With the new year comes new Shounen Club (ザ少年倶楽部) episodes! What sort of energy will the Johnny’s idol-hopefuls bring to 2014? Where will the young entertainers take their dedicated viewers?

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Well, apparently “to Earth” as the title of the opening song – “Let’s Go to Earth” – says. Jesse-kun kicks off the show in . . . apparently that’s supposed to be English, but I think my estimation of Jesse’s English language abilities has just taken a fatal blow because I had a better chance of understanding what he was saying by trying to read the Japanese subtitles on the screen. So, until he proves otherwise, Jesse-kun can’t speak English (not that there’s a problem with that).

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I still don’t like the song, but in strictly audio terms, it’s probably the best performance of it I’ve heard. The vocals were better blended and less forced.

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The dance, though, still seems to be very generic and lacks the identifying features that make choreography distinctive.

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It’s always nice to see a collaboration between the two main groups on the show – A.B.C-Z and Sexy Zone – and the juniors, though.

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Representing Hey! Say! Jump as best they can, Nakajima Yuto-kun and Yabu Kota-kun continue as hosts of the show. They lead a quick discussion of this episode’s theme – Chikyuu (Earth) – and Yabu-kun prompts Marius-kun for what Earth is in German (and since “Earth” is a already Germanic word, it’s unsurprisingly rather similar). I like how Marius-kun gets the audience to repeat “Erde”.

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Now, since when did Kento-kun start picking up French? He translates “Earth” into the French “Terre”, but since English borrows a lot from French (terre is the root for terrain, for instance), it seemed to me that that’s earth as in soil rather than Earth as in the planet. However, the internet says that Kento-kun is correct and I was wrong. Still, he somehow manages to pronounce it “telle”. That’s not totally wrong, either, by the way – France is a Latin-based language and the name for the Earth goddess in Latin is Tellus.

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We got a Chikyuu medley from the juniors next. The first song featured Iwahashi Genki-kun leading juniors Hayashi Ippei, Matsukura Kaito, Matsuda Genta, and Takahashi Fuu in Tegomasu’s “Marui chikara”. I don’t remember seeing Genki-kun as the solo center like this, so this might be a step up for him (correct me if I’m wrong – at least in terms of SC performances).

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Also, the Matsukura-Genta pair seems quite irrepressible in the background there. We’ll see more of them later, but they might be our energy leaders in 2014.

Unlike Genki-kun, Jinguji Yuta-kun has definitely had the center stage to himself before. This time, he was singing SMAP’s “Sekai ni Hitotsu Dake no Hana”, which mostly left him standing still. There was no way this song was going to be a great showcase for him.

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And that’s doubly true because he was followed by Miyachika Kaito-kun performing an extremely energetic rendition of V6’s “Music for the People”. It was impossible to get a shot where Miyachika-kun wasn’t totally blurred except on the long shots.

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The fourth member of the Fab Four – Kishi Yuta-kun – had another upbeat number to showcase his own abilities – NEWS’ “Dancing in the Secret”. He was backed by Nakamura Reia, Kakuta Yuusei, and Takahashi Kaito (another Kaito!).

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Frankly, though, the highlight is Kishi-kun’s idiosyncratic dancing style, in which he packs maximum force into even the slightest move.

In the end, the rest of the Fab Four joined him and then they all performed V6’s “Beat Your Heart”.

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I think this was an excellent showcase of their abilities and something fresh for the new year. I can only hope this means the agency is leaning toward making these four a thing and giving them a proper name (and when I say proper, I mean something other than S.B.).

SZ got to chat with the two hosts about the theme next. I didn’t understand much of it. Sou-kun said something about animals, I think Shori-kun talked about the formation of a new island due to volcanism . . .

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. . . Fuma-kun stalled for time and whatever he said had Shori-kun trying to push him off the bench, and then Kento-kun talked about the song they were going to do.

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When I say “they”, I apparently mean only the elder three SZ members, because they just left Marius-kun and Sou-kun on the bench.

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Now, maybe Marius-kun and Sou-kun, being still in grade school and not attending the flexible Horikoshi High School that Shori-kun does, didn’t have time to get the dance for “Congratulations” down. But then, how did the juniors have the time?

