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The Moment the "Warring Idols Period" Began (Part 1)

Posted by Lurkette, in Translations 03 June 2020 · 0 views

2010 Era Idol Scene, Vol.1
The Moment the "Warring Idols Period" Began (Part 1)
Yoshida Gou, Kawakami Akira, and Yamada Masaharu look back on a legendary event

2020.05.26 20:00

Almost 10 years have passed since the words "Warring Idols Period" were born. In the 2010s, large numbers of groups came out of the idol scene, including small-scale live idol groups and region-specific local idols. It is said that the number of entertainers calling themselves idols then was the largest in Japan's history. In this boom where visuals, music, performances, and more all expanded what it meant to have the face of an idol, layers of society where there previously hadn't been any idol culture were wrapped up in it, and the market scale for idols greatly expanded.

At Ongaku Natalie, we're starting a series on delving into all sides of the idol scene during this decade. Our first piece will focus on the 2010 event "Idol Unit Summer Festival 2010" which featured performances from SKE48, S/mileage, Momoiro Clover, and bump.y. At the time, joint appearances by groups from different agencies were rare, and it is said that this event was the start of the Warring Idols Period. In this article, we compiled commentary from Yoshida Gou, a professional interviewer with a deep knowledge of idol culture; Kawakami Akira, Momoiro Clover Z producer; Yamada Masaharu, former S/mileage (now ANGERME) manager and president of YU-M Entertainment; and Masuda Yoshiko, who organized the event for Nippon Broadcasting.

Editing, article: Onoda Mamoru
Interview cut photography: Numata Manabu
Translation: Lurkette

2010 was the most interesting

In 2010, a sudden change occurred in the entertainment world--the Warring Idols Period began. A large number of groups became famous that year by chance, and the nation started to watch the activities of idols, resulting in a redrawing of the map of the industry. That is to say, however: just as it is in all musical movements, this Warring Idols Period did not start as the result of a sudden shift. The fact is that it was a fixed inevitability.

If we look back on Japanese female idols, the 1970s were a generation dominated by the likes of Candies and Pink Lady, as well as Yamaguchi Momoe. When we reach the 80s, we break into the Idol Golden Age, where talent bloomed from Matsuda Seiko and Nakamori Akina, two leaders at the top of the list, and from Kawai Naoko, Koizumi Kyouko, Matsumoto Iyo, Hayami Yuu, and Hori Chiemi. For groups, partway through the 80s, Onyanko Club was a sensation, and then around the year 2000, we had Morning Musume. A fever was swelling, and it set the tone for the next era.

However, part of the entertainment industry is the intensity of its ebbs and flows. The heyday of many of the aforementioned stars was short-lived, and right around 2002, when Hello!Project, which Morning Musume. belongs to, underwent a large-scale reorganization, general idol popularity began to diminish little by little. AKB48 was formed in 2005, during that period, but their rise to becoming a national presence happened a little later. Also note that while a characteristic of this era was that the primary battlefield was not singing, but in photobooks and magazines with the rise of gravure idols, that is not connected to this article's theme, so it will be omitted from the discussion.

Yoshida Gou, a professional interviewer who has covered a number of events so far and has a deep knowledge of idol culture, asserts, "Looking back on the last 20 years of the idol scene, the most interesting year was certainly 2010." That year, 3 major occurrences happened in the idol world in quick succession: Nippon Broadcasting organized Idol Unit Summer Festival 2010, the popular NHK program "MUSIC JAPAN" did a special feature on idols, and then there was the commemorative first "TOKYO IDOL FESTIVAL" (TIF). What on earth was happening behind the scenes? Yoshida asks those involved for their stories while he makes a commitment to the related parties to continue this as his life's work.

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Yoshida Gou​

"Up until that point, for unrelated acts to stand in the same arena... this arrangement was interesting. It was also obviously a gathering of people on the management side that had pro wrestling at their heart. That's where the "incident" occurred, as it were. As for what the incident was, it was that even though they planned on it being an even exchange, people who didn't think that way that were mixed into the fold. In other words, there was a sect that came in with the idea of "To battle!" Momoiro Clover's (later Momoiro Clover Z) Kawakami Akira, S/mileage's (later ANGERME) Yamada Masahru... of course, there were also those who weren't thinking in that extreme sense" (Yoshida).

