The emergence of a new Johnny’s group will always be exciting. It was exciting in January 2020, when Snow Man and SixTONES made a dual debut, and it’s been even more exciting watching these groups go on to dominate the idol industry and usher in a new era for Johnny’s.
When Naniwa Danshi’s debut was announced over the summer, I was quite surprised. They’ve had a relatively short tenure as a junior group, though some members have been in the agency for much longer. I’ve used the ensuing months to bring myself up to speed with their history and have come to understand why Johnny’s opted for such a quick debut.
Naniwa Danshi hail from the Kansai region, which has always been associated with comedic appeal when it comes to agency-seniors Kanjani∞ and Johnny’s West. However, Naniwa are carving a new path and debuting with a much more traditional idol concept. And by “traditional,” I mean full-on “jumped out of an anime with glittery outfits and perma-smiles.” It’s about as far from trendy as imaginable, and I fully expect this approach to mystify (or outright repel) those unfamiliar with J-idol tropes. It’s very specific – down to the exaggerated vocals — and that’s what makes it worth discovering.
Beyond acting as their official debut song, Ubu Love (初心LOVE) serves as a soundtrack to the delightful Kieta Hatsukoi, a drama co-starring member Michieda Shunsuke and Snow Man’s Meguro Ren. That context is important to fully enjoying the song’s exuberant energy. Its melody swoops and soars in classic J-pop fashion (that guitar-driven pre-chorus is gorgeous), building toward a head-rush hook that sinks its teeth in stronger each time you hear it.
Writing about J-pop (and Johnny’s in particular) is so different than covering K-pop. Affectations that might otherwise feel cloying become endearing, and that’s down to attitude and approach. A song like Ubu Love is deadly serious about delivering its fizzy pop hooks, but it doesn’t take itself seriously.
Instead, the group’s earnest, jovial character almost neutralizes criticism. Ubu Love is unabashedly fun, with a sense of humor and a distinct viewpoint. It’s not above a good key change, and its embrace of awkwardness compliments the age of the members. In other words, it’s pretty much what you’d expect from Johnny’s. Naniwa Danshi are game for the schtick, and that enthusiasm is infectious. But, it’s also a reaffirmation of a dynamic agency history that’s just now finding greater reach through digital platforms.
(* as usual, the youtube version omits the second verse of the song, which drives me crazy. The performance below captures the full song)