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Japanese Pop Culture Throwbacks: 'Alternative' Idols of Yesteryear

Posted by Motifive, 06 July 2017 · 2170 views

By now you must be accustomed to seeing the phrase 'alternative idols' or 'niche idols' used by English speaking Japanese music and idol fans. The term started cropping up in the early 2010s with groups and it's been applied to groups who have a 'strange' concept that doesn't fit the norm. Most of these groups seem experimental and the fact that they do not fit the mainstream is what's supposed to make them so appealing.

Various groups have been stuck with the alternative idol tag. At the turn of the decade, Momoiro Clover Z, BABYMETAL and BiS were described as such. Some Japanese idol fans will even go farther and describe Perfume as alternative idols. In 2007, Quick Japan boldly stated that Perfume was 'restoring the meaning of the word idol.' Idol fans who craved something new after nearly a decade of Hello!Project's monopoly on the idol scene flocked to Perfume who seemed refreshingly different and made Perfume's debut original album a half million selling success.

You'll find tons of groups like these now that either seem like cheap money grab gimmicks or genuinely interesting concepts that try to 'refresh' the idol scene. Some of these have concepts that have idol fans either drawn to them or want to keep away. Witch idols, yanki idols, wrestling idols, male idols, otaku idols, etc. Most alternative idols now are waved off as being gimmicky and attempts to try and stand out among the hundreds of idol groups there are today all across the country, but 'alternative idols' didn't merely come to exist thanks to Perfume or thanks to the AKB boom. They have existed as far back as the conception of the idea of the Japanese idol. These were also groups that tried to separate themselves from or 'refresh' the idol image, picking concepts that seemed gimmicky at the time but may not seem all that unique now.

Most alternative idols of yesteryear that debuted prior to the 21st century failed because their concept was too strange for the market or they simply debuted too early with a concept that would be appreciated later (in some cases, decades later). The following are a few that are still remembered today to varying degrees for either their concepts or for the fact that they became successful even though they were different.

Golden Half (1970-1974)

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Though Pink Lady is often said to be the first idol group who popularized wearing sexy outfits for costumes and acting exaggeratedly sexy, they debuted six years after Golden Half who did it first. Golden Half came onto the scene in 1970 as a group made up of half Japanese members, the first idol group to do so.

While some idols would dabble in gravure, Golden Half made it a key feature of the group. They also focused on variety which became another key point of the group. At first, Japanese comedians would marvel over the fact that they were tall, pretty and not completely Japanese, a trend that has persisted on Japanese variety television through the decades. They then realized that Golden Half, especially member Eva, was actually pretty funny, and they landed some regular variety jobs.

Out of all of those variety jobs, Golden Half is well remembered for being regulars on the immensely popular variety program '8ji da yo! Zenin Shugo' hosted by comedian group and band The Drifters, who were national stars at that point. The combination of the two brought in stellar ratings on a weekly basis and inspired the program to keep hiring idols as regulars on the program even after Golden Half disbanded, the most famous of these being the famous idol group trio Candies.

Golden Half disbanded after group leader Yumi withdrew from the group and even with the group's two most popular members Maria and Eva still in the group, three piece Golden Half was not as popular as they were prior to Yumi's departure and sales declined sharply. The group disbanded after a final tie up single.

After their disbandment a spinoff group, Golden Half Special, was formed with new half Japanese members. Golden Half Special was far more gimmicky than the original Golden Half, making 'Golden' puns and singing disco songs, even covering the song YMCA (which was already covered with far more success by popular male artist Saijou Hideki just 5 months prior).

It didn't help that none of the members had any 'star factor', and lacked any real defining characteristics to make them memorable to the public. The original Golden Half had Maria, the group's youngest and original center, who was known for her 'cuteness' and beauty that had her appear in many dramas and films, and Eva, the group's mood maker who was known for being energetic, loud and dominating whatever variety program the group appeared on. The members of Golden Half Special didn't seem all that special in comparison, lacked defining characteristics and as such had far less exposure in the media (besides a few gravure appearances) than the original Golden Half.

LinLinLanLan (1974-1976)

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LinLinLanLan debuted at the height of the first foreigner/half Japanese wave when idols like Golden Half, Agnes Chan, Agnes Lum, Sherry and Anzai Maria were popular. Letilia (LinLin) and Katherine Barber (LanLan) were half 'American' and half Chinese twins, but instead of following the footsteps of Golden Half and other foreigner/half Japanese idols who were hypersexualized and even posed for gravure, they took on a different image. Despite not being Native American, they were dressed to look like 'little Indian dolls.' Their songs often made allusions to Native American culture and their costumes always reflected the same. This led to most assuming they were, in fact, Native American.

