The Power of the Ace in Idol Groups
In the saturated industry of female idol groups in Japan, there is already enough stiff competition. But even within the groups themselves, you might find a fierce sense of rivalry; the role of the ace is not given to every member. The more members an outfit has, the more difficult it is to stand out. Take the 48 groups for example—with so many girls, how do you manage to give them equal attention? It’s unlikely, so only a select few will be bestowed the center position or even appear in a single.
The ace is a vital component in many popular idol groups, given the front seat in promotional videos and photo shoots as a representative of the group. While other members may get a line or two in a song, or a few seconds of screen time time in a music video, the ace is given more prominent lines and screen time. Why do some members become the ace and the others do not? It is a matter of ‘ace quality’ and aura that is felt by both the management and the fans. It could be either side that determines which member of the group will become the face of the group. Some idols are chosen from the beginning, picked out to become a central figure of the group.
When Riho Sayashi joined Morning Musume in 2011, she was quickly singled out among her fellow generation members. Despite only being 13 years old, she joined the ranks of her great seniors Ai Takahashi and Reina Tanaka and featured heavily as a main vocalist in Morning Musume’s singles. For the next four years until her graduation in 2015, she served as the group’s ace and was consistently at the front. She also produced five solo photo books, even though others members did not have any of their own.
However, being the ace is not always the easiest job. With so much focus on one member, there is a pressure for the idol to constantly keep up not only her own image but the whole group’s. She is constantly at the front with everyone looking at her, and the members also look to her as a kind of leader. It is a quest for excellence that she is given to fulfil. For a young girl, this can be a heavy responsibility as she is thrust into the center of the media with expectations to meet.
Aces are also often subject to the criticism of fans, especially those who favor the less prominent members. Former AKB48 member Atsuko Maeda, despite being one of the most famous members of all time, was well aware of the resentment she received in response to her rank. At the 3rd AKB48 General Election in 2011, she famously pleaded with fans not to hate AKB48, even if they hated her. The center position is a double-edged sword, both a blessing and a burden at the same time.
Similarly when Airi Suzuki, longtime ace of former group C-ute, became the sole member to receive all the solo lines in their 11th major single “SHOCK!”, she bore the brunt of the pressure and complaints from fans who were not happy with the unbalanced distribution of attention. Airi’s center position has largely gone uncontested for most of the group’s history, but there have been exceptions to this standing over the years.
While every member is important to an idol group, there is no denying that the ace contributes significantly to their reputation. The audience sees the ace of the group as a representative, and it takes a certain quality to demand that special kind of presence. When the ace begins to rake in attention, so would the group. Sayumi Michishige, highly regarded as one of the most popular members in Morning Musume., was credited for reviving the group’s popularity when she took over as the leader in 2012. When she graduated, she left behind a decade-long legacy and an immense pressure on her juniors to keep up the group’s name.
Sometimes the role of ace comes unexpectedly in the underdog’s favor. Before she became an Internet sensation Kanna Hashimoto was simply a member of the local idol group Rev.from DVL (which disbanded in 2017), performing at modest events in her hometown of Fukuoka. After she became the “Once in a Thousand Years Idol”, however, her popularity swelled to massive proportions—although she did bring attention to Rev.from DVL, she ultimately surpassed them, rarely performing with the group as commercials, photo shoots, and films took up her time.
Of course, the ace position is not necessary in every idol group. While it sometimes becomes inevitable in a large group, that’s not usually the case in smaller units. Take Momoiro Clover Z for example—it is hard to identify a particular member as the clear center. Each of the five members hold their own presence and have incredibly big individual personalities, not to mention the solo careers that have made them even more popular.
Every idol group is different, but once you peer into the workings of the group dynamic you might start to see the patterns. Every group and every member need to work hard to raise their reputation, and once in a while there will be one that rises up as the ace.
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