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Friday, September 15, 2006


[On behalf of my little sister, I would like to thank Mossie (the guy has lotsa good anime and film reviews :D), DMJewelle (she makes the anime cosplaying community seem more entertaining than it really is with her incisively-written entries!), Plastic (one of the very first SPEED fans I got to know over the Internet years ago), Cousin Jun Qi (you're my cousin, which means you're cool!), Eeleen The Angel (the beautiful layout of her site is, well, beautiful!), Alynna (one of the rare bloggers I speak regularly to on the MSN :D), Dawnie-poo (er, she's Dawn Yang, do I need to say more?), Athena (a long-time net friend I got to know during my fanfic-writing days), Wingz (for intense Malaysian humour, go to his site), Jayelle (a really nice girl with a soul beautiful like the majestic snowy mountains), Jee (he has lots of things to ponder about), Craig (heh, lots of stuff about underaged Jpop artistes), Bryan (The Undead Dragon!) and Arashi-chan for their warm birthday wishes on the night of her birthday. You guys made my sister's 17th birthday a very memorable one.]

Japanese pop girl group SPEED

Well, after Justin had written so much about Japanese artistes in the past few weeks, I think it's definitely my turn to do so. This time, I shall educate you all, my dear Swiftyholics, about the nearly-forgotten greatness of SPEED, arguably the most influential and successful Japanese girl pop group of their generation (1996-2000).

Compared to Justin, it's much difficult for me to write about their songs as I don't have any of their albums with me right now, nor any of their songs in my hard drive (it was my own policy that I would never ever download a single SPEED MP3). Hence I can only attempt to conjure the sounds of their unforgettable songs from my own memories. (After all, through my teenage years, I've listened to them so much that they have long engraved themselves deep within my mind.)

How did I first know about SPEED? It all occurred during a vacation in Japan during the last few days of 1998, on a wintry afternoon, when I entered the Tower Records (R.I.P.) of Shinjuku, attempting to buy myself a Jpop album as a souvenir. Utada Hikaru had just released her debut single, Automatic, Ayumi Hamasaki had just released her debut album, A Song For XX, but neither of them would dominate the Japanese music scene until many months later. At that very moment, the one album ruling the Oricon charts was SPEED's MOMENT, a compilation album featuring their greatest hits from their two albums, Starting Over and Rise.

Despite my initial scepticism (I didn't want people to laugh at me for buying something from Japan's version of, er, Spice Girls, it's utterly 'uncool'). Yet one listen to the first minute of White Love, their top-selling single ever, and I was immediately won over.

White Love was my obvious favourite, but other songs in the album, like Alive, Starting Over, Steady, My Graduation and All My True Love etc. left quite a deep impression for me then as well. Perhaps it was because they were so different from one another, so unique that each will never be mistaken with another. Like the members themselves.

Each member, Shimabukuro Hiroko, Uehara Takako, Imai Eriko and Arakaki Hitoe had a clear defining role in the group, neither of them expendable or superfluous. As American Wota had put it in his old blog entry, each of them had such distinctive features that they were like the Fantastic Four of Jpop, combining to create a strange sort of chemistry you seldom see in pop groups, be it from the West or the East.

Hiro and Eriko dominated the vocals. Hiro's voice were high and nasal (kinda like... Ayumi), Eriko low and sultry (kinda like... Misia). Yet they would never take the limelight away from Takako or Hitoe (who did the backup vocals), since Takako would always be considered as the 'really hot one', while Hitoe was universally-considered by all fans to be the best dancer of them all, like a female version of Usher (unsurprising, since she was an Usher fan), yet unfortunately the most overlooked one as she lacked the conventional beauty of the other three. A pity.

In many ways, SPEED is the exact opposite of Morning Musume. Instead of trying to blow listeners away by being as insane as possible, throwing a cacophony of annoyingly loud noises at people, flaunting their ridiculous cuteness in swimsuit photoshoots, SPEED had always been more about substance than style. More about the actual merits of their songs than colourful gimmick. The SPEED members were never mere sex symbols meant to be objectified, but real humans fans can relate to, possessing some sort of 'girls-next-door' quality that allowed fans to feel close to. They felt so authentic, real and sincere that if they had belonged to this era, they would've been similar to the kinds of Myspace bands who would reply to comments individually whilst updating their blogs daily. The kind of Myspace bands you would send messages or comments to knowing that they would read them. A random image: I remember the female host of Pop Jam weeping during SPEED's very last appearance on that show, she was inconsolable, crying even more than the four members.

