Friday, 26 April 2013

Morning Musume and its Colourful Characters

All opinions are my own, so-on and so-forth. I don't think you should necessarily agree with them but I do, at least, hope you'll treat them with respect.
The group's most recent incarnation and the line-up responsible for this post's namesake - aside from Sakura, of course
So, over the years, many people have had their say on what led to the downfall of Morning Musume - if you could really call it that, considering the group only managed to slip out of the Top 5 singles during the entire Platinum Era - and the general concensus is that UFP's shoddy promotion skills are to blame. I'm not here to argue that point; in fact, though I do have faith that they're getting better at appealing to a broader market and I'm estatic that they finally realised the merit of alternate B-Sides (a bloody good sale pitch, if you ask me), I'd probably be one of the first to pin blame on the management.
 Though, in that sense, I'm one of the few who doesn't think it makes any sense to rant away, cursing Tsunku♂ despite his efforts. I'm sick of seeing people going on about how much they love Tsunku♂, only to turn and bite his head off in a fit of violent pique - it's a strange kind of hypocrisy. Tsunku♂ makes the songs, forms the groups and chooses the lineups, he doesn't control the promotion or the sales. Oh how I wish that people would finally understand that. Do you honestly think that one man could be in charge of all that. It's highly believable that he's an impressively prolific writer and composer - it's not like his songs are the cream of the crop anyway; I like them, a lot, but he's not some super talent who writes music of unrivaled power and meaning - because that can happen, people can do that. I just don't think the theory that Tsunku♂ is really in charge of everything makes sense. Because it doesn't.
Regardless, I don't think the promotion is the only issue. The promotion has gotten better, as have the sales, but there has been something else that the company have been making more effort to focus on that they haven't been doing in the same way for some time. This is something I've believed for quite a while now, actually, and I sort of feel like my point is being proven. What is this shining factor? Well, let's consult the title on that one.
That's right. 'Character'.
In the past, Morning Musume was a certainly a group known for their personality and emphasis on the one person. It really was a group of individuals fighting for the spotlight and there was something almost surreal but oh so very appealing in that. It was sort of like a Spice Girls thing, only less explicit in that you weren't expected to refer to the girls according to a bunch of assigned personalities rather than their actual names. And the girls of Morning Musume's characters were more influenced by the girls themselves - though it has been established that Yossie was never a tomboy to the extent she was marketed as one, they'd only given her that character once they realised it was far more fitting than the 'smart girl' character they had originally planned on sticking her with. There was a strange line between reality and fantasy but it became so blurred that no-one was really any the wiser. Whether or not the girls spent their lives acting (though I don't suspect they honestly did - at least not entirely), this was a fantastic gimmick for the group. It was sort of like a real-life cartoon, and you could pick out your favourite character. That was probably why they had such a widespread appeal in their time - that kind of marketing is ideal for younger children.
Minimoni played on this idea even further and saw great success with really little kids. The fact that they had formed this group for a very specific market and made the whole thing run according to these 'characters' worked extremely well. And, I mean, Minimoni certainly was like a cartoon come to life, a concept only aided by various Minimoni cartoons and guest appearances in multiple Hamtaro films. As far as Kiddy Groups go, Minimoni are also the least terrifying I have ever come across in my entire life. Normally these groups freak me out to no end, and are excrutiatingly cringe-worthy - The Wiggles, anyone? I mean, they were okay when I was really small but the octopus was never okay. I always thought it looked...just wrong. And, then, there was stuff like The Singing Kettle (which is a Scottish thing) - something about it always frightened me just a little, particularly the song about being eaten by a snake, or whatever it was. It kind of terrified me just a little.

Morning Musume kept this idea of each girl being their own character going for a while; the most obvious examples being Yuko (the woman from Osaka - which comes with its own stereotypical traits), Kaori (the spacey but caring one), Rika (the one who's cute and knows it), Yossy (the tomboy), Aibon & Nono (the 'double-trouble'-type pair), Ai (the girl next door), Konkon (the shy genius), Miki (the one with the sharp tongue), Sayu (the one who's cute, knows it and will never hesitate to tell you about it) and Reina (the yankii). In that sense, 4th Gen were pretty perfect in that they were the Generation with the most obvious characterisation. In the days of 6th Gen's youth as a Generation, they even had a song about it - the beloved Joshi Kashimashi Monogatari.

