Translation: Watanabe Junnosuke in 2014 (Part 1)
2010's Idol Scene Vol.8
Watanabe Junnosuke in 2014 (Part 1)
Why did the first iteration of BiS disband when they did?
Welcome to another installment of our series digging into various aspects of the idol scene of the 2010s. Today, we focus on music producer Watanabe Junnosuke, representative director of WACK Music Production and manager of several acts, including the "punk band with no instruments," BiSH.
Currently, WACK is established as a major player in the idol scene, led by the extensive support for BiSH, but in this column, the focus is on the year 2014, when he started the company. Amid a peak in idol history, where the likes of AKB48 and Momoiro Clover Z found massive success performing solo concerts at Japan National Stadium in Tokyo, Watanabe disbanded the first iteration of BiS, left Tsubasa Records to start his own company, and started preparing to form BiSH the next year. How does the man himself look back on that year as a turning point where he is now in his career? Part 1 will combine commentary from BiS originator Pour Lui (PIGGS) while discussing the developments up to BiS' disbandment at Yokohama Arena in Kanagawa.
Interview, Text/Onoda Mamoru
The biggest thing was Dempagumi.inc
There was one individual that I definitely wanted to feature in this series on the 2010's idol scene, and that person is WACK Representative Director Watanabe Junnosuke. In recent years, he has been steadily advancing as the creator of BiSH, and he produces a large number of other groups, as well: BiS, EMPiRE, Mameshiba no Taigun, GO TO THE BEDS, PARADISES, and ASP. He is unmistakably one of the music producers one could call charismatic.
With exceedingly sensational methodology, like filming the music video for BiS' "My Ixxx" with members going fully nude, he continues to astonish the world. Although the different groups under WACK all have their own character, his work is consistent in that he reads the signs of the times, and then breaks the mold in his approach to forcibly spreading conversation. BiSH is the most successful of the WACK acts, now able to perform large-scale shows at Makuhari Messe and Osaka-jo Hall, and they are popular enough that each new release hits #1 on the Oricon charts.
A conspicuous feature of Watanabe's production style is the homages to rock culture of decades past, which has been successful in going major and bringing in fans who otherwise have no interest in idols. However, he is also an individual that attracts praise and criticism in equal measure. Fans and members are ridiculed for their almost religious devotion to him, and there have been times when his statements and actions have been questioned as abusive.
Today, however, the subject is not Watanabe's peculiarities as a human being. No, the theme is, "What happened to Watanabe Junnosuke in 2014?"
Watanabe set out to produce idols in 2010 with BiS. At the time, he was working at a company that housed the likes of Kawashima Ai and Wednesday Campanella, just a regular employee at Tsubasa Records. By 2014, he was disbanding the first iteration of BiS (he would go on to relaunch BiS, and to make the distinction, this article will refer to the BiS of 2010-2014 as "gen 1 BiS"), and starting up WACK at the same time as he was leaving Tsubasa. Although WACK started managing the rock band This is not a business, among others, in 2015, he had started producing idols once again, saying, "I'll start one more BiS," which became the start of BiSH. It's obvious nowadays that WACK is a major power among idols, but it is the belief of the natalie editorial department that what Watanabe did in 2014 changed the direction of idol history.
On the day of the interview, Watanabe was in a cheerful mood as he sat down, saying, "I'll talk about whatever." I began, "What were you thinking in 2014? That's what I want to know." "2014...?" The competent producer before me suddenly began to ponder, before starting to tell the story from an unexpected starting point: "Well, a big part of it was Dempagumi.inc."
"That was right around when Dempagumi.inc and BiS put out a joint CD, it was our opportunity to create a scene together. We were, I guess you'd say independent, the 'strongest sub-culture idols of indie agencies.' While we were gearing up to go together, it was clear that Dempagumi was aiming for the masses, and BiS' core direction clearly was not that. There was a clear distinction between the two. I remember feeling very frustrated at that. They were ultimately looking at the future. Well, I say 'they,' but to be more concise, it was Mofuku-chan (Fukushima Maiko=Dempagumi.inc's producer)" (Watanabe).
