Interview: Berryz Kobo

by Carlo Santos,
At an average age of 18.5 years—a time when their peers are still figuring out what to do with their lives—the seven members of Berryz Kobo they have seemingly done it all. They've sold out the 30,000-seat Saitama Super Arena, provided a slew of theme songs for a currently running anime (Inazuma Eleven), and individually taken on roles in film and TV.

But until Sakura-Con 2011, held in Seattle, Washington, they had never performed for a U.S. audience.

This event was more than just a chance to say "Hey, Berryz finally did a show in America." The weekend also marked the release of their first U.S.-edition album, 7 Berryz Times, now available from JapanFiles. It was also a chance for the group to meet their fervent American fanbase, who—while not quite numerous enough to pack a 30,000-seat stadium for a concert—still filled the events hall of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center to the tune of 3,500.

While many attendees would be happy to gush about their Sakura-Con experience, the girls have their side of the story to share as well.

Thinking back to the concert, the group's vocal ace Miyabi Natsuyaki says, "It was a lot of fun! I was very impressed at how the fans knew all our songs. It made me so happy—everybody chanting and calling our names, knowing who we are."

That wasn't the only time the fans made an impression. Recalling the autograph signings, the group's Captain and eldest member Saki Shimizu adds: "Everybody's so friendly. Even though we're supposed to be speaking English in the U.S., a lot of them also spoke Japanese to us." And the cultural exchange continues online: Berryz Kobo's big friendly giant, Yurina Kumai (who at 5-foot-11 towers over her groupmates), mentions that "When we post on our personal blogs, we also try to write in English since there are international fans following us."

But did they know that Japanese-literate fans have been reading their posts and translating them into English? Everyone lets out a loud gasp of amazement when they hear this. Not only does the internet bring people closer together, but it does a pretty handy job of smashing language barriers.

* * *

The saga of Berryz Kobo begins in the early 2000's, at the height of Morning Musume's popularity. The group's producer, Tsunku, built a mothership organization around them called Hello! Project and began to populate it with other young female talents. Perhaps his most daring experiment was the Hello! Project Kids, fifteen grade-school girls selected in 2002 in hopes that they could be trained over the years. "When we started," says Natsuyaki, "we had no training in singing or dancing—we really didn't know anything. But we had our friendship, so we grew by supporting each other."

Particularly difficult was the clash between a budding entertainment career and, well, being normal children. "The hardest thing was to balance school and a performing life," recalls Shimizu about their early years. "Every day was a struggle with scheduling." And Natsuyaki admits that sacrifices had to be made: "When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to run a cake shop or flower shop, but I missed out on that. Also, I didn't get to do activities like after-school clubs or holding a part-time job."

Because, as any teenage pop idol will tell you, this is already a full-time job.

In 2004, eight of the Hello! Project Kids were selected to form Berryz Kobo (kōbō meaning "workshop"), a name that at the time seemed fitting for a gaggle of unpolished grade-school and junior-high girls. But did they ever imagine lasting a full seven years (and more) when they first debuted? Chinami Tokunaga, she of the beaming megawatt smile, admits she had her doubts: "When we started out, we were told that the lineup might not be permanent. So every time our managers called a meeting, everyone was really nervous—are they going to announce someone coming out? Someone coming in?"

Even when the remaining Kids were herded into another group, °C-ute, about a year later, there was no sigh of relief. "Even then, we still didn't know if there might be auditions for other members," says Natsuyaki. "There was also the trainee group, Hello! Project Eggs, and we thought that they might jump in. So we were never sure."

They needn't have worried. In Berryz Kobo's seven-year history, there has only been one change to their lineup: the departure of then-twelve-year-old Maiha Ishimura in October 2005. "Maiha left to concentrate on school rather than performing," Natsuyaki explains. "[After that], she did come to visit us once for a sports tournament and we hung out, but we haven't heard from her since." It is a sobering reminder that some friendships simply aren't meant to last.

Aside from that, Berryz Kobo's longevity and stability is remarkable in a music scene where idol groups sometimes form and disband within months. The secret, says Shimizu, is that "we always talk things out with each other. We ask about each others' feelings." Natsuyaki adds, "Since we were kids, we'd have regular 'Berryz-kai' (Berryz meetings) and talk about what could be improved."

Then Tokunaga gives the inside tip on improving group communication skills: "There's actually a notebook called the 'Berryz Note,' and in it we write about what to be mindful of, like: don't leave your lyrics sheet lying on the desk, or if you borrowed something from someone, make sure to give it back. It's a code of conduct agreed upon by everyone ... We all write in it, even the littlest things, and that's how we know what we need to fix. We still have it and Captain hangs on to it."

