Review Summary: Anti-idol? Or a new take on cute?
ZOC is a (1) Japanese (2) idol group founded and led by (3) Seiko Oomori.
Please hold for one moment.
(1) Japan is a first world Asian country that placed 120th on the 2021 Gender Equality Ranking and emphasises compliance, hard work and selfless patience as its primary virtues. Getting by in Japan requires you to constantly camouflage any disharmonious or ugly aspects of your private self in favour of an unassuming public face (tatemae
). The common Western image of Japan is some kind of electrified retro-future paradise where everyone is ultra earnest and ultra intense and the wildest experiences can be taken for granted; this is inaccurate. Japan is polite, boring, facaded, clean and thoroughly sexist. It is not a good place to be yourself, especially if you’re a woman.
(2) Idol is, uh, complicated. It’s a hugely popular wing of the Japanese entertainment industry, platforming entertainer-influencers who do their best to come across as convincing role models (i.e. presenting an impeccably pure image). They support this by singing, dancing, talking and social mediaing, among various other things. Idols are not viewed as musicians: they are personalities who happen to play music. Unlike men, who enjoy highly visible positions of influence and success across every sector of the country, idols make up a relatively steep proportion of Japan’s female role models. However, the industry is as unforgiving and male-dominated as any part of corporate Japan. This means that just as much as it seems to epitomise whichever ideals of ultracuteness, an idol platform also perpetuates workplace gender disparities and mismatched power dynamics. Idols are empowering without being themselves empowered; a quick Google of the roadside controversies surrounding a major group such as AKB48 will confirm as much. There are ‘alternative’ idols, who present a different image and cater to more specific fanbases; what this means varies from case to case, but for the best part of the 2010s this niche was dominated by the WACK company (ha ha, yes indeed) and the largely toxic, self-denigrating legacy of its flagship act BiS, engineered in its entirety by sadistic producer Junnosuke Watanabe. On both sides of the coin, the idol biz is a boy’s show with stalls full of girls.
(3) Seiko Oomori is a professional musician who has built a following through a successful solo career and her role as a judge in the alternative idol talent show MissiD. Beyond performing for ZOC, she writes all the group’s music and lyrics and acts as the group’s producer, effectively affording its membership full creative autonomy. This is already highly unusual for an idol group and it has a range of unorthodox consequences: ZOC’s choreography, for instance, prioritises the capabilities and preferences of individual members above wider unity or synchronisation, but this pales in comparison to Oomori’s stance as a lyricist. Her writing has always been confrontational and subversive, but her last three solo albums in particular zeroed in on gendered experiences with unflinching frankness. This ranged from sweeping problematisations of social double standards (kitixxxgaia
) to graphic emotional polemics (Kusokawa Party
), to a more measured reflection on the mutually incompatible roles an adult women is expected to juggle (Kintsugi
). Her perspective is representative of unvoiced everyday injustices faced by women across Japan, and she articulates it with vivid detail, uncommon fierceness and formidable songwriting talent.
ZOC comes directly out of this, a self-supporting girl group dedicated to taking the ugliest, most awkward parts of individual experience and, in stark contrast to Japanese tatemae
, treasuring them, wearing them as publicly as imaginable on an idol platform. Their roster has an appropriately eclectic makeup: Oomori’s companions include a MissiD contestant originally hand-picked to collaborate on her solo work (Aizome Karen), a veteran of her favourite idol institution, the Hello! Project (Kannagi Maro), a survivor of another recently dissolved group (Nishii Marina), a professional choreographer (Yachia Riko), and an insecure fifteen year-old (Shizume Nodoka).
Now two years into their existence and signed to megalabel Avex Trax, ZOC have finally released their debut album and it’s a huge statement. In every sense. PvP
(that’s Player vs Prayer
) is ninety bloody minutes
long and unashamedly rife with kitsch and excess even by idol pop standards, featuring new versions of every single they’ve ever made alongside a slew of new material. It’s grounded in larger-than-life sugary pop-rock, but its palette makes liberal forays into chiptune (“Danshari Kareshi”, “Gankyuu ni GO!”), art-pop (“Fly in the Deepriver”, “14sai”), metal (“ZOC Jikkenshitsu”, “AGE OF ZOC“) and synth-pop (“濃♡厚♡接♡触”, “SHINEMAGIC”). Oomori flexes her songwriting chops at points and doubles down on the basics at others, but for the most part it feels like she’s running away with herself in a more generous capacity than her meticulously crafted solo albums allowed for. This tracklist is stacked and its pacing is breakneck: do not go into it expecting anything less than a total overload.