Watanabe's comment perhaps needs more context. As we've touched on in this series of articles, the 2010s was when the Warring Idols Period was in full swing. New groups popped up one after the other, and even local or indie idols were garnering attention. Seeing the zeal of the fans right in front of them, managers naturally felt a fire light up under them that they, too, could make an idol group work. Even now, the world might still harvesting those fruits. They might even be changing the values of our society. Idols continue to struggle in concerts and events to try to shape the era with their own hands.
The idol bubble had already burst
Watanabe, too, had opened his eyes to this phenomenon. His own estimation is that by 2014, the idol bubble had already burst. However, in March of 2014, AKB48 and Momoiro Clover Z were having concerts at the National Stadium, and it was a point many consider to be a peak of the idol boom. So then, what on earth is he talking about?
"Dempagumi.inc broke out, BiS broke up. This was in 2014. We, BiS, broke up in front of 7000 people. After Dempagumi made it to Budokan in 2014, they followed up with 2 days at Yoyogi National Gymnasium in 2015. I guess in total that's about 20,000 people. Still, there were no other groups that made it to that level afterwards. There were groups who had concerts at Budokan, but attracting fans was a struggle. The only group that packed Budokan was Dempagumi. Ultimately BiS didn't end up filling out Yokohama Arena, but I think we maybe got to around Budokan capacity" (Watanabe).
If you leave out AKB48 and the others who represented the major players, the herd of people talking about the boom had thinned. There were still a top layer and an underground layer, but the middle chase group of idols had completely disappeared--it's not just the audience numbers that Watanabe references, the CD sales figures also support his argument. His cutting analysis as someone who was there continues.
"All the attention there had been on regional idols like Hime Kyun Fruit Can, that had settled down by 2014. There was a big deal made about people 'discovering' Osaka☆Shunkashuuto at TIF in 2015, but that might have been the last burst. Thinking about it now, from when BiS started until around 2012, that was really the bubble, it felt like any underground idol could pull a crowd. Monday through Friday, there were back-to-back underground idol events that brought in 300, 400 people. I made a killing (laughs), because I got paid on ticket sales. In any case, it felt like there was something happening every single day. That's completely gone now.
After BiS disbanded and I started up BiSH, we did joint events with other groups because we were just getting started, but it kept happening that the audience was overwhelmingly there for BiSH and not the other acts. Given that situation, of course that got me thinking. When we were working with Dempagumi, we would say, "Let's do it together!" but we were actually relying on them for so much of it. When my position was reversed, though, I couldn't taste our particular 'flavor' coming through. On the contrary, I felt like we were maybe taking a detour on our path to going major... I know the internet is going to come after me for saying things like this, but it's true. That's why BiSH stopped doing joint events and went straight into solo concerts after 2015. We did do festivals, though. The honest truth is that I don't feel that it's necessary to rely on the idol scene" (Watanabe).
Watanabe was sensitive to the demise of the Warring Idols Period, and that would lead to a major shift in his strategy. He had to throw away any idea of co-existing peacefully, and he had to confront his fears of mutual destruction if he didn't play his cards right. It's easy to misunderstand him and the outspoken things he says, but let's say that his harsh judgment of, "It's not just that there isn't any merit, there is also no need," is actually quite fitting for a producer and manager. In truth, it isn't just BiSH, but the other WACK idols, as well, rarely participate in joint events. One could say his policy is one of isolation.
Idols are like adult playthings
Incidentally, Watanabe didn't enter the business because he wanted to manage idols. He was a music fan, but as a listener, he had absolutely no interest in idols. The key person who dragged him into this world was his friend of many years now, Pour Lui. She explains the particulars of how BiS was formed in 2010.
