[Translation] The Crossover of Akiba-kei Culture (Part 2)
The Crossover of Akiba-kei Culture (Part 2)
Just how did Dempagumi.inc become what this era needed?
Welcome to the next article in our series covering various sides of the idol scene of the 2010s. The theme here, continuing from the last one, is the relationship between idol culture and "Akiba-kei culture" born out of Akihabara in Tokyo. In the first article on this subject, we reviewed the rise of Akihabara starting in the 2000s, and in this article, we will go over the breakthrough of Dempagumi.inc, born from Akihabara DearStage: we speak with producer Fukushima Maiko, also known as "Mofuku-chan;" members Furukawa Mirin and Naruse Eimi; Maeyamada Ken'ichi, also known as Hyadain, who has worked with the girls on many of their songs; and music producer Kamo Keitarou, who was greatly affected by Dempagumi.inc. We now delve into the background of how Dempagumi.inc, a collection of misfits, came to be the representatives of the 2010 idol scene.
Interview, article: Onoda Mamoru
Interview cut photography: Soga Mime
What the girls all had in common was that that they were otaku
It was all well and good to form the idol group that would become Dempagumi (short for Dempagumi.inc), but at Akihabara DearStage, no one was really looking to be a participate. Naturally. The cast members didn't want to be idols. Whether it was the area of Akihabara or inside DearStage, the subject of the girls' admiration was not 3D (idols), but 2D (anime).
The lone exception was Furukawa Mirin. Furukawa loved idols and was a hardcore idol applicant, undertaking and failing auditions for the likes of AKB48 and SKE48. Her long-held ambitions were fulfilled when the manager of DearStage and then managing director of moe Japan, Mofuku-chan (Fukushima Maiko) started an idol project. She quickly wound up at her wit's end, however, for "when I surveyed everyone there for girls I could put together with Mirin-chan (Furukawa), there was absolutely no one."
"At the time there wasn't a single person. From the start and even for a while after, Aizawa Risa only had interest in 90s voice actresses, and Eitaso (Naruse Eimi) only had interest in 90s anime. (Yumemi) Nemu was a zealous otaku for Kanzen Maid Sengen and she wanted to be like them: that's why she joined DearStage. Those are the people we formed the group with. Mirin, who simply wanted to be an idol, was the only true believer.
That's why we went for the sneak attack to drag them in, saying, 'If you join Dempagumi we might sing songs for anime.' We did already have a tie-in with a PC game ("Kiss+kiss de owanari" was the opening theme to 'Tropical KISS')" (Mofuku-chan).
The first generation members ended up as Furukawa, who hopelessly set on being an idol, and the others who got strong-armed in. There was a difference in the level of enthusiasm, to be sure. Really, the way the members describe the details of their formation differ to a surprising degree. First, Furukawa's perspective:
"I originally was working at another maid cafe, but I came to DearStage lured by the prospect of being able to sing. The sort of idol I wanted to be was someone like Morning Musume. or SPEED, singing and dancing and making a lot of TV appearances: I wanted to do all of that. It was definitely different from how the other girls felt, in that sense, but to be honest, I sort of didn't really care. I didn't really think about what was going on back then, and I felt like girls who just happened to be there would be more popular than girls who wanted to be idols" (Furukawa).
In contrast to Furukawa's cool outlook on the situation, Naruse was displeased to join. She witnessed Dempagumi's first concert, a moment to remember. That day, she was there to help take polaroids and sell merchandise at the venue. When asked about her impressions, she hesitates, asking, "Is it okay to say how I really felt...?"
"I had absolutely no interest in 3D idol groups. Even though I loved 3D voice actresses. That day someone told me, 'Ei, Dempagumi is going to be there, so you have to go!' ...but to be honest, what I saw left no impression on me. I guess if anything, I was kind of excited to see Nemu trying her best to sing and dance. But that's because Nemu and I had hung out before" (Naruse).
Why did she maintain such a distance from the 3D world back then? From her story, we can see even from the outside how deep-seated her feelings were.
"Maybe it's not so much that I didn't have interest in 3D, but that I was anti-3D. Thinking back now, my outlook was so narrow, it even startles me (laughs). When idols got involved with my favorite anime and manga, my feelings were like, 'Ah... it's World War 3.' It seriously bothered me. Whenever I'd hear about idols back then, I had this impression that they were just controlled by grown adults... this image of them having no freedom" (Naruse).
When she talks about this, she frequently follows up with statements like, "Of course now I don't have that sort of distorted view at all," or, "But once I actually joined Dempagumi, it was completely self-produced." Even though there's no need for concern now, even non-fans would probably notice that what's significant here is seeing how completely different the ideologies of the members were.