If this sounds like a lot, it’s just the tip of the iceberg compared to what the album verbalises. PvP
represents a brand of feisty, ugly self-acceptance broadly absent in the Japanese mainstream: its subject matter ranges from a deceptively upbeat fuck-you to the oppressive side of Japan’s ultra-tight nuclear families (“Family Name”) to a caution against idol’s greatest virtue, youthful naivety (“Don’t Trust Teenager“) to a complementary hymn to the greasiest, most shameful parts of good ol’ teenage grossness (“Cutting Edge”) to a hilarious incitement to chucking inconsiderate lovers (“Danshari Kareshi”) to a girls’-circle smooch anthem (“Chu-Puri”). There a lot of common threads here, many of which can be traced back to the tracks “ZOC Jikkenshitsu” and “GIRL’S GIRL”, both originally on Oomori’s explosive solo album Kusokawa Party
but reworked as ZOC songs. The solo versions of both tracks are superior, but their inclusion carries its own significance: the former was essentially the project’s founding charter, by happy coincidence featuring Aizome Karen’s first performance with Seiko Oomori, but “GIRL’S GIRL” is perhaps the most lyrically incisive track of the lot. It’s an almost stream of consciousness dissection of “cuteness” that weighs inside-out (self-affirmation) and outside-in (public image) stances of self-presentation against one another, ending up in a tussle between individual self-fashioning and internalised misogyny. It comes to a head in a gloriously simple chorus: Girls are the best / girls are the worst
, a snapshot of the convection current of glamour and shame that keeps kawaii culture on its tiptoes.
Streamlined into a pushy singalong, the PvP
version loses the intensity and desperation of the original but it makes up for it in how other tracks pick up on its threads. That internalised shame is furiously expunged in “LiBiDo FUSION”’s opening barrage of I’m the worst woman in my life
-s and similarly directed diatribe-bridge later on; “Fly in the Deepriver”’s main refrain epitomises the album’s virtue of externalising ugliness, essentially a piano beatdown overscored with a chant of kuso
(shit), interspersed with wistful assertions that this, in its wayward coarse way, comes as a mantra for preserving a clean heart; “SHINEMAGIC” throws out the paired notions of fantasy and frailty that find themselves projected all over Japanese girlhood - that’s shine
as in the Japanese die!
, not shiny-shine. A liberal translation might be Death To Magical Shoujo Culture
, though ZOC leave their message more open-ended, dismissing the cinema sheen and “magic” of what we used to refer to as girl power
as a cheap substitute for individual self-assurance. It’s not all critique: the ZOC girls are careful to assert their own standards and identities on these matters, and the project has a hugely affirmative skew to it. “Family Name”, for instance, wears outright violent language behind an anchoring pledge to vitality (I’m gonna fuckin’ live!
), and the girls’ performance style is comfortably sufficient to see this off. Loudness and proudness etc..
So, that’s the kind of idols ZOC are. Leaving that aside, we can turn to the elephant in the room: is it really viable to recommend this to anyone with no knowledge of Japanese society or language, idol subculture, or Seiko Oomori’s significance as a solo artist? Eh, almost. More than you’d expect, but most definitely almost
. It all comes down to the elephant on top of the elephant: ninety-one minutes is an absolutely ludicrous runtime for a record like this, and as bold a powermove as it is, I doubt there is an artist in the world who could have dragged PvP
over that finishing line hitch-free. Seiko Oomori is one of the most talented songwriters of our time, testament to her craft, she gets things to the 68-minute mark almost seamlessly. That stretch is about 20 minutes longer than most worthwhile J-pop albums, and its hit quotient is formidable. It’s one banger after another, coming to a surprise art-pop centrepiece with the one midway two-punch of “Fly in the Deepriver” back to back with “14sai” but otherwise scoring so many strong hooks across so many styles that it scarcely feels like a highlight affair.
In stark contrast, the album’s final strait is a slump. Penultimate track “Kurenai no Qualia” is excellent anime-ready jazz-pop that shows off maybe the best vocal performances of the lot, but aside from that and maybe
the comic relief of “Sorena! Jinsei PARTY”, the final twenty minutes turn the album from a barrage of delights to a draining endurance test. Amazingly, it takes until closer “Repeat the End” to get to the album’s first and only straight ballad, and with its I don’t wanna stop
s and Don’t cry
s, it leaves the album reaching for an encore; a heavily oversatiated sigh of relief is a more likely response once it’s over. The album’s broad palette, commitment to maximalism and intimidating energy levels take most of the group’s excesses in their stride, but they don’t quite amount to a free pass for too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome.
Where does that leave things? Well, PvP
lands its blows repeatedly and coherently. It’s destined for niche appeal outside of Japan, but I think it offers an interesting and encouraging insight into the idolverse to just about anyone, especially
those who would place one-and-a-half hours of saccharine girl group anthems in their own dedicated circle of hell. It’s a solid album and an even better statement: for its field I’d consider that more than sufficient, but if we’re going to squint at the music, there’s pop magic at work across the board here, largely an onslaught of delights from a songwriter who rarely puts a foot wrong. Seiko Oomori has already made a significant mark on J-pop and the kind of voices it can represent; ZOC’s formation and signing were testament to this to begin with, and their future success will hopefully be a key yardstick for gauging just how far her brand of pop reform can reach. Among other things, it’ll be interesting to see how keen Avex Trax are to sign artists with a similar standpoint in future. ZOC are currently sitting at number 13 on the Oricon chart: respectable as a point of entry, but not so much if this is their all-time peak. Will their brand gather traction or end up sublimating into a diluted singalong appendix to Oomori’s solo canon? Or will their name overtake hers and come out as the more prominent project? Who’s to say. Their members are professedly set on living their own truths, and they’ve done a fine job so far. Godspeed and good luck to them.