Justin: Koda Kumi's gimmick is that she's a slut.
While most current idols are content to preserve at least a modicum of purported chastity, KK has a tendency to go much further. Watching her, it can be refreshing not to see things dumbed down to the level of a young teenager. Still, this is Japan we're talking about, a nation where 'serious adult female sexuality' is about as acceptable as child porn. (Okay, actually...it's much less acceptable - you can always count on a culture gap to kill analogies). So, Kumi's stripping and grinding has the approximate titillation value of a fifteen year old wearing her big sister's clothes and posing in front of a mirror - you can't take it all that seriously.
Kumi's biggest asset, apart from her, um, assets, is a rich, husky voice. Now, this might not sound that distinctive, but consider that this takes place in the same country where her biggest rival and labelmate, Otsuka Ai*, sings like a squirrel on meth, and women in their late twenties will try to affect a ten year old's pitch and intonations. So, her deeper register, which might even be termed soulful at times, immediately calls her out. Songs like "D.D.D" and "No Tricks" were the closest thing to actual R & B that J-pop had come in ages - you could listen to them without having to 'explain' the voice. She also had some nice gimmicks, such as releasing what was essentially a full album (Best Second Session) song-by-song, each with its own single. She's currently 'top of the class' as it were, set to win a number of industry awards again.
But as much as I love Koda Kumi's style, I can't embrace her wholeheartedly, just because the solid musical core isn't there. She just doesn't have enough songs to make a lasting impression, and I couldn't enjoy her as much without her pictures and videos constantly in the periphery - something eminently possible with a true talent like Utada Hikaru or Ken Hirai*. I also can't see her lasting long - once her gimmick runs its course, she doesn't have the personality to hang in for the long haul. J-pop artists who've been around for more than five years (Ayumi, Hikki, etc.) have gone beyond just setting fashions to the extent of creating and inhabiting their own world fans can enter, with a distinctive set of emotions, themes, images, and - dare I say it - musical growth. Even Hello! Project is less a production team than a way of life. Koda Kumi is just a voice and a body, and while that can make for some great singles*, it isn't inclined to last.
* Otsuka, memorably, referred to Kumi as "a cheap nightclub hostess." - bitch SLAP!
*her stuff's probably better to hear in a club context than to just sit down and listen to - important to note in assessing it. I can't think of anyone else besides maybe Namie who could get away with saying 'bounce wit me bounce wit me' in a song.
Swifty: I first heard about Koda Kumi through the two songs from Final Fantasy X-2 (an underrated game with horribly disappointing 'PERFECT' ending that I spent hours trying to achieve), Real Emotion and 1000 Words. I liked the latter, but wasn't really expecting to hear much from her again since, honestly, the singers of previous Final Fantasy games never really attained mainstream success.
Koda Kumi's live performance of 1000 Words
Then, I saw her name appearing again, this time for the theme song of Cutie Honey. Thought she was hot, and assumed that the gal's carving a niche for herself by singing theme songs for anime and video games. Maybe she's kinda different from FF9 singer, Emiko Shiratori (of course, she belonged to a different generation, singing for the 70s Winter Olympics and stuff) and FF10 singer, Rikki (actually a folk singer, so probably not aiming for mainstream success) did!
Koda Kumi's live performance of Cutie Honey
... and then, back in April, I found out that Koda Kumi actually became big in Japan (I had cut myself off from Jpop news in the past two years until recently) and was rather surprised. Checking out some of her hit singles on Youtube, I stumbled upon the series of videos which I would later name as the You Feel Lies Someday Tetralogy (yes, I NAMED IT!!!!) and did an entry showing and talking briefly about each video (CHECK IT OUT! It's my most criminally underrated entries ever).
So yeah, I loved (some of) her videos, enjoy her purely from a superficial level when she's slutting out (Japan's equivalent of I don't know, Christina Aguilera? Or Shakira?). Some of her songs are good but her voice doesn't really do it for me, and her best songs don't really blow me away like rival Ai Otsuka's ballads (Kingyo Hanabi... *sob*). But like I said, as long as she looks hot, I don't really care about the songs.
... yes, I'm shallow, but hey, at least I'm honest.