Meanwhile, other Hello! Project acts continue to come and go. The last couple of years have seen the debut of high-school-aged quartet S/mileage, as well as the addition of some 12-to-14-year-olds to Morning Musume's lineup. Natsuyaki reflects on the changing landscape: "When we started out, we were the youngest, so everyone treated us like little sisters and we'd get guidance from our senpai like [Morning Musume's Risa] Niigaki. But now, by comparison, we're the oldest, so we feel we have the responsibility of teaching the younger members."

* * *

For all this talk of group unity, Berryz are not to be mistaken for a team of like-minded robots. Each member has her own particular interests, talents, and quirks. The group's middle child, Maasa Sudo, starred in the 2010 film Light Novel no Tanoshii Kakikata (The Joy of Writing Light Novels) and admits to being a genre fiction fiend herself: "I've really gotten into mysteries, and I also like detective anime," says Sudo, with Detective Conan being a particular favorite. She mentions recently getting into the work of novelist Kanae Minato, writer of the acclaimed mystery-thriller Confessions.

In addition being the group's Captain, Saki Shimizu also has a natural ear for hip-hop beats, and her ability to beatbox has been showcased in a handful of a cappella Berryz performances. The development of this special skill happened almost by accident: "At first, I was asked to do it for a chorus," she says. "They were just like—'Why don't you try it?'—and later on I had the guys from [a cappella group] INSPi show me how."

Fans of the hit shoujo anime Shugo Chara! may not even have realized that they've been hearing a couple of Berryz voices every time they watch the credits. Miyabi Natsuyaki and self-proclaimed "princess of cute" Momoko Tsugunaga are two-thirds of the subgroup Buono!, who provided the bubblegum-punk sound of Shugo Chara!'s ending themes. For Natsuyaki, the difference between Berryz and Buono! is like a personality split: "It's a rock unit with a strong image—wild hair, flashy outfits—so when I change my outfit and hairstyle, it's like I go through a 'character change' as well."

Meanwhile, Tsugunaga has an added responsibility as Buono!'s eldest member. "I'm labeled as the leader, but I'm not really much of a leader, and in fact I don't really want to do the job," she says. "The other two pretty much have it together ... and I'll do my best just the way I am."

Yurina Kumai's height defies the "petite and cute" idol mold, and perhaps for that reason, she looks across national borders to find inspiration as a performer, citing Korean group Girls' Generation as her role model. "When I saw their music videos, I was so impressed by their dancing, and by how attractive and talented they are—I want to mimic the way they move." What also impresses Kumai is that, compared to Japan's music scene, their Korean counterparts "don't have the traditional idol attitude, but more the charm of grown-up women."

Chinami Tokunaga may be all smiles, but she may have surprised some fans at the group's focus panel when—while talking about the high cosplayer population at Sakura-Con—she mentioned that she'd want to cosplay Ryuk, the freakish shinigami from Death Note. "To be honest, I hadn't read the Death Note manga or even seen the movies when they first came out," she says, "but I caught a rerun on TV and I really got into it. [Ryuk is] a dark character, but he's cool, too. I prefer characters who are strange rather than cute."

The youngest member, doe-eyed Risako Sugaya, lights up when asked to talk about her voice-acting role as Ibu Himuro in the school-themed anime Mecha Mote Iincho. Sugaya explains how method acting helps her step into Ibu's name-brand shoes: "She's a cool beauty—an elegant type—which differs from my usual personality of being chatty and fun. So what I do is, I go around trying not to talk to anybody, to actually become like her—that's my approach."

It's this odd yet appealing collection of personalities that will hopefully convince newcomers to take an interest in Berryz Kobo. (Well, that and the catchy tunes.) Natsuyaki says of the group, "We each have a strong, unique character. We have different heights, different personalities, all these things that set us apart. While the live shows might look messy, that in itself is the group's charm point."

Tokunaga puts it more bluntly. "It's like a zoo, with all the different animals. In fact, backstage we get so loud that we sound like a bunch of monkeys!" Everyone laughs knowingly, since there's even a song along those lines—the tribal-sounding "Ike Ike Monkey Dance."

As anyone who saw Berryz Kobo's Sakura-Con concert will tell you, though, those mismatched monkeys know how to perform with a precise, unshakable sense of unity. Their encore song that Saturday night, an uplifting anthem usually reserved for full-scale Hello! Project concerts, says everything about the Berryz philosophy in a single line:

"All for one and one for all."

Special thanks to Yaz Noya for interpreting.

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