It’s been two months since Ai Takahashi graduated from Morning Musume and Hello! Project. Her last work as Morning Musume, 12, Smart, was released shortly after her graduation and was well received by fans. She has also started on various jobs such as a co-host for a bi-weekly online show and lots of photo shots. The 10th generations has also started making appearances with the other Morning Musume members on TV and various promotion events. Yet, the thought that Ai is no longer a part of Morning Musume has only recently started to sink in for me.
On September 30th, not only did I have the privilege of attending Ai-chan’s graduation concert but I was able to go with a friend. So not only was this my first time attending a graduation concert, but it was also the first time I attended a Hello! Project concert with someone that I knew. Add in the fact that the concert was at the Budokan, I was really bouncing with excitement all through September. After I got the concert goods I turned to my friend and said, “You realize we’re getting excited about the fact that we might be bawling our eyes out by the end of the night?” But it really didn’t matter did it, because there was never going to be another graduation concert like this.
The excitement continued to flow through me as we finally sat down in our seats. This tour was made especially for Ai to commemorate her graduation. A tribute to her 10 years in the group, if you will. So it’s only fitting that the concert started with her taking the lead in her debut single as Morning Musume, Mr. Moonlight ~Ai no Big Band~, with fellow generation member, Risa Niigaki, singing the opening line. The concert continued with lot of emphasis on Ai-chan. I was ecstatic to hear Ai and Risa’s duet from the group’s new album, and even more thrilled to finally be able to see them perform Suki na Senpai live. Having the footage from their debut performance of this song on the big screen while they performed it was a very nice touch. Of course, this performance would had been even more perfect if Makoto Ogawa and Asami Konno was also on the stage (and I imagined that’s how many in the audience felt when that did happened the night before, on September 29th). There were also many other small moments that I will treasure forever, like watching the girls partying away with green toy trumpets to Maji Desu ka Ska! and witnessing Sayumi Michishige successfully stealing a kiss from Ai and then giggling nonstop with my friend about it.
While we waited for the encore to begin, everyone in the audience filled the hall with glowing yellow light. On the big screen, the camera showed signs that the fans made to thank Ai for her 10 years in Morning Musume and wished her luck for the future. For the graduation ceremony, Ai chose to come out in a pair of ankle cut jeans. The costume was a very casual encore look, and it definitely not a girly cute or glamorous look. The outfit created a casual environment for the graduation ceremony, which defined how Morning Musume has become under Ai’s leadership: a group where all the bonds between the members were stronger than ever before and everyone got along well like a family. Time after time, Ai emphasised in interview that she wanted to make it through the concert without crying. Did that happen? No, because the Ai we know is an emotional cry baby. She did make it through her speech and graduating song, Jishin Motte Yume Motte Tobitatsu Kara, fairly smoothly and only pause a few times to compose herself. But honestly, all those pauses she did take to compose herself made the graduation ceremony that much more special and memorable.
After Ai’s solo performance Risa led the rest of the members, including the 10th generation and Aika Mitsui, out to give their speeches. With Haruka Kudo, I can still understand the need for her to give Ai a speech since she has worked with Ai before as a Hello! Project Egg. But for the other new girls, I felt bad for them having to go through this on stage especially since it’s only their 2nd day as Morning Musume members. Can you imagine how nerve wrecking it is to not only give a speech, but in front of all the fans? But at the end of Haruna Iikubo’s speech something happened, and it changed my mind about having the new girls up on stage: Very simply, Haruna requested Ai to call out her name on stage. Ai complied and Haruna happily thanked her and ran into Ai’s arms. For a brief moment, I didn’t see Haruna as a 10th generation member. Rather, I saw her as a Morning Musume fan who only wanted to be called out and acknowledge by Ai that she exists. Seeing that moment, my heart was filled with warmness along with a bit of jealousy, wishing that it was my name that Ai called out on that stage.
By the end of the night, I somehow managed to walk away from the concert hall without shedding a tear. It was an emotional night, but I think I was more moved and happy than sad at that time. But afterward as I watched news clips of the members’ speeches, that was when I started to tear up. These highlight clips give you a close up angle of the girls’ faces as they give the speech, so I was able to see and hear things that I couldn’t from where I sat the night of the concert. Like Risa was trying very hard not to burst out crying throughout her speech but you can see stream of tears rolling down her cheek. One of the video even managed to pick up her sobbing loudly in Ai’s arm. Seeing these two trying so hard to keep their promise to not cry really hit the spot.