So then, why these members? It's probably the case of there not being anyone who really matched Mirin, but it's not the case that just anyone would have worked. Mofukuchan had a firm concept for the group in mind, so naturally she reached out to the people she thought would fit in with that.
"It's not that I had gathered together a bunch of otaku, it's that I had a bunch of girls who I looked at and said, 'What do they all have in common?' And it was that they were all otaku. That was the jumping-off point. What I really remember is when we appeared on the show Nadalle no Ana (Fuji TV Networks), a show that Chihara Junior hosted. The thing about TV is that they ask you for a neat and tidy concept beforehand, like, 'What defines your group? What is your selling point?' I was freaked out by the whole thing, so I hammered out this concept of Dempagumi.inc being otaku idols, but all 5 of the members are otaku of different things. Mirin is a game otaku, Atobe Miu is a yaoi otaku... that's how I explained it. It was a concept built out of desperation, if I dare say, but I guess it was something that was really easy to convey through TV" (Mofukuchan).
The important thing was to grab their attention, like "What the heck is this!?"
Idols who didn't want to be idols. With that as Dempagumi.inc's starting point, it would seem like problems maintaining and managing the group wouldn't be out of the ordinary. Truthfully, the early days of the group were marked by hectic member changes. The group was formed in December of 2008 with members Furukawa Mirin and Owata Akari. In June of 2009, Aizawa Risa and Yumemi Nemu joined, whereupon the group name changed from Dempagumi to Dempagumi.inc. In June of 2010, Naruse Eimi and Atobe Miu joined. In July, Owata graduated. In December of 2011, Atobe graduated, and Mogami Moga and Fujisaki Ayane joined... until finally the lineup solidified.
"They kept telling me for years that they wanted to sing anime songs. There were several members whose only motivation for being idols, perhaps, was that someday they might get to sing songs for anime. The whole foundation for them was wanting to sing anisongs and become 2D characters. We were given jobs to do songs for anime after a little while, and then we had tie-ups with mobile apps that turned them into 2D characters... so little by little, I guess we did actually feel like, 'If we work really hard as Dempagumi, our dreams will come true'" (Mofukuchan)
Naruse's reflections on deciding to join Dempagumi.inc support Mofukuchan's statements: "When I heard that Hata Aki was writing the lyrics and Koike Masaya was composing... that's when I really made up my mind." Hata was the artist behind Lucky☆Star's theme song, "Motteke! Sailor-fuku." To otaku, she is a god. Apparently, when the members were first told that Hata was writing their song "Kiss+kiss de owaranai," the members broke down crying on the spot, saying, "Are you joking!? THE Hata Aki writing for us!?"
Koike, who handled the composition, is also a legend in the world of anisong, having been part of the musical unit UNDER17 with Momoi Haruko. For these two to team up was unimaginable for the Dempagumi members. Even with the dream team setting the stage for them, they didn't let it go to their heads. The members started moving in the same direction at long last.
"Meeting Wienners was big for us. When I first heard about them, I thought, 'Oh, if you had a girl singing this, it would totally be a dempa song.' Strictly speaking, there were some subtle differences between them and dempa songs that had been out there for a while, but my reaction was that this meant we could just make new kinds of dempa songs" (Mofukuchan).
Dempa is a musical genre that emerged in the early 2000s. At first, it was primarily used in mature PC games, but later on it expanded into the greater world of anisong. Musical features of the genre include the following: "progressive-style music with repeated, abrupt changes in key;" "high-speed rhythm and rapid-fire vocals;" "high energy tracks featuring heavy use of orchestra hit and synth bass." Dempagumi.inc was built around this sound, and Mofukuchan went through many delicate meetings with creators over it.
"I thought I wouldn't get anyone to listen to the music without some kind of extreme component. I felt like the important thing was to first grab their attention, like, 'What the heck is this!?' If you get unlucky at idol events, there can around 30 different units all performing one after another so each act only gets about 15 minutes to perform. It's difficult for anyone to leave a really lasting impression in that sort of set-up" (Mofuku-chan).
But audiences went crazy, like they'd been hit with a shot of adrenaline, after hearing the ultrafast artificial beats that humans can barely even clap along to. There are many who hold the view that Dempagumi.inc invented the concept, now common in the idol scene, of these high-energy tracks. On the other side of things, however, Dempagumi.inc also had broad-reaching emotional songs, like their cover of Ozawa Kenji's 'Tsuoyoi Kimochi, Tsuyoi Ai' or the Kaseki Cider-penned mellow number 'Kuchidzuke Kibonnu.'
