Starting from 2014, Morning Musume officially changed their name to Morning Musume '14, and beginning with their appearance on Music Station this year, they have started to appear on more music and variety programs, even securing CM deals, the number of their media appearances increasing at an almost shocking rate. There has also been an increase of women in their concert audiences, and also an influx of new fans. It's almost appropriate to call this a dramatic turn in events.
In the first place, if they hadn't persisted for 17 years such an event would never have occurred. Even during the period where they were all but invisible in media, the members then defended their group's legacy and polished up their concert performances to high levels, which led to what we have now. That's why, with things as they are now, we can breathe a sigh of relief and say "thank goodness". At this point in time, opinions may be divided over whether to call this phenomenon "a re-breakthrough", but I feel that to the members, there is no way they are calmly accepting this. Perhaps it is through the influence of their leader Michishige Sayumi, who has been through all the bitter and sweet times that came before, but there is no way we could see the members being flippant about this.
Their current tour, "Morning Musume '14 Concert Tour Spring ~Evolution~", which started from March 15th 2014, is the best place to see their ambition for continued self-improvement (the tour is still ongoing at the moment). This tour applies the format set up by the previous autumn tour "Chance!", with the setlist containing many songs from the album "Morning Musume '14 Coupling Collection 2", as well as songs for each member to show off their individuality, displaying more variety than the "Chance!" tour had.
The concerts I watched were at Morioka, Sendai, and Nakano respectively, so I can only write about my experiences from those days, but I was most struck by the improvement Ishida Ayumi and Sato Masaki had made. Especially in the 3 songs where Ishida led the stage, more than seeing an evolution of her previous self, it felt more like "who was that?", the difference was that marked. As she has some skill in acting, it may have been her getting into character for those songs which resulted in such a performance.
As for Sato Masaki, her singing prowess has obviously increased, and during her line in Naichau Kamo, she was able to convey the gloominess of the line and make you pause at it. For this girl, you can never tell if she's planning something or doing it spontaneously, but it seems that this time round, she has been putting a lot of thought and work into her own singing style.
And as for Sayashi Riho who is often entrusted with the center position, even though she is still only in the first year of high school, she fulfilled the twin roles of both singing and dancing perfectly. That dancer in her showed no flaws in her performance as always, and served as a powerful unifying force for the group. Even within the restrictions of the choreography, she is able to emphasize even the smallest movements, a sign of her great talent. In their current style of formation dance, her role in the group's image cohesion can only be considered a plus in how it is being used.
However, as she is the type who gets inspired by the challenges the people around her give her when they outstrip her in any one aspect and evolves to match them, she is by no means complete as she is now. Even when the 12th generation auditions were first announced in 2013, she herself said that she wanted "someone who could inspire her to flip the switch within her to hit even greater heights", and I look forward to how she will continue to evolve with the addition of new members in the future.
The Tohoku performances of the "Evolution" tour were plenty fun in of themselves, but I can't say immediately that this is the extent of the group's evolution. I keep thinking this with every new tour, and end up revising my opinion each time. This time too was the same.
In the latter half of this tour, the Nakano Sun Plaza concert on 5/6, the performance pumped up by the passionate cheering from the crowd continues. Even so, they were not straining hard at all and were brimming with confidence, and you could sense that they could still go even further. With the members coming together as one, the songs were developed and expressed in full flower through this tour. Even so they were never on autopilot, and in their persistently aggressive stance, there was a sense of reliability in there. Especially for "Wagamama Ki no Mama Ai no Joke", compared to all the times I've listened to it on the CD, this had the best effect, and after it was over I reflexively let out the breath I had been holding. Not only for the songs but also for the members, they were all truly experiencing "evolution".
In the 3 concerts I went to, the way Michishige Sayumi danced also left a deep impression on me in how she expressed her movements in the choreography. She always knows how to show off the best side of herself, and for the new song "Toki wo Koe Sora wo Koe", she spared no effort in showcasing the best points. She never slipped up for the rest of the songs either, and as the concert ended, her exhaustion was no different from the fans'. She may have been spurred on by a strong sense of having to cherish each and every song, especially after having announced her graduation during the 4/29 concert.
It may be saddening to think of Michishige Sayumi graduating, but this was a result of her deliberations. As she announced her graduation in her hometown of Yamaguchi, she expressed nothing of her personal ambitions after graduating from Morning Musume, and in a way you could sense her personality through her speech. Living true to herself, she breaks none of the expectations others have come to expect from her, even as she gave her graduation announcement.
The Michishige up to now has staked her own personal image on the line in the media in preparation for the battles to come, and now the harvest from the seeds she had sown there are coming in as a result of her hard work. If I were to summarize her efforts, it would be to say that she is dependable. She builds up that sense of "trust towards an idol" that could be so easily destroyed in a moment alongside the fans, creating an unwavering sense of security as she went. Having been in the group for 11 years, she has improved compared to the previous tour, and in that continuous improvement you could see her "never say die" spirit, but if you stop to think about it, it must have been tough for her. Of course, her looks have no equal in their allure. As she heads towards graduation like this, she will be the very model of idol-dom in her role as leader, unmatched by anyone else.
The history of idols is like a history of festivals. That said, there are many genres even within idols, but Michishige Sayumi walks the original path of idols in her own way, leaving an indelible mark on it. That is how I see it. Nevertheless, the brilliance of Morning Musume '14 can hardly be reduced to only the achievements of the leader. This viewpoint is simply a reflection of events, lacking in exactness. In a way it's a setup to further emphasize the sense of loss (regarding the graduation). Furthermore, the junior members were also full of ambition, and were growing from strength to strength at just the right pace. I feel that the girls still have a long way to go to fulfill their potential in both talent and personality, and the tour allows me to see that "ah so this girl can be interesting like this too".
Morning Musume continually goes on to win the trust of their fans by always giving their best, leaving a long legacy to follow. This does not change even after their name change to Morning Musume '14. Michishige also commented that she wanted to "make Morning Musume the coolest and biggest thing it can be before graduating, and then pass on the baton to the next generation", and that could be read as her passionate declaration of giving her all to the group. Taking that into consideration, the coordination these 10 members displayed in the previous autumn tour can be said to have been surpassed by the "Evolution" concert at Nakano Sun Plaza. Having been entrusted with this level of enthusiasm, they can only keep getting stronger. After their rebirth into Morning Musume '14, in less than 6 months' time they will be performing in New York in October. During this period, how far can these girls go? That battle is right now.