Anton’s note: Do note that I am not a Japanese and therefore there might be inaccuracies in my writing. Your correction will be valuable for me. Thank you!
Idol Sengoku Jidai, or Age of Idols War, describes the current period in Japan entertainment industry, which named after the warring states period in Japan history, where the whole country was engulfed in a seemingly endless war at all corners by numerous belligerents with loyalty to no one but themselves, causing countless deaths and immeasurable sufferings. Of course Idol Sengoku Jidai does not have such scale of destruction; no real weapon involved. To properly understand it, one must realize that there are an expansive amount of idols and a lot of idol kinds e.g. solo, local, kids, masked, and others. Even so, the number of idol artists keeps growing, while the market is increasingly saturating, which makes competition between idols to grab public attention and adoration getting fiercer and fiercer; and thus it resembles a war. One little example of it: Shiritsu Ebisu Chuugaku and Sakura Gakuin have been known to hold events on the same day so fans have to decide which event to attend and not both. They are basically trying to kill each other (hyperbolic).
Now, for a fan-to-be jumping into the scene, heaps of information in the net will be overwhelming. And so, I have tried to gather and select information I think will be most useful for those curious in Japan idol scene. In this post we will talk about three big players in the Idol Sengoku Jidai.
Before you continue, please understand that my usage of “group” might be confusing. You might wonder whether it means “group” as a collection of groups or “group” as a collection of individuals. To prevent such confusion, from this point forward, I will use the word “unit” or “team” to describe collection of individuals, and “group” to describe collection of units.
Possibly the longest running group in the idol scene, Hello! Project (H!P), a family member of Up-Front Group, has been around for generations, weathering the high and low of the idol world, which is not an easy feat at all. Morning Musume (often shortened to Momusu) is probably the most well-known, dominating the realm since 1997 with periodically changing lineups to keep the youth spirit in the unit and stay relevant with new audiences. But when you talk about H!P, you talk more than just Momusu. H!P has a variety of team in its roster with names that are not similar to each other; Berryz Kobo, ℃-ute, Angerme (formerly S/milage), Juice=Juice, and Country Girls are some contemporary standing out idol units in H!P big family, and almost all of them have chart-topping songs and gigantic fan base in Japan. Such variety of teams and H!P willingness to experiment have made it possible for H!P members to graduate from a unit but stay in H!P sphere and join another unit. It’s a comfortable feature and helpful in ensuring a long-lasting career as a player in the entertainment industry. Little example: consider oneself as a high school student joining a unit which emphasizes youthful energy and cuteness as its image. One might be the most favorite member in the unit for years after one joined. But then as the year goes by, one suddenly is the oldest member in the unit and one must accept that one no longer suitable to be the member of such unit. One eventually have to graduate from that unit. But it doesn’t mean one now must fight alone; H!P has prepared another unit, which might consists of one’s peers, for one to join. H!P retained its talent and the talent retained stable career. Everybody wins!
Hello Project All Stars, 2004, consists of Morning Musume, Coconuts Musume, Country Musume, Melon Kinenbi, W, Hello! Project Kids, Berryz Koubou, and v-u-den.
It is also noteworthy that H!P might not be the pioneer, but its professional adoption of many aspects of idol management has made H!P seems like the most mature idol management in the industry. “Graduation”, a term used to mollify (or obfuscate) resignation, or in some case permanent dismissal, were not initially introduced by H!P (it’s actually introduced by Onyanko Club which we will discuss on the next section), but re-popularized by H!P, packaging it into a memorable and grand concert to celebrate the alumni-to-be.