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Actually, it sounds like the song wasn’t written with the voices of the younger two in mind – it was only written for Kento-kun, Fuma-kun, and Shori-kun. That said, it was a solid song and could be released as a single. The group’s next release is an album, though so . . . is this song going to be on there? If so, I think that’s a big plus for the album.

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That said, this also has spring release written all over it. They started off with those sakura cloaks, for one, but it also has keywords in it relating to the graduation season – not the least of which is “congratulations” itself. So, it could work as a single for the graduation time frame, too.

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After that, we went to the Ki ni Naru KJ segment where Kawai-kun and Goseki-kun introduced Kaneuchi Toma-kun to the world.

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As always, it’s glaring when either a father or mother is missing from the listed family members, and in Kaneuchi-kun’s case, his father doesn’t seem to be in the picture.

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Otherwise, the fact that he likes gyoza and dislikes tomatoes is hardly new. I like his specialty, though – interpreting Hirano Sho-kun. I was sort of disappointed they didn’t offer a demonstration of that.

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The Kansai performance was “Next Stage” with all the usual suspects – the former B.A.D. and 7WEST along with Hamada-kun, Kin Kan, and Naniwa Oji.

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It’s a great song, but perhaps there were too many performers this time. Naniwa Oji and Kin Kan seemed buried in the back anyway, so I think this could have been better with just the elder Kansai juniors.

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Back at NHK Hall, Noon Boyz prepared their segment (and picked up on the omotenashi craze after Christel Takigawa used the term as Tokyo’s Olympic bid ambassador) . . .

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. . . for Uchi Hiroki-kun. I don’t really like Uchi-kun. I’ll give him credit when he deserves it, but in a talent agency that is largely meritocratic (if you count charisma as a merit alongside singing, dancing, and acting), he seems to fly in the face of that.

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Oh, and please keep Shori-kun away from him. That moment in the previous SC episode still creeps me out, and when Uchi-kun brings up Shori-kun as the kouhai he’s concerned with and uses “kawaii” too often . . . .

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By the way, to what extent is Shori-kun his kouhai? Seems like a complicated question. I know that Uchi-kun is listed as a solo act on the official website, but I think he was still a junior when SZ debuted (though he previously debuted with NEWS and Kanjani8), so it’s one of those weird situations.

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Uchi-kun sang “Believe my story” with accompaniment from Ishigaki-kun on keyboard and Goto-kun on violin. I felt a bit cheated that we didn’t get more of the backing band, but perhaps it was better that their eardrums were spared Uchi-kun’s higher pitches. While he had managed some acceptable performances on recent SC episodes, this was not one of them – this was painful to listen to because there was no sweetness to the notes. The sound was too forced.

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We got robbed – instead of doing Ki ni Naru J, A.B.C-Z decided to give us Ki ni Naru Chikyuu-kun. Now, that’s cute and all, but this is not a geography show and there are tons of juniors who need time in the limelight.

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Oh well, they insist on telling us about the Earth, anyway. For those who don’t know, it’s about 4.6 billion years old (as the guys say, a real dai-senpai), has a mass of . . . actually, Japanese is better equipped for large numbers, and I have to go to scientific notation: 6 x 10^21 tons . . . (at this point Kawai-kun has to temporarily gag Tsukada-kun)

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. . . the waistline (as they put it) of the Earth is 40000 km (that led to the necessary comment about a diet) . . .

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. . . and it’s specialty is the fact that it spins. Rather an underappreciated fact about the Earth, that.

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On that note, A.B.C-Z themselves took the stage while Fuma-kun stood in (singing “Never My Love” briefly – perhaps in response to the way Kawai-kun has recently entered singing “Bye Bye Dubai”).

A.B.C-Z performed what seems to me a new song – “Space Beat”. At least, I haven’t heard it before.

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It’s fine song, but the dance was a bit ragged. The song is so sharp that the moves really have to be, too.

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So, I’d rate that a below-average performance for the group, though it was fine musically.

Kento-kun and Fuma-kun handled the Shokura You Bin segment next . . .

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. . . with help from Nakayama Yuma-kun. Kento-kun made a vampire reference to Yuma-kun’s role in Koishite Akuma, the theme song for which was sung by the three guys on stage plus Kouchi-kun and Hokuto-kun. Kento-kun also started doing a medley of Yuma-kun’s greatest hits before Yuma put an end to that.

