Lineup as of May 2009:
Takahashi Ai, Niigaki Risa, Kamei Eri, Tanaka Reina, Michishige Ayumi, Mitsui Aika, and Chinese members Li Chun, Qian Lin.
(Former members in the order that they left: Fukuda Asuka, Ishiguro Aya, Ichii Sayaka, Nakazawa Yuuko,
Goto Maki, Yasuda Kei, Kago Ai, Tsuji Nozomi, Abe Natsumi, Iida Kaori, Yaguchi Mari (photo below), Ishikawa Rika, Konno Asami, Ogawa Makoto, Yoshizawa Hitomi, Fujimoto Miki, Kusumi Koharu.)
When we worn-around-the-edges foreign veterans of Japan want to
let off a bit of steam about the country's pop culture, one of
the easiest targets (and believe me there are a lot of easy targets)
is Morning Musume. By anybody's standards a cliched, manufactured
money-spinning venture, this girl pop group epitomises everything
we love to hate about J-Pop. The only problem is that some of their tunes are actually
quite catchy. A lot of it is down to production and a group singing reasonably in tune
being infinitely better than the nasal whine of a solo Kahala
Tomomi or Morisaka Chisato.
Morning Musume started in 1997 as a five-girl unit put together
on the TV Tokyo talent-search show Asayan by producer Tsunku,
up till that point best known as vocalist of the moderately successful group
SharanQ. The criterion for being allowed to make their professional debut
was to sell 50,000 CDs in five days. With TV crews on hand, the
teeny tots (actually they ranged in age from 12 to 24!) did a
circuit of stores and radio shows, made street-corner appeals
and used the newly popular medium of e-mail to spread the word.
Guerilla marketing is nothing new but with the kind of backing
these kids had there was never any real doubt that they'd succeed.
Their debut single Morning Coffee got to No 6 in the
charts and next thing you know there's suddenly
eight members in the group. Another couple of singles and there
they were, at the top of the charts and the talk of the town.
Their own TV show was a natural next step as well as doing the
music variety show scene.
There's no doubt that these girls have ambition and worked hard
to pull off their image as a genki, polished team. And while not
setting any new standards for originality, Tsunku has managed
to put together some half-decent pop songs. Their 2000 hit Happy Summer
Wedding had an infectious enthusiasm and a catchy melody. It was definitely
not a song you wanted to hear before going to work in the morning
'cause it would haunt you all day long.
The group generated many spin-off groups, such as Pucchi Moni, Country Musume
and Mini-Moni, as well as groups made up of MM members and girls from other
groups in the "Tsunku Family". It's has all been expanded into
what's called the "Hello! Project", that includes over 40 girls
and young women. From a marketing point of view, these various
groups give unlimited ways to sell CD's and other products. The
sad thing is that the Japanese market seems to have no saturation
point for this stuff. Early 2001 saw the release of MM's first greatest
hits album but with new blood added every so often - the youngest
members are sometimes not even in their teens -
these guys are going to be around for a while yet.
But girls will be girls. As some members have grown up as stars, they have
also simply grown up. And that means boys. But as members of Japan's premier
idol group, they are not allowed to indulge in relationships, even if they're
already in their 20s. In April 2005, leader Yaguchi Mari was discovered to be
in a relationship with a young actor and had to quit the group, though she
was 22 at the time. Kago Ai was caught smoking at the age of 17 (the age limit is 20)
and put on disciplinary leave for a year. But in March 2007, and still only 19, she was
spotted by a weekly magazine spending the night at a hot spring resort with a man
twice her age and smoking in his car. End of career.
That left Tsuji Nozomi, Kago's partner in the spinoff duo W, in the lurch. A new group
was quickly put together for her, but then she found out she was pregnant and announced
she was planning to marry a handsome young actor (well, at 26 Sugiura Taiyou was young
but seven years older than her) known for playing the super hero Ultraman. That would make
Tsuji just the third former Musume to get married, the others being Ishiguro Aya (2000) and
Ichii Sayaka (2004).
With the constant morphing of all these spin-off groups and changing of members,
it's hard work trying to keep this section up to date! 2007 saw the group's 10th
anniversary and the arrival of the first non-Japanese members, with the addition of two
Chinese teenagers. This was just the start of a new era for the group as, like other J-pop
stars, it started to make the most of its large fan base across Asia. The first concerts
in Taiwan and South Korea were announced for the spring of 2008. In the summer of 2010, it
was announced that Kamei Eri would leave the group in the autumn and take an extended leave of absence to undergo
treatment for a skin disorder, while the two Chinese members were leaving to pursue careers
in their home country. This would reduce the group to a mere five members, so of course a 10th
round of auditions was also announced to bring fresh blood into this seemingly immortal group.