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Japanese Pop Culture Throwbacks: Legend of SPEED

Posted by Motifive, 05 December 2016 · 1308 views

As idol fans, we're hardly surprised now when we see 12 to 13 year old idols debut. Some Japanese idol fans even think 12 to 13 is the prime age for idol debuts even though girls that age are either in their last year of elementary school or first year of middle school. It wasn't always that way. In the late 80s, during the idol boom, idols that debuted at about 15 to 16 were considered quite young. Twenty years ago, an idol group debuted that set new hurdles and set new precedents for the idol world.

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But first, some context.

In the spring of 1995, idol group Amuro Namie with SUPER MONKEY'S (originally known as SUPER MONKEY's) landed their first Oricon Top 10 single TRY ME ~Watashi wo Shinjite~ after revamping their image to a dance group in miniskirts and high heeled boots dancing to Eurobeat, a sound at the time only found in clubs. An interest not only in Amuro and MAX formed, but also in where exactly this group came from.

Okinawa Actor's School. Opened in 1983, the school received little attention and struggled until SUPER MONKEY'S received positive reception following a performance on a local Okinawan program in 1992. That same year, SUPER MONKEY'S were sent to Tokyo to debut and the school formed an 8 member group (BRAND NEW KIDS) made up of students Makino thought were most talented and would eventually send to debut after SUPER MONKEY'S. After a small increase in members, select members of BRAND NEW KIDS contributed vocals to a locally released single CD in early 1995.

In late 1995, BRAND NEW KIDS members Imai Eriko, Shimabukuro Hiroko, Uehara Takako and Arakaki Hitoe were chosen as a group. Makino chose Imai and Shimabukuro for their vocal talent and experience performing on television, Uehara for her looks and Arakaki for her dance skills. The four were sent to perform on 'THE Yoru Mo Hippare' (known as Hippare), which at the time was hosted by popular comedian Miyake Yuuji and had the girls' seniors Amuro and MAX as regulars.

On November 11, 1995, the four girls debuted on television. The girls came out wearing sweaters, miniskirts and high heels and performed globe's 'joy to the love.' The audience and the panel of regulars were surprised, but their surprise turned to shock when the girls revealed their ages. Oldest member Arakaki was 14 and youngest member Shimabukuro was only 11 and in her 5th year in elementary school. Not only were they quite talented, they were shockingly quite young too. Amuro, who sat by her juniors, tried to remind Miyake and the rest of the panel once they began fawning over the new girls, that she was quite young too - after all, she debuted on the program when she was 17 and this also shocked the host and the program's panel at the time. "Be quiet, grandma!" Miyake yelled jokingly. He continued to joke that the girls were 'fresh' and Amuro was now a 'grandma.' This joke earned a lot of buzz but still became a running gag whenever SPEED and Amuro were featured together. Similar jokes are still made by idol fans today when comparing elementary to middle school aged idols to idols who are 18+.

After a few months of taking in fan suggestions for a group name, the group was given the name SPEED. Somehow it perfectly summed up what Japan found so appealing about SPEED - freshness, youth, energy.

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Now all they needed was a strong, catchy song to live up to the name.

Producer Ijichi Hiromasa first met SPEED in the spring of 1996. He too, was shocked by the group, and found making a song that would resonate with people and capture what SPEED was supposed to be about difficult. After the suggestion that SPEED should be 'Japan's answer to TLC', he wanted to stray from the Eurobeat and dance music image Amuro and MAX had to something more spirited, more 'funky.' The label announced SPEED would debut in the early summer and recording began on April 29, 1996. The label's president had constant complaints - "It's not 'groovy' enough", "The chorus isn't that good", "More energy." It took seven recordings until the president was satisfied. Recording finally wrapped up in June of 1996, two months after it had begun. By then, the label was worried about whether or not the single would be successful - it didn't match up to the dance sound Komuro Tetsuya used to dominate the charts and worried whether or not the group would be accepted, after all youngest member Hiro was still in elementary school. The president told the members if the single managed to sell even 300,000, the company would consider it a massive hit. Those numbers would be impressive now, but it was a small number compared to the artists and groups that topped the charts with singles that totaled half a million to a million copies in sales.

Finally, in August of 1996, their debut single was released.



Body & Soul debuted at #18 on the charts and quickly climbed the charts to a peak position of #4. The group had already made a name for themselves being the youngest group to debut with an average age of 13, this fact was stamped all over their music television and magazine appearances, but it was different seeing the girls in person. On stage, SPEED was cool and professional, it was off stage that surprised people. Music Station host Tamori said he felt "awkward" talking to elementary school and middle school aged girls on his program, comedian duo Downtown purposely made jokes that flew over the girls' heads for laughs and other music program hosts talked to them in what sounded like 'parentese.'

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SPEED continued to release a string of popular singles, all of which had lyrics that covered a range of topics from love to mistrust of adults (reflective of the sentiment of adolescents at a time when delinquency was at an all-time high) to female empowerment. SPEED's success made it increasingly difficult for NHK to pass up on inviting SPEED to Kouhaku, despite their young age. In 1997, they were made the 'top batter' for the red team, a slot that was at the time reserved for the hottest acts for the year, given to SPEED for the success of their winter ballad White Love (which sold a whopping 1.8 million copies and held the record for highest selling single by a female group for 16 years) and the fact that entertainers under the age of 18 couldn't appear on live television in the later evening. The slot the group occupied is now known as the 'children's slot', as younger idols perform in this slot now due to Japan's children's labor laws and to accommodate for the younger children watching the program.

