Saturday, June 10, 2017

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


A.B.C-Z, as they explain themselves in the Making & Special Interview included on this DVD single, are five very different talents or “stars”, more powerful united than apart. 

And much like the group itself, their debut single is kind of an odd duck.

First of all, it’s a DVD single, a concept I hadn’t heard of before encountering A.B.C-Z but in the Making, Tsukada says that they can only really show who they are through video and I think it ended up being the right choice. A.B.C-Z spent years perfecting their performances on stages across Japan, why rip that away? The dance and music aren’t discrete parts on a DVD single; they are entangled into one unified performance.

I can only assume that there were also plenty of business considerations. A.B.C-Z had a built-in audience as elite Juniors but that built-in audience was relatively small. It would be embarrassing for a debut single not to reach number one on the music charts but that bar is much lower for the DVD charts. And instead of printing two discs--a CD with the song and a DVD with the extra features--you only need one disc and less packaging.

And it’s worth pointing out that with Japan’s (I think smart) reluctance to put a ton of free video content up online, in order to see the video you would have to buy the DVD.

1. 「Za ABC〜5stars〜」 Music Clip

For this very first single, A.B.C-Z were given an extremely cheerful, very perky bubblegum song by Tommy Clint, a German songwriter whose work is popular among the younger Johnny’s groups (Sexy Zone, Kis-My-Ft2, Hey! Say! JUMP, etc.). Clint has an ear for a catchy rhythm and throws in some interesting syncopation on the verses that prevents the listener from becoming completely drenched in the sugary sweetness of the chorus. There is an extended musical interlude for a dance break, which has become a staple of all A.B.C-Z singles.

Main vocal duties are taken by Hashimoto, a warm, wispy countertenor. The distinctive voices of Kawai, sharp and brassy enough to pierce through any arrangement, and Totsuka, incredibly nasal with a distinctive use of phrasing (possibly related to a collapsed lung suffered as a teenager), also feature but Goseki and Tsukada are almost exclusively dancers in these early songs.

The “Music Clip” begins in what is very clearly a house set built on a soundstage. And the very first glimpse of a band member we see is Hashimoto’s face in a window. He winks as the camera pulls back to reveal Tsukada “hanging” from the ceiling to his left. Goseki flies in through a door to his right and lands on… “the ceiling”. Kawai pops up from the top left corner with a huge shit-eating grin and then, last, Totsuka slides “up” a pole from the bottom right of the screen. The four older members come together in the center of the screen as the camera rotates to reveal that the “ceiling” is really the floor and Hashimoto strolls in from the left side of the screen as the vocals kick in.

A.B.C-Z are dressed in all white suits. (L-R Tsukada, Kawai, Hashimoto, Totsuka, and Goseki)

As the chorus kicks in, the guys exit out of the “house” and into an extremely musical theater street set packed to the gills with various Juniors. It’s sheer chaos. ジュニアだらけ, one might say. One kid is doing a handstand; another one fake punches Kawai in the face. Juniors doing headspins; Juniors on bikes; Juniors on a skateboard. There’s a sequence with two Juniors bouncing a basketball that Goseki has to dive through.

A.B.C-Z cluster in the center of the screen, the white suits providing a bit of clarity against the visual chaos behind them. The camera pushes in on Totsuka as he pulls a giant fake key out of his pocket and then dances off to the right where he sings his solo lines in front of a red curtain.

The curtain pulls aside to reveal a green screen and as the camera pulls back again we see that there is a “car” in front of it and A.B.C-Z will be “driving” it. A moonwalking Junior in a Michael Jackson fedora moonwalks into frame, hops up on the back of the “car” and tries to upstage everybody with his prepubescent hip thrusts. Goseki jumps up back to show him how it’s really done.

The older four of A.B.C-Z pull the “car” apart and disappear off screen leaving Hashimoto behind with the “steering wheel” that he “magically” turns into a top hat and hands off to a Junior before running right, to the next set.

Hashimoto is joined by the four older members of A.B.C-Z and the camera drifts upward so we see them dancing from above, white suits against a black and white checked floor in a Busby Berkeley-inspired dance sequence that is my favorite section of the video.

As the camera moves down again we see they’re in a diner set with Juniors clustered behind the counter.

