Nogizaka46 Members Talk New Single, 2018 Highlights, Overseas Fans: Interview

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Courtesy of Billboard Japan
Mai Shinuchi, Sayuri Inoue and Kana Nakada of Nogizaka46.

The incredible popularity of J-pop girl group Nogizaka46 was proven once again as its 22nd single, "Kaerimichi Ha Toomawari Shitakunaru," sold over a million copies in its first week and hit No. 1 on the latest Billboard Japan Hot 100 dated Nov. 26.

The song's title means "Feel like taking the long way home" in English. It's the last song featuring Nanase Nishino in the center position, as she will be graduating from the group at the end of this year. Nishino has been one of the most popular and well-known members of the group since its inception, but her last song doesn't dwell on sentimentalities. It sends a positive message of encouragement to those embarking on a new chapter in life, a celebration of new beginnings.

Nogizaka46 celebrated its sixth anniversary since its debut in February, following two sold-out solo-headlining concerts at the 50,000-capacity Tokyo Dome last November. The fluidity of its lineup is one of the defining traits of the group, as members have departed for various reasons over the years while new faces have joined: Third-generation members were added in September 2016, and auditions for the fourth wrapped up this summer.

How do the members of this supergroup, which has blossomed into one of the best-selling and most-in-demand live acts in Japan while experiencing shifts in its lineup, feel about their musical journey so far? Billboard Japan spoke with two original members, Sayuri Inoue and Kana Nakada, and second-gen member Mai Shinuchi about their views towards their fellow member's "graduation single," the group's upcoming Shanghai concert, and asked them to share some memorable moments from 2018.

Tell us about your first impression of "Kaerimichi Ha Toomawari Shitakunaru."

Mai Shinuchi: Graduation singles tend to be kind of sad, but I thought this song was positive and buoyant. I also think our graduation singles have moving intros, like "Harujion Ga Saku Koro" and "Sayonara No Imi," and our latest one does, too.

The music video has a storyline. Nanase Nishino makes various choices in her life, and we see the various alternate timelines based on her decisions. How did you feel about this video?

Shinuchi: The song was a fresh reminder that life changes greatly based on your decisions. A while ago, I received an e-mail during a radio program that I'm on from a girl who had failed the second round of auditions for Nogizaka46's second-generation members. She was my age. If my choices during my own audition had been different, I might have been like her and now be living a completely different life without having become a member of the group. So I really want to value meeting people. Life is full of hellos and good-byes.

Do you ever look back on your past choices as a member of Nogizaka46?

Kana Nakada: Every day, I wonder, "What would have happened if I'd done things differently?" For TV and radio appearances, of course, but also in everyday conversations. I ask myself, "Would people have laughed more if I'd replied differently? Would the mood have improved?" and regret my choices each time. Maybe I have a negative personality. [Laughs]

The main vocalists for Nogizaka46's singles change each time. The group's production team makes the selection based on the fruits of each member's training and reactions from fans. Those who aren't selected are collectively called "under members" and are assigned to the B-side tracks on the single. But these members also get their fair share of the spotlight while performing in under member tours around the country that are far from small in scale. The current under members will be performing at a 10,000-capacity venue for two days in December.

You're one of the featured vocalists on the B-side track "Nichijo." It's the most aggressive pop-rock number in the release.

Nakada: We under members have performed many types of songs, but this one especially encapsulates our characteristic. By this, I mean we have many opportunities to perform live and have many cool dance numbers, and "Nichijo" is like the apex of those songs. We've toured all over Japan many times, and the upcoming Tokyo concerts will also be the culmination of those performances, so I think it's the perfect song to release at this timing.

What should fans look out for in the music video?

Nakada: The dance scenes are really dynamic, and the other scenes depict a mysterious world. I'd like everyone to see it many times and interpret it in different ways.

Nogizaka46 will perform at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai Dec. 1 and at the Taipei Arena Jan. 27. The Shanghai concert will be the girl group's first solo-headlining show abroad, though the members have previously performed outside of Japan several times before.

Is there anything you learned from your past performances abroad that you plan to apply to your upcoming concerts overseas?

Sayuri Inoue: Our overseas audiences don't understand Japanese, so we have to use our facial expressions and dance to present our work and communicate. So we try to connect with fans in the far end of the venue first. It's easier for fans in front to get into the swing of the experience because they're closer to us, but the ones in the back tend to be left behind.

Our domestic dome tour this year had many instances where monitors were incorporated into the staging, but our performances abroad weren't so huge in scale and the venues were smaller, so we made sure our performance reached the audience in the back without depending on monitors.

Nakada: When I appeared on a live-streaming program that reached Chinese audiences as well as Japanese ones, one Chinese fan commented that they would call out our fan chants in Japanese. Initially, we thought that local fans could enjoy the show more if we translated the chants into Chinese and encouraged them to use it, but we learned that they enjoy chanting in Japanese. So our songs that are easier to call out to tend to be received with more enthusiasm overseas. 

Could you share some of your highlights from 2018?

Inoue: I stayed in Sydney, Australia, for a week to shoot a TV program related to the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic games and covered the IWRF Wheelchair Rugby World Championship. People in Japan are getting excited over the Tokyo Olympics taking place in two years, but I'd like everyone to know more about the Paralympics. The sports don't get a lot of visibility, so athletes are paying their own way to compete in games abroad.

There was one player who's still in high school, and after considering various factors like school and finances, he went to the championship without participating in training camp beforehand. If people knew more about wheelchair rugby, that would lead to a better environment for the players, and I'm positive team Japan could win the gold medal if such improvements are made.

Nakada: My highlight was the under-member concert we did in Hokkaido in October. I performed in center position for the first time in a while and was also assigned as leader of the production. I was cast in the Sailor Moon musical around the same time, so I couldn't participate very much in the tour rehearsals, but the other members and our team gave me so much support. It was hard, but it's something I look back fondly on. There were many instances where I really appreciated the people around me.

Shinuchi: I was individually cast in a theater production for the first time. When a production stars a Nogizaka46 member, or if a few of us are cast simultaneously, we can help each other out and grow together. Performing in a production by myself without any other members made me face my inadequacies, and I was forced to do a lot of soul-searching. But I discovered some new joys of acting in theater, and the realization that there are many things I need to work on was also really inspiring in many ways. This year, I learned a lot of things that I couldn't have picked up just within a girl-group setting.