The origins of my fandom in Hello! Project are fairly tame. Mid 2001 I started watching subtitled Anime (particularly Sailor Moon) and loved it, part of the whole experience was listening to the many songs that were included in the opening titles, ending credits, and image songs for all the different characters. I listened to the soundtracks many a time, and even more when I found Sera Myu, which was like the holy grail for Sailor Moon fans.
This is the typical story for most J-pop fans, finding it through Anime, then getting obsessed and not watching Anime or reading Manga for a long time afterwards, as you are too busy trying to listen to every J-pop artist around at the time. I first found Ayumi Hamasaki, another very common artist for people to start with. This was 2003, and I absolutely loved her. I looked up similar artists and found Kumi Koda and BoA this way.
Late 2003, I started completely by accident, upon some pictures of a girl band that I thought were very pretty. I was always a fan of female vocalists and girl bands, and looked them up by saying something like '12 member Japanese Girl Band' - Of course, at the time, the only girl band with that many members was Morning Musume.
I looked them up online and found a few music videos, also found out a song called 'Roman ~ My dear Boy' was their most current release. I promptly bought a few DVD's of theirs that chronicled their music videos up to the time, and a concert, which I remember vividly was '2002 Love is Alive! - Maki Goto's graduation. I watched that first before any of the music video DVD's, and was promptly BLOWN AWAY.
This concert blew my mind. I remember being absolutely fixated on all the members and speechless at the enormity and extravagance of it all. The 5th generation members were my favourite at the time, and Risa Niigaki especially struck me. Being quite close to all of them in age I was just amazed that girls the same age as me could perform as good as that. I rewatched that concert so many times before I realized I could buy loads more concerts, but still to this day, that is the best Morning Musume concert I have ever watched.
Shortly afterwards, my PV DVD's arrived and I invited a few friends over to watch them with me. Again, immediately, Yuko Nakazawa stood out as being particularly beautiful and talented. We were head over heels with her, and intoxicated with the cute and funky poppy songs, and with the consistently changing member lineup. We learned all of their names especially quickly, as they all have such individual looks, it wasn't hard. We were only mixed up between KagoTsuji for a very short period of time. As they actually look nothing alike. But when someone dresses them indentical with mirrored hair, it can get a bit difficult.
As the time went past, we got into all the different Hello! Project groups. At that time, Berryz Koubou were in their infant stages, but I still found them incredibly talented and liked them from the get go. C-ute didn't exsist until 2005, but I liked them too (not as much as Berryz though.) Also Otomegumi/Sakuragumi, Shuffle Units, Country Musume, Coconuts Musume (who already by then was just Ayaka and Mika, very soon only to be Ayaka) and the soloists, Maki Goto and Aya Matsuura being the two biggest at the time. All this bubblegum pop was swirling around in my head and to be honest, I got a little obsessed.
I bought Shirts, CD's, DVD's, Musicals, funny little accessories, rare items, got a fringe cut that made my face look silly but I wanted it anyway because everyone in Morning Musume had a fringe (even Risa by then.) My favourites at the 2004 period were: Risa Niigaki, Hitomi Yoshizawa, Miki Fujimoto and Kaori Iida. Brilliant girls, and I really envied Miki's brilliant voice.
What I always thought was ridiculous, is that they are not allowed to have boyfriends, or even friends who are boys at any time, because they have to be perceived as 'available' (this is the same of many idols, even to this day, AKB48, Idoling!!!, etc)
This, unfortunately encourages what is known as the 'wota' - extreme fans who collect everything about their favourite girl and have a delusional vision that she could one day be his girlfriend. If you have ever seen any videos of these people, they are quite..sad, and will probably never get a real girlfriend because of their lonely habits. They hang around with packs of other wota, worshipping their idols like they were 15th century monarchs.
It's unhealthy and it's weird, it's bad enough if the wota were of similar ages to the girls, or even in their mid to late twenties. But they aren't, they are older, 30s, 40s, 50s, now, it's fine to be a fan at any age of course, but to think that your favourite Girl Band member will drop everything to elope with you one day is very, very sad, and should not be encouraged.
I was shocked at the low sound of the cheering from my first Morning Musume concert, and we didn't understand that the male fanbase often scare a lot of the female fanbase out of the concerts from their annoying and pathetic habits. I say the girl fans need to take back the concert majority! Take on the wota!
As the years went by, my fandom of Morning Musume seemed to go down, and peaked at Kanashimi Twilight, I have not been such a big fan since that time. Hitomi leaving and Koharu becoming a front girl was a big drop for me, and my focus seemed to shift to Berryz Koubou, who have not had a member change since Maiha Ishimura left. These girls are extremely talented and all have pretty good voices, Miyabi Natsuyaki and Yurina Kumai, in my opinion, being the strongest vocally.
Their songs have been consistently good since their debut in 2004, and their dancing and concerts have only gotten better. Since they have been such a strong unit for such a long time, I feel that if one left, which may happen pretty soon as they are all adults now. It may break the strength, although C-ute seemed to be fine after 3 members leaving, and they are probably better without Kanna Arihara, Erika Umeda and Megumi Murakami, although they all contributed at the time, it is no point staying if your heart isn't in it, as it will show right through your performance.
As of 2011, we now have 4 new 9th generation members in Morning Musume, the first upbeat and happy single since 'Ambitious! Yashinteki de ii jan' (which wasn't very well put together anyway, this feels like a better production), Berryz Koubou have just had their strongest and maybe even their best album ever (7 Berryz Times) and are about to perform in the USA. C-ute have had an incredible single (Kiss Me! Aishiteru) and what I am anticipating to be a fantastic album, full of their electro-infused dance tracks that they have become so good at. Smileage, even though I am not too fond of them, are gaining sales and popularity with each single, and hopefully one day, when they stop sounding like 8 year olds (>.>) will become strong in their own right.
As for soloists, since Tsunku took the rash (but probably correct, looking back) decision to graduate the entire elder club (any graduated MM members plus Aya Matsuura) from Hello! Project and move them to their own fan club called M-Line. There seemed to be a gap in the Hello! Project for great solo vocalists. Erina Mano took the stage in 2008 and debuted under a major label in 2009. While she is not terrible to listen to, I can see big potential in H!P's newest soloist. Yuu Kikkawa.
She was in the finalists for 8th generation, which Aika Mitsui passed, and was instead put into H!P Eggs, getting experience from performing in the Milky Way unit with Koharu Kusumi and in exclusive H!P egg concerts, everyone was surprised when it was announced she would be debuting under a major label with the song 'Kikkake wa YOU!' a play on her name.
Watching the video, it is clear a lot of work has gone into it, and while I am kind of a little sick of the 'child woman' angle (she is almost 20) - I can see why she is going to be very popular. She's cute and has a very sweet voice.
Now that Eri Kamei (one of my favourites) JunJun and LinLin have graduated from Morning Musume, and Ai Takahashi is going to graduate in September. A lot hinges on the new generation of Morning Musume, will a 10th gen audition be rushed through? 4th, 5th and 6th gen were all added in quick succession. Does that mean over the next few years we will see an onslaught of new faces and Morning Musume will become fun again? As Ai Takahashi's graduation will leave a big hole, a BIG hole in Morning Musume, maybe the biggest since Natsumi Abe graduated. The difference is that Natsumi had a solo career to fall back on. Ai doesn't. Will they finally give her the solo career she so deserves? Or will she fade into obscurity like so many others before her?
I hope to see Hello! Project gaining sales and popularity faced with J-idol giant and superseller AKB48.
The future of Hello! Project is bright!