So while most idol duos at that time would wear the same costumes and hairstyles, LinLinLanLan took it one step further. Not only did they always stand in their same positions, a feature of most idol duos, they also made an effort to talk at the exact same time. This made them seem even more cartoonish, and they became more well known for their variety appearances than their music. As with all variety talents even now in Japan, their break eventually turned to overexposure, leading to a decline in their appearances and interest in them, and LinLinLanLan returned to their home country.

Starbow (1982-1984)

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Once every couple of years, 2channel or some variety television program will talk about idols of the past, and the name 'Starbow' will come up.

Starbow challenged the idol standard Matsuda Seiko set upon the industry: sweet, fragile, cute girls singing songs with lyrics just as soft as their looks. What also makes Starbow so memorable even to this date even though they were only active for a mere two years, was their concept. The group was an idea from the mind of Hosono Haruomi, a member of the electronic music band Yellow Magic Orchestra, the group that introduced the country to electronic music and technopop, which at the time was enjoying success as Japan's most popular music group.

At the time of their debut, members Nagi, Nami and Megu took on male stage names: IMATO, NAKATO and YAETO respectively. The media at the time called them a female group posing as men. A concept that was familiar to Japan thanks to the Takarazuka Revue. Starbow denied this and claimed they were genderless beings from outer space - the 'to' character at the end of their names representing the Big Dipper (斗), not the regularly seen suffix in male names. Doesn't seem so crazy now, but back when the idol industry was debuting dozens of Matsuda Seiko copies, it was a huge turnoff for idol fans and joke material for the media.

When they first appeared on television they made music program hosts nervous with their deadpan expressions and robotic movements to the tune of a techno song, all part of their cosmic concept. Their 'masculine' way of singing in deep voices, their exaggeratedly masculine way of carrying themselves when they were not performing and their very short hair, all part of Hosono's vision, was hard for Japan to take in at the time.

Soon enough what was considered the comedic novelty of their performances faded. The public could not accept them and Starbow was considered a commercial failure. They disbanded, but not before rebranding to suit the idol image at the time by wearing the Seiko-chan cut legions of idols mimicked, singing songs with floral and romantic imagery, and switching back to their real names.

Interestingly enough, Starbow sometimes gets credited for being the first technopop idol group, a title that usually goes to Perfume who debuted 21 years later.

Saint Four (1984-1987)

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Saint Four is remembered nowadays for being the 'Momoiro Clover Z of the 1980s', and even more recently, as their members were reunited on television a couple of years ago. But they are also remembered for setting a lot of precedents in the standards of idols.

They debuted in 1984 after forming two years earlier, coincidentally the year Starbow disbanded. They quickly became a hot topic due to their aerobics inspired costumes and for the use of wrestling moves and acrobatics in their choreography. They were the first idol group to incorporate acrobatics into their routines, a feat that became more appreciated and associated with male idol company Johnny's in the late 1980s and 1990s. They were also the first idol group to have a member always wearing glasses and the first idol group to consistently wear costumes in their member colors.

While other idols during the 1980s would mimick Matsuda Seiko who was famously one of the first idols to use mannerisms we naturally associate with idols today, such as using cutesy words or 'baby talk', Saint Four was banned from their management to do so. Their image relied on them being tough, like heroes, and so their manager would charge the members a fee of 100 yen for each word if they were caught speaking or acting cutely on television.

Wink (1988-1996)

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Wink is known for being the last idol group to find success during the 1980s idol boom. Suzuki Sachiko and Aida Shoko were the winner and runner up, respectively, of a beauty contest held by UTB magazine (then Up to Boy magazine). A year later, they formed the idol duo known as Wink and debuted in the spring with Sugar Baby Love, a cover of The Rubettes' 1974 song of the same name. The song failed to make an impact and charted at #20 on Oricon.

It wasn't until their third single, Ai ga Tomaranai ~Turn It into Love~, a cover of Kylie Minogue's Turn It into Love, that they started to become a hot topic with the public. In the video, the girls were dressed like dolls, danced with expressions of melancholy and posed quite literally like mannequins. Their mysterious nature paired with the dancepop ballad became a hit, peaking at #1 on Oricon.

