Fans were so ecstatic to attend idol singer Haga Yui's first meet and greet that it didn’t matter when only her hands showed up. People lined up for a handshake and a wave while the rest of her remained hidden behind the curtain. Apparently the producers still hadn’t figured out what sort of body to give her.
Haga Yui began life as a listener-submitted joke on a late-night radio show. Ijuuin Hikaru, ex-rakugo performer and host of the program All Night Nippon, got the ball rolling in November 1989 when he quipped that Oshima Nagisa had a name more appropriate for a teenage pop star. Oshima Nagisa, of course, being the radical film director of counter-culture favorites Death by Hanging, In the Realm of the Senses, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence and others.
A listener riffed on the gag with “Haga Yui,” another pedestrian name with that “idol” ring to it. “Hagayui,” of course, being the Japanese idiom for a feeling of helpless frustration. Literally “itchy teeth,” Haga Yui is that one spot that you just can’t scratch. She’s also a parody of pop music gone over the deep end.
Idols, the fresh-faced media darlings that dominate Billboard charts, variety shows, film and cheesecake photo books, took a strange turn in 1985 with the arrival of Onyanko Club. Idols are supposed to sing about their crushes and summertime blues. Onyanko Club sung about being undressed by their teacher and groped on the train. People pretended this was all tongue-in-cheek.
With the cameras on them the girls were too innocent to be disgusted by their own naughty lyrics. They didn’t do dirty things like smoke or have boyfriends. Those that did were forced into an early “graduation.” Producers polished and buffed this new breed of idol to remove any unsightly dings, cuts or biological unpleasantries. These girls didn’t even go to the bathroom. Imagine, no longer having to put the toilet seat down! The appeal of idols was infectious.
The controversial “no flatulence” clause stuffs them in the same pocket of alternate reality as computer generated girlfriends and anime sex bombs. Ijuuin reasoned that if producers could make a real girl fake, then surely he could make a fake girl real. But he didn’t work alone.
Ijuuin invited his listeners to help fabricate a likely back story. Their postcards became her birth certificate. Haga Yui was born on April 14, 1974 as Higuchi Masako. Her parents run a bakery and she has an older sister and younger brother. She has a petite frame, a ponytail and droopy eyelids like a beagle. This last detail was added simply to tickle Ijuuin’s fancy. Fans would never see her true face, much less her puppy dog eyes.
Haga Yui would be played by multiple actresses in her rare public appearances and concerts. Ijuuin prepared three girls for her album release--a cutesy idol, a plain Jane and a foreigner. Were they pretending to be Haga Yui, or were they all the real deal? So long as one of them was your type, did it matter?
Ijuuin had a talent pool 57 girls deep to draw from depending on the situation. He employed bubbly voice actresses for daytime talk shows, professional singers for recording sessions and whatever model was free that day for glamor shots. Her photo book, "U-SO-TSU-KI" (L-I-A-R), was shot by Kiyotaka Saito, a name synonymous with teenage girls in bikinis.
Sony Music released her first and only single, Starlight Passport, on July 1, 1990. Future Puffy AmiYumi song writer Okuda Tamio penned the lyrics while Pizzicato Five founder Konishi Yasuharu produced the tracks. That’s some serious studio staff for a joke project. The album sold 50,000 copies, a drop in the bucket for her contemporaries but a number that modern PR departments would kill for. For comparison’s sake, 50K is just shy of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s recent hit, Ninja Re Bang Bang.
Haga Yui’s success lead to her death. As her popularity ballooned the project floated out of reach of the listeners who designed her. So Ijuuin decided to pull the plug. On October 11, 1990, not even a year after her debut, Haga Yui took her starlight passport and boarded a flight for Taiwan to study abroad.
Fans flocked the airport to see her off. They murmured cheers and bits of song lyrics under their breath. It was a somber affair. Of course, Haga Yui wasn’t actually aboard.
And so Haga Yui’s career ended as capriciously as it began. But she wouldn’t be the last imaginary idol. Namie Amuro sound-alike Date Kyoko hit the airwaves on November 21, 1996 with the single, "Love Communication." Her perfect proportions were sculpted by the best in PlayStation 1-era CG. After the initial novelty died down she enjoyed a fast slide into obscurity. In hindsight, Ijuuin was right to send Haga Yui out with a bang. Nothing’s as sad as watching a pop star fade out of existence, even a digital one.
Recently idol army AKB48 took the art of crafting a fake girl to the next level. On June 14, 2011 fans were stunned to see new recruit Eguchi Aimi appear in a commercial for the candy maker Glico. Normally only top-ranked members have the privilege of being used to sell junk. Lucky for Aimi she was born for the part.
She was a computer generated fabrication, her face a composite of the group’s six most popular girls. Of course, her voice was provided by a 12-year old understudy. AKB48 producer Akimoto Yasushi--the author behind Onyanko Club’s touchy lyrics--had finally achieved his goal of transplanting the mind of a pre-teen girl into the body of a full-grown woman.
Aimi was a publicity stunt and disposable as a battery. Her profile was deleted from the group’s homepage in May 2013. In a way she never existed. But her big sister Haga Yui lives on. She’s out there, somewhere. Maybe she charters cultural exchange between Taiwan and Japan. Or perhaps she joined the Peace Corps to dig wells in Africa. More than likely she took over her parent’s bakery. Wherever she is, she’s probably happy.
The difference between the two is simple: Aimi was a product. Haga Yui was a project. A successful project runs its course. A successful product is consumed and replaced by the next big thing. Of course, there will also be another next big thing. But there’s only one Haga Yui--or 57, by Ijuuin’s count.
Written by: Dave Kracker