In fact, it wasn't until 8th Gen came and the last of 4th Gen left that this concept began to die away. This was mainly the result of the group's shift from a group of individuals singing cheery, energetic tracks into a seemingly united collection of girls singing tracks of a much more mature and demure nature - the character gimmick wasn't necessary. Of course, the way 8th Gen were presented was less than helpful. Mittsi was, pretty much, 'the boring one'. Now, I'm not saying she was in anyway boring. It was Tsunku♂ himself who said he chose her for her placidity. In terms of being a 'character', she was a lot calmer, a lot more refined, and that was supposed to work as a nice contrast to the personalities of the other girls (especially considering Kame, who had previously been yet another 'shy girl' type had evolved into this weird basketcase looney kind of person). And, of course, JunJun and LinLin, both brilliant girls in their own right - though, in terms of personality, I always found LinLin more appealing. In voice, too, actually. JunJun, yeah, I liked her. I liked her a lot. But she never really struck a permanent chord with me. Their problem was, however, the fact they were presented as 'the Chinese girls' - Chinese is not a character trait. And, really, after about half a year, the 'Chinese' novelty had worn off and the girls weren't given any thing else with which to market themselves, leaving LinLin's gorgeous powerhouse vocals shoved right into the back burner.

So, with the only girls in the group who had ever been in a lineup featuring any 1st or 2nd Gen members becoming mature adults for the sake of the group's new image, it was up to 7th and 8th Gen to mix things up and keep the group fresh. The group's character dynamic, of course, depends upon the constant changing of characters available. However, with 8th Gen's characters not working out as well as they could have, the onus was on 7th Gen only member to keep it going. Koharu was a perfect member in regards to having a specific character. She was this eccentric girl in a state of constant hyperactivity. Basically, she was the group's resident looney and rarely managed to blend in with the others when they were trying to appear sexy or mature. So many people who originally hated her grew to like her purely based on how genuinely nice she seemed to be - this hatred-hype hasn't existed for some time but, back in 2008-2009, it was a pretty big deal. She was the big Jedward-Marmite-type thing of the H!P fandom. Koharu always had this airhead thing going on and, to that extent, saying it how it is was just part of her charm. Unfortunately, this same trait, when removed from the 'character' has the potential to cause problems - as it did, when her honesty had the fandom burning up in rage (and while I do agree that she was out of place in terms of the whole Japanese culture of respect, I'd like to maintain that's she's no longer an idol and now has the right to say whatever the bloody fuck she wants - I might be alone in this but I sort of respect her honesty, but not her manners).

While Koharu seemed perfect for the group in this respect (I feel this is why she was the 'Miracle'), her Kirarin gig distracted from the character gimmick entirely. Because she had this solo career, she channeled the majority of her energy into that, and her character was promoted through it. Because there was no need to over-market her, Morning Musume wasn't gifted with the full extent of that. Koharu was a Miracle that was never really allowed to happen.

However, with the advent of the 9th, 10th and 11th Gens, and the release of an album seemingly in tribute of this character thing, the old glory seems to be returning somehow. Due to this, better promotion and, no doubt, a new musical direction, the group have risen up, getting two #1s on the Oricon Weekly in a row - a feat that hasn't be achieved since 2001 when the group managed to earn themselves 3 consecutive #1s. It probably helps that the group's current leader is also the most gimmicky of the lot. Sayu never once dropped the 'Ichiban Kawaii' act since the day it came to her and I honestly respect her for it. So, with Sayumi taking the reigns, it only makes sense to bring back that over-the-top characterisation the group was once famed for. Morning Musume's return to the spotlight comes now, just as I always thought it would (I mean, when they brought back the character thing, not when Sayu became leader).

((as far as character's go, I am again drawn to the tomboy character - Kuduu's my favourite in the group, if you take into account Reina's graduation))

