ZOC
PvP



Release Date: 06/09/2021 | Tracklist

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.

Okay:

(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 stops and Don’t crys, 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.



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Comments:Add a Comment 
JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
June 20th 2021


38929 Comments

Album Rating: 3.8

This took forever and is late and much much longer than it needs to be considering how many people here will realistically jam and enjoy this album but please read it anyway for a good look into the Japanese pop landscape that I don't think I'll ever have the energy to summarise again ever maybe

Recommended tracks: 14sai, Kurenai no Qualia, SHIINEMAGIC, LiBiDo FUSION, Fly in the Deepriver, 濃♡厚♡接♡触, Danshari Kareshi



More cool shit:



Awesome TV special with English translation and clear project mapping: https://www3.nhk.or.jp/nhkworld/en/ondemand/video/2004374/

GIRL’S GIRL lyrics: https://kittysblues.tumblr.com/post/176989896863/girls-girl-when-will-i-be-complete-ill-trick

Shizume Nodoka audition interview that pins down the project Vibe v nicely (Japanese subs only; 10:30 - 11:00)- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgAsRUhI9i0

Unpacking why “Danshari Kareshi” (Throw Away Ur Bf) is bant ft. Marie Kondo: https://savvytokyo.com/danshari-the-konmari-method/

Oomori Seiko repping Minor Threat in a group photo: https://natalie.mu/music/news/416248

Digging: The Flashbulb - Kirlian Selections

JesperL
Contributing Reviewer
June 20th 2021


3176 Comments


nice nice v informative read, i think i understood most of it
this feels like it'd need some hyphens or something i think: It’s an almost stream of consciousness dissection'

SitarHero
June 20th 2021


13287 Comments


On average, how many times a day do you write the words "Seiko Oomori", Johnny?

dimsim3478
June 20th 2021


8950 Comments


the perfect antidote to Anal Sex Penis

Digging: Ging Nang Boyz - ????

FadedSun
June 20th 2021


2658 Comments


"ZOC is a (1) Japanese (2) idol group founded and led by (3) Seiko Oomori."

I'm scared, and curious. I'm likely not going to enjoy this nearly as much as you, Johnny. I can't think of a single idol group I've ever liked haha.

Seems like a natural progression for her though, with her weird anti-idol/JK I actually love them thing

GhandhiLion
June 20th 2021


12868 Comments


the stench of corporate capitalism

Digging: Elizabeth Colour Wheel - Nocebo

GmemberKills
June 20th 2021


3789 Comments


hmmm I've pretty much been jamming nothing but Japanese artists/idols from the 80s early 90s lately but haven't ventured into anything more modern.

this was a nice informative write up though and has me intrigued. you really touched upon a lot of the problems in the industry, and this group seems to be trying to break some of toxic norms in the idol scene so I hope they succeed just for that reason.

Might just give this a spin sometime soon.

GhandhiLion
June 20th 2021


12868 Comments


Does Jun Togawa count as an idol?

JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
June 20th 2021


38929 Comments

Album Rating: 3.8

Yeah, she was the og anti-idol (insofar as that tag means anything)

@GmemberKills Never explored 80s/90s idol much outside of her because I always enjoyed following the push and pull of trends in real time, but I'd be v interested to hear how that perspective shapes your view on this if you end up doing your own digging!

nol
June 20th 2021


9482 Comments


I’ll take “Things you know are Johnny reviews without clicking on them” for 400 please

WatchItExplode
June 21st 2021


9077 Comments


I like educational reviews

Digging: Teamonade - This Far

Dewinged
Staff Reviewer
June 21st 2021


24857 Comments


Your exposition of Japanese music industry nowadays is on point Johnny, good stuff.

Digging: Nightwish - Once

CaliggyJack
June 21st 2021


7332 Comments


Fun fact: Air Conditioning is not as popular in Japan as in other places.

dedex
Contributing Reviewer
June 21st 2021


8302 Comments


Very informative indeed, thank you JohnnyoftheNerd

Aberf
June 21st 2021


3693 Comments


Zoc my ochinchin

JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
June 21st 2021


38929 Comments

Album Rating: 3.8

Thanks gang + Abedelet plz

"Fun fact: Air Conditioning is not as popular in Japan as in other places."

whut

Kusangii
June 21st 2021


3186 Comments


Damn this is pretty fun actually

DatsNotDaMetulz
June 21st 2021


4078 Comments


Yeah the idol industry has all kinds of problems attached to it. Not just in Japan but also in K-Pop. Both tie down young singers to dodgy contracts and micromanage every aspect of their lives and it's a real issue.

Kusangii
June 21st 2021


3186 Comments


The idol industry scares me. I read somewhere sometime that an idol-company pushed a 13-year old girl so hard that she couldn't handle it anymore and committed suicide. Absolutely appalling. Apparently pretty common that they give them unrealistic conditions so they work themselves to death basically.

DatsNotDaMetulz
June 21st 2021


4078 Comments


Rei Kuromiya was pushed into being a "junior idol" when she was a kid and her parents were fine with it (trust me you don't want to know what that is), before joining Ladybaby. But the pressure of doing Ladybaby, the strain on her voice of having to sing in a "kawaii" voice all the time, and harrassment from fans who knew about her past drove her to quit the idol industry. Nowadays she's in a J-Punk band called BRATS, writing her own songs and singing in a more natural key, and it's actually pretty decent.



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