Selective Hearing Roundtable: Tsunku Leaves Hello! Project

Long time Hello! Project songwriter, producer and figurehead Tsunku (real name Tereda Mitsuo) announced that he has left the idol organization, taking a step back from his “children” as part of his continuing battle with laryngeal cancer. In his book, “Dakara, Ikiru” Tsunku revealed that he decided to leave after the Morning Musume performance in New York in October of 2014.

The Selective Hearing staff have gathered to discuss the legacy of Tsunku and the future of Hello! Project without him. As always, the thoughts and opinions are those of the members who participated and do not necessarily reflect those of Selective Hearing’s other contributors, staff and our partners/affiliates.

Introduce yourself and state how long you have been or were a fan of Hello! Project.

GREG: Hello people, I am Greg, the man with the plan, the face of the place, the HNIC of Selective Hearing and I actually started in the land of idols back in 2006 with Hello! Project. I was very hardcore up until probably up until the end of the Platinum Era of Morning Musume and I have slowly become more of a casual observer of the organization over the years.

STEVE: Hey everyone, Steve here, regular contributor for Selective Hearing, and my introduction to Hello!Project was back in 2001 when I came across one of their videos on file sharing services and learned who they were. I got into Jpop and Kpop in general around 1999, so H!P wasn’t my first introduction to Jpop or idols, but the uniqueness of Tsunku’s early music for H!P struck me a at first. It still took about one year after that for me to get more involved and seek out a lot more info about H!P or Morning Musume in general, when I discovered some online resources with bits of info and online forums about it. I lost interest VERY heavily by about 2005, though I would still hear the occasional output from them and did see them live in 2009.

ANGRY: Hello everyone! I am Hannah, alias “AngryDaenjang”. While I listened to idols growing up I really started being a huge fan with Morning Musume back when they released their major Golden Era hits (“Love Machine” to “Shabondama”). I was definitely a major fan but slowly lost interest over time and am also more of a casual observer of the entire organization now.

CHIIMA: Bonjour all, I am Kelly-Mae, also known as Chiima of Okay! Musume Time. I was initially an Idol fan of only Kusumi Koharu back in 2009, however expanded into the Hello! Project collective soon after. Since the middle of 2014 however, my interest in Hello! Project as a whole has waned, and now I am simply a casual fan of the umbrella known as Hello! Project.

What were your initial thoughts when you heard that Tsunku has graduated?

GREG: Joy? Elation? Shit, it’s about damn time this guy has stepped down. I know that sounds like heresy to Hello! Project fans but it’s been long overdue. I’ll admit that in Hello! Project’s prime the guy could do no wrong. But in modern times, chips were starting to show in in his invincible armor and it felt like complacency had set in.

So yeah. I’d say I was surprised. Not because he left, but because it took this long for it happen.

STEVE: For the most part, I feel like he already “graduated” his talent away from H!P many years ago, around 2006 or 2007 when he started TNX, I felt like all of his best music started coming out of there, and that remained until around 2010 or 2011, when TNX started falling apart as well. The music H!P has had since the late 2000s has barely even felt like his music at all to me, so while it’s a bit surprising he finally officially decided to announce the end of his involvement after so long, it’s also relieving.

ANGRY: It’s hard really to say. At first, I was really happy – it was really long overdue. Yes, the entire Hello! Project started way back when SharanQ was searching for their female vocalist, but the entire thing quickly outgrew Tsunku. He may have been the major musical mind behind the organization, but over time it became very much apparent that he was at the whims and the mercy of the larger Up-Front Group organization as a whole. It didn’t really appear like Tsunku was doing anything aside from being asked to do the music production and selection of girls, so it seemed almost as though he had overstayed his welcome.

The fact that he left was a huge surprise though – after he had been around for so long, it almost seemed like they would never let Tsunku go.

CHIIMA: My reaction was basically this: I sat in my chair wide-eyed, thinking ‘Holy shit, it actually happened’. I was shocked and yes, rather sad when the news came about, because it’s Tsunku! After a few minutes however, I felt happier knowing he was going to actually rest, as opposed to work himself into the ground, producing mediocre songs and giving the groups the same old song and dance for another five years. I love Tsunku, and despite my initial shock at the announcement, I am also not surprised; as Greg said, it’s about time he stepped down, and whilst I will miss Tsunku’s style of music, I’m actually happier to know that new blood may be brought in to revive Hello! Project’s sound and style.

Do you think “graduation” should be the proper term to use for Tsunku’s departure? Doesn’t it make him seem like one of the numerous idols who have departed H!P before him?

