In a few weeks, the Manila Idol Matsuri will kick off, finally giving local wota (idol fans) an event exclusively about J-Idols and its culture. Where the groups used to perform as side-shows in cosplay and anime conventions, this time they are the focus.
Groups inspired by Japanese Idols have existed in the Philippines for years, but mostly as cover groups with the odd original material every now and then. There was one professional idol group, Kawaii5, that tried to garner mainstream success and with the sufficient backing to do so. During the time they were active, they earned a lot of respect among wota, had their own TV show and the backing of TV5 as official ambassadors of the localized version of the hit Japanese series “Ama-chan“.
But despite the good reputation they had from the wotas, mainstream success would prove to be an elusive dream. The group reportedly had shows lined up and their future seemed bright until – quite suddenly – they weren’t. Simply put, despite the country’s obsession with Japanese culture, it doesn’t automatically extend to idol groups whose music does not readily cater to Philippine sensibilities. We are simply too much of a K-pop country for that to happen.
The much-awaited debut of MNL48 rekindled the hope that maybe J-pop can have a place in the Philippine consciousness apart from those anime and video-game soundtracks. While the whole audition process was as confusing as it is controversial, Hallohallo Entertainment, MNL48’s management, eventually got their act together and put together well-trained girls who were transformed from unremarkable aspirants to professional idols. There is still a long way to go, but the future seems really bright.
Manila Idol Matsuri was conceived of as an event to celebrate J-Idol music. Various J-Idol-inspired groups coming together to perform J-pop songs as well as any original material if available. It is, quite literally, an event for fans by fans with only one professional group – Japh Dolls – in the line-up as of writing. The expectations are modest: renting the TIU Theater in Makati Square for example, is a sign that the organizers are hoping for great things, but have very realistic expectations.
Although I was enthusiastic at first, I soon developed misgivings about the event especially with its true purpose. It is an “Idol Festival” but the participants are a motley collection of cover-groups and green-horn indies, one of whom will use the event as their debut stage while several others will use it instead to debut their original material. The event itself felt more like a stepping stone – for the participants and for the event organizers – to prove that such an event can be successfully held in the Philippines, rather than just a simple, straightforward festival. Maybe the whole idea was to have enough data to convince Japanese Idol Groups to come and join in next time.
While I personally believe that the girls themselves do deserve this kind of event, I feel that there is more to this event than I was originally let on. I have previously hoped to cover the event with the understanding that MNL48 will eventually sign up, and that we would be granted media passes but unfortunately, neither worked out. With my attendance in question, I was looking for something or someone that I can at least feature in connection to this event.
I need not look far: CH4U is one of the independently produced idol groups that were created in the wake of MNL48‘s very divisive audition. While a number of these indie idols applied but failed to get far into the MNL48 audition process, CH4U has the benefit of having their leader be a part of the original Top 75: Uriko Bernas.
I love this girl because she’s like your positive little sister. I have watched and covered the audition process as closely as I could, and I’ve never seen this girl cry in public, not even when she was eliminated (she assured me that she actually did cry) and she even managed to joke around during her final appearance on the MNL48 Online Update the same day.
Many former applicants have spewed vitriol on HHE and MNL48 after their elimination, but Uriko was different, or maybe she just didn’t see the point. She was very happy that she was able to go to MNL48’s First Fan Meet, where several of the members recognized her. Uriko is a certified idol fan, and just like other certified idol fans, she dreamt of becoming one someday. It is this simple reason – as cliché as it sounds – that made her try out for MNL48 and which had motivated her to continue that dream in CH4U.
As the member with the most “experience”, Uriko is the leader of the group. Despite being really new in the scene, she is excited that her group was given the opportunity to perform to their own songs on a big stage. Possibly the biggest stage any of the participating groups could ever hope to be in. Being a veteran of the MNL48 Top 75, she knows all too well that the road is still long and they’re going to go through a lot to get to where they want to be. In typical “Uriko” fashion, she’s looking forward to learning from the experience even if they fail.
“Syempre bilang leader ng group napakasaya kasi nandito na yung success kahit malayo pa at madami pa kami pagdadaanan syempre masaya parin kasi bawat pangyayari ay mapupulutan namin ng aral.” (As the leader of the group, I am very happy because success feels so near, even though it’s actually still far away and we’re still going to go through a lot. But it’s still fun because we can learn new things from whatever may happen).