48Group is a group composed of units with “48” in their name (not always, you’ll see why soon). Recently, AKB48 celebrated its 10th anniversary, which might indicate that though the unit is old enough, it is still the junior of H!P. But 48Group has an older root, even older than H!P; Onyanko Club. Onyanko Club or Kitty Club was an idol unit founded by Yasushi Akimoto in 1985 (debut). This unit, which probably the first with more than fifty members, is the pioneer of many things regarding idols that we are familiar with; sub-units, “graduation”, young girls in suggestive outfit singing song with suggestive lyrics with cute (and sometimes still suggestive) choreography, constantly keeping the members young by graduating the old and auditioning the younger, and so on. It is a kind of idol as we know it in this contemporary era (or not, we have a lot “eccentric” idols nowadays). Interesting fact, in 2002, Onyanko Club reunited and publish a single titled Shoumikigen, which debuted at #48 in the Oricon charts. What a coincidence! And you already know what’s next after Onyanko Club. It’s AKB48. In July 2005, Yasushi Akimoto held an audition in for an idol girl unit with a new concept: “idols you can meet”, which means the unit will have a theater (in Akihabara) and regularly performs there to meet their fans, unlike other idols who can only be seen on TV or met at concerts. Like hurricane, the unit hit the whole nation hard, real hard. They were everywhere, on music shows, variety shows, radio shows, ads, and other media. In a short period, H!P was ousted from the throne and a new hegemony takes over; AKB48.
But 48group doesn’t stop with AKB48. It expands to other regions and even nations: SKE48 (Sakae); SDN48 (Saturday Night, not a city, but composed of “adult” members); NMB48 (Namba); HKT48 (Hakata); NGT48 (Niigata) JKT48 (Jakarta); and SNH48 (Shanghai). The group is like a fast food restaurants; one can find consistent formula across different units so that one can enjoy similar experience and charm no matter which unit one meet.
Most of the units packed in a concert.
Is that all? Not really. Rather than having the market share eventually eaten by other new units from other company, 48Group decided to cannibalize the market share themselves with a unit without “48” as the name. It’s Nogizaka46, a unit billed as the official rival to AKB48. What makes them different compared to other 48Group’s units?
I honestly don’t know Well, apparently they don’t have a permanent theater and “Nogizaka” comes from Sony Nogizaka Building, which houses Sony Music Japan’s office. A group produced for Sony Music Japan? Maybe. Maybe it was produced to give notion of competition among 48Group, since Morning Musume was no longer suitable to be a rival.
Will the craze died down like any other trends? Maybe one day. But so far, in 10 years, 48group has been an awesome money-making machine. Akimoto successfully converting the affection of fans into money with innovative ideas. The regular show in the theater ensures a steady supply of income. Then the production of multiple versions of a single with bonus photo, or ticket to have a handshake with the unit’s member, or voting rights (to vote who will appear in the next single), give tremendous repurchase incentive for hardcore fans, which are increasing in number. They generated even more money from product endorsements, ads, and TV appearances.
The next question is: how much money goes to the members’ pocket? The answer to that question, my dear reader, is something you must pursue by yourself.
Never heard of Stardust in the idol industry? I personally like to see Stardust like a secret organization with strings all over the places, like the Free Mason. Of course that’s hyperbolic. But seriously, the company was founded in 1979 and I can’t find much information about it, as if the company is deliberately hiding itself. They just appeared from thin air and hit the industry with Momoclo. Yup, Stardust Promotion Co., Ltd. is the talent agency behind Momoclo (Momoiro Clover Z), an idol unit that has been ranked as the most popular female idol group from 2013 to 2015 and their live shows in 2014 drew about 480,000 audience, which is probably the highest record for female group artists.
Momoclo is gaining popularity fast, real fast, with their energetic and complex dance. They also experimented with different elements of musics and cultural icons. Their collaboration with anime (Pokemon, Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, etc.) is probably one factor that helps propelled their name to stardom. But they are building their giant fanbase with their live performance. Look at one of their live shows and you will understand that they are one of few idol units that give “total performance”.
But Stardust has more than just Momoclo under its sleeve. Stardust has a special department called 3B Junior, which is a department
with secret laboratory that experiments and produces genetically or cybernetically enhanced idol girls which dedicated to train young talents to be idols. Other than Momoclo, 3B Junior has produced Ebichu (Shiritsu Ebisu Chugaku or Ebisu Private Junior High School), and local idols like Team Syachihoko (in Nagoya) and Tacoyaki Rainbow (in Osaka).
Stardust’s army of idols has just beginning to show their fangs and it’s exciting to see what they have prepared for the future. Will they tip the balance of idol wars? We shall see.
Will 48Group retain their dominance in the idol wars? Will H!P reclaim the title as the idol world conqueror? Will Stardust proven to be a terrifying contender and snatched all the glory? The outcome of the war between those three is unpredictable.
At last, this long post is doooooooneeeee! Time to move on with my life.