The Conversation: Dempagumi.Inc

A discussion between friends on the influential Japanese idol group and their success throughout the decade

While Dempagumi.inc rank among the top of the idol-group food chain at the end of the 2010s, they continue to embody the scene’s subculture origins. The idols collectively represent Akihabara, the otaku-haven area of Tokyo, where they got their start as a resident act of the club Dear Stage. The place has informed their creative identity since they made their major-label debut in 2010, with the group incorporating electronic denpa sounds, busy visuals and nerdy sensibilities into every release.

During their rise in the decade’s idol-scene boom, Dempagumi.inc established a more alternative lane by offering a slightly different take on the traditional idol. Their everything-at-once arrangements applied a heightened chaotic energy to familiar sounds of bright keys and arcade-game synths, and the idols threw themselves into the jumbled mess with sheer excitement. More than their expansive toolkit of sounds, this enthusiastic clumsiness defines Dempagumi’s music to this day.

While countless acts have come and gone, Dempagumi.inc remain an example of longevity. Outside of the main group, each of the current six members — Mirin Furukawa, Risa Aikawa, Eimi Naruse, Ayane Fujisaki, Rin Kaname and Nagi Nemoto — carry her own solo pursuits like music units and their own fashion lines. Their success at both an individual and group level set the example of idol as not just a gig but a legit career, and it’s an attitude, let alone a prospect that was not prevalent for an idol a decade ago. They may not be the only ones who’ve survived this long, but only a few have kept such a strong visibility in the scene at the end of 2010s.

Ryo and Bacci take an in-depth look at what made Dempagumi.inc such a fascinating idol group to follow throughout the years. We discussed the evolution of their music, what made their music so important to our lives, and the details surrounding their music to better understand one of our favorite acts working.

Ryo writes about Japanese music for their newsletter, This Side of Japan. They also occasionally blurb at The Singles Jukebox. Here’s their Twitter and their list of 100 favorite idol songs of 2019.

Bacci is a hobby writer mainly focused on music reviews and analyzing visual narratives. Besides their personal blog, they’ve recently published a fanzine about the Boku no Natsuyasumi game series. They also shared much less streamlined thoughts on Twitter.

Ryo: It feels like Dempagumi.inc always has been there. I initially saw them as the poster child of idol, the obvious first steps for a newcomer, so naturally, I put them on hold while I explored the less-conventional stuff. But it actually took some time for me to properly appreciate their music because there was just so much going on — it was personally more difficult to find some footing with their work than those, for lack of a better word, “less-conventional” groups. How was your first time with Dempagumi.inc? How did you get introduced to them?

Bacci: It really feels like they’ve always been around, hasn’t it? It’s probably because of how they’ve managed to stay around despite the shift in trends and the rise (and eventual over-saturation) in the scene. As for how I got into them, my first experience with the group was looking up the original after listening to the BiS cover ofDen Den Passion” (which felt like they were at least poking fun at how idol songs traditionally sound). At the time, my experience with idol was limited to BiS, Perfume (if you count them), and some Momoiro Clover songs, so watching the original video and listening to the song left me thinking there was a lot to process. Except, it took me less than two weeks before I was immensely attached to the music, the members, and their group and individual aesthetics. What about you? What was the thing that finally pushed into getting into the group?

Ryo: I relied on songs that lie outside of their signature sound to ease myself in, like “Ashita Chikyuu Ga Kona Gona Ni Nattemo.” The mellow pop-rock of that latter-day single strays away a lot from the electronic beats and the busy rhythms that define their early iconic singles. Another key track was “Oyasumi Polaris Sayonara Parallel World.” The jagged jazz-rock channeled a similar hyperactive energy as, say, “Chururi Chururira” but through a pop style out of their bag. Once I got acquainted with that restless pace of rhythm, though, I was hooked: they just glow with gleeful enthusiasm, and that blitzing intensity in which they go about it feels almost punk.