CH4U’s road to the Manila Idol Matsuri began – quite ironically – during MNL48’s first fan meet. She was approached by a representative and asked if CH4U can come and perform in a major stage. The group had never performed before, and this was a huge opportunity for the girls, and for Uriko in particular, an immense responsibility.
Idol groups – whether indie or professional – are not (and should not be) run like after-school clubs. MNL48 is being run by AKS’ partners HHE, and Aidoru Sozai has people helping them out who they say, are volunteers as opposed to being actual management and staff. But that is precisely what CH4U is: school girls gathering every free time to practice. What hope do they have of matching against groups who have been going at it for years?
CH4U officially started last March 2018, but Uriko says that as early as February, there were already plans for her to continue her idol dreams in her own way. The group is composed of six members: Uriko, Crystal, Eljay, Sunchan, Aya and Kimhui. As their unique point, they also have two virtual MCs named Holly and Cryptic.
Uniqueness seem to be the driving force of the group, and Uriko claims that this individuality helps the members to shine. And that their uniqueness is complimented by their being united in their dream of becoming idols. “We will spread our wings as we spread our love for you“, their tag-line goes.
The First Practice
Their first practice for the Idol Matsuri happened on July 5, 2018 in Pasig Park. The reason for the choice in the venue is because the place is free. During weekends, the group practices in the house of one of the members, Eru. There is a sound system there, and the girls can easily practice holding microphones. When practice began, classes have not yet started, so the group can practice in Pasig Park during weekdays while weekends will be at Eru’s.
Now that classes havve started, the group can only practice during Sundays in Pasig Park. The early practices focused on the steps, followed by the formation. Practices go from 1PM and ends at 5PM because the girls need to go home due to them having classes the next day. Uriko relates that the bus ride took three hours so it really took a toll on her body. Upon getting home, she would still have homework to do, meaning she’s going to sleep late.
What these first practices tell us is that for groups without decent backers, stuff like rehearsals, the logistics, even the dance steps, would have to be shouldered by the girls themselves. I can only imagine how intense their dream must be for them to sacrifice their precious rest days for a few hours of practice, all for appearing their stage and be called “idols”.
In the almost two years that I have been following the MNL48 project, I’ve seen a lot of young girls who felt that they were entitled to a place in the group for various reasons such as being a “true” fan, or knowing about the system, or maybe because they did covers and think they did them well.
I’ve felt that the sense of entitlement in some of them is just too strong and often a bit out of place, but following Uriko – one of the few active idols in the current local scene to actually came close to becoming an MNL48 member – gave me a new angle on the whole issue, and adds context to the angst of others.
The whole hassle of having to give up your free time for preparations, figuring out the steps and the songs, braving the Metro Manila traffic that further adds stress to an already tired and battered body, trying to please a very vocal fandom, and performing – mostly for free – in cons with the hope that someone might notice and give you your big break. That might be the reason why some girls felt they deserve to be an idol. That they have logged in the time and effort for their dreams, more so than any other “normie” who they think, just wanted to get into showbiz. More importantly, they felt that that they are born to be idols like some version of pre-destination, just because they literally live and breathe Japanese pop-culture.
But I really believe that idols are not born: they are made. An individual may have all the idol-potential in the world but all of that is nothing without being formed into one. Idols are forged through training, through practice, and through dedication and focus. You can market yourself as “idols”, or you can be one. And that’s the challenge that Uriko and the rest of CH4U currently faces: how to “make” themselves into idols. Because after all the promo, the hype, and the back-room deals, each and every idol participating in the Idol Matsuri will be judged based on their performance.
This is not lost on Uriko and the rest of the group, but still, they make the long travel every weekend, focused on their goal of becoming idols. With everything they are going through, all the physical and emotional fatigue, and the realization that the group is handicapped in both funding, representation, and even a place to practice in. I wonder: is the dream really that worth it?
Uriko certainly believes so. They have gone through much, gone too far down the road, to just stop. Her passion for her dream amazes me, because despite her young age, she knows and understands how much an uphill climb it will be, and she’s still willing to go up there anyway.
But the amazing thing is, all of this almost did not happen. In one particular weekend last February, the dream almost ended, and the cheerful self-proclaimed “chicken idol” felt like she had lost it all.
To be continued…
* All pictures are taken from the CH4U Facebook Page and credits to Ranniel Cruz Lagasca for the event photos.