Is there any way for a guy to write about idols in English without sounding like a creep? This is what I must first ask myself as I sit down to discuss the idol group known as Momoiro Clover Z…
In Japan, going down this path would be no big deal. Serious discussion of idols and their music fits comfortably in the realm of what is called “subculture” for assorted pundits of both sexes to explore in depth. But elsewhere, idol culture is way more marginal and much of what is written tends to comes from die-hard fans who don’t care about (or even hear) the faint hum of “thank heaven for little girls” in the background.
First, let the record show that age-appropriate women (albeit, trashy ones) are the only ones I want to “protect” or who can “cheer me up” effectively. But Momoiro Clover Z brings a lot more than just a group of five girls --ranging in age from 15 to18 -- to the table. So I am intrigued. And if ever I was going to discuss their unique mix of pro-wrestling theatrics, Power Rangers imagery, and trash culture spectacle, right now would have to be that moment.
Every act in the reigning idol lineup (Morning Musume, AKB48, Perfume) has made a similar journey from being darlings of the otaku underground to becoming a much-less interesting mainstream phenomenon. There’s no doubt about it: from sell out concerts at Saitama Super Arena, to releasing a Christmas cash-in single, Momoiro Clover Z are now in the process of crossing over. Collaborations with the likes of Animetal USA (above), All Japan Pro Wrestling, and Kishidan, are still in the cards for now, but so are live shows sponsored by Young Jump manga and a line of T-shirts for designer label galaxxxy. Sub-cult journalist Go Yoshida once asked, “Will Momoiro Clover Z ever become oshare (stylish, trendy)?” to which manager Akira Kawakami replied, “Don’t worry. We won’t. We don’t understand that kind of stuff.” But it would be naïve to assume that they can pass through the maze of professional show business in Japan completely unscathed. Maybe the moment has already passed. After all, a collaboration with galaxxxy is pretty much the dictionary definition of oshare.
So where to actually start with Momoiro Clover Z? Probably with the promo video for their summer 2011 single Z Densetsu - Owarinaki Kakumei (Z Legend – Never Ending Revolution), which essentially amounts to the Momoiro Clover manifesto. The lyrics are also crucial, so I’ve included a link to a subtitled live performance here.
Ok, some of you are no doubt unimpressed, and probably see little but pandering to otaku taste at the lowest level. But approximately three of you might be saying, “Wow they got Ichirou Mizuki to do the voice-over narration!” Those who get the reference and get excited without me having to stop and explain "Ichirou Mizuki is a hot blooded anime and tokusatsu theme song singer, perhaps best known for the Mazinger Z theme" might belong to a subspecies of otaku that is called bonkura.
Since the word has its roots in Japanese gambling circles as a term for “a guy who can’t make money”, let’s say that bonkura is analogues to “loser” in English. Because both camps are fundamentally stuck in a state of prolonged adolescence, there is a fair amount of overlap between the stereotypical Akihabara-type otaku and bonkura guys. For starters, both allow their hobbies to dictate their lifestyle and identity, but a bonkura is not a specialist and has a wider range of interests.
To put it bluntly, a bonkura guy would prefer to jerk off to actual pornography instead of whacking it to anime and manga characters. When it comes to food, an otaku guy robotically reaches for a Cup Noodle to sustain his life for another day, meanwhile, the bonkura guy is probably daydreaming about a double cheeseburger or a greasy pizza pie. An Akihabara dude doesn’t care about clothes at all, but a bonkura guy gravitates towards a specific look: a T-shirt with either a band logo or a Z-movie poster on it (there’s even a label called BON-KURA that sells these), jeans, and sneakers.
You can be successful, drop the uniform, and still be deeply bonkura. Kevin Smith is one. Quentin Tarantino is another. Bonkura guys are not anti-social. They will seek out and immediately bond with others who share the same wild enthusiasm for junk culture as they do. A bonkura is not a hipster and doesn't care much about cool. All they want out of life is raw stimulation and to satisfy the unsophisticated desires of their eternal teenage boy within.