Dempagumi have been expanding their stylistic borders more and more through the latter half of this decade, first in 2016’s GOGO Dempa and especially with last year’s Wareware Wa Dempagumi.inc Da. They still return to the familiar, like “Girametasu Dempa Stars,” but I sense more of an effort to introduce different sounds, styles and textures to the world of Dempagumi. How have these efforts fared for you? How do you think it compares to the earlier releases?

Bacci: Oh, I get what you mean. One of the reasons I’m so attached to the group is because of this lively, almost clumsy energy they seem to put into everything they do. It feels like you’re on a car ride with a group of people who, while always talking at the same time, want you to make the most of every single stop along the way.

Bacci: On the musical expansion, I think the effort is definitely there! It’s actually the reason why GOGO Dempa is my favorite album by them. I’m, however, a bit conflicted about it, even if it’s a clear sign of growth and access to resources idol groups have to work really hard to achieve (like their backup Dem Dem Big Band). I like Dempagumi.inc the most when they’re blasting synths from every possible direction, and that’s something I think they’ve come to slightly compromise now that they release songs meant to be toured along with a live band. On the other hand, the musical expansion has contributed to the growth of what I like to call the Dempagumi.inc universe. Thanks to it, we’ve even gotten tracks like “Munasawagi no Himitsu?!” which sees the girls display a level of lovestruck daintiness rare in them, all while never compromising the energy and enjoyment they seem to put into everything they do as a group.

I know you’ve followed Nemu Yumemi’s (and later Mirin and SKE48’s Nao Furuhata’s) snack/drinking show, but how about the rest of the group’s creative activities? Is there something among those you particularly enjoy? And, is there something you’d like to see them incorporate into their group dynamics? (I for one, have always dreamed of seeing them do little skits in their songs or even a Takarazuka-style song!)

Ryo: I’m not so deeply clued into each member’s extracurricular activities, but I do love how they have other musical pursuits outside of Dempagumi, like Risa Aizawa’s Lavilith unit and Eitaso’s (Eimi Naruse) involvement with the Precure series. It’s a good opportunity to see them stretch their identity as an idol beyond Dempagumi, and those different ways to perform idol is something I’d like to see feed into the main group in some way — maybe their cover of “Moonlight Densetsu” was a step into this direction?

Ryo: Leaving Dempagumi open to outside ideas might also be a healthy thing. They had already established a very set vision in World Wide Dempa, creating an entire universe within the album based on the subcultures that revolved around them. But the record also had the potential to close the idols off in a world of their own from those not too familiar with their references. I think they really pushed the limits with WWDD as they indulged in Akihabara, otaku and idol culture in an almost meta way: one unforgettable moment is the extended skit where a salaryman discovers Dear Stage, the group’s main venue of operation, and idols as an escape from reality. What are your thoughts on those earlier albums?

Bacci: I totally get the idea of their individual activities also being a way to prevent their world from closing off; it’s as if they’re bringing back stuff learned on their own. As for World Wide Dempa and WWDD, I think they fully embody the clumsy idealism and the colorful aesthetic the group is known for. I once half-jokingly said I was a different person before and after listening to the former, but I might actually mean it now: not only did it fully spark my interest in idols but it also became my golden standard for the scene. Everything from the songs to the track order and solo line distribution just clicks, making it both an incredibly solid album and an amazing introduction to the group. WWDD, on the other hand, is a more polished — even if slightly less energetic — continuation of the idea they found on the previous record. I think the two albums make part of a great listen because you can listen to an evolution of ideas, even if WWDD had less to prove than its predecessor.

When people talk about Dempagumi.inc, WORLD WIDE DEMPA is often treated as their first album, despite Ne Kiite? Uchu wo Sukuu no wa, Kitto Osushi… Dewanaku, Denpa-Gumi Inc.! being their actual full-lengh debut. Have you listened to it? Do you think you could place it within the Dempagumi.inc lore with cannon much ease as it happens to their following albums?

Ryo: Ah, yes, thanks for reminding me. It’s a bummer Ne Kiite? is not as accessible — it’s not listed on streaming services — because it’s a strong introduction to the group’s Akihabara-idol identity that they would then build an entire world around in World Wide Dempa and WWDD. I would even say it also represents the golden standard of traditional idol as you sort of alluded to. The production is still more niche than what I hear from other groups, but the lyrical themes about “look at me and only me” are essentially what all idol songs are made of. Can you think of any other Japanese acts, idols or otherwise, who sounded like Dempagumi around the time they started out? Who were their early peers?

