Raymond’s excursions into East Asian pop music, episode 3: Morning Musume (モーニング娘)


It really all started with Katamari Damacy (塊魂). The music for that game is so darned infectious, and it was my fascination with that music that prompted my colleague to loan me the CDs his wife bought while she traveled through Asia. I already mentioned China Dolls (中國娃娃). Another of the CDs in the collection was 4th Ikimasshoi! (4th いきまっしょい! = 4th Let's Go!), the um fourth album from the J-Pop group Morning Musume (モーニング娘 = Morning Girls). I'm sure somebody will correct my Japanese translation.

Yes, these are the girls who in the United States are probably known only for having pork chops tied to their foreheads while being stalked by a lizard or being chased by American fighter Bob Sapp or being freaked out by a clip from the movie The Ring or traumatizing one of its members by dressing her up like a seal and making her hang out at the polar bear tank. From what I can gather, they aren't so much a pop music group as a marketing phenomenon, what with their own television show and endorsement contracts. And yes, it's a singing group with thirteen members. Thirteen. When I first glanced at the album cover, I just assumed that it was the same four or five singers dressed up in different costumes, but no, it really is a group with a ridiculous number of members.

Their music is bubble-gum J-Pop, often catchy, but sometimes just plain awful. (And sometimes really awful or horrifically I-can't-even-watch-it awful.) But I found at least the catchy tunes useful, because they're energetic and kept me going on longer bicycle rides. It probably helped that I didn't understand the words, though I strongly suspect they're singing about love. (I also find that even the catchy songs tend to be ruined by the videos.)

Setting aside the musical merits, I have to admire the logistics of organizing a performance of such a large group. Compare, for example, this music video for Osaka Koi no Uta (大阪 恋の歌 = Osaka Love Song) with a live performance of same. In the music video, you can just cut from one vocalist to the next, but in the live performance, the singers have to physically trade places. It's so complicated that some dedicated fans have color-coded the lyrics to keep track of who sings what.

Another of my colleagues more tuned into the contemporary music scene learned of my fascination with Japanese pop music and dedicated himself to finding some good Japanese pop music, just to show me that it's not all bubble-gum. More on that in the next episode.

Comments (26)
  1. Lauren Smith says:

    It’s more closely translated ‘morning daughter’, but I’d be happy with ‘Japanese Menudo’ considering how quickly they seem to go through members.

    The real genius of the group is that the girls span a very wide age range. The oldest (now retired) is 33 or so and she still appears frequently on their TV show. The large age range allows them to be split up into subgroups that can also be marketed towards particular audiences.

    Not that I pay attention to that or anything. Stop looking at me like that.

  2. Tim says:

    Some of the youtube videos you linked to have been removed.

  3. Jim Mischel says:

    When I was in Japan in February, I ran across the group モズキング (Mozu King or perhaps Mozuking) outside the Shibuya train station.  I don’t know if it qualifies as J-pop, but I found their music incredibly infectious–so much that I bought one of their CDs right there.  Watching the performers there outside the train station was a surprisingly good time.

    I wrote it up in my blog at http://www.mischel.com/diary/2006/02/10.htm.  Unfortunately, the Web site that I linked doesn’t appear to be working any more, but you might still be able to find them on the Web.

  4. There is an older J-Pop song that I have always liked by Midichondria called "San Francisco".  You might enjoy it as well.

  5. KTamas says:

    Hehe, if you want to see bubblegum j-pop going really wrong, watch http://youtube.com/watch?v=iCAFl_tqw1w Hinoi team – Night of Fire. They have some other, similar style songs too (e.g. http://youtube.com/watch?v=w3B2hd-QLk0 King-Kong).

    Now, if you are looking for non-bubblegum J-Pop, try Sakamoto Maaya (mostly slow, but very good songs), Ayumi Hamasaki (dance-ish J-Pop, so some songs might be classified under bubblegum), T.M. Revolution (her music videos are a little bit weird though) or YUI.

  6. C++ guy says:

    Try listending to B-DASH.  They’re the only band whose CD I bought while living in Japan.

  7. David Buxton says:

    Halcali! I cycle all over town listening to these tracks, oblivious of their meaning.

    Strawberry Chips: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2DK7sH1fKs

    Electric Sensei: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTqLrO3ZrUo

    Tandem: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeGhfXbGiNw

    Their official site is http://www.halcali.com/

  8. KTamas says:

    @David: Wow. This is the best non-rap (?) rap (?) ever.

  9. Lachlan B says:

    If you want to check out a great japanese guitarist, have a look at Akira Takasaki. He used to play in the band "Loudness" (who are also great), but now releases solo CDs.

  10. Coderjoe says:

    I think every music group has their good songs and their bad songs. Also, not only is Morning Musume a large group, but there are a number of subgroups within it, such as Mini Moni.

    KTamas: Um… TM Revolution is a guy.

  11. Norman Diamond says:

    4th Ikimasshoi! (4th いきまっしょい!

    > = 4th Let’s Go!),

    > I’m sure somebody will correct my Japanese

    > translation.

    OK you already got one so I’ll do the other, along with spelling and logic ^_^

    4th Ikimashou! (4th いきましょう!

    = 4番目 Let’s Go!),

    No, wait.  If you copied いきまっしょい from the CD’s cover then the title is intended to be corrupt in the first place.  Comic books do that kind of thing to indicate when a foreigner is speaking.  I can’t guess what purpose Morning Musume’s marketer would have in doing that.

  12. Lauren Smith says:

    Norman,

    「わっしょい!」is chanted at festivals, usually when guys in ふんどしs are hauling a small shrine around on their shoulders.

    So it could be a mashup of [行きましょう」and「わっしょい」.

  13. KTamas says:

    Coderjoe: sorry, messed up his/her :)

  14. Toukarin says:

    If it’s good catchy and energetic Japanese music, some good recommendations would be:

    <a href="http://wiki.theppn.org/m-flo">m-flo</a&gt;

    <a href="http://wiki.theppn.org/melody.">melody. (with a full stop at the end)</a>

    <a href="http://wiki.theppn.org/BENNIE_K">BENNIE K</a>

    Most of these J-rock albums can be bought off Amazon(US), as they do import them on a regular basis. They never fail to keep me awake when I’m dozing off staring at lines of codes.

  15. Lauren Smith says:

    As for recommendations for non-poppy Japanese music, I recommend Ozaki Yutaka, Southern All-Stars, and Ulfuls.

    They may not be the most up to the minute Japanese bands (Ozaki is dead, actually), but they provide some nice tunes that contrast well with the teeny-bopper music that MoMusu represents.

  16. Darkstar says:

    Try "Every Little Thing" (ELT), they’re one of my favorite J-Pop groups (and I’m surprised that nobody suggested them yet ;-)

    Examples: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zo1IPLcWLiE , http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xC9PhkaymgQ

    and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEMfGplvmQ8

  17. Nathan says:

    My wife is an anime j-pop/junkie, while I’m not a big fan of bubble-gum pop. There few bands in particular I think are great. One is the "The Pillows", which provided the soundtrack for the FLCL anime. Pillows are probably one of the most inspirational/emotive bands I have ever heard. Whenever I need to build some motivation the start resolving bugs I pop in the Pillows CD

  18. Sven Groot says:

    If you’re looking for good Japanese music, there’s only one way to go: Kanno Yoko http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoko_Kanno

    She can write every style ever conceived (classical, pop, rock, blues, jazz, alternative, you name it) and is brilliant in all of them. Her most famous work includes the sound tracks of Cowboy Bebop and The Vision of Escaflowne.

    The only problem is that because she’s so versatile, her music is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get (box of chocolates for whoever gets the reference :P ).

    KTamas already mentioned Sakamoto Maaya (she has a great voice!); most of her stuff is composed by Kanno.

  19. KTamas says:

    I second Yoko Kanno. Her Cowboy Bebop / Ghost in the Shell (series/movies both) / Macross Plus stuff are the very best. She also worked together on a few songs with Origa (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origa), who is also very good and sings in Japanese, Russian and English.

  20. Sven Groot says:

    Actually, Yoko Kanno didn’t do the soundtrack for the Ghost in the Shell movie, she only did the series. The music for both GitS movies was done by Kawai Kenji.

    The GitS series soundtrack, while musically and technically very good (and befitting the atmosphere of the series), is not really my style though; I prefer stuff like Cowboy Bebop, Escaflowne or Chikyuu Shojou Arjuna. Like I said, that’s the danger of a composer with such a varied range of styles. :)

  21. KTamas says:

    @Sven: Thanks for the correction.

    Btw, Porno Graffitti is also worth to mention: despite their rather amusing name, they play very good J-Rock.

    And there is the probably craziest Japanese band out there: Polysics. I can’t really describe what music they exactly play (Punk-pop-ish?), but it is amusing enough to be good.

    Here’s their most popular music video, "I my me mine": http://youtube.com/watch?v=VKq-qOZ2cW0

  22. Norman Diamond says:

    Oh yeah, sorry, I forgot to finish translating "Morning 娘" after Smith-san did half of it ^_^

    It should be:  "朝 Daughters"  ^_^

    The first time I saw the name I assumed they were describing themselves as having Korean nationality[*] but later guessed they probably just liked the way the name sounds.  (That is, the way it sounds with Morning not with 朝。)

    [* The US-written constitution for Japan doesn’t include a copy of the 14th amendment of the US-written constitution for the US, though that doesn’t matter since neither constitution has any legal force.]

  23. roxfan says:

    This might be interesting for those who dig Yoko Kanno:

    http://www.shorttext.com/e2t92

    It’s the list of (mostly anime) composers which I am trying to follow together with some of their works.

  24. mpz says:

    Odd that nobody picked up on this one yet.. The polar bear clip doesn’t have anything to do with Morning Musume, the girl is Yuuko Ogura aka Yuukorin.

    What I find interesting about the Hello! Project empire (the mothership organization under which Morning Musume etc. operate) is that it’s not as musically bland as you might imagine. Almost all of the music is written by the very prolific songwriter Tsunku (who himself was in a very popular band called Sharan Q in the 90’s). That man is a genius. The Beethoven of Naniwa, I would say. Due to the ridiculous amount of music he writes every year, not everything is bound to be good, but every now and then some real gems emerge from the pile.

  25. mpz says:

    And the member count is off, too. The current number of members is 8. Of course they’re in the middle of another auditions process to get new members.

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