Japanese pop groups—male or female—relay on cute. Momoiro Clover Z does, too, but the group has a different set of weapons at its disposal: super hero iconography. The troupe taps the Power Rangers (Super Sentai, in Japan), right down to each member having her own color, to connect with old and young alike.
Momoiro Clover Z is on its way to become Japan's next "national idol group" (国民的アイドルグループ or "kokuminteki aidoru guruupu"). The group is singing the theme song for the Pokémon anime, and the group is getting more and more TV time as well as more commercial deals. In Japan, one's celebrity can be measured in advertising deals. It's an easy way to show the journey from otaku favorite to mainstream celebrity.
But things weren't always so rosy for the group. A few years back, fans watched as another very serious and very sad scene played out: a young celebrity battling an eating disorder.
Momoiro Clover Z has five members, with each having her own color: Kanako Momota (Red), Momoka Ariyasu (Green), Shiori Tamai (Yellow), Ayaka Sasaki (Pink), and Reni Takagi (Violet). Like most female pop groups, the group uses schoolgirl uniforms and school imagery as well as stock idol types, such as the girl who eats too many sweets or the girl who always makes silly faces. As mentioned above, Momoiro Clover Z goes one step further and unabashedly uses retro super hero imagery, like Kamen Rider style scarfs or "henshin belts" that enable these teenager girls to transform into superheroes (no wonder they're called "weekend heroines" in Japan). Couple that with heavy doses of cosplay, and you have an idol group that has obvious appeal to otaku (geeks) in Akihabara as well as appeal with little kids. That's fun for fans, but can be difficult on the young celebrities.
The world of the idols is unforgiving and rough. Teenage idols are expected to be pure and chaste—dating is a big no-no and can even cost performers their career. Idols are supposed to be more than cute. Idols, like Violet Momoiro Clover Z member Reni Takagi, aren't supposed to be normal boys or girls. The wear and tear of the Japanese entertainment complex seemed like it started taking its toll on Takagi back in 2010. After signing with Universal Music Japan, the label held a public weigh-in for all to see. Takagi was the only member who "failed" the weigh-in for coming in over 0.8kg of the group's "idol weight". A formula had even been devised to make sure the girl's were at the group's "idol weight". And a formula the group's leader could not pass.
Humiliated, Takagi was told to come back and re-weigh herself. The event was supposed to be "for fun", but "fun" is the last word that should be used to describe it. In the months that followed, Takagi dropped the weight. And she continued to drop it. And drop it. And drop it some more. By November, her face was gaunt, and her complexion was pallid (photos here). It looked like she had developed an eating disorder—an eating disorder that fans started to blame on the weigh-in event. Takagi's management denied that the weigh-in was to blame; however, Takagi was replaced as the group's leader.
The new leader, Kanako Momota, was the outfit's Red member. If you've ever seen Power Rangers, you know that Red is always the leader. That makes sense. The idol weigh-ins, the unreal expectations, and the pressure however, do not. None of this does, really. Sure, Momoiro Clover Z's popularity continues to grow, and the group continues to reappropriate Japanese pop culture in interesting and fun ways, turning schoolgirls into superheroes. Takagi is still a member. She's at the front in her Violet Momoiro Clover Z outfit, but she's not the leader and the spotlight shines elsewhere. In the world of idols, that spotlight can get hot and burn those who stand in front of it. Just ask Reni Takagi.
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(Top photo: Stardust)