Even though this was a tribute concert for Ai, we cannot forget that this is a Morning Musume concert. Meaning that at some point (even if it’s just for a moment) the show’s focus will be on the other members. First and foremost are the 10th generation members. Although they were already officially introduced to everyone the night before, there was still excitement in the air when the four girls gave their self-introduction. The girl that shined the most was the youngest one, who also happened to be the most experienced because of her Hello! Project Egg training, Haruka. After Haruka gave her self-introduction, she went on to explain why the 10th generation girls are the “Lucky 7” (all of their birthdays are related to the number 7 in some way). Even if it was the management’s decision to have her share this interesting fact (versus having the other girls do it) I still got to give this girl credit for delivering it without missing a beat. Masaki Sato, on the other hand, was the most nervous of the bunch. She stumbled through her introduction and had to pause to recall what she wanted to say. This girl is the main reason why I felt sorry for the new girls for having to give Ai a farewell speech.
Aside from the new faces, let’s not forget about the other members. With this concert, sometimes it felt like the management was trying to sneak in performances that gave the fans a chance to see what the group will be like without Ai. Take the group’s latest double A-side single Kare to Issho ni Omise ga Shitai for example. Featuring Sayumi and Reina Tanaka as the lead, this song was performed with the original costumes. The original PV for this song is a lot of fun: upbeat with colourful settings paired with whacky costumes and scenes. When performed live, the girls took this to the next level because of the way the two leads sang it with expressive vocals that really emphasis the funkiness of the song. I’m glad they wore the original costumes rather than the ones from Kono Chikyuu no Heiwa wo Honki de Negatterun dayo! because it made the performance that much more perfect. I miss the days Morning Musume released songs that were just plain silly like this. Here the girls proved they can still play it up and act silly if given the right song and chance to do so.
The other performance that stood out for me was a song from the new album, Silver no Udedokei, featuring Risa, Reina and Riho Sayashi (the album version features Aika too, but she was absent for this performance due to her injury). This song is completely different from Kare to Issho ni Omise ga Shitai as it gives off a more cool and mature tune. I’m not going to discuss Reina and Riho’s singing abilities here, as that’s been done countless times. But I do want to point out the raps that were done by Risa. Risa’s vocal is deep, and doesn’t always fit with typical Morning Musume style songs. But I think that deep vocal is what made the rap sessions in this song so outstanding. I’m not saying all Morning Musume songs in the future should have a rap session just so Risa can showcase her voice (thought that would be nice!) But I do wish that someone realized Risa’s voice works best with songs like this and give her more opportunities to shine in the future. I’ll love to see this song perform again with Aika in it, just to see if the four girls can give this song a different vibe.
Live concerts are always a lot of fun and memorable for so many reasons. One of these reasons is being able to dance and sing with other fans. For this concert I was sitting at the family seats, meaning no standing up and limited movements. That’s fine though because I was still able to wave the glow stick around and join along with the chants. The best part was I got to enjoy this concert with a friend. At first I was worry that I’ll be too embarrassed to chant and dance with someone I know sitting beside me, but it turned out t be an unbelievably amazing experience. I was surprised at how unresponsive some of the fans sitting around me seemed to be. Sure we were sitting at the family seats, but a lot of them were just watching the concert as if they were watching a documentary throughout the show. In fact, the guy sitting next to me just fanned himself with an uchiwa all through the show. Never once did he show emotions of any sort.
To be honest, I didn’t go to this graduation concert for Ai and I certainly don’t consider myself a huge fan of hers. Sure I like her and she stood out for me, but she was never my favourite girl. Yet, I was very persistent in trying to attend this graduation concert because a part of me was afraid that with Ai gone this will be the end of Morning Musume. When I say the end, I mean as in the group disbanding. I think, the same fear came when Hitomi Yoshizawa graduated and Ai was suddenly named the new leader. Maybe this is the fear of not knowing (and questioning) how well Morning Musume will do under a new leader. But this time the feeling was slightly different and the sense of fear was much stronger. Since Ai became leader I’ve really started to see how Ai is love by everyone, including other Hello! Project members. Ai tried her best to looked after and include everyone, showing that she cares about them. This is a trait that Risa isn’t openly noted for. I’m sure Risa cares about other members too, but she tends show it by playing the “bad cop” and disciplining them during rehearsals and such. It’s still too early to tell how Morning Musume (and Hello! Project) will change under this new leader. But I can at least say that having gone to this concert and having seen other fan’s reactions has helped ease the fear of Morning Musume disbanding. And with the recent appearances, performances, concert and single announcements, each day I become a little more reassure that Morning Musume will not disband under Risa’s leadership.
On a final note: Thank you Ai, for the 10 wonderful years and a memorable graduation concert that was only possible because of you.