Thursday, June 8, 2017

[Five Years of A.B.C-Z #1] Za ABC〜5stars〜 (Part 1 of 2)

I’ve written about A.B.C-Z before (and their excellent mini-series where they play superheroes who can’t ever have sex or their powers vanish) but in their 5th anniversary year as a “debuted” act I am compelled to do so again. This time I’m hoping to make a complete review of their music catalog to date.

For the first post, I've broken the review into two parts to accommodate a bit of historical discussion but moving forward I should be able to contain myself to one post per item.

Item: 「Za ABC〜5stars〜」
Type: DVD Single
Release Date: 2012.02.01

Contents:
1. 「Za ABC〜5stars〜」 Music Clip
2. 「砂のグラス」 Dance Clip
3.   Making & Special Interview
4. 「A.B.C-Z 2011 first Concert in YOYOGI」 Digest with「Dream〜5つの願い〜」








The story has been told and told again but here’s one more crack at it:

A.B.C-Z are part of the all male idol Johnny’s & Associates talent agency and before they debuted they were a long time unit of what are called Johnny’s Juniors or usually just Juniors. Juniors are essentially idol trainees. They perform as back dancers for the debuted acts, among other duties, but the Juniors also have their own twice-monthly variety show, Shounen Club (ザ少年倶楽部, Boys’ Club) filmed in front of a live audience at the famous NHK Hall and aired on national broadcasting channel NHK and they appear in the idol magazines, act in television dramas and movies, and so on. The Junior audience is nowhere near as large as those for debuted acts but they do have their own small and very dedicated fanbase.

In 2001, the four older members of A.B.C-Z (Kawai Fumito, Totsuka Shota, Tsukada Ryoichi, and Goseki Koichi) had been assigned to form a new unit A.B.C. (Acrobat Boys Club). They, along with fellow Juniors Kis-My-Ft2, worked their way up to become some of the most popular Juniors and elite back dancers, performing with many of the top acts at the time. For example, A.B.C. (along with Kis-My-Ft2) were the main back up dancers for Yamashita Tomohisa and Kamenashi Kazuya’s 2005 chartbusting Seishun Amigo (青春アミーゴ, Childhood Friend). A.B.C. also appeared with the Kinki Kids' Domoto Koichi in his long running musical Shock, with top idol group Shonentai in their annual musical Playzone, and so on.

In 2008, management decided to give A.B.C. a reboot. The four original members, all in their early 20s at this point, were assigned a new main vocalist, young Hashimoto Ryosuke, who was then just barely 15. The adjustment was tough but eventually the unit gelled into an even better version of itself. The new name, A.B.C-Z, signified a new start. The “Z” stands for “zero”, as in, they were starting again from “zero.”

Here is a pre-debut A.B.C-Z performing “Crush” on Shounen Club on June 11, 2010:


When this was filmed in 2010 A.B.C-Z had already been a group for two years, and the older four members had been working together for almost 10 years.

The biggest test for pre-debut A.B.C-Z came when their companion group Kis-My-Ft2 debuted in August 2011. It was everything A.B.C-Z wanted. Kis-My-Ft2 had a new cool, sexy image, had jumped to playing huge venues, and their faces were everywhere.

Totsuka infamously shaved his head in distress when he heard the news and almost quit show business completely. He decided that he couldn’t abandon the men he’d worked alongside all these years and in February 2012, A.B.C-Z was rewarded with a debut of their own, except not really. Unlike Kis-My-Ft2, A.B.C-Z weren’t getting a fan club, a cool single, romantic television drama roles opposite hot models, and snazzy gum advertisements. A.B.C-Z were only getting a “DVD single” but they would have all ceremonial benefits awarded to groups who are technically “debuted.”

A.B.C-Z’s debut was both a reward for their loyalty to the agency and, I think, an acknowledgement of the group’s standing within the Juniors. While the four older members had seen many groups form, debut, and leave, by remaining in Juniors for so long, they’d been able to both hone their talents and provide an important level of guidance and institutional knowledge to the next generations coming up.