Wink came at a time when lolita fashion was slowly gaining traction in Tokyo, their debut just a year before fashion magazine Ryuukou Tsuushin called lolita fashion an 'epidemic' in some districts of Tokyo. Their mixture of romantic era and gothic era concepts and videos where they danced in front of dark, gloomy backgrounds stood out starkly among the bright, peppy idol groups that were debuting one by one in a last ditch effort to continue the 1980s idol boom. They kept up their 'doll concept' even during television performances, performing and dancing with blank, expressionless faces.

Just a couple of years into the 1990s, the public was no longer interested in the whole sad, gothic lolita schtick. Their singles began charting outside of the top 10. They first attempted to try more cheerier concepts (even smiling for the first time on the single jacket of their 1993 single, Kekkon Shiyou Ne) before trying a single with a natural concept, wearing little to no makeup in the video and wearing simple outfits. It was met with warmer reception but their next couple of singles saw further and further decline.

By 1995, JIVE INTO THE NIGHT ~Yaban na Yoru ni~, was a cover of a popular Eurobeat song and another attempt to rebrand. The duo now wore more revealing outfits and 'edgier' hairstyles, and fans were not too keen on the new look. Not only that, but they accused Wink of 'selling out' as Amuro Namie with SUPER MONKEY's had just popularized the Eurobeat sound mere months prior. The public too, thought it was a 'ripoff' and thought their dancing was lifeless compared to Amuro's. The single charted at #92 on the Oricon Charts and after a final single that felt closer to their roots, Wink finally disbanded.

Date Kyoko (1996-2001)

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Before Hatsune Miku and the other vocaloids, before Idol Master and the like, there was Date Kyoko. Date was created as DK-96 (Digital Kid 1996 ver.) as the world's first virtual idol. She was 'signed' to Horipro Entertainment, which at the time was most famous for being home to some of the most popular idols of the 1970s.

Whereas Hatsune Miku and other 'anime idols' are modeled to appeal to the tastes of anime otaku, Date was modeled in the image of popular idols at the time. She was modeled with pieces of every hugely popular idol at the time: a singing voice that reminded most of Uchida Yuki, the 'everyday girl' personality and cheekiness of Hirosue Ryoko, the dance 'skills' of Amuro Namie.

She was even given a very detailed back story to make her all the more relatable. Her parents owned a restaurant, she had a little sister, she liked to collect sneakers, her friends called her 'DateKyo' and her ideal date spot was a local aquarium... She would 'answer' surveys from magazines coyly, saying her 'waist' was her favorite part of her body and that she didn't know much about computers.

Horipro aggressively pushed Date in the media. She appeared in CMs, appeared on radio shows, released a couple of singles. Even with all that, including interest from overseas and articles about her written from news outlets of various countries, and even with Date gaining considerable popularity with game and anime fans who were charmed by her CG looks, she disappeared from the limelight just as quickly as she came to the scene.

With Date's popularity being so shortlived, Horipro moved to try and build the sort of idol empire they were famous for in the 1970s by holding idol competitions and signing young girls as gravure idols and idol actresses, the most famous of those being Fukada Kyoko, Yuka, and Niiyama Chiharu, who very quickly became popular as rising idols.

After being 'shipped' to debut in Korea at the end of the 1990s, Date was revamped and 'returned' to Japan in 2001 to capitalize on the massive shift in both the image and style of idols. As her old birthdate would have made her over 20 years old and her previous interests and hobbies seeming dated at the time, she was aged down to be 16 years old again. In addition, she was modeled in a new image to resemble a more current idol look and given an even more childlike and cheekier personality influenced by the Morning Musume/Mini Moni boom in Japan. The second version of Date was marketed more as a 'digital mascot', but even then failed to get the same sort of attention she did the first time.

In between Date's first and second versions, Date's little sister Kaori debuted in 2000, with her backstory being that she was scouted by Horipro. Whereas the original Date Kyoko was focused on music, Kaori was featured in photobooks. Kaori, too, vanished from the public eye quickly after her debut.

DeepS/DPS (1997-2001)

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In the 1990s, the traditional pure, innocent idol of the 1980s was deemed 'uncool' and 'outdated.' Girls and young women were embracing the mantra super idol Amuro Namie sung about in her 1995 million selling single Chase the Chance ("I'm just having fun going with my non stop impulses", "We don't need boredom", "Without fun, life has no meaning", "Nobody can stop our wild and toughness") and copying her style. egg magazine was first published during Amuro's breakthrough year, with its first issue selling out completely. Amuro's style paved the way for the rise of the gyaru subculture in Japan, which had completely overtaken Tokyo's Shibuya district. It made sense the 1990s were considered the Idol Ice Age when most girls and young women thought the images associated with the word idol were old fashioned.

With the rise of street fashion, egg magazine put emphasis on their reader models. Where nowadays reader models are seen as the least 'prestigious' level of magazine modeling, back then they were seen as more genuine and as the true representations of gyaru fashion. After their first issue boasted that they had found the 'coolest girl in Shibuya', egg constantly advertised that they were always searching for 'the coolest girls in Shibuya' which made the district the mecca for Tokyo gyaru.

The magazine's reader models were considered 'goddesses' in the eyes of the magazine's readers and this brought fame to girls that were usually just regular high school students who wanted to become famous among their peers. Some reader models even became popular enough to appear on television, bringing further attention to the gyaru movement. With the interest in gyaru fashion on the rise, SPEED's producer Ijichi Hiromasa wanted to tap into the gyaru scene; he was unable to do so with his main project, SPEED, as it would clash with their image. He collaborated with egg magazine and chose three of the magazine's most popular reader models, CHIKA, AKI and HIRO who at the time were high school students with zero singing or performing experience.

Ijichi explained that unlike SPEED, deeps would be able to sing about the 'deep' teenaged problems SPEED could not (SPEED's youngest member was still a middle school student at the time) and wanted the group to represent Shibuya, so they were promoted as the 'representation of their generation.' In their early days they were marketed as the 'older sister' group of SPEED (because SPEED backwards is deeps) though the two groups were never shown to interact or be associated and the 'older sister' tagline was dropped later in their career.

Their tans, dyed hair and highlights couldn't resonate with the public who would not accept a real gyaru idol group. It seemed too realistic for the public to accept when their debut PV had images of seedy looking hotel rooms, cigarette vending machines, punching out nanpa. Still, they were like gods to girls their age who represented the gyaru movement. Where nowadays you might see alternative idol groups challenge the stereotypes of the pure, virginal idol, deeps perhaps was too ahead of their time.

soap (1996-1998)

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soap is perhaps one of the most mysterious idol groups to ever have existed. Most people don't remember the members themselves, the group itself, but their debut single is memorable to those who have heard it. Although they debuted a full year before deeps, they are not credited with being the first all gyaru idol group even though this was one of their sell points. The other was that they were 'hip hop idols' though only their first single had any kind of hip hop influence.

What makes them so mysterious is that they had an astounding lack of promotion despite their agency being the esteemed comedian based agency Yoshimoto Kogyo, who was enjoying plenty of success at the time with their comedians dominating the variety scene. No one knew anything about the members, except that member Ayumi had lent vocals to popular comedian Imada Koji's music album that same year. Though Yoshimoto Kogyo is now the agency of idol group NMB48, in the 1990s when they were home only to comedians, it was puzzling that three teenaged gyaru would be signed to the agency. No one knew where they came from and how they were signed by the agency.

What made them an even tougher sell, on top of being a gyaru idol group, was the lyrical content of their music. Their debut single, Love tte Nani Yo? (What the heck is "Love"?), seemed innocent enough. The song itself had a hip hop beat, with the girls singing a cheery, idol-like melody that contrasted with the beat. The song seems to be about a girl who is going on a trip with her boyfriend, which also seems innocent enough. In the first part of the chorus, the they sing about really loving snowboarding, which isn't so bizarre. Then comes the second part of the chorus...

Loveって何よ What the heck is "Love"?

彼氏なんかさ My boyfriend kind of

Sex超好き スキスキ Really loves sex, loves it loves it

Certainly a bombshell for the few who managed to hear this single at the time.

Gyaru during the 1990s had a bad rap for being associated with compensated dating and underaged sex. While deeps referenced this more subtly in their debut single, soap's debut single seemed to play up to this stereotype in the most direct way possible. Not much is known about their other releases, but their debut album was called Funyachin Tengoku (Hard-on Heaven). Perhaps it was Yoshimoto Kogyo's goal to create an idol group that would turn standards on its head or to poke even more holes into the idol standard that the 1990s had already started reforming, or maybe it was all just a silly joke to offend idol fans, but the complete lack of promotion in any form made it difficult to tell what they were thinking. And so, the intention behind soap still remains a mystery over 20 years later.

nico (2000-2001)

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As gyaru fashion came to a rise at the turn of the 1990s, so did Harajuku fashion with popular JUDY AND MARY vocalist YUKI leading the charge. As such, nico was another attempt to turn models into idols. While deeps was considered the idol answer to the gyaru scene, nico was the idol answer to the Harajuku fashion scene.