Tsukada then gets to do his most distinctive acrobatic move which is a backflip where he’s launched by Kawai, Goseki, and Totsuka and then the camera starts moving back left, pausing a few seconds on each of the members as they take center stage with a gag or dance move with a pack of Juniors.

On the final words, “Sing togeZa A.B.C~” the entire cast is united in the center of the set, doing the same choreography. Standing with arms raised, hands clasped. They’ve formed a star.

The music ends and A.B.C-Z yawn and act tired. The Juniors act concerned and then run off camera as A.B.C-Z collapse in the center of the screen and “go to sleep.”

On the “Music Clip” commentary disc that came with A.B.C-Z’s fifth year anniversary single “Reboot”, they laughed their asses off as they watched this again, especially the ending. What were they thinking?!

The first time I saw this “Music Clip” I was extremely disappointed and I don’t think I watched it again for a long time. Coming back to it five years later, I still don’t think it’s a good showcase for A.B.C-Z but I understand why it turned out like this. The presence of the Juniors is crutch, ensuring that fans of those boys will buy the disc but also in the sense that the staging of this “Music Clip” doesn’t seem to trust A.B.C-Z to hold the screen on their own charms, which even then they were more than capable of doing, as they prove in the next track.

But there are a few themes established in this “Music Clip” that will pop up again and again throughout their work. The first is the idea of what they call the “one camera show” (ワンカメショー) a.k.a. this “Music Clip” is shot with a single camera in one continuous take. Not only does this concept make the most effective use of their resources: the knowledge and experience of something like a combined 50 years of experience performing live on stage, as well as the free time to choreograph and rehearse the video, so that it ends up being cheaper to film than a standard music video.

Next is the music theater influence. A.B.C-Z bleed old fashioned razzle-dazzle. The bulk of their performing careers has been spent on a stage of some sort in front of a live crowd and they are very good at it. Rather than using video effects or CGI to generate excitement in this first “Music Clip” what we’re seeing is the result of stage magic, careful rehearsal, and very human talent. Although they will eventually play more with the idea of the camera and it’s limited point of view, in this first single, the only real acknowledgement of the filmed format is the rotating camera move at the very beginning, which may as well have been ripped from 1930s Hollywood.

Somewhat related is the entire upbeat, “high on life” feel of the entire production. Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Hashimoto is so fresh faced and rosy cheeked, he may as well be a Hummel figurine come to life. This is a production number aimed at kids and it’s a huge break from their Junior days when A.B.C-Z overwhelmingly performed cool songs.

Here are A.B.C-Z in their Junior days performing fan favorite “Vanilla:”

Not only would butter melt in their mouths, they’d pour it out over you. I won’t translate the lyrics but they are extremely suggestive.

The cheerful image is one that comes back again and again, mainly on the “A-side” of these singles, but it always feels like an act, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Especially since the “B-side” songs tend to be cooler and far closer to what A.B.C-Z were doing in their Junior days. So, it’s not like A.B.C-Z are boxed into a boyish Hummel figurine image since anybody who bought the DVD would see a different, more grown-up side of A.B.C-Z as soon as the second track started playing but I think it’s interesting that they were assigned such a sunshine and candy public face when it’s not what they had been known for.

And then there are the Juniors. As I said earlier, A.B.C-Z (especially Kawai) have developed something of a mentor relationship with the younger trainees and they often show up in A.B.C-Z’s productions but never again will they take up so much screen time. A.B.C-Z seemed to have learned from “Za ABC〜5stars〜” and future uses of Juniors have them much more clearly supporting the group, rather than competing with them. And this level of visual chaos is never repeated.

Finally, it’s also notable that the group is dressed in all-white suits. A.B.C-Z have become known for their use of “member colors,” a Japanese idol tradition that some have traced back to the Super Sentai
(aka Power Rangers) series, and the member colors have become such a part of their image that it’s almost shocking to go back and see the lack of them in this first “Music Clip”.

2. 「砂のグラス」 Dance Clip

The second track on the DVD single functions as the B-side to the single. It’s a beautiful uptempo ballad titled “Suna no glass” ( 砂のグラス, Glass of Sand). Both the title and lyrics play with the concept of the hourglass, the Japanese word for which is sunadokei or “sand clock”. Glass of sand, hourglass, sand clock. Turning back time to redo a love affair gone wrong.