"I loved Hello!Pro (Hello!Project), but I don't even think Watanabe had 1 mm of idol knowledge in his brain. He had much of a presence when we first met, he was pretty intimidating, he had long hair like Kurt Cobain. I had passed an audition to have a solo debut under Tsubasa Records and that was well and good, but I didn't really know where to go from there... During that time, (music news site) OTOTOY wanted to meet to write some articles, and when I mentioned that I was an idol fan, the editor-in-chief, Iida (Niichiro) suggested, 'If you like them so much, what if you started your own idol group?' I actually hated Watanabe back then, so a big motivating factor was that it would be annoying for him. So that's when I declared, 'We're going to be idols!' (Pour Lui)
When that "three-corner conversation" with OTOTOY's editors was over, Watanabe cornered Pour Lui in a cafe and told her to reconsider. Her will was surprisingly firm, however, and one thing led to another, with them breaking into member auditions in no time. Watanabe couldn't push back any longer by this point. He was completely clueless, but resolved himself to work in earnest to create a popular idol group. Pour Lui speaks on this.
"Gen 1 BiS was not as well-known as they are today, so I was always very anxious. But it wasn't just me, I think Watanabe was the same way. We had to always be trying new and interesting things, so he was always thinking about BiS. I have no doubt that he felt like he didn't have a future if BiS wasn't successful back then. He's a producer, I'm a member, but despite us being in different positions, I felt like we were in it together" (Pour Lui).
However, Watanabe had this to say about BiS' formation in 2010.
"For sure, I had absolutely no prior knowledge about idols. So what I was feeling back then was, and I'm wording this poorly, but, oh, those cocky good-for-nothings. Normal artists write their own songs and lyrics and perform them. Idols were girls who couldn't do anything, who had music given to them, who had venues set up for them, and then said, 'I want to go to Budokan.' Of course I realize there are some talented girls in there, too, but they're basically good for nothing, and they ask for everything to be done for them. I also felt this way in 2014, not just in 2010, and I feel the same in 2021. The fans might get mad at me for the way I'm putting it, though. But it's a paradox: it's precisely because the girls can't do anything that they have much more potential. They feel very gracious about getting to try making their dreams come true, because they're not good at anything.
As an example, I'm always teaming up with sound producer Matsukuma Kenta, and his backstory is that his band was forced to stop what they were doing just as he was starting to get ambitious. But if your intent is to get your music out into the world, there is no better vehicle than idols. If I had to say it, idols are playthings for adults, and the basic principle of an adult plaything is to think of how to get the maximum use out of it. After BiS broke up is when I finally felt like I could genuinely do what I wanted" (Watanabe).
"Cocky good-for-nothings" is a harsh way of putting it, but there's a considerably high likelihood that this is one of Watanabe's typical cynical comments, and taking it at face value might be a bit rash. Aside from that, what's important is how Watanabe, initially dragged in Pour Lui, came to fall into the magical swamp that is idols. After graduating from Waseda University, the young rocker found a job at the music company D-topia before struggling to find something to accomplish at Tsubasa Records. Perhaps, with the format of idols, he could really be someone. Make no mistake, idols were his hope, in a way.
My references were AKB48 and Malcolm McLaren
When he started to learn about idols from the beginning, his reference was AKB48. He affirms that the film that came out during that time, "DOCUMENTARY of AKB48 Show must go on, the girls dream as they get hurt," had a significant influence on him. The most famous scene in this work is of Maeda Atsuko hyperventilating and fainting.
"Seeing Maeda Atsuko faint was shocking to a lot of idol fans, wasn't it? But I was actually shocked that so many people were shocked. That kind of thing was normal with the people in my world. The scene after she faints is her returning in grand form to perform 'Flying Get,' and so I really didn't find her pitiful. Those girls have nurses and counselors around them, after all. By my call, the shocker was that something that wasn't that big of a deal got turned into this shocking torture show. It made me realize how incredible the majors are, and we'd stand no chance if we just did the same things they did. Going at things with the same approach wouldn't hit home with underground idol fans. If we can't fight on the same turf, what should we do? We have to do things differently. That's how BiS came to do all these extreme things. That's what I learned from AKB48" (Watanabe).