Monday, 22 April 2013

The Nightmare of Franchising

All opinions are my own, and I expect you to respect them - but, whatever you do is up to you. Just don't be an awful git.
Okay, sure, for a J-Pop-orientated blog that hasn't seen the light of the day for a month or so, this is a bloody weird post to come back with but it is a thought that has been eating away at the back of my head for a bit. I've been studying Tim Burton's films lately, for school, so this whole situation, though it has nothing to do with any of the three films I'm studying, kind of came to my attention.
Anyone who's seen Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas will know it as the tale of a conflicted skeleton who is simply bored to death (oh, the irony) of doing exactly what is expected of him - I don't know, maybe that was supposed to reflect Burton's own feelings towards his work at Disney at the time of writing the original poem. The film is generally branded with this image as being a darker kid's film, due to his Hallowe'en-y theme and, doubtless, the fact that the protagonist is a skeleton. It's not traditonal kid's film fair, I'll give you that. But, traditional doesn't really mean anything. In terms of content, theme and tone, it's a family-friendly film - I've loved the film dearly since I was very small and I never once found it even remotely frightening, as the higher-ups at Disney seemed to assume children would. Take out the skeleton and the Hallowe'en, and you've got a charming story about a man, sick of forced expectations, trying to find his own in a whole new field - but you have to add the removed elements back in straight away or you've got no real plot. The theme, however, is entirely universal and is purely another example of Burton portraying the outsider trying to come into his own. That is the entire point of the film.
For those who may not know so much about the sweet stop-motion film, it follows Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King and ruler of the quaint little establishment, Hallowe'en Town, and his newfound boredom in regards to being the man responsible for terrifying people year after year. Of course, being known for one thing and one thing only, and being expected to live only according to that image, is boring, that goes almost without saying. Curious to find out what the rest of the world has to offer, Jack comes across the dreamland that is Christmas Town, singing out in joy, 'Oh, I want it for my own'. He becomes immediately obsessed and devises an innocent-enough plan to 'kidnap Mr Sandy Claws', or Santa, as he is more commonly known, with the intention of taking his own stab at this whole Christmas thing. Naturally, this doesn't go entirely to plan and Jack is forced to overcome a number of obstacles, some pretty standard and some slightly bizarre, though what way round that works probably depends on your perception of things.
Jack's biggest obstacle - dealing with Oogie Boogie who is, admittedly, kinda creepy
The film has become somewhat of a goth cult classic, along with other Burton films (namely Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, though the idea of the latter being that baffles me too), because of its rich, dark visuals and the inclusions of various typical Hallowe'en ghouls and goblins. Jack himself has become a popular emblem of gothic tastes with young teenagers, with far too many of them wearing big-ass hoodies with his image smashed on top. It's all rather tacky, actually, considering the source. To me, this strange merchandising tool betrays the film entirely. Maybe I'm just being pedantic, but I feel like there's something wrong there. Something really wrong.
I mean, the whole point of Jack was that he was sick of being this scary, ghoulish guy - 'Yet year after year, it's the same routine/ And I grow so weary of the sound of screams' he sings, distressed that he seems to be stuck in an eternal cycle of terrifying children. The whole thing about him finding Christmas Town and being so fascinated was pretty important. It was his way out of that cycle. I don't know, the idea that his image is sold off like that seems to contradict the film's whole message. It's, like, 'Sure, it's good to go out and find yourself but your opinion isn't the one that brings in the cash so we're just going to go against your whole point'.
I haven't got a cue it bothers me at all. Maybe it's because I've loved this film since I was very small, because Jack's story was actually pretty touching. I mean, my life thus far has been a mix of me not getting stuff and people not getting me so (and not in a whiny teenager kind of way - I mean, I'm Autistic, that's sort of how it works), maybe, I could kind of associate with the situation. There was also this kind of purity that I saw in the film and it stuck with me. In my eyes, most of the merchandise is kind like a big, fat shit in the face of what I believed the film to represent.
That being said, I don't hate the merchandising as a whole - just those few naff lines of stuff. Some of the merchandise is actually pretty nice, particular the stuff that involves either Burton drawings or film screenshots. These don't really argue with what the film's about, I find. I mean, most of Burton's drawings of Jack depict a more pleasant looking Jack but, even if they don't, the right kind of tone is there. It's just a lot less...soulless, I find. I actually had a lunchbox once - a tin one with screenshots of the film on it. I think I had it in Primary 6 or 7, maybe, and I really loved it. I don't know where it is now, my mum probably binned it but I just remember really liking it. I actually remember that part of the reason for me liking it was the fact it was a lunchbox of the film and not this character that didn't really seem to match the image I had in my head of Jack. My best friend had some stuff, like notebooks and things, that were more like the latter, cause she had a stage where she was pretty into the film, but I still preferred the other stuff. It seemed truer to the source, I guess.
The lunchbox in question...I found the picture on Google, though
I think it's just a personal thing because I had this very specific idea of what the film was about. I think it's also probably to do with the fact that it kind of shows that people aren't, maybe, taking in the actual meaning of the film. It's to do with people's perception of things, I suppose. It's just that there is a deeper context to the film, without reading too much into it, that people seem to ignore. I don't know. Maybe I'm reading too much into it. I mean, Jack has a pretty nice design - he's a pretty distinct character. But, hey, who said franchising had to be good? Franchising is just a giant money-making scheme, that's the point. I mean, it's Disney franchising too. Why am I surprised?
I do have to say, however, Kingdom Hearts portrays Jack qutie well. I haven't actually ever manged to play a Kingdom Hearts game long enough to get to that level (my sister took the PS2, my DS is dying of death and it's not in the PSP game) but, from what I've seen, their depiction of him's quite honorable. He seems to have the right amount of optimism and cheeriness - they make him out to be a nice guy and that's what's important. He's got the right kind of hopeless Ed Wood-y optimism about him (though, that probably only makes sense if you've seen Ed Wood - I mean the Tim Burton film, not the actual guy) in that regardless of how much he fails, he's still this really positive guy. Oh, Nomura games, can you do any wrong? (seriously, though, Nomura and Burton - what a combo)
Oh, Goofy is scarier than normal