"Hello!wota are generally people who like Shibuya-style things, I feel. So I was consciously trying to work within that framework. Like I wanted to reach people who didn't normally listen to idol music.
I also loved the feel of songs that like Ogura Yuko or Yoshikawa Hinano would sing. Ogura's 'Onna no ko♡Otoko no ko' (written and composed by Konishi Yasuharu) is just the best, in my opinion. It's bad at first pass but it's actually really appealing, or rather I should say it has a lot of kitschy charm to it. I sent an offer to Kaseki Cider because I really liked him when I was younger and I felt like it couldn't hurt to try, and by some miracle he accepted. Idol music is exceptionally compatible with him or Shibuya-style, I'm happy to say" (Mofuku-chan).
Their cover of Beastie Boys' 'Sabotage' also continues their personal brand of musical expression. Just getting popular with odd dempa songs could make them a niche group, but ending as a group popular only to those in the know was never their plan.
"All those creators, starting with Hyadain, our choreographer Yumiko, and then Toys Factory... it was gradual, but things had been building up around us. Right around the time of 'Future Diver,' yeah. Our CD sales still weren't anything special, but we started to feel higher expectations surrounding us, like we could be making a new type of idol. That really gave me the motivation to just get out there and do it" (Furukawa).
The intersection of creativity and popularity
They signed a contract with major label Toys Factory on March 11, 2011. After discussions with Dempagumi.inc's side had completed, the head of Toys Factory appeared at DearStage in triumph. Immediately after was the Great East Japan earthquake.
"I think it changed the way a lot of Japanese people thought about things, because the reality of people dying hit hard; essentially we realized that we each have only one life to live. Society's values changing means that the message idols send to the world also changes. For that to be the day that Dempagumi was signed is what I call some kind of fate" (Mofuku-chan).
My first media interaction with the Dempagumi.inc members was later, at the start of 2012. It was backstage at a live house, where I made the most of the spare time between performances at a music festival to interview them. I could tell that Mogami and Fujisaki, who had only just joined, were nervous, but the rest of them were completely uninhibited. I remember the differences between those making assertive statements and those in disagreement being quite extreme.
Naruse was the one who, in the middle of the interview, asked if she could eat while shoving the bento provided for her into her mouth. The other members, taken aback by this strange sudden development, chided her. Naruse didn't care in the least, saying, "What? It's fine." A small quarrel then broke out between the members. I took a break from the interview at this point.
As someone who had gotten used to seeing young teen idols giving me deep bows and saying "good morning" even at night, it was an extremely refreshing sight. As far as entertainment industry etiquette goes, the actions taken by the Dempagumi.inc members would probably score a 0 out of 100. Still, it did not leave an unfavorable impression on me at all. In fact I found their innocence, unbound by industry rules, to be charming, and I admired that they tried to answer my questions sincerely, even if hesitantly. There's no point in comparing them to the purist idols that come out of major entertainment companies. It's just that the streets have a style of their own.
Even among the members who admonished Naruse and her bento, most of them couldn't make eye contact. What hung in the air in that dressing room was decidedly not the aura of fabulous entertainers, but that weird awkwardness that only serious otaku possess. After we left, my editor and cameraman laughed, saying, "They're the real thing." It was abundantly clear that these were not characters they had made up.
Even before they got their big break, Dempagumi.inc were thought of highly by members of the media and music industry. Kamo Keitaro, for instance, was one person charmed by them. Kamo was the director of Toshiba EMI (now under Universal Music) who discovered a large number of skilled rock bands when they were newcomers, like Ulfuls, NUMBER GIRL, Kishidan, Base Ball Bear, Soutaiseiriron, Mrs. GREEN APPLE, etc. Meeting Dempagumi.inc opened his eyes to the world of idols, however, and he currently works as the producer for Philosophy no Dance.
"What spurred my interest in them was the magazine MARQUEE. It had been a rock magazine up to that point, but then it suddenly featured Dempagumi.inc on the cover. Matsumoto Masayuki, the editor-in-chief, had gotten really into them, and that's when I started taking an interest in them, too; I just felt like there was something about them. When I actually sat down and listened to their music, I was shocked by 'Demparade Japan,' because it was so innovative, it was like nothing else in the world. The video was fun, too, and then I thought they had excellent taste in covering Ozawa Kenji's 'Tsuyoi Kimochi, Tsuyoi Ai.'
My first time going to DearStage was in June of 2012, and that had a huge impact on me. Truly, from the bottom of my heart, I had never seen anything like it. And Mofuku-chan was a force on two fronts: one, she was the first female producer of a female idol group to be a hit, and two, she was an original. Like if you compare originality between Japanese idols and Japanese noise artists like Haino Keiji, I think it's the same, in this case" (Kamo).