GREG: I think that in the overall scope of things it always felt like Tsunku was the center of Hello! Project. Even overshadowing the various idols in the organization. So in that context “graduation” is the right term to use.

In a more realistic way of thinking, I would think that stepping down or retiring due to sickness is a somber, yet more appropriate way of describing his situation.

STEVE: It is a bit of a dumb and childish term to use, but it’s still the one that’s the most recognized within the idol industry and the one that will probably resonate the most with the fans, so it’s fairly expected. It feels like a way of more “lightly” breaking the news to people who have a (probably too) strong emotional attachment to the organization as a whole and makes it sound less business-like or impersonal.

ANGRY: I completely agree with Greg. Even more so than other idol group producers, such as Akimoto Yasushi or Hyadain or even someone as integral to their organization as Johnny Kitagawa, the true “focal point” of the Hello! Project group has always been Tsunku. As such, while this is retirement and/or withdrawal, “graduation” is an appropriate term to use.

CHIIMA: It’s Tsunku, so of course the term ‘Graduation’ is the most appropriate term to use for him now that he has stepped down. With how the fans see him too, they will find the use of graduation perfect for the being that is Tsunku – he is an Idol to many, and whilst a graduation is a sad term, it is also positive in a way because it doesn’t sound as dismal as ‘resigned’ or ‘withdrawn’ does. So to me, naming his departure as a graduation is the best way to represent Tsunku’s leave of Hello! Project.

What do you believe Tsunku’s lasting legacy will be in Hello! Project?

GREG: Honestly, all those damn noises he made on various songs. He’s like Puff Daddy during the Bad Boy Era, being all up in the songs. The only thing missing was him being in the videos. Otherwise, probably the early works of Hello! Project are probably what he should be remembered for.

STEVE: I think the only legacy that will exist for him truly lies in the early music, which really doesn’t affect the newer output in any way, but we’ll still always have all those great early tunes from when he was more into experimentation in different styles instead of just trying to appeal to as many mainstream listeners as possible and copying other popular artists.

While newer artists or generations within H!P can still sing those old songs, it doesn’t feel like “their song” in a sense, even if the group name is the same, it just feels like a cover version, but I’d say at least a good half of people who know who H!P is will instantly think of their early hits as the first thing that comes to their mind at the mention of their name, and their early music legacy is probably the only thing that’s even kept them on the radar and alive at all over the last 5-7 years or so.

Of course, H!P is also the longest-standing idol collective in the history of idols, so I suppose that stands for something, though even if H!P called it quits now now, I still don’t think anyone is going to get anywhere near as much longevity as H!P already has in the forseeable future.

ANGRY: Is it even possible to think of Hello! Project without Tsunku? It’s almost like asking what Acchan’s legacy on AKB48 is from 2005 to 2012. Even when the spotlight wasn’t on him, he was the center of attention. The only other idol group where the producer is that integral to the group’s image would probably be 清竜人25 (Kiyoshi Ryujin 25), and that’s only because their “gimmick” is a bunch of idols who are “brides” of their producer, Kiyoshi Ryujin.

Even if Tsunku wasn’t completely in control (he probably had little influence over anything outside of the music itself, and even then it probably wasn’t completely up to him), he was the face of the company.

CHIIMA: Tsunku’s grunts and ‘Oh yeah’s!’ will be forever in my memory, and possibly the memory of many others. Actually, I was listening to a H!P song after hearing the news, and my first thought was that I would never get to hear Tsunku’s background vocals in a new song ever again. I felt a little sad when I realised that, actually.

Conversely, what do you believe are his greatest moments of shame in Hello! Project?

GREG: Picking project girls in auditions over sure things. To me the auditions in the transition phase of Hello! Project felt more like a way of feeding his ego to nurture and cultivate raw “talent” than actually add prime time ready players to replace departed members for whatever group needed (or didn’t necessarily need) the additional roster member(s).

Most likely Tsunku was not the only one who had a hand in the decision making process, but for the purposes of this discussion and the fact that the perception was always that he was the final judge, I’ll go with that.

STEVE: Oh boy, this is a hard one. H!P has been almost consistently a string of embarrassments for me since about 2005 or so, with just a few moments of glory mixed in that remaining 10 years until now. New member choices, song choices, costume and image choices, there’s been very little that’s commendable over the last decade, so it’s hard to choose just one.