From "doubt" to "conviction" about the idol boom

Idol Unit Summer Festival 2010, the event that is upheld as legendary even now, took place over two days, August 30 and 31 (reference: A surprise in the end! Summer festival in Shibuya for 4 idol groups). The 4 performers were SKE48, S/mileage, Momoiro Clover, and bump.y, a combination of high-spirited groups. Up until the show, however, it seems expectations were mixed. First, we ask Yoshida for his commentary.

"Idol Unit Summer Festival was organized by Nippon Broadcasting and Yoshida Hisanori was hosting, but I think the choices were just so miraculous. Involvement with both Hello!Project and 48 Group, which was forbidden at that point, then adding in the young but excessively dazzling Momoclo, then with their 6 member lineup, that would have been such a brutal lineup on its own, but then bump.y was also brought into the mix. As for what on earth that booking was about, it was to have bump.y with no set opponent so that they could start bringing peace or something to the stage; they were like Switzerland, a true neutral country. bump.y was added so that lineup didn't turn into a flat-out three-way struggle. There was also actually a key person deeply involved in this event. That would the then-editor-in-chief for B.L.T., Inoue Asao (currently president of HUSTLE PRESS)" (Yoshida).

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bump.y at the Idol Unit Summer Festival 2010 press conference

It seems like an abrupt place to bring up Inoue's name, but oddly enough it was also brought up by Masuda Yoshiko, who was in charge on Nippon Broadcasting's side. It seems it's no mistake to say that B.L.T.'s Inoue was an essential part of bringing into existence the dawn of Warring Idols Period. Below are the words of Masuda from Nippon Broadcasting sent to Ongaku Natalie in an email regarding this article. In 2010, Masuda was sorting out the arrangements for the festival, but it began when she had actually been moved within the company from project director to the entertainment development department in the fall of 2009. She was told then by a superior, "We've booked Shibuya Town Hall for the last two days of summer vacation, so plan something."

"When I was worried about what to do, I was getting information from different sources saying, 'Idols are going to be so hot next summer.' There still wasn't any sense at that time that an idol boom was coming, but I wanted to take up the challenge of doing an idol fest that no one else had done before, so that was the project.

During the planning process, I received some lively idol recommendations from editor-in-chief Inoue (at the time) of B.L.T., who was extremely knowledgeable on idols. I got word from him that Hello!Project had never done a show with other companies, so we narrowed the lineup down to 4 and carried that plan out."

Her letter expresses that Inoue's suggestions saved her in this new environment where she experienced a lot of bewilderment and confusion. At the same time, more so than simply being an undertaking of a then-unheard of challenge, Idol Unit Summer Fest was a highly unique gamble for Masuda. A detailed report will follow.

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SKE48 at the "Idol Unit Summer Festival 2010" press conference

"After we decided on an idol fest, there were doubts inside and outside the company that an idol boom was really coming. However, when tickets went on sale we completely sold out, and I felt that the people around me had gone from "doubt" to "conviction" about the idol boom. S/mileage's participation, in particular, since they had only appeared in Hello!Project concerts, became a hot topic. And then with SKE48 there were also huge expectations, since this was their first step into Tokyo after exploding in popularity in their local area of Nagoya.

Selling out tickets was also a point of interest inside the industry, and proposals of idol festivals started appearing everywhere. When the first day of the event actually arrived, what stood out to me was the press box prior to the start of the show. The large mass media presence indicated to me how great the interest had become. The next day we had so much media exposure, and I physically felt that the Warring Idols Period had surely dawned."

It was plainly split into light and dark

The event ended as a huge success. It was a fact that fans would wait eagerly for large-scale idol events that involved a number of different companies. AKB48 was already running up the stairway to stardom, and different production companies created several groups one right after the other to take advantage of that momentum. It was the end of an idol winter, and it was plain to see that we were entering a new season. On the other hand, however, Yoshida, who actually went out to the venue for the show, reflects, "The industry was plainly split into light and dark."

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Yoshida Gou

"SKE48 came in there doing their show as they always did. They had an endlessly long section of member introductions, and I vividly remember the venue getting this slow atmosphere. It might have been fine for the enthusiastic fans who played along, but it was not the way to go about it at an away game, much less during a battle. Even though they said, 'Please remember us today on your way home,' they definitely had the opposite effect. Momoclo left their mark with a stellar live going first, and after bump.y had done a peaceful show, we had expectations for SKE, so if I'm speaking honestly, they got thrown around.

On the other hand, S/mileage kind of skipped over their MC, and they threw down in no-mercy battle mode. Generally speaking, their power was incredible. S/mileage had Yamada, a demon sergeant who was familiar with the pro wrestling mentality, and they resolved themselves with, "If we lose here it's over. There will be nothing else," and they set off for the front lines. Momoclo's manager seems like he had his eyes opened watching S/mileage. Saying, "We're not good enough where we are." At that point he started doing things like bringing in stage directors. In other words, he learned from S/mileage what a live should be like as a professional act" (Yoshida).

Here the important concepts of winning and losing have been inserted into the conversation. Before anyone realized it, this was not just a concert with multiple acts, this was a discussion of a battle for the 4 units and of what was left on the chopping block. This opinion does not just belong to Yoshida, but is also shared by many idol fans, and indeed, you could see among the idols at the time that they were not hiding their fighting spirit: they were not going to lose.

"At that point, the people around me were the BUBKA editor-in-chief and all the editorial staff who had fallen under SKE48's spell; they adored the sports-like system that was characteristic to SKE48 at their core. They stirred things up with pages like, "How will SKE prepare for war?" and there were lots of readers who supported that perspective. The results, though, showed that that influence and pretense served its purpose. SKE performed like they were sightseeing, and their ship sank splendidly. After the event was over, it was impressive how low the BUBKA people's heads were hanging, saying, "No way we could do anything..." It was the same depression you could feel after Takada Nobuhiko lost without doing anything to Dickson Gracie (laughs)" (Yoshida).

Momoclo bathing in the blood of their victims

It is Yoshida's insistent opinion that the commentary around the event was juniors would dominate the seniors. However, Kawakami of Momoclo and Yamada of S/mileage, both of whom were brought up earlier, actually have completely different views. Kawakami recalls, "We were the most junior group. We had nothing to lose."

"S/mileage from Hello!Pro is there, SKE48 from 48 Group is there, too. I think the event itself came from advice given by B.L.T.'s Inoue to Nippon Broadcasting's Masuda, so I felt like it was the sort of thing we could appear in. My feelings were that I wanted us to leave our mark, and it was at a time when people were paying attention to Momoclo's lives, too, so we planned on going in with the drive to eat them up, but... The outcome was that I went home reflecting on it, 'S/mileage and SKE48 are incredible'" (Kawakami).

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Momoiro Clover at the Idol Unit Summer Festival 2010 press conference

It seems that for Kawakami, it felt more like Momoclo were bathing in their blood, rather than just the juniors outdoing the seniors. As Yoshida tells it, Kawakami, who thought, "We're not good enough like this," had come to depend on Sasaki Atsunori, who is in charge of their live appearances even now. However, that also has various complications.

"That year we did Christmas at Nippon Seinenkan for Momokuri (Momoiro Christmas), but after that we had some changes in our lineup. So naturally there was a sense of crisis at Idol Unit Summer Fest. As for how I thought then and how I think now, the fundamentals don't change. There are a lot of things I learned from the pro wrestling industry, like I think that entertainment is the foundation of everything we do. I don't really understand the rules or ties that bind for the idol industry, though, so even now I'll still end up doing things that are rude to other groups. But the members hate that sort of belligerent component, so they don't participate in it (laughs)" (Kawakami).

What are the things that Kawakami points to here, the things he "learned from the pro wrestling industry"? The topic of affinity between idols and pro wrestlers has been exhausted by many different people, so some might be sick of that subject, but to go over it once again, we can think about the elements that may follow in that affinity. Namely, plainly constructing points of confrontation; bringing the performers into the entertainment industry to talk about their feelings on the fight; and appealing to the audience with strong performances and inciting reactions from the crowd.

"Back then, we did get along well with our fellow groups, though. I do think I got the other managers to fight along with me. Ultimately, it was just the adults who got into the act (laughs). But actually, the industry itself at that time wasn't that big, and it was a place where it was only managers that I was familiar with. Fukuda Kandai, who started Pasupo☆ (later PASSPO☆) was someone I knew originally from our side in A&R at Universal. So with his group starting around the same time as us, it felt like we were war buddies. Tokyo Girls Style was also similar in that way" (Kawakami).