Kamo once tweeted, "I think you can understand the difference in entertainment value from other idols if you see Dempagumi.inc as The Velvet Underground, Mofuku-chan as Andy Warhol, DearStage as The Factory, and Akihabara as NY." Any musician can hit a wall when it comes to the intersection of both creativity and popularity, but Dempagumi.inc broke through that barrier.
'W.W.D' said, "This, this is our reality"
The single that would completely change the fate of the group was released in January of 2013. The title: 'W.W.D.' The lyrics were comprised of true stories from all the members, and it's the song you could call the group's autobiography. "I was bullied, so I didn't leave my room;" "Puberty was cruel, everyone pulled away;" "The radio was my only friend;" "I was always, always holed up in my room playing online games;" "My hands weren't enough, so I used my feet to push the function keys;" "There was nowhere for me to exist" ...Provocative phrases unbecoming of idols, but the members bare their souls, yelling, "We're starting from the negative, don't underestimate us!" Mofuku-chan talks about how the song came to be.
"The song we wanted to was really 'Kai'in bangou no uta' (Onyanko Club). We clearly expressed as such to Hyadain (Maeyamada Ken'ichi). He immediately responded that he understood, and then the subject became, 'Well then, please tell me something personal about each of the members'" (Mofuku-chan).
In the following discussions they gave it to him straight. It went something like, "Mirin=game otaku. Former shut-in. Bullied in school. Wanted to be an idol so went for auditions and failed them all..." and "Eitaso=massive otaku, left the countryside aiming for Akihabara, but was unhappy every day. Was recommended by her online friends to work at a maid cafe after lamenting all her time devoted on games, that's how she came to DearStage."
"Unfortunately all that came out were these little sad pieces of their lives, but that can't be helped: that's their reality. Then, we got a sample of the lyrics he wrote. We were startled, of course. I mean he hadn't written one positive thing. At first we we decided against it. Hyadain, this can't be it, right? This isn't 'Kai'in bangou no uta' at all" (Mofuku-chan).
Hyadain also reflects on his state of mind at the time.
"These girls aren't those quintessential beauties, or people who went down the path of an idol after passing an audition without any difficulty, as 'Kai'in bangou no uta' sings about. So I wanted to bring out a feel more for where they are in life right now, their desperation. I was actually surprised when they told me it was a no-go, because I felt like this was the only way it could go. Doing something normal doesn't fit Dempa, after all. To be honest, I don't understand the reason why fans approved of W.W.D, but isn't it nice that you feel like they're speaking their truth?" (Hyadain)
"Well, it's really just as he says. It's not Hyadain's fault the lyrics came out that way, because the cause of it is that we're the ones who gave him exclusively things like that to work with. When we asked for feedback from people, very cautiously, each and every person said they thought it was great. But I had absolutely no confidence in it (laughs)" (Mofuku-chan).
The song gathered support from many who heard it, and so the direction the group should move in decided itself. W.W.D is packed with, "This, this is our reality." The 6 of them became what the era needed.
"What kind of group is Dempagumi? What sets you apart from other groups? ...the answers to these sorts of questions were always negatives in regards to idols, no matter what. But that's really all they are. So we would explain ourselves just like that, "Oh they're otaku, they're gloomy, and we made an idol group out of these girls," and like TV networks would laugh and find it funny. Thinking about it now, they might have been laughing at us, not with us, though. I knew in any case that these components of 'otaku' and 'unsatisfied with the real world' would go over well, but somehow for people to empathize with that... well, that was unexpected" (Mofuku-chan).
From the Candies era to Matsuda Seiko, Morning Musume., up through AKB48, the reputation of idols was fixed as those who shined and sparkled. They were objects of worship, the boys you want to date, the girls you want to be like. And yet, from the very start, Dempagumi.inc were disillusioned, and they were definitely a new beast in that respect. The result was that that attitude garnered support and sent them on their way up to stardom, but just how much of this was intentional? When asked, Mofuku-chan gave a bitter smile, "We didn't plan on any of these things."
"The fact is that I wanted to a make Hello!Pro-like group, but there was no Suzuki Airi at DearStage, so what can you do. I decided rather than try to force something that wasn't there, I'd work with what I had, and Dempagumi was what I was able to make. We didn't have any connections or funds, either. But if I had had Suzuki Airi, I wouldn't have made a unit like Dempagumi. I would have made ℃-ute" (Mofuku-chan).