Travis Bickle, bonkura icon
By the same token, a bonkura guy will always suspect that he is a loser on some fundamental level: despite his impressive comic or movie collection maybe he’s bad with women, lacks a proper education, doesn’t have any discernible skills or just can’t get ahead in the world. And like the song “Loser” by Beck he can take a kind of masochistic perverse pride in being called bonkura by others, or undermine judgment by calling himself one first.
While bonkura have nowhere near the numbers or influence that otaku do, as with many Japanese subcultures, you can find a rallying point for them on the magazine racks. Debuting in 1999, Eiga Hiho (“Movie Treasures”) became the monthly publication for bonkura guys in Japan (I am unaware if there are actually any bonkura women, like in the gambling dens of old, they aren't really allowed inside the club house...probably because they remind us of nagging moms or annoying sisters). Look around inside an issue of Eiga Hiho and you’ll find a catalog of classically bonkura iconography: monster movies, action figures, karate killers, spaceships, explosions, splatter, rock and roll, guns, hot chicks, violent video games, etc.
All this has been building up the revelation that the Momoiro Clover Z’s entire presentation style is founded on two key bonkura genres: pro-wrestling and tokusatsu TV superheroes ala...
Of course, some bonkura guys are also idol fans. That in itself is not so surprising; after all, so are juvenile delinquents and downright normal people. But idols from the dawn of J-pop onwards have existed to offer their fan bases consolation and comfort. Naturally, Momoiro Clover Z also does the requisite handshake events and cheerful greetings, but the machinery around them…does something else.
In August 2011, Momoiro Clover Z gave a concert at the Yomiuri Land amusement park in Tokyo, home of countless superhero stage shows for little kids. A sell-out audience of okina tomodachi (“big friends”), many of them wearing Power Rangers style helmets and bright color-coordinated clothing like the girls do in the video, showed up to support the group.
But before the music starts, a giant evil panda (above) takes to the stage, escorted by Shocker-esque minions. Representing the oppression of normal life in the guise of “The Empire”, the panda taunts the audience of otaku and bonkura alike, “Who are you no-good adults? Why are you wearing such colorful T-shirts? Don’t you know that real adults are supposed to wear black and white? And what about work? Don’t tell me you took the day off to come here!”
Of course, Momoiro Clover Z soon comes to the rescue and defeats this alarming figure before singing and dancing, but not before even they publically admit that all is not quite right with their audience by saying "its ok, to be an adult who is a little strange..."
Either way, some kind of implicit rule between spectator and spectacle has been broken. For such a confrontational dialouge happen in the world of idols is unprecedented. But as anyone who has seen a “heel” rile up an audience before a match knows, this kind of interaction with the audience is a classic pro-wrestling gesture (My all-time favorite example being Nikolai Volkoff insisting that the crowd stand while he sings the Soviet national anthem before every match during the height of the '80s cold war).
But while a classic heel move creates a simple "good vs. evil" dynamic, Momoiro Clover's act both affirms the bonkura's cherished outsider status and punishes them for it.
I think we can safely assume that Momoiro Clover Z’s manager Akira Kawakami is himself a bonkura guy. A big fan of pro-wrestling, he has repeatedly sought collaborations in the world of the squared circle, which has led to promotions in which the girls in the group get put into headlocks and throw fully grown men into the metal railing (like in the clip above).
He certainly knows what it is like to be down on his luck in true loser fashion...
Before becoming involved with Momoiro Clover, Kawakami was the manager of Erika Sawajiri. This actress, model, and musician created a national scandal in 2007 when she delivered a series of short, incredibly terse and angry answers at a press event for her new film (video below). While acting like a spoiled celeb, or even a heel, can be par for the course in Hollywood, in Japan the punishment for breaking the show biz code of polite conduct -- like the evil panda would later -- was banishment. Sawajiri was dropped from the Stardust Promotion agency and manager Kawakami was out of a job.