After the end of their Dome tour in 1998, making them the first female group and youngest act to do so, 1999 seemed to go off to a bumpy start. Their first single of the year sold a little over half of what their last single sold. The group then announced they would be pursuing solo efforts on the side. Even members Hitoe and Takako, who had never had any singing parts in any of SPEED's songs, would be releasing solo music. Between their single sales taking a huge dive, the girls starting highly successful solo careers (Takako's first single being the most successful, interestingly enough), and no tour announced for the year, fans of the group were uneasy about the future.

Then on October 5, 1999, SPEED announced they would be disbanding in the spring. The country was shocked by this news. Though people began moving on from SPEED as a group to the now hugely popular Morning Musume as Love Machine sat at #1 in its fourth week, it still caused a shockwave throughout the industry. A final Dome tour was announced for the winter. Their final Kouhaku performance secured television ratings of 55%, about 10% higher than the program's average ratings.

In the spring, SPEED was no more. By then Morning Musume was the sole national idol group by that time, completely flipping the standard SPEED, and Amuro, had set in the mid to late 90s. 4th Generation members Tsuji and Kago were the exact same age youngest members Eri and Hiro were when they debuted, yet they were completely different in presence and skill. Eri even received heavy backlash for saying in a 2001 magazine interview that she was "disappointed" that idols [at that time] were becoming more about personality than talent and that the public didn't seem to mind.

Almost decades later, SPEED is remembered today for transforming the idol world, being the sole idol group to dominate in what many idol fans call the 'Idol Ice Age' of the 90s. Young girls and teenaged girls who copied their fashion, practiced their choreography, belted their songs at karaoke and bought Tessera Shampoo and other products simply because SPEED endorsed it, are considered "SPEED generation" (SPEED世代). And their influence still extends through the industry today: Perfume, coming from the first class of students of the Hiroshima Actor's School (opened in the spring of 1999 following the demand for a sister school to Okinawa Actor's School), have stated they formed to become the 'next SPEED', even inheriting their record of female group with the most #1 albums and becoming the first female group to perform at Tokyo Dome since SPEED.

They also helped set the precedent that being younger is 'fresher' in the music industry and especially within the idol industry. The year following SPEED's debut 12 year old Fukuda Asuka made her debut with Morning Musume for her great singing skill, but still became the target of jokes and sometimes even ridicule for being a middle schooler in a mostly adult music industry. Still, most 12, 13 year old idols that debut today bear little resemblance to what the Okinawan idol group was about, their presence in the music industry is now normal because of an idol group who helped set the path for them.

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SPEED definitely was legendary. When they finally started selling their music in my country they just blew up. Their videos were played in between shows and when they started selling their photobooks and goods at music stores they sold out. They were the first real brush with J-pop people from my generation had. It's crazy to think that Eri is a politician now....

Oh, I could totally add on to this wonderful blog about their solo careers, their three returns, and what they all are doing now. You know, they didn't really do anything this year considering it was their 20th anniversary! MAX went out and performed like crazy for their 20th anniversary, even as far as getting all 5 members together on the same stage! But the SPEED members have so much going on. Eriko being a politician for Japan's democratic party, HITOE getting married...no one really knows where she is! I'm sure SPEED members know but aren't telling to protect her privacy. Takako did perform solo this year for the first time in years! There was some sort of rising-pro show going on, and she sung "my first love" :-) She's mostly been in musicals and such. Hiro's always in-between stuff, always doing something music related. I loved her 2013 Okinawa-inspired album so much! This year, hiro, Eriko and Takako did sing Body & Soul and another song I think...no HITOE though...so there's our 20th anniversary celebration! I really wish they all could have done one show with all four of them. I hope hiro and Eriko can get their ERIHIRO unit going again too!!!

It's crazy to think that Eri is a politician now....

 

It's hard to wrap my mind around the fact that the messy, immature and goofy Eriko is a politician now. Weird.

 

 

Oh, I could totally add on to this wonderful blog about their solo careers, their three returns, and what they all are doing now. You know, they didn't really do anything this year considering it was their 20th anniversary! MAX went out and performed like crazy for their 20th anniversary, even as far as getting all 5 members together on the same stage! But the SPEED members have so much going on. Eriko being a politician for Japan's democratic party, HITOE getting married...no one really knows where she is! I'm sure SPEED members know but aren't telling to protect her privacy. Takako did perform solo this year for the first time in years! There was some sort of rising-pro show going on, and she sung "my first love" :-) She's mostly been in musicals and such. Hiro's always in-between stuff, always doing something music related. I loved her 2013 Okinawa-inspired album so much! This year, hiro, Eriko and Takako did sing Body & Soul and another song I think...no HITOE though...so there's our 20th anniversary celebration! I really wish they all could have done one show with all four of them. I hope hiro and Eriko can get their ERIHIRO unit going again too!!!

 

I was hoping for a 20th anniversary special after they just disappeared a few years ago, but that's out now. But you know, after their 2nd regrouping, I just stopped paying attention aside from watching their concerts. The 2003 reunion was great, the 2008 and onward reunion felt like they were trying to prove something. That self cover album wasn't my cup of tea at all. It lacked energy, focused too much on trying to show off they were 'better' singers. lol

 

And I'm really rooting for Takako. She's had it tough, I wish her all the best. I'm not sure when Eri will return to music, she seems pretty gung ho on the politics front.

Love this post too. I've always wondered about whether Morning Musume was kind of weird for having girls as young as TsujiKago debut, but now I know they weren't the first ones. That's interesting!