S/mileage wanted to be Sakuraba Kazushi

So then, what sort of picture was painted by S/mileage's Yamada, who was called out by Yoshida as being the "side waging war"? Currently, Yamada has separated from Hello!Pro and is wielding his shrewdness as the company president of YU-M Entertainment, which houses the likes Up Up Girls (Kari) and Wada Ayaka.

"The biggest thing for me was to once again show the magnificence of Hello!Project through S/mileage. In any case, compared to now, the environment was completely different with how we're surrounded by Hello!. As someone in the position of having left the company it's not something I really can talk about, but the current Hello!Project has established itself as a reliable presence in the current idol world, where even those who aren't idol fans are distinctly aware of them now. They've acquired a lot of new fans, and they've risen up from a lot of people in music media saying that Hello!Pro is actually amazing. That being said, it definitely wasn't the case 10 years ago..." (Yamada).

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S/mileage at the Idol Unit Summer Festival 2010 press conference

AKB48 at that time was flying high. That itself is fine, but the atmosphere was very much that of, "Ignore idols outside of AKB," and the media was engrossed in that sentiment, meaning that Yamada experienced his share of hardships. When he went around to TV stations to do business, he was met largely with scorn mixed with cynicism: "Hello!Pro is so niche."

"We always went at it in earnest. We planned on pursuing great entertainment, never getting embarrassed of anything no matter where we went. Because Tsunku was working as hard as he could from where he was. I truly felt like there was no other person as obsessive over music as him, and there were many stunning idols in the company. But, as far as the media and the outside world were concerned, Hello!Pro was only (they had already graduated from Hello!Project at that time) Morning Musume. OGs like Yaguchi Mari and Tsuji Nozomi, or Satoda Mai. Even when we reached out with, "We made a new unit! They're called S/mileage," a lot of times we wouldn't get anyone to reach back" (Yamada).

In comparison to Yoshida's story of the BUBKA staff dropping their shoulders after seeing SKE48 at Idol Unit Summer Fest, Yamada points out, "On the contrary, for us it confirmed that Hello!Pro just wasn't reaching people in mass media to the same extent that SKE were." Of course, even 10 years ago passionate fans called Hello!wota came to the venue to support them, but it cannot be denied that the "outside world" was very late to come with the same fervor. Was there not any sense of danger in the company when things were going like that?

"There definitely was. Even though we were then called the "Hello!Pro isolation nation," even with us being inside it, we knew that we weren't getting through to the world. Even being called isolationists, that was going to be our very first fest appearance outside of our own company, so we really hadn't been able to get a grip on breaking out. I definitely could not have gone on if I caused Hello! or S/mileage to lose there" (Yamada).

I tried asking Yamada about this here. What does it mean, exactly, to "cause them to lose"? Or, on the other hand, what would a "win" do for them? After pondering for a moment, Yamada continued, "Ultimately, winning or losing is about the fans' assessment of you, I believe."

"Everyone knows how you decide the winner of rock-paper-scissors. Rock is stronger than scissors, paper is stronger than rock. Everyone shares those same rules. But at that point in time in 2010, we hadn't appeared in any festivals with multiple idols, so I didn't know what a win or a loss would be. I didn't even know what we'd have to do to win, but even so I couldn't have gone on with us losing. I couldn't end up being at a loss for words if someone in the company asked me, 'Yamada, why the hell did you do this show?' The thing is, pro wrestlers stage fights without really fighting, but if you have them fight for real, they're actually very strong... I wanted to put that principle into practice. We wanted to be Sakuraba Kazushi" (Yamada).

Thus, the pistols of the Warring Idols Period were drawn and fired. Starting here, no group could go back to the way they were before. In the next part, Takagi Reni (Momoiro Clover Z) and Fukuda Kanon (ex. S/mileage) will provide their testimony as people involved, including answering in-depth questions on what happened behind the scenes.

(Names are given without honorifics)

this is really interesting!!! can't wait to read maro's testimony in the next part :0

Thank you for sharing this with us! I love hearing about these times from other perspectives.

Thank you