These days, Kashiwagi Yuki is being produced by WACK, Mameshiba no Taigun is a joint production with popular TBS show "Wednesday Downtown," and Watanabe is fully on main of the music industry, but things were a completely different story back then. Gen 1 BiS gathered a fighting spirit of, "The majors are Babylon, and we are the soldiers who will rebel against them." Pour Lui points out that Watanabe was always thinking of such "gambits" that would shock the world.
"I was very impatient about feeling like we always had to be a subject of interest. 2013, 2014 in particular were still when there were lots of idol groups popping up, so I thought we always had to be the biggest newsmakers out there. We ended up in the news maybe once a week, somehow or another, I guess? The moment I felt like I hadn't heard anything about BiS lately was when I started chasing after something new.
This goes back to the AKB48 documentary again, but I learned from the film that a story is a huge part of idols. Like how you start in this theater performing for a handful of people and now look how far you've come, that kind of thing. I studied it and realized that idol culture is about watching someone grow. That's a really strong component in Momoclo's (Momoiro Clover Z) story, too, right?" (Watanabe)
A story being important to an idol is absolutely true. But unlike AKB48 who had a regular TV program once a week to tell that story, gen 1 BiS had to actively becoming a subject that shows would cover. To that extent, Watanabe heavily referenced the famed manager of the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaren.
"There's this book called 'The Wicked Ways of Malcolm McLaren' (published in Japan by CBS Sony), and it's out of print now so it'll cost you a premium of $100 to get it, but I read it cover to cover (laughs). What was so incredible about him was how he'd cultivate these scandals; it was his belief that what was most important was getting a page in the newspaper, to the extent that he was fine with getting arrested. He had this attitude of fully doing things to make fun of, which I think was perfectly fitting for the times. But then, the unemployment rate in England skyrocketed and things got hard, so then this brash anti-establishment band was topping the charts. But then they pretended that #1 didn't happen" (Watanabe).
The single "blocked from #1 by the establishment" was the 1977 Sex Pistols release "God Save the Queen." The song has the same title as the national anthem, but the contents of the song are a biting criticism of the royal family, and the group obtained tremendous support from frustrated youth around the country. Watanabe adores the danger and glamour inherent to rock, and so he followed the same methodology with BiS. To cause public controversy was a matter of course.
It wasn't just the aforementioned nude MV: there was, not handshake events, but hug events; collaborations with noise band Hijou Kaidan; secretly putting the members up on Yahoo! Auctions as "being your maid for 3 hours;" attacking a Momoclo advertising truck; tricking the fans into thinking they were changing into a mainstream idol direction (as a prank); having designer Koshino Junko join the group out of nowhere... The reality was that these tricks inspired by AKB48 (Akimoto Yasushi) and Sex Pistols (Malcolm McLaren) got through to the edgy music fans of the sub-culture scene. The word might not have even existed at the time, but BiS put everything on the line to go viral, and with their hard work, they achieved a business practice of stirring up the internet. Even though every action they took resulted in the members getting flooded with criticism, they were building a firm platform in the idol world.
Gen 1 BiS was the most fun ever
Still, those fortunate adventurers would end up choosing to disband in 2014. As a matter of fact, the group's originator, Pour Lui, reflects calmly on the group's end: "I'm glad it ended when it did."
"We had said from the start that we were doing BiS with the intention of someday disbanding, so right before it became the final 6-member lineup, we were thinking it was almost time. So I wasn't surprised when the discussion came up, like, 'oh, guess it's now.'
The harder part was hearing that we wouldn't be able to perform at the venue we had been aiming for. It was a huge shock to not be able to keep our promise to the researchers (*BiS' fandom name). But it was thanks to the hard work of Watanabe and the other staff members that we were able to use a venue even bigger than the one we wanted! It was a different ending than I had imagined, but it gave me hope for the future. It was full of different feelings from different people, but I think it was a happy breakup" (Pour Lui).
