New breed of Japanese pop idols in vogue -- the oddballs
Eccentric concepts paired with mixed media stand out in a crowded field
YASUAKI TAKAO, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO -- In the thriving world of Japanese pop idols, new, unconventional acts are attracting attention these days. Their un-idolish styles, such as going fishing, playing pirates and eating turtles, are not merely designed to draw attention but carefully calibrated marketing strategies. They are the girls next door you can play with, and fans seem to love it.
A group called Tsuri-bit consists of girls aged 15 to 18 who have promised to take up fishing seriously. "They not only fish but can cut up fish and cook them," said Bajune Tobeta, the primary producer of the girl group. Natsuki Takeuchi, one of the members, even has a second-tier small boat license. Members decide on what fish they aim to catch and strive to achieve goals as they go fishing. Takeuchi wants to fish for bonito, and Ayu Konishi, the youngest member, hopes to catch sweetfish.
Whereas AKB48, one of Japan's leading pop girl groups, holds "general elections" or do janken (rock-paper-scissors) to decide who gets to sing in the center of the group for a song, Tsuri-bit bases their decision on fishing skills. The honorable "Tsuri center" position for their singles, due out on Oct. 10 every year to coincide with Japan's unofficial fishing day, is awarded to a member with good catch records as well as good scores on a fishing test and a paper test on fishing-related knowledge.
"It's fun to go fishing with the members," said a 51-year-old businessman from the city of Kawasaki, just south of Tokyo. The group's fans include both those who became interested in the group because they like fishing and those who became interested in fishing because of the group.
Magical Punchline was launched in February 2016 and has been rapidly gaining popularity. Under their scenario, the members are students of an imaginary magic school. They came up with the magic theme because the team leader, Rena Satoh, likes the "Harry Potter" series and role-playing video games such as "Dragon Quest." Yuzuru Shimamura of Pony Canyon, an entertainment company, said, "Once the concept is set, ideas tend to come along," in explanation of why groups with unusual themes have strong points.
Fans like to take part in "Magical Quest," a virtual game that incorporates real-life activities. Fans can earn "experience points" by purchasing CDs and goods and attending live performances. They can exchange their points for goods or admission tickets to special events.
An idol group that has captured the hearts of fans of the military is Tenkoushoujo Kagekidan. The girls were transferred (tenko) to an imaginary girls' school and became members of a kagekidan -- a pun on the Japanese words geki (shooting) and kagekidan (opera troupe). Every aspect of their act is military-themed. For example, for a feature article in an outdoor magazine, they collected grasshoppers, caterpillars and weeds, and then ate them. They also cut open a turtle and ate it.
"I thought incorporating the military theme, which is popular in anime and video games, would make mixing media platforms easier," said Taro Momotani of the group's agency. In fact, one of the group's songs has been used as the title song of a military-themed anime or a video game.
Smile Pirates are girls dressed as pirates, and they "battle," that is, perform, in the "idol sea" to collect treasures -- meaning actual fans. In the four months since their launch in August 2016, they performed as many as 100 live shows. Since December, they have been doing regular shows about twice a month. "An obvious concept makes it easier [for fans] to support the group," said a 43-year-old man in Tokyo.
But why are there more and more oddball idols around? "For pop idols," said Pony Canyon's Shimamura, "every possible genre has already been tried." Perhaps, in the jungle of the idol world, their survival and chances of luring more fans depends not on how fit they are, but rather, how unfit they are.