Higashino Yumi and Yokoyama Yuuki were two models from the popular magazine CUTiE. The two only debuted as models months earlier but were considered 'charisma level' models with middle school and high school girls idolizing them and wanting to be like them. So it was decided in the spring of 2000 the two would debut as an idol unit called nico, simply named for the fact that they were a two piece (2個) group. Not only would they be releasing music, they would be appearing in CMs, radio, variety and dramas just like any other idol would.

In May, their debut single Manatsu de Shu! was first heard in an ad for wakame soup with the word 'manatsu' (midsummer) replaced with the word wakame. The CM was memorable for the catchy song and the weird 'jumping dance' the girls did in their video. With the hype from the CM, the duo was marketed as the 'mysterious jumping unit.' They were in costumes designed by the popular Harajuku brand SUPER LOVERS and had member colors, with Higashino in yellow and Yokoyama in red. When the single was first heard in full on the radio, netizens on 2ch's music board who didn't pay too close attention to Hello!Project wondered if it was produced by Tsunku and some were surprised to find out it actually wasn't.

Their debut release event two months later was held at Ikebukuro Sunshine City to a large crowd of adoring middle school and high school aged female fans. They also held a successful handshake event and during its release week it was announced Manatsu de Shu! would be the theme song of a long running talk program aimed toward children and teens. They also appeared in a local NTT Docomo cellphone ad that aired in the Nagoya region. Despite a dance that intrigued people, tie up promotion, word of mouth online and the two models having a huge fan base, it may seem surprising that Manatsu de Shu! debuted outside of the top 30. It wasn't shocking considering how incredibly competitive the music industry was that time. Most of the top 30 the week after the single's release was still occupied with hit singles by popular artists that had been released between a month and half a year ago.

The following year, they appeared on the children's program Minna no Uta in a dance segment that would air all throughout the spring. After another two unsuccessful singles, one of which was another summer dance themed single produced by JUDY AND MARY member TAKUYA released in the wintertime, nico disbanded. Their failure in the music industry didn't put a dent in their popularity with Harajuku fashion followers and the duo released a fashion photobook, nicoland, to huge success.

Lucky Legs (2000-2003)

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Japan has had a fascination with legs for quite some time. Even more recently, Perfume started garnering attention for their 'beautiful legs', so did K-POP group Girls Generation when they made their Japanese debut. Debut era s/mileage received similar attention with their catchphrase being that they were the Japanese idol group with the shortest skirts. So the whole leg thing is nothing new.

All of the members of LUCKY LEGS were over the age of 20 and boasted 'adult sexiness.' This was not a new concept, as plenty of idol groups in the early 1990s (C.C. Girls, T-BACKS, -1, J-KISS to name a few) all debuted around the same time and boasted this to try and stand out during the Idol Ice Age. What made LUCKY LEGS different is that every member was tall and long legged. That was a new concept at the time. The group was formed in 2000 with 13 women and 2 'virtual members' who were manga characters from the H rated manga g-taste.

After the release of a successful gravure DVD and an appearance at an anime event in Akihabara, seven members of the group who were above the height of 165cm were chosen for a CD debut (the manga characters didn't make the cut). The group gained a lot of attention in 2001 for their unique concept, having their debut single composed by veteran rock band member Takamizawa Toshihiko and making the news after their agency took out an insurance policy of 100 million yen on each of the members' legs. With the group attempting to break into the mainstream, the two virtual members were dropped and LUCKY LEGS distanced themselves from the Akihabara scene they became successful in.

While the group's music didn't do so well, they enjoyed success from a very loyal fan base. The attention they received in 2001 was enough to have them guest on Kouhaku that year to backup dance for ex-LUNA SEA vocalist Kawamura Ryuichi's performance of his massive hit song, Julia. While the next year had them promoted by the media as the sexy group that was able to appear on Kouhaku, interest in the group waned. After the graduation of a member, LUCKY LEGS stopped releasing music to focus on gravure and race queen activities before disbanding in 2003.

Another interesting post, thanks! I'm surprised I've heard of all of these except for soap and nico. nico seems kinda like Puffy when they first came out. I guess that was the point? And soap...man. I had to look up their song. It's really really catchy but the "sex" line keeps catching me off guard lol.

Thanks for this article! It was, as always, an interesting read. 

Super interesting read but I was wondering if you could share the Japanese names for the groups (as in kana/kanji rather than the romanisation) so I could search for more info on them?

muito bom, gostei de ler sobre, muito interessante