The sound of stomping heels and blaring music drifts down a dimly lit hallway. At the end, a group of young women in T-shirts and sweatpants face a long, mirrored wall, moving their bodies in unison to the beat of a cheery synth-pop number.
At a quick glance, they could possibly pass for AKB48, Morning Musume or one of the other popular female idol groups that are so prevalent in Japan. Looking closer, however, something is a bit off.
The young women aren’t actually singing the songs, and are copying the complex choreography of a music video from their smartphones — albeit perfectly. But then the sound of school chimes pierces the music and suddenly heels are swapped for sneakers, backpacks are collected and these supposed pop-stars-in-training are back to being everyday students.
The dancers are part of SPH Mellmuse, an “idol copy dance club,” based out of Tokyo’s Sophia University and one of the first such clubs to exist in Japan. While other university club members practice their tennis swings or hone their debate skills, these students mimic the dance performances of their favorite female idol groups to absolute perfection.
Ellie Mikawa was a member of SPH Mellmuse for four months during university.
“I was browsing for clubs on the university’s website and I came upon SPH Mellmuse and thought it was very interesting,” the 20-year-old says. “I joined after noticing how close they are to actual idols, even though they are just copying them.”
SPH Mellmuse, currently comprising 44 members, all idol-pop fans, mimic the choreography of their favorite groups as a way of expressing their devotion to them. The student club recently marked its 10th anniversary since its formation as SPH48 — a nod to both Sophia University and AKB48.
More than 10 years ago, AKB48 was experiencing a breakthrough in Japan, and with that came a large and dedicated following, says Patrick W. Galbraith, a Japanese pop-culture scholar who is currently a professor at Senshu University.
“After the breakout success of AKB48, there was a surge of idols produced and performing in a similar model, or appealing to small audiences that were intensely invested,” Galbraith says. “This idol boom was made possible by, and subsequently inspired, a massive number of people wanting to become idols. The cumulative result was a huge increase in idol groups.”
Indeed, in the history of Japanese pop culture, the early 2010s was dubbed by one website as the aidoru sengoku jidai (idol Warring States Period), a nod to Japan’s actual sengoku jidai of the 1500s. A flood of groups began entering the market, with AKB48 sister group NMB48 and the darker Babymetal leading the way.
“Proliferating together with idol groups are fan activities,” Galbraith says. “People who know the idols, who follow them, who like their dances and their fashion, start to reproduce them.”
During their early days imitating idol choreography, the members of SPH Mellmuse stoked ire from hard-core idol fans, who trolled them, telling them that they didn’t come close to the real singers.
“They started out as SPH48, and so were immediately associated with AKB48, which earned them negative comparisons and terrible trolling by fans online,” Galbraith says. “After that, they changed their name to create some distance from the group, or ‘real idols,’ but also ironically became really professionalized as ‘copy idols.'”
While the students insist they are simply doing this for fun, they take it seriously. The club meets four times a week to practice dancing. During competition seasons, that goes up to six times a week, a schedule that rivals professional singers.
“SPH Mellmuse is really serious,” says Mikawa. “Every detail of each movement has to be copied perfectly. If my hand is not moving exactly at the same angle as the idols’, another member will point it out.”
The team performs for audiences at school festivals and idol fan events, and each member takes on a nickname, in true idol fashion. The members also have unified Twitter accounts to promote event appearances to the public, and the club has to report to a public relations manager, who is also a university student.
Eighteen members of SPH Mellmuse are currently representing their team in the student-run Unidol competition, a battle of university idol copy dance clubs from across Japan. The preliminary round for groups in the Kanto region involved 36 different teams.
Ahead of the Unidol 2019-20 winter finals on Feb. 13, the members of SPH Mellmuse were competing against 11 other teams on the second day of a three-day Kanto group competition. More than 700 people show up to the venue, near Shinjuku Station, idol-pop fans ranging from high school students to working-age men. A panel of judges and the audience are on hand to decide the ultimate winner, and only the top three clubs will move on to the finals.
The members of SPH Mellmuse are seen backstage getting some last-minute practice in while applying their makeup. Then, they take to the stage in matching costumes that the members have created themselves.
As the spotlight comes on and the music begins, the dancers’ nervous expressions give way to big, confident smiles, and the members of SPH Mellmuse start to dance in perfect synchronization and formation to a mix of songs from groups such as Angerme and SKE48. Their stage presence delights the audience, who pump their fists and dance along.
But as the performance comes to an end, one of the dancers sheds a few tears backstage after messing up a single dance move. She seems to feel as if she let her team down and ruined their chances of winning.
“Despite not producing or performing original content, and having no pressure to make a living from this like idols in the industry, there is definitely pressure for university idol copy dance groups to perform well,” says Galbraith. “It’s kind of like college athletics in Japan. Most club members aren’t planning to become professionals, and they do not need to be the best on the court or field, but, in that context, you really do want to be. That is especially true when you are known for this and issues of identity, self-worth and responsibility to others come into play.”
As all of the teams await an announcement of the results, the members of SPH Mellmuse hold each others’ hands tightly during the drum roll.
After a brief moment of silence, there is an outburst of screams and tears as SPH Mellmuse is named the winner of the day, thus advancing to the Unidol winter finals competition.
The journey to No. 1 may be filled with copied dance moves, but the feeling of victory is only too real.
The Unidol Winter 2019-20 competition finals will be held on Feb. 13 at Studio Coast in Koto Ward, Tokyo. For more information, visit unidol.jp.