A sort of revolution for the disillusioned
Riding on that vigor, Dempagumi.inc went into top gear without pausing, stepping on the accelerator. Osaka Castle Concert Hall, Hibiya Open Air Concert Hall, Nippon Budokan, Yoyogi National Gymnasium, Makuhari Messe... fans crammed in with barely any room to breathe, cheering on members like they were saying prayers to them. Management was also receiving offers to perform overseas one after another. These 6 became representatives of the 2010s idol scene.
A scene from "World Wide Dempa Tour 2014 in Nippon Budokan ~Yume de Owaranyo!~" (May 2014, Tokyo, Nippon Budokan)
A scene from "Demparty Night de Party" (February 2015, Tokyo, Yoyogi National Gymnasium)
Did everyone respond to Dempagumi.inc's way of life and lyrics? At first, the image Mofuku-chan had was, as an example, a girl working in obscurity at a maid cafe. But if you think about it, there are maybe 1000 girls like that in the whole country, in any case a minority, niche group. It's also difficult to imagine filling up Yoyogi Gymnasium for 2 days with shut-ins and the unemployed.
"I think there's a side where people were tired of the times they were living in, for one thing. You could say society was starting to fall ill. What shocked me was how many people around the world had this darkness inside, way more than I had thought. I was astonished at how many people had been bullied at some point in their lives; bullying is a way bigger issue in modern society than the news makes it out to be. It made me realize that people who have such painful experiences that they shut themselves away to stay online only really aren't a small niche group.
Honestly, I haven't experienced that sort of despair in my life, so those girls were something new to me. Like, wait a minute, what do you mean you're in pain? When I met these girls in Akihabara, I learned what wrist cutting was for the first time. I think this was before 'mental health' became a buzzword, but there it was teeming with cutting and depression. There were a lot of girls who came looking for jobs or to audition that seemed like they had mental health struggles or were suicidal. That's the reality of Akihabara... well, the reality of Japan" (Mofuku-chan).
Mofuku-chan's statement hits on an extremely important issue, beyond talking about this decade of idols. How did life change for Japanese young people in the ten years since 2010? Perpetuating inequality, the poverty industry, exploitative business practices, the rapid increase of irregular employment, the hell of student loan repayment, compensated dating, the decline in international competitiveness, the decreasing birthrate and aging population, the increase in people who can't get married... Make no mistake, Japan is a difficult place to make a living today for so many. And can we even say that the older generations understand the distress of the newer? You can't help but feel that the reason Dempagumi.inc received such enthusiastic support was, frankly, because of these things.
"When I did a fashion show in Roppongi, I got high praise from all these fashionable people. It was so shocking to me. I had only ever lived as a creepy wota, only ever fitting in in Akihabara. I think that was when I changed how I think about things. Dempagumi can go out here, we don't have to hide..." (Naruse)
Idols are in the business of cheering up their fans, but in truth Naruse believes that many idols also get cheered up by the fans. The young girl who unwillingly became an idol had found her reason for living, and in the meantime has even been working as the voice actress for the main character of the national anime 'Star☆Twinkle Pretty Cure.' At the press conference announcing her role, she spoke with a flood of emotion about how her dreams had come true, but it was also a dream that fans had given her.
"I get letters from fans, saying things like, 'Eitaso is an otaku just like me and she's doing her best, so I will do my best, too,' or, 'I feel like I can go back to school now!' ...they let me know different things about themselves, so it feels like we're living our lives together. I want to always be a light in someone's life, I have ever since I became an idol" (Naruse).
Currently, Dempagumi.inc continues its activities with a new line-up, following the departures of Mogami Moga and Yumemi Nemu and the additions of Kaname Rin and Nemoto Nagi. The world was shocked after Furukawa continued with the group after announcing her marriage, and then with Yumemi announcing her marriage to Bakarhythm. Lately, Mofuku-chan says the members have been telling her they want more new members to join. Ordinarily, adding new members to the group is the a despised idea for an idol, as one could think that one's own position is threatened, perhaps. It is true, however, that for a group to keep going, new generations are essential. In their 12th year running, Dempagumi.inc haven't the slightest desire to have their story come to an end.
Music has truly come to function as a reflection of society and the times we live in, and Dempagumi.inc were open-minded enough to express the reality that young people in this country face. From the time they emerged, they crossed over between Akihabara culture and idol culture, which were previously like oil and water, and they gave a great deal of hope to people who were stuck on the fringes of society: it's okay for even us to dream, we all shine bright. One could expect that Dempagumi.inc have prevented a number of people from committing suicide, and there are a large number of idols now who joined this industry because they looked up to the group. The legacy of Dempagumi.inc might just be a sort of revolution for the disillusioned.
(Honorifics have been omitted, except for Mofuku-chan as this is part of her alias)