After school tea time with Beckii Cruel
Date: Wednesday June 8th 2011 [16:35] | Posted By: Priss
As an avid follower of Japanese popular culture and a regular anime viewer, I am more than familiar with the style of dance routines that have become inseparable from so many titles and credits sequences. From classics such as Urusei Yatsura and more recently popularised by Kyoto Animation's iconic series Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu, shows have taken to inserting dances at any available opportunity to arrest a fan following with catchy tunes and infectious dance moves. The indigenous para para dance style steps are synonymous with series such as Super Gals! where character Kotobuki Ran regularly regales audiences through her hyper rhythmic routines.
So what was it like to encounter a real life J-pop dance star? Not only that, an artist hailing from the Isle of Man, an unlikely origin for Akiba idol who through successful fusion cross culturisation has captured the hearts and imaginations of many fans across the Japanese nation.
Taking time out from my tasks at the United Publications sales booth at the London MCM Expo I caught a cappuccino with the homespun starlet, Beckii Cruel, a savvy, stylish 15 year old with her sights set on a bright future following a remarkable rise to fame. Her dance videos, broadcast on video sharing websites YouTube and Niko Niko Dōga began to generate a huge amount of hits when she began posting them from age 14. All eyes were on Beckii as attention escalated – culminating in the production of a DVD, record, photo books and a plethora of public appearances in Japan.
Embarking on an mission of research, pursuing her public profile and work online I has a crash course in the kawaii capers of Beckii Cruel. After watching her, I found that her work had charm that instantly expelled any scepticism I harboured for a so-called star sensationalised by the media as another whacky whim of Japanese fandom. I could instantly appreciate the expressive energy that appeals to so many people through her artful emulation of the para para dance style. Beckii makes it easy to understand how she has achieved idol status despite such unlikely circumstances.
Beckii was petite in person, dressed in a sweet yet smart ensemble evocative of a chic high school gal. She could have been stepping out to shop for the latest trends with friends before taking a break in cute Japanese café. While Expo centre's coffee on the concourse was not quite as idealistic a setting as her impression had made on my imaginings, it was appropriate, nevertheless that we met over refreshments.
Her hair was immaculately styled into delicate waves entwined with her bespoke feather hair extensions. Her nails glistened with a glittered rainbow of pastel polish. Her look exudes the kind of kawaii couture that appears on the glossy covers of Japanese girls' fashion magazines.
I appeared, perhaps appropriately, dressed in a variation of the Hatsune Miku attire, a virtual idol who has become an enduring figure of international otaku culture through music and dance. Over lunch I got to know a little more of the score that has sustained Beckii's own success in her life as an idol.
Priss: It's only been a week since I set about researching to find out more about your work and I found myself pleasantly surprised. I wasn't expecting to be quite as taken with your performances as I was.
Beckii Cruel: Oh, thank you!
P: It was just infectiously cheerful and happy and it made me so smiley and genki! It was surprising to see how authentically you perform para para. You're more or less indistinguishable from a Japanese idol when you're dancing.
BC: You're too kind, thank you.
P: Unlike many Western artists who are inspired by Japanese culture, it's clear that you have a true connection to the country as an artist, how many times have you been out there?
BC: Nine, since last August.
P: Were you already quite well known by people when you first visited?
BC: Kind of, the first time I guess I wasn't. It was just like a couple of people when I went to Akihabara which is like the videogames centre...
P: Oh yes! (I forget myself and cut in rather too enthusiastically) I'm a total geek and an otaku at heart!
BC: Ah, then I don't need to explain to you then! People knew who I was there and I got mobbed a bit. Later on it was other places like Shibuya and places that are really more girly, which is different because the idol culture is generally male orientated. It was amazing to see that people there knew who I was.
P: Watching some of the footage online with the Japanese idols you meet it seems that they're totally enamoured by you.
BC: Yeah, when I met Sayumi (Michishige) she was really taken with me and I was like "what!!??!" she said "You're just so cute I love you"!
P: So how did you break into practicing para para in the first place?
BC: I just saw people doing it online, it looked like fun and then learnt the dance moves and there we go!
The rest, as they say, is internet history.
P: Which of your performances has had the most hits from viewers online?
BC: Danjo, definitely.
P: Was it fun making the PV for Danjo as you were in several locations and appeared in many different outfits?
BC: Filming the music video was definitely a lot of fun. I didn't even know they were filming a music video at the time! I was like "what!?" I'm so uninformed when I'm over there I swear! (laughs)
P: How are you getting to grips with learning the language?
BC: Quite well, I just finished my Japanese 101 course at college, so I'm going to do the GCSE next year. Hopefully, if I can get the place to take the exam *eee*!
P: It's true that learning Japanese is a real challenge and needs time and dedication.
BC: Yeah, it's fun though, it would be nice to get a qualification but even if I don't it's still fun to learn the language.