Japanese pop girl group SpeedAnd because of their normal-ness, their careers lacked the longevity of Morning Musume, their popularity declining as both Ayumi Hamasaki and Utada Hikaru started to reign over the Jpop scene. Singer songwriters began their dominance. The fans grew bored, shifting their allegiances to the more gimmicky Morning Musume (yet the most comforting thing is that, neither of MM's albums sold as much as MOMENT did, hah!). SPEED's subsequent album and singles (Breakin' out to The Morning and Long Way Home released after MOMENT, despite maintaining their quality (or even arguably better), posted disappointing sales during their initial releases. MOMENT, aptly-titled, became SPEED's greatest moment of glory, the pinnacle of their short but illustrious career.

My love for SPEED during my teenage years was so intense that I started a mailing list on 1999 for them hoping to know people around the world who shared my love. Hence the creation of Precious Speed Mailing List, which shot to more than a thousand members in a couple of months. Yet after the group disbanded, members left the mailing list in droves, the lack of attention on the girls' solo careers was apparent. This was the very first time I experienced the true fickleness of Jpop fandom. Reeling in disgust when people who annoyingly declared their everlasting love for SPEED one day would jump over to the Morning Musume bandwagon in another.

Anyway, the girls did team up again for charity reasons on 2001 and 2003, but their efforts were mostly forgettable (even to me).

With growing disenchantment towards the mediocre reception and also the blandness of their solo projects, my interest in Jpop dwindled slowly, and eventually, what I had were merely faded memories (like I said, I would just buy the latest albums of Utada Hikaru, or Nakashima Mika). Though this had somewhat been rekindled recently with my newfound abilities to acquire the newest Japanese releases, I doubt I would ever have the passion I had for Jpop in general like I had during my teenage days, but then, those were driven mostly by interest in SPEED.

Oh well, the following are six important SPEED songs you must listen to.

1) White Love - If there's only one SPEED song you'll ever going to listen to, then White Love should be it. It's beautiful. It's the defining song of their career.

2) Body & Soul - Their debut single. Nuf' said.

3) Alive - A sad ballad that's used as the theme song for the SPEED movie, Andromedia, directed by Takashi Miike. A movie that had, well, cinematographer Christopher Doyle (!!!!) playing the baddie!

4) Steady - An early song from SPEED. Used as the theme song for the Japanese classic Japanese TV drama (well, it wasn't really highly regarded in Japan, but it was a huge hit everywhere else in Asia), It Started With A Kiss (which was recently remade into a Taiwanese serial). Giving you all a more recent (2003) live performance of the song.

5) My Graduation - I once remembered someone saying that My Graduation is about the girls' graduation from childhood to womanhood. Or was it about their graduation from junior high? Not sure.

6) April - Not exactly a favourite. But it's an important song, being the so-called 'main theme' of their very last album Dear Friends 2 (the Dear Friends series is a two-part compilation album released shortly before the separation. I refused to buy them til this very day as I felt that AVEX was merely cashing in their disband, besides, what was the point of buying them when they only had ONE song not in my collection?). The following music video is emotional since it shows various footages of their concerts and performances.

What happened since then?

hiro or coco d'or or Hiroko Shimabukuro

Hiro, she who once haunted my many dreams when I was an ignorant teenager, inspiring countless written works from me, continues her moderately successful solo career. She does covers of classic jazz songs under the name Coco D'or (I wasn't aware that Coco D'or was an ongoing project until recently). Dated a comedian 21 years older than she is, and will most probably appear in a film I make in the future. Hah.

Arakaki Hitoe

Hitoe, perpetually underappreciated and underrated, is now staying in New York, occasionally working on her art projects, and working to get her Yoga license. The world needs to know her more.

Eriko Imai

Eriko, outspoken enough to throw a thinly-veiled insult at Morning Musume ("many artistes these days succeed by popularity, not by hard work!"), suffered waves of criticisms upon herself, affecting her solo career. She then married Shogo, lead vocalist of 175R in a shotgun marriage, and gave birth to her son Raimu in October 2004. After that, she renamed herself as elly and embarked upon an indie singing career. Her latest album, Neverland, will be released on 27th of September, 2006.

Takako Uehara

Takako, the beautiful one, has a moderately successful singing, acting and modelling career, appearing in numerous commercials.

(Note: Eriko and Hiro have rather lengthy entries on Wikipedia, go have look if you're interested)

And thus, I attempt to immortalize SPEED with this blog entry. Will they be rediscovered again? Will their memories live on? Time will tell.
Japanese girl group SPEED

(UPDATED (28 MAY 2011): In 2008, I moved to Tokyo. SPEED came back together. In 2009, I directed an award-winning short film called KINGYO. One of the two cinematographers of KINGYO, Josha Yukibumi, would end up also shooting the music video of SPEED's Yubiwa)