Written by Segawa Kohei (瀬川浩平), known for working with the well-respected duo Kinki Kids, the melody has a swooping, lyrical quality that’s echoed in the string arrangement. One gets the feel of sand sifting endlessly through an hourglass.

Again, Hashimoto has the lead vocal and the lyrics with their preponderance of S’s play up his slight lisp, giving the verses an incredible amount of sibilance, an unusual but  very effective style choice.

As the “Making” will reveal, this “Dance Clip” was filmed on the same soundstage as the chaotic A-side but it’s been transformed. A.B.C-Z dance against a black background, dressed in black jeans, black button down shirts, and black sneakers. Their movements flow in time with the music, echoing the hands spinning on the face of a clock. No more Hummel figurine rosy cheeked smiles. These men are artists.

Like “Za ABC〜5stars〜” I hadn’t watched “Suna no Glass” in some time and both the song and “Dance Clip” have aged remarkably well. The dancing is not quite in sync at times--understandable because of the rushed shooting schedule--but the overall effect of the simple costumes against a simple backdrop is really lovely. The pale faces, arms, and hands really pop against all that black, bringing to mind candles held against a night sky.

If there’s ever a fan vote for picking songs for a special performance, I’d like to submit “Suna no Glass” to the ballot.

3.   Making & Special Interview

One of the best parts of any A.B.C-Z DVD single is the “Making of” footage and despite the disappointing final product, the “Making” ends up being quite enjoyable. The first part is literally a camera following behind the real camera giving us a repeat of the video from behind the scenes cut together with footage of the rehearsals and the jacket shooting. We see young Hashimoto giddy with excitement goofing around the set, wondering if it’s okay that the first thing people will see is his upside down face, saying he hasn’t slept a wink all week. Kawai and Goseki turning their star smiles on. Poor Totsuka sick with a cold. And Tsukada is just happy to be there (his true weirdness doesn’t begin to shine through in these Makings until much later).

The “Making” then continues with one-on-one interviews with each of the group members and more rehearsal footage. A deeper dive into the real nerdy stage production stuff.

My absolute favorite thing is a young, extremely awkward Hashimoto trying really hard to use formal language and explaining that he couldn’t sleep all week.

We also really get a sense of how much they all do behind the scenes. A.B.C-Z wouldn’t exist if these five men weren’t extremely interested in the many ways of putting on a show. And if they didn’t respect each other as professionals. The admiration for Tsukada’s ability to perform gymnastics on hard surfaces like concrete; Kawai’s eye for management; the way Totsuka comes up with things nobody else would have thought of; Goseki’s way with dance and choreography; Hashimoto’s dedication and earnestness.

The overriding sense from all of these interviews is that A.B.C-Z want a bigger platform to perform. They want to do more. The “Making” ends with Hashimoto saying how kind all of the members are.

4. 「A.B.C-Z 2011 first Concert in YOYOGI」 Digest with「Dream〜5つの願い〜」

This track cuts together highlights of the concert and sets them to “Dream~Itsutsu no negai~” (Dream〜5つの願い〜,  Dream ~5 Wishes~), an extremely sappy ballad that became something of an anthem for Junior-era A.B.C-Z fans. Although not one of my favorite songs--I’m not really a lyrics person so ballads are very hit or miss for me--I appreciate that it’s a favorite for many other fans and it was a good choice for the final track of the debut single.

Held while they were still Juniors, A.B.C-Z’s first solo concert was a big deal for them and their fans but--as shows from the video footage assembled for the “Digest”, it was not one that Johnny’s threw a lot of resources at. But the clips presented have a charming “Let’s put on a show!” vibe and despite the lack of production values, I bet it was a very fun performance. Based on fan reports, they performed their many Junior-era songs, did some skits with the younger Juniors, and announced their very first solo stage musical! It would just a few months later--as that musical was kicking off--that A.B.C-Z finally were able to announce their debut.

I hope you enjoyed this write-up. A.B.C-Z have been a great source of joy for me over the last few years and the lack of anything written on them in English spurred me to buckle down and learn how to do translating and so on by myself. I’ve really learned a lot about Japanese pop culture and stage productions through A.B.C-Z and I’m very grateful that I randomly happened on one of their television performances all the way back in the summer of 2013.

No comments:

.article .article-content { word-break: normal !important; }