Berryz Kobo is one of the three main acts, along with Morning Musume and C-ute, headlining Hello! Project, Japan’s leading empire of all-girl J-pop singing groups. They made their first trip to America when they performed at Sakura-Con in Seattle in April 2011 and followed up with their first trip to the east coast when they appeared at AnimeNext, a convention held at the Garden State Exhibit Center in Somerset, New Jersey, on June 8-9, 2012. The members of Berryz, now aged 18-20, began their tenure with H!P when they were recruited to be part of the 15-member Hello! Project Kids back in 2002 (making this year their tenth anniversary). Eight of them formed Berryz Kobo in 2004, while the others formed sister group C-ute a year later. One member left Berryz in 2005, so the seven current members have been performing together since then, making them the longest-serving current unit with an intact membership in Hello! Project. Over the years, they’ve become a finely-tuned, well-honed performing group with a string of lively concerts and exuberant, fast-paced dance hits. Many of the fans who flocked to Seattle last year also came to AnimeNext this year, along with fans from Japan and Europe and all parts of the USA, to see Berryz Kobo perform a concert on Friday, June 8 and appear at a Q&A on Saturday, June 9, followed by an autograph session.
I was scheduled to interview them on Saturday, so I got to see them give the concert first. There was a brief opening ceremony on Friday, at which they appeared onstage to greet the audience before heading over to the Berryz Kobo booth in the dealers’ room to sign a banner that would be raffled off the next day. When the girls left the stage, much of the audience left as well, a sure sign of the high percentage of convention attendees who were there because of Berryz.
The concert that evening was preceded by a showing of various Hello! Project music videos, including Morning Musume’s latest, “One Two Three,” Dream Morning Musume’s “Shining Butterfly,” and Berryz’ “Be Genki (Naseba Naru!)” There was press seating on the side, but the bulk of the audience was given space in the center to stand behind metal barriers relatively close to the stage. Premium passes had given priority standing room to those quick enough to have purchased them ahead of time, for $30 apiece, back on May 18. I was given press access to take pictures from the front of the stage for the first two songs only.
The girls came out at 7:00 PM sharp and launched immediately into their 2009 single, “Rival,” a rousing dance piece that got the crowd’s juices flowing immediately. Their next song was “Yuujou Junjou oh Seishun,” another high-energy number, and the crowd was enjoying every second. I had to leave my prime spot after this and move to the side. I didn’t have the great vantage point and I couldn’t take any more pictures, but at least I had a pretty good view of the stage and could stand back and just enjoy the concert.
The next two songs were their past hits, “Special Generation,” a longtime staple of BK concerts, and their 2009 hit, “Dakishimete, Dakishimete.” The latter is one of my favorite songs of theirs and the choreography for it is as intricate as anything they’ve ever done. It was quite a thrill seeing it performed live. One fan from France, Nathaniel, aged 29, who’s traveled the world to see Berryz perform, was especially happy that “Special Generation” and “Dakishimete Dakishimete” were performed in the same concert, apparently something that has never happened before. “Just for that, it was worth it to come to America, so I’m pretty glad I came,” he told me.
In addition to the four songs already cited, the rest of the set list ran in this order:
“Ai no Suki Suki Shisuu Joushouchuu”
“Otakebi Boy WAO!”
Every fan who commented on the set list was ecstatic over the song choices, especially those who’d seen the concert in Seattle. “The set list was phenomenal,” said Michael Banowitz, 18, from Philadelphia. Josh Mosby, 46, from Astoria, New York, expanded on this: “The set list was fantastic. I was impressed that they must have paid some care and attention to the list that was in Seattle because here almost all the songs were songs they didn’t play there.”
