There's no battering the Tempura Kidz spirit

by Patrick ST. Michel

Special To The Japan Times

The members of Tempura Kidz have danced in front of thousands of strangers at sold-out venues across Japan, including Tokyo’s famed Budokan and the Summer Sonic festival. Yet on a Thursday night in a Harajuku office building, the teenage quintet is nervous.

They are giving their first interview with an English-language publication, and the group that moved like seasoned pros as pop star Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s backup dancers in 2012 have never looked more childlike. They sit tensely and smile awkwardly and answer in short sentences. They whisper to one another, testing out answers. Offstage, the young group is out of its element.

Their first commercial single, “One Step,” comes out in about a week and formally announces their move from the background to the foreground. The group’s members — P-chan (13, the lone boy), Yu-Ka (14), Karin (13), Ao (14) and NaNaHo (14) — formed late last year and released a video for a song titled “Cider Cider.” “One Step,” though, comes with all the pageantry expected from a proper debut: a physical CD, displays at major music retailers, a tie-in with a children’s animated TV show. Tempura Kidz’s focus on crisp, well-executed dance moves stands in stark contrast to many other fresh-faced J-pop groups, yet in person they seem as normal as any other Japanese junior high school students.

All members of the group started dancing from an early age, most of them in elementary school and NaNaHo at age 4. They got into it in different ways: P-chan enjoyed a TV show featuring breakdancing, Ao loved a Beyoncé concert DVD, Yu-Ka took ballet lessons and Karin’s friends liked dancing, so she tagged along. NaNaHo’s mother, meanwhile, worked as a dance instructor at Asobi System, a talent agency that counts Kyary and producer Ram Rider in its fold. This, coupled with all five members taking dance lessons from Kyary’s choreographer, caught the agency’s eye.

“We dance every day,” the Kidz say in near unison, with Yu-Ka adding that this leaves them with time for little else. “I feel behind in my studies,” she says. “I have no time to play with friends.” Each of the kids wears a different style of clothes tonight: Karin is clad in a Harajuku-appropriate mish-mash of Washington Redskins sweater and Mickey Mouse baseball cap; Yu-Ka wears a long-sleeve shirt with a wolf on it and NaNaHo is still in her junior high school uniform. All of them, though, have the same I’d-rather-be-sleeping look in their eyes.

“Sometimes I can’t go straight home after school,” Karin says, while fingering a SpongeBob Squarepants lanyard around her neck. “I have to ask my grandpa to drive me home, and it’s a long trip.”

When dancing, though, they are anything but tired, as demonstrated by their work with Kyary, a performer whose music and image center on childhood — think elaborate girly outfits and songs about candy, fake eyelashes and trying to get out of school. In concert, Kyary takes a more adult approach, performing with a measure of reserve and never completely losing herself in movement. That’s why the kids were so important for her gigs — they were young enough not to be obsessed with how they looked, and held nothing back. They gave Kyary’s show the childhood glee it needed.

Now, it’s their dance abilities that really separate them from other J-pop performers. Japanese idols — your AKB48’s and Morning Musumes — don’t set out to dance well. Quite the opposite, in fact: Dancing poorly is seen as endearing, as fans can watch them improve over time and feel like they went on a journey together. Tempura Kidz, though, have no time for bogus narrative and just dance really well, their movements fast and precise without looking stiff. In the video for “One Step,” and especially “Cider Cider,” they are also experts at overselling. They exaggerate their movements in a way that would make professional wrestlers proud, adding humor to their routines without being kitschy.

“We rehearse for shows every day,” NaNaHo says, and this dedication has helped grab overseas attention. Several foreign bloggers have posted about the eye-catching video for “Cider Cider,” which finds the group performing their locked-in moves wearing costumes that resemble the characters from “Monsters, Inc.” American Idol host Ryan Seacrest praised the performance. “This girl group packs some awesome new dance moves to obsess over,” he blogged, committing the common mistake of assuming P-chan is a girl. (He seems to take it in stride.)

Given all the attention the Kidz receive and the dedication they give to their craft, it’s tempting to lament that the members are losing their childhood too soon. Yet talking to them reveals they’re just enjoying a modified version of Japanese adolescence. They say they go to bed at midnight and wake up at 6 or 7 a.m., and three of them count “sleep” as a hobby. Sounds rough — unless you’ve spent time with “regular” Japanese junior high school students, who say the exact same thing and carry the same heavy-lidded eyes Tempura Kidz do. Those students just fill their hours with cram school and after-school activities, while the Kidz rehearse and perform at the Budokan.

And their youth breaks through, just like other sleep-deprived kids. Their day-off hobbies sound achingly teenage — Yu-Ka watches YouTube “all day,” Ao bakes sweets and plays with Sylvanian Families’ dolls, P-chan creates lighting arrangements for DJs (OK, that’s not so typical). They perk up when talking about their dreams for the future. Yu-Ka wants to be a world-famous dancer, while Karin says she wants to set the world record for “fast blinking.” She demonstrates her abilities, moving her eyelids at such an unnatural speed she probably could break into Guinness.

It’s moments like this, or when the Kidz geek out about the time they thought they saw a UFO at a video shoot, that makes you forget they are aiming for J-pop success.

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