Here, Pour Lui touches on that "place we had been aiming for," Nippon Budokan, and the "venue even bigger than the one we wanted," Yokohama Arena. There was an abundance of speculation at the time as to why they hit a roadblock with Budokan, but even now, Watanabe is keeping his mouth shut on the subject: "That's the only thing I can't talk about." At any rate, the 6 members carried out a final show on July 8, 2014 at Yokohama Arena that they called, "BiS-version of Budokan."
Moved by Morning Musume. member Takahashi Ai's graduation performance at Budokan, Pour Lui decided to disband the group at the height of their popularity. As a result, despite their final venue changing to Yokohama Arena, the members and fans gave everything they had in the end. However, there is something within the tale of BiS that I personally have struggled to understand.
The first thing that struck me was if 2014 was actually when they were most popular. Although gen 1 BiS had shows where they struggled to fill seats, they were fundamentally increasing their audience size, and if that's the case, then it's only natural to assume that their actual peak would be in 2015 or later. To arbitrarily decide that they've left nothing undone as they were climbing in 2014 was, at the very least, perhaps a little premature.
One additional point of contention: in the book "Creating Idols" (Munekata Akimasa/Shuppan Works), Watanabe says, "BiS didn't cost anything, so we were always in the black," and "I think our final annual turnover was around ¥200,000,000." To have Watanabe, who at the time wasn't much more than a regular employee, decide to disband the group and have no resistance from the top brass is unimaginable. BiS was a gold mine for the company.
"But really, why was it necessary to disband BiS?"
I asked him again. His answer? "It simply wasn't something we could maintain, physically. Neither I nor the members..."
"It's because there's an end in sight that you can run as hard as you can, surely. If we had kept going after Yokohama Arena, I think it would have been a losing battle. Ultimately, BiS only kept the party going for our inner circle. I'm certain that's what made us different from Dempagumi. We're the same in that we both worked so hard for our fans, but that quickly became our core focus. We weren't aiming for the masses. This is something I really only understand now. At the time, that meant that I felt that with our approach as BiS, the 7000 people at Yokohama Arena was our limit. That's what I learned from the breakup concert" (Watanabe).
A private party for the fans known as researchers. Their inside jokes were extraordinarily fun, and so the number of friends grew. However, the day was soon approaching when they would hit a wall. That was the setback of this youthful time in their lives.
"Yokohama Arena felt like a class talent show. We were all classmates, so everyone was equal. I was young, but fans even younger than me would speak to me so casually (laughs). Like, 'Oy, Junnosuke!' That's how close we were. We go for drinks and hang out like old friends back from when we were playing Shimokitazawa SHELTER. We got blackout drunk. But... I mean it was fun, genuinely. This might be discourteous to the current members, but the most fun I've had to date has been with gen 1 BiS" (Watanabe).
Does he still think this even though BiSH is so popular nowadays? When I questioned him, he of course had an answer.
"I feel like the fans have co-ownership on a lot of things. Out of the 7000 who came to Yokohama Arena, I feel like we were exchanging thoughts and feelings with at least 1000 of them, and that makes me feel good. In a sense, the 7000 people there were all members of BiS, maybe. The researchers are a part of BiS.
I was the kind of guy who looked at school festivals very cynically after I left school, but that left me with a lot of regrets at the end of the day. My resentment, if you'd call it that, is what propelled me in my hopes for Yokohama Arena; I was projecting myself onto it. I wanted us to all get together and have a good time, as if we were all back in school. There were people in the researchers who had gotten divorced over their obsession with BiS, people who had lost their place at work and gone into debt. Our inside jokes are perhaps what kept them going. That alone was the power that BiS had" (Watanabe).
However, the party was almost over. He couldn't move forward staying in the same place, and so Watanabe submitted his letter of resignation at the same time he decided to disband BiS. It was settled.