The girls were in peak form throughout the 70-minute concert and were as good as I’ve ever seen them. They reached out to the audience and made sure to include them in the fun. One fan ecstatically insisted that he’d gotten the attention of Maasa and made her laugh. The fans also liked the way the girls interacted with each other in cute and funny ways in the course of each song. They’ve been performing so well together for so long that they have every crowd-pleasing detail thoroughly worked out. Hugh, 50, from Chicago, who’d seen them in Seattle, said, “The girls put 110% into their effort, it’s always brilliant.” Every fan I talked to who’d seen them in Seattle insisted this concert was better. Joel, 30, from Des Moines, Iowa, said, “Everybody on stage and everybody in the audience seemed to put all their effort into having a good time while the concert was going on. The set list was incredible. They didn’t take a lot of breaks so it was very fast paced and it was over with before we knew it.” Some fans thought the stage setup was better here. Hugh said “I got a bit closer to the stage. The layout for the stage seemed better.” Gabby, 20, from Milwaukee, said, “The stage was lower to the ground so it was easier to see. At Sakura-Con the stage was too high.”
While the girls sang well, the sound often came out distorted through the speakers or was drowned out by the bass. It wasn’t the best job of sound engineering I’ve ever encountered at a concert.
After the concert, the crowd was so revved up that they began chanting, “Berryz Saiko! Hai Hai Hai Hai!” (Berryz is great!) and marching through the convention center. Eventually, we wound up on the grounds outside the center and formed an impromptu post-concert rally, with various other chants, including “Momo-chi! Kawa-ii!” (Momoko’s cute!). I later watched a clip on YouTube of a similar post-concert rally after the concert in Seattle. A good time was had by all.
The next morning was my scheduled interview with Berryz in a suite assigned as a press room at the DoubleTree Hotel opposite the Garden State Exhibit Center. I was the first interviewer scheduled and I was happy to see the girls enter in full makeup, hairstyle, and costume, as seen in the photos taken at the Q&A. I couldn’t help but compare the experience to that of interviewing Morning Musume at Anime Expo in Los Angeles back in 2009. The nine members of MM had just flown in from Japan and were dressed casually and may have been somewhat jet-lagged. They looked great but were a little awestruck at being in America and showed great humility. The seven members of Berryz were very sweet and generous, but extremely polished and professional. They have, after all, been working together for ten years, while Morning Musume, at the time of their interview, had several newer members with much less time logged in. More than any other J-pop stars I’ve encountered as a journalist over the years, the members of Berryz Kobo exuded unmistakable star power. I was the one who was awestruck.
I asked a question of each member and a few general questions. Here is the full transcript of the interview:
Otaku USA: America e yokoso. Welcome to America.
Q: How many of you are studying English?
(Chinami Tokunaga raises hand)
Miyabi Natsuyaki: Chinami is the person who is in charge of English for Berryz Kobo.
Saki Shimizu [group leader]
Q: You’ve been with Hello! Project for 10 years and been leader of Berryz Kobo for eight years. Now you are the leader in Hello! Project with the most experience. How does that make you feel? What kind of responsibilities does that have?
A: When I started, there were lots of the greatest in Hello! Project, the girls that I admired. So I was always looking up to them and trying to reach them. Now I look back and there are many young people under me so I have to be in position to be the person that these girls admire. So here I am.
Q: What’s it like working with the younger girls in Hello! Project today?
A: I love young kids. I love to be admired by young kids, I love to teach them to grow. But still there are young kids telling me “This is not the right dance move,” so sometimes they correct me. So I have to be the person they admire, too.
Q: Do you make them laugh?
A: They’re so cute so I don’t have to do anything, but everybody really has a smile on their face.
Q: What’s the big difference between fans in Japan and fans in America?
A: Sakura-Con was our first time, so we didn’t know how to reach the people. Probably, the audience didn’t know how to communicate with us. This time we are more relaxed and the audience knows how to communicate with us better and we have some idea, how to communicate, use English, so we are more relaxed. So that’s much better.
Q: In the last few years Berryz Kobo members have done more acting in TV shows and movies. What’s the biggest challenge of going from performing with Berryz to creating a character in movies and TV?
A: I love acting first of all. I have so much fun in both singing and acting, but I love acting. It’s the same thing in that we are trying to give our dreams to the fans. The singing is just Maasa, this is me, but with the acting I have to be somebody else so it’s a totally different thing. Both are fun, but that’s the difference.
[In the middle of Maasa’s answer, the air-conditioning in the room went on. While Maasa was answering, Miyabi got up and turned it off.]