Obviously he can’t control which members leave and at what times, but I feel some of the biggest shame of H!P has been continuing many of their groups after some or all of the key members left. Of course, the whole idea of Morning Musume was to be a revolving door and continue, but for some of the other smaller or side groups, continuing them long past the time when the members that defined the group have left just starts to get painful and embarrassing.

S/mileage is the absolute most glaring example, but there’s been a number of other questionable choices about groups continuing, like Country Musume, Coconuts Musume, Tanpopo, etc.

ANGRY: It’s hard to really separate out which ones were Tsunku’s issues, and which were the issues of general management problems as a whole. That being said, I would actually put allowing Up-Front to overly rely on Tsunku as a producer/songwriter/composer/etc. as my #1 moment of shame. While it isn’t a specific moment, no organization can survive while being overly dependent on one person alone, and the fact that they went a near 16 years while giving (or being allowed to give) complete musical control to Tsunku alone is a bit crazy.

CHIIMA: I agree with Angry that Up-Front overly relied on Tsunku for everything Hello! Project related, allowing for the organisation as a whole to become stagnant overtime at a quick rate. Whilst I enjoy Tsunku’s music and find him a genius, he should have given others a go as well rather than taking everything upon himself and releasing tired compositions that dulled down the groups.

Do you think Hello! Project’s music will change without Tsunku as the leading creative force? Will it be for better or for worse? Or will it be business as usual with producers and songwriters who may have been studying under Tsunku over the years?

STEVE: As far as a change in sound, it doesn’t seem like much will change, since they’ve mostly just been following current trends or re-treading things they’ve already done for about a decade, playing it very safe, so I see that continuing. As for better or for worse, it could go either way, but I don’t see it going very drastically in either direction, regardless of the outcome. I figure most of the people working for H!P the last many years will still be the main players in the sound, as many of them have close business ties with UFA, so that likely won’t change.

ANGRY: While it’s true that Tsunku controls little else outside the music – and as such, all the main problems of Hello! Project will probably go on as usual (since the majority of them are entirely management related) – it seems like everything can only improve from here. For 2015 at least, all of the singles that show a significant improvement within Hello! Project are those songs and/or singles that Tsunku had no hand in at all – examples include Taiki Bansei, Itoshikute Gomenne, or Dosukoi! Kenkyo ni Daitan. It seems for now that things are showing an improvement, which should hopefully translate to Morning Musume as well once Tsunku completely withdraws. It’s also true, though, that his influence won’t completely disappear – even in those three songs you still had that distinctive Tsunku sound (including those freaking backing vocals and singing style).

CHIIMA: One can only hope that the music style and sound will change in Hello! Project, but as Angry pointed out, even with these newer songs that had no influence from Tsunku at all, there is still an inkling of that same old Hello! Project sound there. That said, the songs have improved already and feel full of life compared to some past releases (and whatever Morning Musume pulled out at the beginning of this year), so whilst there is still that Tsunku-like presence in the songs that reminds me of Hello! Project, I do think there will at least be an improvement in the quality of the songs, and that they will just find new ways to get creative…

Or, they’ll just wallow away because they don’t have Tsunku to fall back on any more. Who knows what the future holds in terms of music for H!P?

GREG: I don’t see much changing in regards to change in Hello! Project’s music overall. It’s most likely expected they will stay the course since management seems to be content with pandering to their core fanbase.

Should there be a shift in sound for Hello! Project in the post-Tsunku era? What type of music do you think they should be doing to become more competitive? Which producers or songwriters would you like to see working with Hello! Project acts?

STEVE: Well, to put it bluntly, if they stopped being so lacklustre, then I’d be pretty happy, regardless of who was producing it, but that seems a slim chance, with where they’re at in the game right now. If they randomly got hooked up with some dempa producers who are pushing the boundaries of pop music for the newer generation or legit rock/jazz musicians or something, I could see H!P being interesting again, musically, but the chances of that are virtually nonexistent, since their goal is basically to appeal to your average idol fan and play it safe based on what’s been successful in the past, so they don’t want to stray too far out of the realm of mainstream acceptability.

ANGRY: Absolutely, but what sort is a complete mystery. We’re at a point where Hello! Project can really go any which way they’d like, and I would love to see them take up that challenge. Honestly the end of the domination of their main group has long since arrived, so seeing the other groups take the helm would be pretty amazing. Seeing a more Johnny’s like process, for example, for the composition of their songs would be an interesting way to start – instead of relying on yet another singer-songwriter to do everything, which seems to be the direction they might head towards with Nakajima Takui.