And you really can see A.B.C-Z’s influence on the younger groups, including Sexy Zone, who technically debuted before A.B.C-Z but are, on average, about 10 years younger. Moves perfected over the years by Tsukada, who trained to be an Olympic level gymnast, pop up in routines by Junior groups like Snow Man. Goseki does choreography for different productions. And Kawai (with Johnny’s West’s Kiriyama Akito) is now the host of Shounen Club and has given the long-running show new life with his sense of humor, as well as his appreciation and understanding of idol performance. Much like Eugene Levy’s Dr. Allan Pearl in Waiting for Guffman, A.B.C-Z danced behind glittery and popular idols and studied them, learning the tricks.

Here is Kawai (backed by Snow Man) poking gentle fun at Nakajima Kento’s (from Sexy Zone) cutesy solo song “Candy” on Shonen Club, August 10, 2016. You’d never have seen as funny and clever a performance as this on previous incarnations of the show:


But beyond just the history of the group itself, a little extra context is necessary when talking about Japanese Pop (J-pop) and more specifically about Japanese idol music, which has a long history and has evolved its own styles and quirks. Idol music isn’t just music. It’s a language used between the idols and fans, a literal example is the call and response from the “Candy” clip above. Fans sing idol songs at karaoke, learn the choreography for concerts, and listen to the same songs performed over years, developing the kind of intense emotional connections to and intimate knowledge of songs that only repeated exposure over years can bring.

AKB48, a female idol group whose members rotate in and out regularly, still perform 2010 mega-hit “Heavy Rotation” despite almost complete turnover of the original performers. (Oshima Yuko “graduated” in 2014, Maeda Atsuko in 2012, Itano Tomomi in 2013, Takahashi Minami in 2016, etc.) Tokio, a long-running idol group now mostly in their 40s, still regularly trots out “Love You Only,” their debut single from 1994. On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss these songs as garbage music, bubblegum pop hits, but to do so would be to dismiss--in Tokio’s case--20+ years of cultural memory. These songs are no longer just songs and can’t fairly be evaluated as such.

Debut singles in Japan, like Tokio’s “Love You Only”, are not just the first song released by an artist, they have a special meaning because they are the the first song. Music shows will have special episodes dedicated to debut songs. Acts of all types will perform their debut songs for concerts and other special performances, like in the linked Tokio performance. It may or may not be a group’s most distinctive or popular song but it will always hold a special meaning for fans and the band itself, eventually becoming something of a time capsule. Hearing men well into their 30s and 40s and beyond pulling out youthful songs meant to be sung by teens isn’t supposed to give a sense of timelessness but exactly the opposite--it deliberately invokes a sense of nostalgia and of time passed.

Here’s Yuzu (ゆず), a popular folk rock duo, with their debut song “Natsu Iro” (夏色, the color of summer) from taken from the 15th anniversary concert:


And the original video from 1998:


For idol groups, like A.B.C-Z, a debut song can also be mission statement, laying out who they are and why they’re here. The chorus from A.B.C-Z’s debut song, “Za ABC〜5stars〜” :

時代を超え5stars つないでくOnly one heart
大切なものはそう いつだって同じ
夢集めて5stars ひとつの星座さ
まだ見ぬ明日へと 光を照らそう
Sing togeZa ABC !!

(We are) the timeless 5 stars, united by only one heart
These have always been the important things
(We are) the dream collecting 5 stars, forming one constellation
Shining on into the bright future
Sing togeZa ABC!!

(Translations are by me for this series unless otherwise specified.)

Two important things to note: 1) the star imagery introduced in this debut song has become entwined with the group’s own conceptions of itself to the point where their catchphrase is “We are 5 stars!” and 2) the use of “za” in the title and chorus is not cutesy English but a play on the Japanese word 座 (“za”) which is used for both constellations and, most importantly, for theaters, which is where A.B.C-Z still primarily performs.

TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2

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