Q: You’ve worked with so many great singers in Hello! Project over the years. How did the older girls help you as you developed your singing style over the years?
A: It’s not the unit in which we’ve worked together, but in concerts where we’ve sung together. Especially Ai Takahashi [Morning Musume], whom I really admire. She’s a great dancer, so I learned a lot from her about dancing and I learned her moves and always watch the video and say “Okay, this is what she talks about.” She always gave me advice, so I learned a lot. Ai always has a good word about me, so that really gave me confidence to move on. That’s the person I really admire and want to be for other people, so that’s who I learn a lot from.
Q: Is there any kind of song you haven’t sung yet that you’d like to sing?
A: The Hello Project songs are really happy and cute songs, but I’d really like to try ballads and jazz.
Q: You all have a new look for each new song. Do you help decide how to choose hairstyle, makeup and fashion for each new video?
A: Of course we have professional stylists and everybody gives their opinion of what kind of image they want us to do, so it’s not only one person’s decision. The stylists give us the outfit and say, “This is the image,” but every image is different so what I really like to try to do is take the image and ask how can I wear this like who I am, who I represent, that’s what I always think about and also the makeup and the hair. Of course it has to match with everybody else but I always think, “Okay, this is going to be a little bit flashier so I have to curl a little bit more and I’m going to have to put a little bit of makeup on.” Of course I have to be the person everybody’s looking up to, so I think okay, this is the image I’d really like to do, so I always think about being image-conscious. Today, everyone else is doing their own makeup and hair, so this is the real them.
Q: In 2009, your singing style changed and you began to sing more dramatically. How did you decide to go in a new direction?
A: When we did the recording for “Otakebi Boy WAO!,” [Hello! Project producer/manager] Tsunku came to the recording and of course guided and coached me in what to sing, how to sing. Tsunku said “You’re going to have to really try to be a little bit boyish and have a lower voice and a really strong energetic voice.” So I said, okay I should try this, so I worked together with Tsunku and that’s how I began to sing a little bit lower, like a rock-type voice. But at the same time I have to sing live, a little bit cutish, for that type of song. It’s really kind of difficult to go back to the voice for the cutest songs, so that’s the kind of contrast that I have to suffer.
Q: Question for all: While you’re here do you have plans to visit New York City?
(They nod yes.)
Q: What are you going to do there?
Miyabi: Well, of course we’d love to see the city, but all Berryz girls love shopping so we beg the managers, “Please, please give us time for shopping,” so that’s what we’re gonna do.
Q: I’m from New York and it’s the greatest city in the world.
Miyabi: What’s the hippest thing we have to see?
Q: I’m not hip, so I don’t know. You’re the hippest thing.
Momoko: Of course.
(When the interpreter translated “I’m not hip,” both Saki and Chinami sweetly shook their heads to disagree. As one fan later put it, “You got some Berryz pity!”)
Q: Question for Momoko and Miyabi: you’re in the group Buono! with Airi Suzuki from C-ute. So when is Buono! coming to America?
Momoko: We went to Paris and did a show, so I’d really like to come to the United States very soon.
Q: When are your friends in C-ute coming to America?
Miyabi: Of course C-ute would love to come, so it’s a matter of time.
Q: One more question for “Captain.” What’s the secret of working so well together and staying together for so long?
A: Of course, one member graduated [in 2005], but since then we’ve had the same seven members which is the longest in Hello! Project. Each of us has individual charms so it’s very different, but put us together as Berryz Kobo and we have a totally different power. Everybody knows about it and that’s the kind of power that Berryz Kobo has.
The interview ended with the girls giving me a photo signed to me and autographed by them all.
At the Q&A later that day, a minute was allotted for everyone to take pictures of the girls after which no pictures were allowed. A table was set up so the girls could sit and answer questions. Ground rules were established and it was announced that fans could give presents to the girls during the Q&A, in lieu of a question, but not during the autograph session. I had begun recording the session, having been given permission to do so by the convention’s press coordinator. A convention staffer came over to stop me but I told her it was an audio recorder and she let me continue. But then one of the Japanese handlers came over and told me, “No recording.” Period. So I can’t give you a transcript of the Q&A. And since the sound system was even worse than it had been during the concert, I couldn’t always understand what was being said well enough to write it all down. Among the questions and answers I did catch were these:
Q: What do you think of Japanese singers’ popularity in the U.S.?