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Now, this whole Yuma + BIS reunion would have been complete if they had brought out Kouchi-kun and Hokuto-kun, but instead of that Yuma-kun opted for Kiriyama Akito-kun and Nakama Junta-kun – the soon-to-debut Kansai junior leaders.

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I’m not sure what the topic was about, and this late in the show my limited language abilities were wearing thin.

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So let me pass on that and move on to the next thing – a solo stage from Jesse-kun. We’re getting too many solos, aren’t we?

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Jesse-kun sang KinKi Kids’ “me ~Chikyuu no Iro”. Considering the last solo vocalist we heard was Uchi, this was a huge step up. And while Jesse-kun has plenty of room for improvement, you can hear from him the sweetness that I complained Uchi lacked. And he can dance.

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There’s certainly no question that Jesse-kun deserves a solo every now and again, but it feels like we’ve gotten more solo stage time than we’ve had group stage time in this episode, and that’s strange.

Next up, we got a VTR of Sexy Zone’s Kouhaku experience replete with backstage footage.

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This was a great and entirely justified segment, and I love the moment where the junior practices the costume change on Fuma-kun and Fuma ends up running around in pain – especially since the junior just stands there and grins.

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Sexy Zone got to sit across the table from Arashi, which was probably quite intimidating. Shori-kun does the talking and informs their senpai that there will be around a hundred juniors.

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Altogether, the SZ Kouhaku segment is only about four minutes long, but it’s certainly one of the highlights of the show and possibly the best part.

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Well, possibly. Remember how I said we’d get to see more of Matsukura Kaito-kun and Matsuda Genta-kun – our 2014 energy leaders? Here they are, singing KinKi Kids’ “Swan Song”.

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This was absolutely spectacular. The sharpest dancing we’ve seen in the entire episode coupled with the fact that it’s coming from two juniors who could definitely use more stage time.

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I can’t say anything about their singing since we were hearing more than just the two voices at center stage, but their dancing alone probably made them an instant hit with the fans (at least, those who hadn’t already seen these two at work).

It was then time for Yabu-kun and Yuto-kun to wrap things up . . .

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. . . and then hand it over to Sexy Zone for another new song – “We Gotta Go” – to close out the evening.

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This time we got all five members involved, and a good thing too, since it’s yet another good song for the group. It’s better than at least two of their singles, but is otherwise just a normal concert pep song that might not make the album, much less a single.

A.B.C-Z joined in. And why not, with Kawai-kun already learning some of SZs songs?

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“We Gotta Go” was definitely a strong song to close the show on.

There was an omake segment with Shori-kun playing Tataitte Kabutte Jankenpon (that is, rock-paper-scissors with mallets and hardhats – if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll just have to watch) against Nakama Junta-kun. Will Shori-kun be able to survive Junta-kun’s fierce hammer blow even with the helmet?

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So there was clearly some great stuff in this episode, but also some parts that I wish had been left out. Starting with the bad, I think I’ve already made my point about the Uchi talk and performance. Jesse-kun’s intro to the episode was a miss, though I think I’ll let “Let’s Go to Earth” pass this time – they should have just started right away with it.

There were plenty of highlights, especially since there seemed to be a lot of new material. First of all, the Matsukura-Genta performance was clearly the best effort from the juniors. The Chikyuu medley with the Fab four was excellent – especially for the dancing from Miyachika-kun and Kishi-kun. The SZ Kouhaku VTR was definitely fun to watch – we could probably do with a whole documentary just on that (I know there’s a SZ documentary of some sort on the 17th, but I don’t know what it’s about – seems like a wide range of stuff).

Beyond the highlights, I think both SZ performances – “Congratulations” and “We Gotta Go” were good viewing, as was Jesse-kun’s solo. I can’t quite say the same for the A.B.C-Z or Kansai junior stages, but at least the songs were all right.

This was very close to being a top-notch episode. Aside from Uchi, the only problem was the fact that all but seven Tokyo juniors (the Fab Four, Jesse, Matsukura, and Genta) were either marginalized or not present. That’s . . . pretty remarkable. We didn’t even get a Junior ni Q – that was taken up by the Kouhaku VTR. Oh, and Ki ni Naru J was occupied by the entire planet.

So, taking the downsides into consideration, call it a 9 out of 10. It was a great show thanks to plenty of songs I haven’t heard on SC before and a fair number of pleasant surprises in the highlights.