki Factory is being beefed-up, or at least they appear to be based on the very limited audition footage released last week, as well as the addition of Runo Yofu. Speaking of which, I’m not nearly as salty about her going to TF as I was at first, because A) they can use another top-flight singer, and B) she really does look like she belongs in TF more than J=J (although I think she’d excel in any group.) Yofu immediately gives Kishimoto a running mate, and offers TF insurance should Kishimon decide to “study dance overseas” or whatever. Only 13, Yofu is already a fairly polished performer, so she should be an anchor for years to come.
The most exciting part of TF’s new generation, though, is their audition winners. As a class — and keep in mind I’m basing the rest of this sentence on less than one minute of audition footage for each member — they appear to be the strongest set of audition winners to join an H!P group since Morning Musume’s 5th generation. All of them can sing at least decently, and each has a unique vocal color that, combined with Yofu, will transform TF from an average vocal group to potentially a very strong vocal group.
At first glance, Yuumi Kasai looks and sounds more conventional than the others, but her voice is strong and clear and she sings in tune. Like most H!P noobs, she’ll need to work on her rhythm, but her foundation is strong enough that she can dedicate copious time to it without other aspects of her singing suffering. Shiori Yogi appears to have the most star potential of the bunch to me — maybe even more than Yofu — with a voice that evokes a mix of Meimi Tamura and Tomoko Kanazawwa, and stunning looks somewhere between Tamura and Ayaka Wada. The least polished singer of the three is Marine Fukuda, but she can carry a tune, and her middle-range timbre is intriguing. Most importantly, though, she has potential, and in the now 12-member strong unit she can be brought along slowly if need be.
The relatively advanced ages for this audition class — Yuumi and Shiori will both turn 18 this year, and Marine will turn 17 — carries with it both positives and negatives. On the down side, their development curve is sharp and short, but each girl is starting from a strong enough position where I don’t think it will be a huge issue. The positive is that starting out in the idol world so close to adulthood usually makes for a more genuine and relatable idol compared to those who grow up in the business from their early teens. To have three such idols join a single group together is unique these days, and it will likely have a greater immediate impact on Tsubaki Factory than any incoming H!P generation we’ve seen in a really long time.
In the end, one of the biggest shake-ups in H!P history has me both pumped and worried. I’m pumped for Tsubaki Factory in a way that I haven’t been for any H!P group since Ruru joined Juice=Juice, because a group that I already like is going to improve vastly from a talent perspective. However, the possible negative effects of adding so many members to a group I already like does worry me a bit. TF’s character is bound to change, and I just hope it’s for the positive.
As for Juice=Juice, I’m just worried — at least until I hear what Irie can do, anyway. Even if she’s great, though, they still added two below-average singers to a group whose identity revolves around above-average vocals. Unless their next graduation is Yume Kudo, J=J will be losing a good singer or two, and probably in the not-to-distant future, so they will essentially be replacing good singers with not-so-good singers. About the only TF graduation that would harsh my buzz for them would be Kishimoto, and sadly, she’s probably among the most likely candidates. On the other hand, if it’s one (or more) of their weakest singers, TF could quickly rise from a below-average vocal group to one that can compete with the best in H!P.