Because I was in the final throes of planning my own trip to Japan a week later, I was unable to make it to Houston, Texas for the Morning Musume appearance at Anime Matsuri there in February 2016. I have plenty of friends who went and I got really jealous when I went on Facebook and looked at their photos, watched their videos and read their enthusiastic accounts of the great time they had. Well, now that I have the DVD set featuring the entire concert and a feature-length documentary (with a longer running time than the concert), I can revel in the concert and the girls’ activities in Houston myself. This entry covers the concert while Part 2 will cover the documentary.
The concert itself is a very good 90-minute distillation of recent singles and greatest hits of the last five years with a brief step back into classic MM territory. The song selection is good, the dancing well-executed and the entertainment value high. Lots of English is spoken during the concert, including a brief spiel from each of the girls and longer messages from Mizuki, the group leader. Plus, Miki Nonaka, the English-speaking member of the group who lived in Alabama for eight years as a child, speaks a lot of English on stage.
And, of course, they open the concert with their first song recorded entirely in English, “One and Only,” which was released late last year.
The big surprise, though, is the appearance of former 8th Gen member Aika Mitsui as MC…speaking English! I’m happy to report that she’s learned English well enough to communicate with an English-speaking crowd and act as interpreter for the rest of the girls (with help from Miki). As I learned from attendees, Aika also attended the Hello! Party and got to interact closely with fans and even interviewed many of them after the concert for clips included in the documentary. This is surely a first for Hello! Project. She has to be the first member to graduate and learn English this well. (I know Makoto Ogawa and Chinami Tsugunaga left Japan to study overseas and learn English, but I don’t know how far along they’ve gotten nor have they come back to MC overseas H!P concerts.)
At one point, Aika leads a two-part Q&A with the girls (half go backstage to change costumes, while the other half stays onstage and then the first group comes back for the second Q&A while the second group leaves to change), using questions supplied by attendees and translates their answers (except for Miki’s) to the audience. When asked what they like about Houston, Sakura mentions that at a Mexican restaurant, the waiter brought them tortilla chips to eat while waiting, a form of service they don’t get or expect in Japan.
Aika asked them which past members they most looked up to and Maria says “Sayumi,” while all the others, quite wisely, point to Aika.
Aika asks them which Japanese phrases they want the audience to learn and we get “ganbatte ikimasshoi!” and “ichiban.”
This is the first MM concert DVD I’ve acquired since Riho Sayashi left the group and I have to confess that I miss her terribly. Ayumi takes up the slack dance-wise and Sakura does the heavy lifting on the vocals, but no one quite replaces Riho. Still, the real workhorses of this lineup were in peak form in this concert: Ayumi, Sakura, Erina and Haruka.
Mizuki is very good also, but the difference is that the effort shows, whereas the other four always make it look easy. I suspect that there’s added pressure on her because she's the leader and she's facing more pressure than there's been on a leader in a long while. It should be noted that Ai Takahashi and Sayumi Michishige were older, more mature and much more experienced than Mizuki when they were leaders.
This was Kanon Suzuki’s last performance overseas and her last chance to connect with her most supportive fans and she makes the most of it. (She was reportedly very moved by the love and affection she got from fans in Houston.)
Haruna Iikubo is a big otaku girl herself and was excited to be at an anime convention.
Masaki is...Masaki, ever unpredictable, which is not a bad quality to have amidst this bunch. Like Koharu, she often seems to be on her own wavelength, but she always gives her best in the concerts and is always a delight to watch.
The new girls (who have now been in the group for two years) all acquit themselves well, although poor Miki is stuck in a chair onstage for the concert because of a foot injury. (We see her being pushed in a wheelchair by other members during the documentary.) Maria Makino seems to generate the most excitement of the 12th Gen members and she has the best stage presence. I expect great things from her. Haruna Ogata shows great promise and she displays a charming, playful side in the offstage footage. The jury’s still out on Akane Haga, who didn’t make much of an impression on me onstage or off.
Aside from Sakura, the individual vocals could use some boosting. When they sing as a group, they’re fine, but there are flubbed notes on several of the solo lines. (I suspect that a lot of the group choruses were lip-sync’d.) Of course, this could all simply be a function of the fact that the girls may have been jet-lagged (which didn’t show on most of them), didn’t have much opportunity to rehearse in Houston, and used their voices a lot during their various pre-concert activities at the convention, which must have strained them. None of this could be helped, I suppose.
The concert is performed in a hangar-like space with a relatively small stage, dim lighting and no seats. (This last aspect would have been an issue for me since I would need to sit during most of an event like this.) The crowd had to stand and scrunch together which would have made it difficult for smaller audience members to see anything. Adapting their act to the space might not have been a big problem for the group since they often have to perform on small stages, even in Japan. And I do think the stage was set up as attractively and conveniently as possible for such a venue.
In any event, it’s a lively concert and, unlike the MM concert in L.A. in 2009, it has four costume changes, a pretty neat trick under such circumstances if you ask me.
I like the fact that they do a lot of highly choreographed numbers on such a stage, including several that they frequently perform in concerts but never get stale, e.g. “Renai Hunter,” “Ai no Gundan,” “Wagamama ki no Mama Ai no Joke,” “The Matenrou Show,” and “What Is Love?”
They do “How Do You Like Japan?,” which was first sung ten years ago, and end it with Ayumi declaring “I like Houston!”
"I like Houston!"
One of my recent favorites is performed, “Tsumetai Kaze to Kataomoi,” with Ayumi doing Riho’s dance solos.
And there’s also a medley with three old MM classics, “Souda! We’re Alive,” “Love Machine” and “Renai Revolution 21.”
At one point, the girls pose for a photo with the crowd in the background. Haruka and Ayumi lead a chant of “U-S-A! “U-S-A!”
In her final message in English to the crowd, Mizuki declares, “I promise I’ll be back," and Kanon shouts "I love you!" to the crowd.
Then they do their final number, “One Two Three.”
And then the goodbyes...
Afterwards we get a wistful moment with Kanon backstage as the crowd calls her name, “Zukki! Zukki!”
The documentary includes post-concert interviews with several audience members, most of them conducted by Aika, and I’m including shots of them here since they happened right after the concert. Several people I know were interviewed:
Des (a Facebook friend whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting in person):
Several other people I know were visible in the photos.
Visible here, L-R: Steven, Des, Andrew, Sherrily, Kristi, Eric:
The three to the right of Eric here are John, Elaine, and Kathleen:
Henry, in black t-shirt, is visible behind Allen to the right of the picture (behind Des):
A crowd shot from the concert showing Steven (in blue t-shirt), Eric to the left and behind Eric, Kathleen's face glimpsed in the crowd:
It was great to see them all having such fun.
And, finally, Jocelyn taking notes during the concert: