Inaba Manaka makes a comeback – and joins Juice=Juice

Hello! Station episode #274 started out with a big surprise: Management called Inaba Manaka to join them for future plans, announcing she would join a group within Hello! Project again. Her health had improved since graduating from Country Girls in August 2016 due to asthma so they decided she could work full-time – and in Tokyo instead of Hokkaido – again. After seeing her initial reaction which was happy but also very conceived they showed her to her new group, the way they have done so for all the latest additions to groups: Letting her enter a room with her new group mates.

The members of Juice=Juice euphorically welcomed her. Just like during the announcement of Yanagawa Nanami and Dambara Ruru as new members Juice=Juice did a good job at making Inaba feel welcomed.

Fans were already with glee to see Inaba perform at the 27th Yosakoi Soran Festival in Sapporo a few days ago. It had seemed that she had found her professional home, additionally to her private home, in Hokkaido. She had her own corner in the radio show ‚IMAREAL‘ and was the leader of the Hello Pro Kenshuusei Hokkaido. A fanclub tour – in Hokkaido – is planned for mid-June.

But what does this regrouping mean – for Hello! Project, Juice=Juice, Inaba herself, and Country Girls?

The management of Hello! Project once more made it clear that they don’t want to promote soloists anymore. Inaba had work as a local idol but wasn’t actually active as a soloist within H!P – she performed in groups during the summer and winter concerts and semi-officially was more of a member of the Hokkaido Kenshuusei than a full-fledged soloist. Actually considering the „success“ of the Hokkaido Kenshuusei – or the lack of it – one might think that H!P wants to dismiss the division completely or to go easy with it as they do with Up-Front Kansai.

For the other „soloists“ within H!P – Mitsui Aika and Sayashi Riho – this could be a foretaste of what’s to come for them. It’s very likely that Mitsui Aika will „graduate“ from the company, either to lead a private life or work full-time for Up-Front. Considering her age (25) it would make no sense to let her rejoin any of the current groups, and regarding her popularity as well as performance talent there is no way the company wants to build her up as a soloist with actual releases.

Sayashi Riho, however, could be another interesting case. She is back in Japan, judging from the (now deleted) pictures on Niigaki Risa’s blog and instagram and maybe ready to perform at a future event for H!P’s 20th anniversary. Since she was the untouchable ace during her time in Morning Musume it would make no sense for her to rejoin the group or any other group at the moment. Creating a group for herself, as they did with v-u-den for Ishikawa Rika or W for Kago Ai and Tsuji Nozomi, is unlikely considering the amount of groups H!P has to manage at the moment:

  • Morning Musume.’18
  • ANGERME
  • Juice=Juice
  • (Country Girls)
  • Kobushi Factory
  • Tsubaki Factory
  • New group around Ichioka Reina
  • New group around Takase Kurumi and Kiyono Momohime
  • (Hello Pro Kenshuusei)
  • (Hello Pro Kenshuusei Hokkaido)

These are 7 full-time groups, starting from the upcoming summer concerts. Her joining any of the already existing groups makes no sense because they already have their aces/centers/most popular members, joining any of the future groups would jumble the seniority system – additional to her overshadowing the other girls who are either not known yes or not as well-known Kenshuusei. It is very likely for her to graduate H!P and work with Up-Front, either as a soloist there (though they already have to promote Suzuki Airi) or as a staff member like Shimizu Saki.

Juice=Juice quickly went from the smallest group of 5 members in early 2017 to a group with the average amount of members within H!P in mid 2018. In fact, big groups seem to be a trend within the company:

  • Morning Musume.’18 with 13 members, 12 after Ogata Haruna’s graduation later this month
  • ANGERME with 10 members, 9 after Wada Ayaka’s graduation next year
  • Tsubaki Factory with 9 members
  • Juice=Juice with now 8 members
  • Kobushi Factory and Country Girls with each 5 members.

The two new groups have already 4 and 5 members each but are set to more members once the running auditions are over. Considering Country Girls‘ status, to which we get at a later point in this article, the only group „off“ seems to be Kobushi, who lost 3 members last year due to scandals and therefore are in a special situation as well.

The question is: Did management add 3 new members to Juice=Juice to make them equal to the other groups within the company? After all, more members mean better sales, and not only did Yanagawa Nanami and Dambara Ruru reduce the average group age, they also added popularity and charisma (as well as Dambara’s amazing voice). Inaba Manaka is a great addition to any group, and since Juice=Juice was still one of the smallest (full-time) groups (and management does not seem likely to touch Kobushi Factory anytime soon) it was the only group Inaba could have joined. (Joining any of the new groups would have messed up the seniority system as mentioned regarding Sayashi Riho.)

Of course, Juice=Juice also has some of the oldest members. At the end of this year all 1st generation members will be adults in Japan (Miyamoto Karin and Uemura Akari will turn 20 in December). Leader Miyazaki Yuka is the oldest member of Hello! Project, sub-leader Kanazawa Tomoko the 4th oldest after Miyazaki, Wada Ayaka and Iikubo Haruna. Even Takagi Sayuki stands at 7th place. To add to that Miyamoto Karin had several, partially serious, illnesses over the past year (including inflammation of her vocal chords, funktional dysphonia and sudden sensorineural hearing loss). While Kanazawa did not have to take breaks for her endometriosis it’s not impossible for her to suffer through it quietly/non-officially and quitting due to the illness. All things considered a graduation from Juice=Juice wouldn’t be surprising at all. Even Uemura Akari, who is the youngest original member and doesn’t seem to be in bad health, might quit: Juice=Juice has been running for 5 years, a tenure which most idol groups (outside of H!P and other bigger companies) don’t reach and at which point members might start to think about their future.

That being said, rumours and suspicions about coming graduations had already appeared last year with the addition of the 2nd generation and so far there hasn’t been a graduation since Otsuka Aina’s in 2013.

For Inaba Manaka being added to a group means especially one thing: Restarting full-time activites. Juice=Juice is a very busy group with probably the most concerts in all of H!P. It also means moving to Tokyo again. Inaba has previously moved back to Hokkaido because of less pollution on the island compared to Tokyo. It is certain that Up-Front and H!P wouldn’t announce Inaba rejoining activites if her health wasn’t stable, but I can’t help but worrying about future breakouts of her asthma.

Regarding things other than health Inaba would join a group that has most activities already divided: Singing goes to Takagi and Dambara, leadership to Miyazaki and Kanazawa, inviolable face of the group is Miyamoto, Uemura and Yanagawa are the photobook girls. Inaba’s forte, dancing, has not been important for the group so far. It will be interesting to see how she will fit in, especially since age-wise she could’ve easily joined the 1st generation.

However, this was no problem for ANGERME. Funaki Musubu shared singing qualities with Kamikokuryo Moe, Murota Mizuki and Takeuchi Akari as well as photobook qualities with Murota and Sasaki Rikako. Her only concern, however? Having short legs in a group full of members with nice long legs. Kawamura Ayano was older than the previous two generations that were added to the group but added incredible professionalism as an idol as well as cuteness to the group. Regarding how well Juice=Juice has already welcomed Yanagawa and Dambara into the group there will be no problem in doing the same with Inaba.

Lastly, what do the news mean for Country Girls?

Inaba won’t rejoin Country Girls. The next event for the group takes place in November for its 4th anniversary. Those members who became concurrent members in other groups have full-time jobs (Morito Chisaki in Morning Musume.’18, and the already mentioned Funaki Musubu and Yanagawa Nanami in their respective groups). Yamaki Risa, leader of Country Girls, had a few smaller solo events going for her and released a visual photobook with the name ’sketch me‘. Outside of work she’s going to university, majoring in Spanish. Ozeki Mai, the other member who didn’t join a new group, does not have much work going for her. She has annual birthday events, short shots in Hello! Station and performs during H!P-events (as does Yamaki). Other than that there is no work for her except Country Girls related events.

It is very likely that Country Girls will be dissolved at the end of this or during the coming year. It is nearly impossible that the three concurrent members could rejoin full activities in the group. Seeing Inaba not rejoining the group at all it seems like management only keeps it around to give Yamaki and Ozeki steady work and not to anger their fans. As soon as one of them decides to graduate, however, it is unlikely for the group to go on. As sad as it is, for the concept and the wonderful group feeling, we should prepare to say good bye to Country Girls.

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