At Anime Expo this year, one of the surprise guests accompanying Morning Musume on their historic first trip to America was none other than Hitomi Yoshizawa, the last group leader of MM before the current one, Ai Takahashi. Yoshizawa was a member of the 4th Generation of Morning Musume (which is now up to 8th Gen), having joined in 2000, and graduated from the group in May 2007. She is currently performing as the punk-styled “Hangry,” half of the rock duo Hangry & Angry, in which “Angry” is played by Yoshizawa’s 4th Gen partner, Rika Ishikawa, who graduated from MM in May 2005. Hangry & Angry performed at Sakura-Con in Seattle this past April and during her stint at AX, Yoshizawa was billed exclusively as “Hangry.” She made a surprise appearance at the Morning Musume booth on the first day of the Expo and then appeared onstage during the Morning Musume concert the next day to assist MM founder/producer Tsunku in announcing the winners of the Morning Musume MySpace OPV contest designed to award fan-produced Original Promotion Videos created for the MM song, “3,2,1, Breaking Out.” She did an autograph session later that day.
Yoshizawa, known to her friends and fans as “Yossi,” always exhibited a more wide-ranging style than the other girls of MM and could be dashing and manly when called on to play a man’s role (as in the music video for “Mr. Moonlight”), or beautiful and glamorous when necessary (“Iroppoi Jirettai”). More often, though, she was incredibly funny, whether lampooning herself in the video for MM’s 2004 hit, “Joshi Kashimashi Monogatari” (The Story of Noisy Girls), or appearing in countless skits on Morning Musume’s TV show, Hello Morning, including the long-running segment where she played the “Obasan,” a comically irritable older woman running a shop at a provincial train station that attracts all sorts of eccentric characters. Yossi was also generally the only member to completely change her hairstyle and look from concert to concert and video to video, always keeping it interesting for the fans. Of all the MM members, past and present, Yossi seems to have the largest female following.
If there was any member I’d ever want to interview to get behind the scenes of Morning Musume and find out what life was like leading the group and juggling so many different facets of a show biz career, it would be Yossi, who’s always come off as the most cool-headed among them. (She famously never sheds a tear at any of the MM graduations she’s witnessed, including her own.) So imagine my happy surprise when my request for such an interview was granted on the first day of Anime Expo, only a day after I’d had a brief sitdown (one question each) with Morning Musume themselves. It’s tough to know what to ask in such a situation because there’s only so much one can expect to learn from a Japanese pop star working in such a heavily supervised outfit as Hello! Project (the umbrella group for Morning Musume and its affiliated acts) and accustomed to the most softball of questions from a highly cooperative and compliant Japanese press corps. But at the same time, I could learn a lot simply from what she didn’t say or how she sidestepped a question. I could only learn by trying, even if I pushed into such controversial territory as the assorted “scandals” that tarnished the careers of some of Yossi’s fellow performers, most notably fellow 4th Gen member Ai Kago, who was suspended from Hello! Project after a photograph of her with a cigarette was published in a tabloid in February 2006. (She was expelled a year later.)
As expected, Yoshizawa was polite and pleasant, but not terribly forthcoming. (She may have been a bit worn from jet lag.) She struck me as quite protective of the group and not willing to say much to a foreign journalist about its inner workings. Still, even under such circumstances, I got more interesting answers than I think I would have gotten from any other ex-member of Morning Musume. For instance, when I asked Yossi how she dealt with conflict and tension within the group when she was the leader, she admitted that, initially, “everybody wants to become number one,” but is frustrated when they realize that “‘Oh, no, I cannot become the center.’” Which is a pretty startling admission in light of the fact that MM members constantly put forth the image of a harmonious team where everyone’s an equal and no one’s a star. However, the only specific area of conflict she singled out was the rather undramatic competition for bento (lunch) boxes, with senior members getting the more popular fish lunches, while the others had to settle for meat lunches.
I asked her about the differences she may have noted between Japanese and American fans and the translator used the word “independent” for Yossi’s description of Japanese fans (or wotas, as the male Japanese fans of MM are commonly referred to), in that fans in Japan formed groups that were independent of each other and expressed their support in varying ways, including “otagei,” a word used to denote various fan activities (e.g. chants and dances). As opposed, I presume, to the more united front put forth by American fans whom Yossi characterized as “responsive and enthusiastic.” Later in the interview, I asked Yossi why Japanese fans were so possessive towards their favorite idols and she preferred to dub it “pureness,” calling it, “the pureness of love to that one, ‘This is mine, I have to keep it clean, keep it safe.’” Later, in listening back to the recording of the interview, I decided I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, so I asked a native Japanese-speaking friend for an alternate translation, which came out as: “I think it is a matter of personal integrity to love only one person. ‘I will be loyal to that person, I will devote my affection to that person, I will protect that person.’” Either way, this could seem a little obsessive to American fans. But it explains a lot about how the girls are often caught up in “scandals” that seem so minor to American fans. Being photographed on a date with a boy, for instance, as has happened with a few of the girls, violates that “pureness.”
In fact, I asked Yossi about that, hoping to get help in understanding why scandals in Japan often sprang from seemingly minor incidents, such as Kago’s being caught smoking, as opposed to the Hollywood norm where much more self-destructive behavior by pop stars rarely seems to derail their careers. This was a key question for me and Yossi’s answer was interpreted for me this way: “Please let the Japanese people know this is not the American way. Because we don’t know.” Which might be taken as a mild protest against the Japanese system, so, again, because this was such an important question, I sought out a second opinion afterwards and got this version from my Japanese friend: “Well, I think many Japanese people would rather like to know, on the contrary, how a celebrity in America could continue their career after some type of misdemeanor without suspension. Many Japanese people do not know the American way.” There’s clearly a more protective reading in the latter interpretation.
Taking a big chance, I asked Yossi if she remained in touch with the suspended Kago (aka Aibon) and she said, “We sometimes talk by telephone.” Which made me very happy indeed, since Aibon, always one of my favorites, was so publicly shut out by Hello! Project after her suspension. And when I told this to other fans of the group attending AX, they were surprised and happy also.
At some point during the interview, I took a more conversational approach, telling Yossi about things she’s done that I liked, including her lively performance with Rika Ishikawa of the anime theme song, “Get Wild” on a TV program called Uta Doki! Pop Classics, upon which she proudly admitted that she and Rika had planned the whole number themselves from beginning to end. I told her how funny she is in the skits I’ve seen and she admitted that she’d really like to do more comedy. Given her outsized talents, if she was American, she’d have started out with a stint on Saturday Night Live and gone on to her own sitcom, her own comedy movies, a stand-up act, a solo CD, her own talk show, and possibly a line of fashions. As for the next phase of her career, she modestly asserted, “Right now, I’m so into Hangry & Angry, that I can’t think of the next step.” American fans would be very grateful if the most talented ex-members of Morning Musume, such as Yossi and Rika, got to share those talents on a larger stage. I had, in fact, hoped that Yossi would perform during the MM concert at AX, instead of just appearing onstage alongside Tsunku. Still, she said she wants to learn English and is eager to do a live show in the U.S. again right away, so maybe we’ll get to see her on that larger stage after all. Until then, Yossi fans can get a taste of a whole new—and thoroughly exciting–side of her with the rock-and-techno-slanted five-song EP from Hangry & Angry entitled, “Kill Me, Kiss Me,” now available in the U.S. from JapanFiles.
Special thanks to Yaz Noya, the L.A.-based international representative for Morning Musume, who arranged the interview and served as translator.