While there are a ton of people I’d really like to see work with Hello! Project acts (i.e., having some of the major EXILE Tribe creators work with Morning Musume to make actual quality dance pop would be a fantastic start, such as STY (R.Y.U.S.E.I or LUCIFER (Shinee)) or Clarabell (Gomennasai no Kissing You, CANDY SMILE)), one thing that would be pretty amazing to see is watching LoVendoR finally settle on an identity, and picking out the proper match for such an identity. Whatever sort of musical identity they’d like to create, I’d love to see a major producer like Seiji Kameda work with them so that at least they would have that much going for them.

CHIIMA: Honestly? Yes, there should be a shift I believe. I would love to see all the groups try new, fresh sounds that work for them, rather than giving, say, Juice=Juice the cast-offs from another group that won’t work for them. As for what types of music I would like to see for them to become a little more competitive? I don’t know myself, but I would love to see C-ute continue down the more mature route in sound and possibly try and take up becoming artists as opposed to being Idols, whilst I would love to see Morning Musume cast away the mature look and sound completely, and try something a lot more energetic and free.

As for who I would love to see work with H!P in the future, I admit, I would love to see them eventually work with Aki-P of the 48 collective one day, and possibly the 48’s themselves. Maeyamada Kenichi (alias Hyadain) is also someone I would love to see Hello! Project work with once again, simply because I enjoy his energetic take on music. I would like to see Hello! Project potentially work with some rock musicians too, you know, make some real rock music rather than the sub-par attempts some groups try out.

What if Hello! Project suddenly makes a musical shift into unknown territory. Do you believe that their hardcore fans would welcome change or would they revolt with their wallets in hand?

STEVE: They seem to generally accept any change that happens within an idol production they’re in subservience to at any point, except when members leave or get switched around. Music is generally regarded as the least important thing to most idol fans, and as kind of a “extra” or “side-note” to the other aspects of their marketing, so I don’t think much of any change in music is going to shake them up very much. I’ve talked about this at length in a number of my previous articles and I still think the same is true.

ANGRY: Absolutely. Honestly at this point what seems to be Up-Front’s main focus is growing their hardcore fanbase, as opposed to attracting a mainstream audience that would be more apt to vote with their wallets should any Hello! Project group take a musical direction they didn’t like. In addition, despite all the musical experimentation in the non-Morning Musume groups, there’s been a consistent increase in both absolute CD and ticket sales. Suffices to say – the only people who remain a part of the Hello! Project fandom are probably hardcore, and they seem more than happy to stay through the ride.

Last Question. Are you going to miss Tsunku? If so, explain why.

STEVE: Again, I’m going to miss him to death if he never makes any music again, but as far as missing him being gone from H!P? I could really care less, as I feel his presence hasn’t really been there the way it’s supposed to be for the last 10 years anyway. His music in general, throughout all of his various projects has been a huge inspiration for me in my musical life and changed the way I heard and thought about music (especially pop music) in so many ways, so to lose him from the world of music as a whole, it would be sad, but from H!P specifically, it’s of no consequence, really.

ANGRY: Absolutely, but much like Steve it is only if he completely abstains from music as a whole. His other works are just as astounding – for example, back when Ayumi Hamasaki was just beginning her domination of the Japanese music scene, her first hit was a Tsunku composition. The breadth of his work is pretty astounding, and I’d love to see him pick up where he left off on his less idol-oriented works. For Hello! Project, it’s a good parting for both, so there’s not much loss in that, but if he were to retire entirely from music as a whole I think that would actually be a significant loss.

CHIIMA: Of course I will! It’s Tsunku, and though I’ve recently started to lose interest in Hello! Project, I still respect him greatly and know that I will miss his presence within Hello! Project. I’m happy that he’s finally resting and that we will get a breath of fresh air within the H!P collective now, but it’s still sad to know he has left, and that we won’t hear his compositions any more. However, our memories of him will not be sad; I’m sure everyone within the Hello! Project fandom and beyond will remember Tsunku fondly.

GREG: I hesitantly say yes. Just because the music he created in brought me into the world of Japanese pop idols and such so he does have a part in my early J-Pop upbringing. Given that I have been outside of the Hello! Project universe for several years I can’t say that I will actually miss him as much as the more hardcore fans of the organization who are probably building their shrines to him as we speak. But sure, I guess some part of me will miss his presence in the world of J-Pop.

And thus ends our discussion on the man known as Tsunku. If you have anything to add please feel free to do so in the comments section. Just remember to keep things civil.