In an interview with Go Yoshida, Kawakami (who said that Sawajiri could be difficult in public, but was a loving person in private) explained what happened next. Stardust Promotion was looking to form their own idol group made up of child talent on their roster. Kawakami was given the order to manage the resulting group, which became Momoiro Clover. “I was not an idol fan at all,” said Kawakami, “I only knew about pro-wrestling.” But since he was starting from zero, he felt that he was free to do whatever he wanted.
The mark one version of Momoiro Clover travelled across Japan in a tiny van, like wrestlers working the carnival circuit, and performed to near empty audiences at amusement parks. This dismal reality of these early years of bitter struggle has been captured in the video below: a no-budget PV for Momoiro’s cover of the song “Saikyou Pare Parade” from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya anime which, in spite of (or maybe because of) the harsh circumstances and craziness, sounds better to these ears than Aya Hirano’s original.
Kawakami’s next move was a bonkura gamble that actually paid out. Sizing up his rivals, he ordered Momoiro Clover to hand out fliers at the AKB48 theater in Akihabara. AKB48 had begun their career famously marketed as “the idols you can meet”, but their growing popularity had now made their previous level of accessibility increasingly hard for fans to reach. Momoiro Clover informed the line of guys waiting outside that they were “the idols you can meet RIGHT NOW!” And thus was the empire forged…
I don’t want to paint Kawakami purely as a bold visionary who broke the rules and won. Indeed, even the girls in the group will admit that they are routinely pushed to, and sometimes beyond, their physical and mental limits during rehearsal and performance...again, just like wrestlers.
Reni Takagi, who is Purple in Momoiro Clover Z, is suspected by fans to have suffered an eating disorder after the agency masterminded a public promotion that involved the girls “weighing in” like prize fighters before their next single would be released (the others passed, she did not). Not all of this is apocryphal either. I personally know someone who worked on a production with Momoiro Clover who said that at one point during an interview, Takagi began banging her head against a wall and screamed before immediately regaining her composure as if nothing had happened.
But if anything does separate Momoiro Clover Z from other idol acts now, it is the element of sheer unpredictability and craziness at work both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. I can’t really imagine AKB48 painting their faces and getting in the ring for All Japan Pro-Wrestling or Perfume pretending to be drunk oyaji in their promo videos (as below), but right now, this is simply the way Momoiro Clover Z rolls...
Oh god, I really don’t want to explain drunk oyaji culture, and why the girls have ties around their heads... As you can see, writing about Japanese pop culture in general takes an enormous amount of explaining and back peddling to try and get everyone on the same page. This shit is provincial as hell.
As such, I don’t know if Momoiro Clover Z has a future anywhere outside of Japan. While Asia beckons, Westerners seem to have little interest in idols. Since we didn’t live through the first generation of Seiko Matsuda and co., we lack the proper foundation for understanding the appeal of "the girl next door writ large". Morning Musume, who in their early 2000’s prime functioned like a hyper-exaggerated parody of idol culture, didn’t register much here either. As anyone who has had to slog through old issues of Mad magazine knows, it’s tough to enjoy a parody if you don’t know the source material. Still, who knows...maybe the time for Japanese idols is finally here. American otaku kids are certainly intrigued by Hatsune Miku and Vocaloid concerts, so they could now be absorbing some of the old influences by proxy.
But what the West does know is pro-wrestling and superheroes, probably better than anyone, because we invented them. And being bonkura is by no means a Japanese-only phenomenon. My collection of faded monster movie T-shirts can attest to that. So I say, "don't lose the crazy and let the madness continue forever".
And as Ichirou Mizuki shouts during the group’s signature song:
Sing and dance for tomorrow! Go Momoiro Clover Z!
Work hard MCZ!
Go for it! Momoiro Clover Z!