Bacci: I think Dempagumi’s earliest and closest idol peer is probably Band Ja Naimon! Their music is not only similar, but they also seem to operate under the same idea of giving the members space to start and explore their own projects. The original iteration of BiS also stood as a more aggressive flip side to the group, with both of them holding a playful rivalry that was unfortunately not fully explored. While I think they’re more their predecessors than their peers, Shoko Nakagawa and Haruko Momoi kinda fill that “adult woman whose music career ties up with her nerdy hobbies” in a way that relates to what the group eventually became; Dempagumi’s collab with the former feels like an unexpected but somehow necessary step in their career. You ask about early peers, but what about the future? Who in the current, active scene you think is playing the game in a way that actively follows Dempagumi’s steps?

Ryo: It’s a little complicated. Of course there are Dear Stage associates Niji No Conquistador, but they’re more linked by proximity than actual music or concept. The algorithms might throw you groups like Wa-Suta or the now-defunct Moso Calibration, but their music and vocal interplay are a bit more conservative. I don’t think there’s an idol group out there who exactly captures that clumsiness that you mentioned before. When it comes to a more careerist attitude towards idol, maybe you can see that in people like CY8ER’s Rinahamu or Yufu Terashima. Billie Idle’s First Summer Uika also has been on record saying she was inspired by Nemu’s approach to the entertainment business.

Maybe that everything-at-once approach is becoming a dated style for idol-pop, especially now that any music genre is fair game. There’s something still old-school about Dempagumi, and maybe it’s from their Akihabara roots. Otakus, too, have grown into diverse types with different tastes, and the nerdy, socially recluse group that Dempagumi catered to in their early albums seem more niche than ever at the end of the decade. As much as they experiment in styles, they still retain some of bits of that nerdy sensibility if not in the electronics than their vocal delivery and that antsy approach to rhythm.

But what impresses me is how they continue to explore lyrical themes that are still resonant to the introverted audience they initially attracted, like they never stopped speaking to them despite how far they’ve come. I’ll speak for myself here, but I project themes of depression and self-isolation onto the lyrics of “Oyasumi Polaris” and “Ashita Chikyuu Ga,” both written by Inio Asano. The apocalypse of the latter lends itself to speak on panic and a crushing mental darkness, and this concept of trying to reconnect with Earth in the former reminds me of being socially detached enough to lose your grasp of what you once knew. The way they brave out and confront their fear despite it all is just inspiring. Are there any lyrical themes or specific moments of Dempagumi’s music that get you?

Bacci: You cover it perfectly when you say their lyrics show them braving out and confronting their fears. As for my favorite theme in Dempagumi’s music, it has to be earning your own happy end, and learning to treasure it even if you know it won’t last forever. Songs like “Brand New World,” “Irodori Sekai,” “Yume Sasu Asu E,” and even the WWD series all play up to the narrative of getting yourself back up after reaching your lowest, even if you stumble a lot along the way, which is something I feel more socially withdrawn listeners (common within otaku communities) can easily relate to.

In addition to that, there’s this “lack of self-togetherness” (for lack of a better term) that really cements the group as a bunch of lovable dorks, present not only in their summer songs, where they brag about never leaving their houses, but also in songs like “Ashita Chikyuu.” The verse about embracing one’s contradictions and insecurities and taking them to the performance that will precede the figurative end of the world has always struck a nerve within me. This idea seems, at least in my opinion, like a clever little way for the group to send a message of learning to love yourself (and your own shortcomings) even in the face of adversity.

We’ve managed to go over a pretty wide aspect of what makes up Dempagumi.inc such a unique group, from their sound, going through their identities, to their lyrics. But what about their visuals? Colorful aesthetics are not exclusive to Dempagumi, but is there something about their visuals (be it on their music videos, styling, cover art, etc) that you find particularly connected to their musical identity?