Chinami: I’m very honored to be here. Many Japanese artists come here. Berryz Kobo should be one of them. We want to visit many states and many people.
Question for Momoko: Do any members think you’ve gotten better at cooking? [This is a reference to a disastrous cooking session seen on one of their TV shows three years ago]
Momoko: Momochi is the cutest girl in the world, so God didn’t give me any other gifts. Maybe in two years I’ll get better.
Question for Maasa: What is your favorite anime?
Maasa: “Meitantei Conan” [Detective Conan]
In any event, most of the people who came up to the mic were there to offer presents to the girls. Some had single gifts for individual girls. Holly Segarra, 28, from Connecticut, had made a doll of Chinami and went up to present it to her. Chinami was clearly flattered and pleased by it. Others had gifts for all of the girls and would indicate which girl they wanted to present it to. One girl presented a banner that said, “USA [heart] Berryz Kobo / Thank You Berryz Much for 8 Years!!!,” which was signed by dozens of fans the evening before. One three-year-old boy, carried on another fan’s shoulders, asked Chinami if she would marry him.
The fans, in general, stretched across a wide demographic range, from the very little to the middle-aged. I would say the bulk of them were functioning adults in their late 20s to mid 30s. This was in contrast to the anime fans who attended the rest of the convention and often seemed overwhelmed by all the Berryz love going on around them. The bulk of this group, while also including old and young fans, tended to be in the middle-to-high school age range.
After the Q&A, the line was formed for the autograph session. A table was set up on the floor for the girls to sit and sign, positioned in order of age, with Saki at the right end and Risako at the left end. Handlers were in place to move things along quickly. I decided to stay in my seat, which was about six feet away from the table, and watch the girls go through the whole line. Where else could I get a ringside seat for such a spectacle? Priority wristbands had been given out at the Berryz booth the day before to each attendee who purchased merchandise. Each wristband allowed for only one signature from each of the girls, and only on official merchandise, which could include CD covers, posters, photobooks, concert programs and head shots. The girls sat there and smiled at every attendee, signing with verve and enthusiasm. Some fans tried to start up conversations and the team of handlers ushered them quickly to the next girl. The Berryz girls gamely paid attention to anyone who addressed them. Someone was positioned at the end of the table to cut the wristband of every fan who passed. Occasionally, there was a gap between a fan who moved quickly and one who didn’t and the girls at the end of the table—Miyabi, Yurina, and Risako--would drop their mask for a second to sit impassively and take a breather, before perking up as the next fan approached. They did get a moment to acknowledge the press people in the first row and wave to us. Momoko was “on” the entire time, never once flagging in her zeal and need for adoration. (Well-deserved, if you ask me.) Whenever a child came through, she would latch onto him or her, eager to dominate their attention.
This went on for almost 90 minutes, longer than it was supposed to, and I only saw a handful of fans with more than one wristband get back in line for a second set of autographs. One poor girl was in tears because she didn’t have official merchandise, so one of the handlers managed to scrounge up a CD for her. I realized as I watched the girls perform their duties, smiling and signing relentlessly, that this was very hard work. Add up the energetic concert from the day before, with a rehearsal in the morning, and the interviews from earlier on Saturday, along with the Q&A, on top of the likely jet lag, and you had quite a wearying series of activities. But you couldn’t tell from looking at them. Chaos and disorganization sometimes swirled around them, but they were never touched by it. They were above it all, completely unflappable. Like true stars.
Once the autographs were finished, it was time to raffle off the banner the girls had signed the day before. A Japanese fan won it. The girls waved goodbye and filed out. And that was the end of their visit with fans. The next day they’d be spending a day in New York and heading back to Japan the following day. Here’s hoping they make the U.S. a regular stop. Oh, and bring C-ute along with them on the next trip.
Special thanks to Yaz Noya, who served as interpreter for the interview and Q&A, and Ezra Cudjoe, the press coordinator for AnimeNext, for making all the press access possible.