Thursday, August 31, 2017

5 Years 5 Stars A.B.C-Z 五周年おめでとう!!! [Part 1 of 4]



A.B.C-Z are:

五関晃一 (Goseki Koichi)
塚田僚一 (Tsukada Ryoichi)
戸塚祥太 (Totsuka Shota)
河合郁人 (Kawai Fumito)
橋本良亮 (Hashimoto Ryousuke)

The theater was almost completely dark after we shut off our penlights. A.B.C-Z member Kawai Fumito, standing on a short riser in the center of the orchestra level seating, was visible for a half second longer before the spotlight was shut off. And then, in time with the music, Kawai gives the command, セーの! (Ready, go!) and Century Hall in Nagoya glows bright red. Again, セーの!and it’s blue. Yellow. Pink. Purple. White. And finally we all land on the penlight’s “random” function. Penlights flashing cacophonously, the stage lights come back up, and the concert continues. The performers, the stage crew, the audience, all in sync, all part an experience we’re creating together.


Standing in the crowd, in the dark, one fan among many, waiting for the cue to turn my light back on, I am perfectly happy in the moment. I am part of something much larger than myself, larger than any of us.


This is why I come to Japan every year.





I’ve written about A.B.C-Z  before (and if you want you can read that first; the short version is they are a modestly successful J-Pop idol group) but I’ve never written about what it’s actually like attending one of their concerts. I was lucky enough to see their 5th anniversary “5 Stars 5 Years” Tour 5 (!) times: 2 shows at Yokohama Arena in Yokohama (August 8-9, 2017) and 3 shows at Century Hall in Nagoya (August 19-20, 2017). In this post, I’ll discuss both since the set lists were almost completely identical. The only notable difference between the Arena and Hall performances was that A.B.C-Z used no additional performers in the Hall, only the five members. The Arena shows also featured the Junior group Love Tune, as well as many young trainees.


(ジャニーズ伝説, 2014)


This is the third year in a row I’ve traveled for their concerts having also seen “Early Summer Concert” (May 2015) and “Star Line Travel” concert (August 2016) and to a certain extent, attending an A.B.C-Z concert is much like attending any idol concert in Japan. There is a sharp learning curve for the uninitiated because idol concerts are participatory. There is audience choreography, specific call-and-responses, and strict rules of behavior that must all be followed or you risk ruining the atmosphere for those around you. For all of Japan’s reputation for xenophobia, any wariness on the part of fans around me at seeing a large foreigner in their midst tends to disappear when they realize I understand what I’m supposed to be doing.


(Golden Bomber, 2014)


But on my very first trip to Japan, I didn’t know any of this. I had been inspired to finally go to Japan for the very first time in 2014 to see A.B.C-Z’s stage play, ABC座2014 ジャニーズ伝説  (The Legend of Johnny’s, which I should also write about). And one of the other things I did on that very first trip was go to see Golden Bomber, who are probably best described as a meta-idol group. I liked (and still like) Golden Bomber’s music and thought their television performances and music videos were hilarious. “This will be fun,” I thought. “I know enough of their songs and jokes to have a good time.” As it turns out, I didn’t know anything.


The Golden Bomber concert was being held way out in the boonies of Kyoto Prefecture in a port town on the Sea of Japan called Maizuru. Needless to say, I was the only Westerner in sight. A very kind mother-and-daughter pair took me under their wing, helped me find my seat, buy concert merchandise, get a drink of water, and so on.


My seat was way towards the back of the hall but just as the concert was about to start, the mother came back to get me. She beckoned me to follow her back to where she and her daughter were sitting near the front. It turns out that they had discussed it and because the mother wasn’t really a Golden Bomber fan and I had come all this way to see them, she wanted to swap seats with me. I was beyond touched. It was one of the nicest things anybody has done for me.The daughter reassured me that she would show me what to do but I’ve been to hundreds of concerts over my 30+ years. How much help could I need? I thought.


And then the house lights went down and the audience rose to their feet. It was like showing up to class only to find out there was going to be a test on material you hadn’t even realized you were supposed to have been studying. The entire audience moved in unison, doing choreography I wasn’t even aware had existed. Grab our towels for this next song?! But I don’t have a towel! Why does everybody have a towel?! I strapped in and braced for landing as best I could, mimicking the daughter’s movements out of the corner of my eye until I eventually realized that Utahiroba Jun (the group’s “bassist”) wasn’t just dancing on stage, he was leading the choreography.


By the end of the concert, despite having managed to fake my way through most of the dances, I knew that I didn’t just need to learn more (and better) Japanese for my next trip to Japan, I needed to learn how to properly attend Japanese idol concerts! As part of a Japanese audience you didn’t just sit (or stand) passively filming on your phone or drinking a beer, you were part of the show.




(Early Summer Concert, 2015!!)

When I returned to Japan for A.B.C-Z’s “Early Summer Concert” in 2015 I was more prepared. I was not going to get caught without a towel this time. Here are the things you should bring to an A.B.C-Z concert:


* Penlight, if at all possible the tour specific one which has the correct light sequence. These will be illuminated in the color of one’s favorite member for most of the concert except during the member solos where the entire audience changes to the color of the member performing.


* Uchiwa, a handheld fan. Either one of the tour specific “face” uchiwa of your favorite member or a homemade one giving a message or requesting fan service. Uchiwa range from extremely simple--one character of a member’s name--to practical--“Blow me a kiss”--to clever, referencing an inside joke or using a specific nickname. The inside joke uchiwa are always my favorite.