Ryo: Right now, I’m really into the styling in “Bon De Festa” based on the Japanese folk tale of Urashima Taro. References to Japanese culture has played central to Dempagumi’s videos from the beginning. After all, they are representing Akihabara, one of the country’s biggest producers of cultural export. But their electronic-heavy music doesn’t necessarily evoke the past, so it’s nice to see them incorporate folk art without making it feel too quaint. It’s a pop juxtaposition reminiscent of Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s Harajuku-ification of historical fixtures like ninjas and yokai.

Frankly, this interpretation of cultural pride took a lot of work for me to appreciate. The first-ever contact I had with Dempagumi was through “Chururi Chururira” and its music video that heavily references sengoku-era Japan. The theme is appropriate given the lyrics at hand. But coming at it with almost no context — of Dempagumi and J-pop as a whole at the time — it felt uncomfortable watching something that fed into an outsider’s stereotypical image of my home country. It didn’t help the chorus had them shouting “we are Japanese!” to the sound of nerdy electronics and shamisen riffs that upped the Japanese-ness.

I’ve come to terms with it now, and I’m now fascinated by Dempagumi’s postmodern approach to define and expand their creative identity. Dempagumi has a lot more to offer when it comes to videos, too, some even not tied to specific imagery or themes such as “Keijijogakuteki, Mahou.” What else am I missing here? Are there any live-show elements or costuming that’s worth considering as well?

Bacci: As someone who enjoys the variation that comes with live performances, Dempagumi definitely has things to offer on that front. Not only have the girls clearly spent lots of time training their vocal and dance skills for their demanding performances, but there’s also been a really noticeable improvement in the way the group has included the live Dem Dem Band to their performances (even if I’m still partial to their performances with backing tracks). More recent years have also seen them up the ante in terms of visuals and slightly conceptual shows (the Yoyogi Park show where they told a simple story about recovering the world’s stolen colors, and the spaceship visuals of their year-long Cosmo Tour come to mind). A final tidbit I consider interesting about their live shows is their occasional collaborations, which are unfortunately only witnessed by attending audiences, I’d honestly love it so much if those stage collaborations led to some sort of release!

This is kind of a silly question, but one that I feel is required, now that we’ve spent so much time essentially gushing about idols, but could you pick a Dempagumi member as an oshi? Which member’s individual qualities are you drawn to the most?

Ryo: Out of the current members, if I had to pick, I respect Mirin the most. We already talked about the group representing this idea of idol as a career, and she couldn’t be a better example. I mean, the girl just got married, and she’s still 100% committed to hold it down as an idol until she basically drops dead. And the bravery to risk her relationship with her fans: despite how far the scene has come this decade, it still maintains a culture where dating is still considered a taboo to not disrupt this intimate fantasy connection with individual fans. It’s a gesture I hope to inspire some change in the future.

Bacci: Honestly, it’s kinda funny to me how everyone (especially other idols!) seem to be so drawn towards Mirin! I think she’s the one who embodies Dempagumi.inc’s heartfelt earnestness the most, and it’s just so easy to see her charm both in and out the stage, which is probably why it was so easy for pretty much everyone to just jump aboard and support her when she revealed her relationship. It’s so easy for me to talk about her, that it’s even gotten to the point where people think she’s my oshi, but I’m actually a bigger fan of Risa Aizawa and her elegant nerd antics, which means seeing her branch out and do stuff like fashion design, or even LAVILITH or her Aikatsu! songs (both projects that allow her to showcase an entirely different performance from her usual one with the group), has been an absolute treat to me.

Looking into it, and taking this chance to wrap things up, I think the way each girl brings something so clear and characteristic to the group is probably what made it so easy for me to so get attached to the group. Dempagumi.inc might be a bit too hard to get into upon first listen, even if I absolutely love everything about them by now, but the way the group feels almost character-driven feels so real — especially now that members and former members are even sharing their wedding announcements with fans — that I just want to keep supporting them til the very last possible moment. On top of that, seeing them overcome the hard step that was losing two “core” members and move forward with more creative releases and promotion ideas proved to me that, now more than ever, their dream is far from over.

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