* The latest A.B.C-Z concert fashion. Besides the concert T-shirt, which can be purchased and worn immediately, fans wear certain accessories to show their support for their favorite member. Fans of some groups wear flower crowns or sunglasses in a specific color. A.B.C-Z fans have adopted the bandana, to be worn however the fan desires, but always in the color of your favorite member. Star patterned clothing and accessories are also popular for A.B.C-Z. Cosplay isn’t too widespread but I have spotted more than a handful of women rocking some great A.B.C-Z costumes.


Of all the items, the penlight is the most important because it’s used for the audience choreography. A handful of songs have choreography you can learn ahead of time but others are done purely through audience osmosis. This last phenomenon is incredible to experience in real time. Although my first year attending an A.B.C-Z concert I was far too overwhelmed with the sensory experience of actually seeing A.B.C-Z live to know what was happening, these last two years I’ve really enjoyed being part of the audience’s real time learning curve.


There are cues to help us along, of course. Video screens show the lyrics for the call and responses. The trainees spread around the arena model the choreography for us but yet that first show is always the trickiest. We’re collectively figuring out what to do. Call and response here? Quick, let’s do it! Hurry, mimic what the trainees are doing! Oh no, who’s solo is next? Penlights flash in slow confusion across the arena. Pink? Purple? Yellow?


By the final show, the audience is a well oiled machine thanks to repeat viewers and information spread via the Internet and outside the arena. We’ve practiced the difficult bits. We know where to yell. We know the set list. Colors flash confidently, everyone moving in time with the music.


(SLT, 2016)



Last year, A.B.C-Z member Tsukada Ryoichi attempted something extremely ambitious for his solo. The song was unusual in and of itself. “へそのお” (Heso no O, umbilical cord) was a short kids song written by Tsukada and backed by a children’s chorus. Nobody knew what to expect on that first night of the concert. The house lights were up. Tsukada came out on stage alone, played a bit of the melody on a melodica, and then started singing the song unaccompanied… and we all sat there completely baffled. The mood in Yoyogi Stadium that day was one of the oddest things I’ve experienced as an audience member. Eventually we realized he wanted us to sing along with him and some of us joined in for the final “la la la la” parts. Tsukada abruptly ends the song and leaves the stage.


I cannot emphasize enough how weird the atmosphere was in Yoyogi. Imagine thousands of confused fans murmuring to each other, “What the heck are we supposed to be doing?!”


For the second show at Yoyogi, Tsukada had the backing track to the song play while he sang but there was still a great deal of uncertainty. Did he want us to sing too? Were we supposed to have the lyrics memorized?


For the final show at Yoyogi, Tsukada tried one last time to get us all on the same page with the song before giving up and just doing a bunch of backflips in a row and then running off stage. (This is what you see on the DVD of the concert.)


It was an interesting experience because it showed that A.B.C-Z is very aware of the audience participation element to their concerts but being aware of it and being able to use it to create a performance are two different things. Tsukada knew what type of collaboration was possible, he just didn’t have a good grasp on how to transmit that to us.


A.B.C-Z member Goseki Koichi, the dance master, has a character he does called “Dancing Goseki”. Dancing Goseki is essentially just regular Goseki but wearing sunglasses and a blue bandana. Originating on the album extras for A.B.Sea Market, Dancing Goseki runs fans through elaborate choreography for one particular song that’s meant to be done during the concert. No audience I’ve been in has ever managed the full Dancing Goseki choreography for any song but it’s fun to try at home and it’s also fun to see what bits of choreography stick and become part of the regular audience choreography for different songs.


Watch the girls on the back risers on 少年倶楽部 for an idea of what I’m talking about:




This is a more elaborate choreography meant for television but some of those moves have been adopted by A.B.C-Z concert audiences and are now standard penlight choreography for “Summer上々” (an A.B.C-Z fan favorite song!).


I think it’s A.B.C-Z’s love of putting on a show with their fans that makes their concerts so special to attend. A.B.C-Z are all show business enthusiasts themselves of one type or another and I think that that love of their work really shines through in their concerts.


One big change for the “5 Stars 5 Years” concert from previous years was that the set list was compiled by A.B.C-Z member Totsuka Shota instead of Kawai. Totsuka has referred to himself and Kawai the John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the group. Totsuka, the “John”, wears his heart on his sleeve. He plays guitar, writes serious essays, and loves rock’n’roll. Kawai, the “Paul”, is Mr. Razzle Dazzle show business. He loves theatrics and is obsessed with Showa era (aka retro) idols. Obviously Kawai is my favorite member (Team Purple! Just wait until I write up his play のど自慢 that I saw in Nagoya!) and his musical tastes line up almost exactly with mine but Kawai is also lazy when it comes to physical exertion so a Kawai set-list tends to be heavy on both nostalgic songs and ballads.

All of this means that the Totsuka set list for “5 Stars 5 Years” was a real breath of fresh air. Not too many ballads, a good selection of fan favorites and what are clearly member favorites from the past five years, and no nostalgic songs from their pre-debut catalog. 5 Stars. Only songs from the past 5 years.


(5 Stars 5 Years,Yokohama Arena, 2017)



(5 Stars 5 Years, Nagoya)

[CONTINUED IN PART 2]

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