P: It's clear that you are super skilled in para para. Have you had much previous dance training?
BC: Yeah, I currently do ballet class and modern and I've done ballet since I was four.
P: That explains a lot! There are so many people posting amateur performances on YouTube but you perform at a level that is certainly of higher calibre.
BC: Well thank you. To be honest, I think I'm probably better at ballet than I am at J-pop dancing because the style is so different. One's very graceful and one's very strong. It's quite hard to get the strong movements down.
P: I think that despite the differences between the styles you still retain that grace and rhythm, something that I lack completely myself! Para para looks like it would be a really great way to keep fit and have fun but I have no rhythm it's a bit of a tragedy! Especially as I dress as Hatsune Miku!
P: So you got into Japanese popular culture through manga, reading Fruits Basket, right?
BC: Yeah, Fruits Basket was the first one I ever read...
P: Do you still read and enjoy manga?
BC: Not so much these days, I just don't have the time. To be honest it is pretty time consuming generally...
P: You mean your life as an idol?
BC: Actually it's GCSEs right now.
P: Of course! How's that going?
BC: Yeah... alright! (laughs)
P: Lots of revising?
BC: Yeah, if I get straight Bs then I'll be happy.
P: So it's okay as long as you maintain your grades, it's justifiable it if you can balance being an artist and a student, which you do appear to be accomplishing.
BC: Well to be honest I probably would get higher grades if I didn't do all this but I think that the opportunity is so good that it's fine to let my grades slide just a little bit. I think people can understand that. I had to miss a little bit of school when the ash cloud came over and I was stuck in Japan for two weeks...
P: (At which I ooze insincerity...) Which I'm sure was just terrible
BC: I know I was like "Ah, that's a shame isn't it" it got very expensive though and that was a problem.
P: I know that you like Gackt, who is incidentally coming to perform in the UK this summer but I hear you're also a huge fan of Eminem. Any other stars that really influence you? How about female stars?
BC: No, just Eminem really.
P: How about your fashion sense and style? You have a very...
BC: ...Japanese inspired style!
P: ... Precisely! Are there any shops, stores or designers that you adore?
Beckii instantly beams with enthusiasm, as I'm sure her memories take her straight back to shopping trips in Shibuya.
BC: Liz Lisa and Ank Rouge are my favourites. I really feel influenced by Gal fashion, I'm so into that right now.
P: Is Gal fashion where the feather hair extensions come from original? (indicating the unique and delicate adornment she introduced in a tutorial on her second video channel).
BC: Actually no, I just kind of found it...
Beckii contemplates, twirling it through her fingers thoughtfully.
P: It is so sweet it really is! I think for me as a female otaku it's great to experience yet another element of Japanese culture apart from the manga and the anime and even cosplay. For someone to emerge onto the scene that captures audiences through dance and fashion is a refreshing and engaging experience. For example, I'm really into your beauty tutorial videos, they're great fun. I think that you've got the potential to capture the interest and appeal to a diverse range of fans through what you do.
BC: I hope I can because I think the Japanese fashion is so far ahead. You often see things in Popteen and they're in the UK, like, six months later! Like the usamimi, the rabbit-ear headbands? They were in Popteen last Christmas and now they are sold in every single shop! I thought it wouldn't catch on over here but it has! It's amazing, it always happens. You just see the pattern trends, like florals and then they're really big here right now.
P: Do you have any fashion magazines that you always have to get?
BC: Yes! Popteen every single month! I also get Ageha, Kera, Seventeen. I get a lot of magazines! (laughs)
P: And your nails are always so elaborately styled! I always consider a fancy manicure when I cosplay but conventions are so rough and tumble for your hands when you're doing sales that I know it's not worth it. Speaking of which, cosplay features in some of your videos, do you ever make your own outfits?
BC: No I always have them bought or made for me. One of my fans sometimes buys me the cosplays and I'm like "wow" because they're good quality ones too.
P: Yeah, your Hatsune Miku was sweet! And you did Haruhi and Yuki...
BC: Yeah... My Miku wig got so tangled though.
I emphatically roll my eyes, pointing at my own Snow Miku wig.
P: Tell me about it! getting this styled is as bad as preparing a poodle for Crufts.
BC: Yours doesn't look knotted though.
P: Appearances are deceptive
BC: It doesn't look ratty though! It looks nice! I love your wig, it's really nice!
P: Thank you! It's actually what made me decide to do the cosplay in the first place, I was like, I've seen this stunning wig now I have to make the costume.
BC: Oh you made it?!
P: Yeah, yeah.
BC: Talented girl! Aww!
(To which I beam)
P: Are you interested in gearing your work to the anime and manga fan scene? Or are there any specific groups or people in particular that you want to reach in the UK?
BC: Um, not really, just anybody who likes me to be honest! There are people who aren't into manga who really like me and other who are into manga that like me.
P: I think here in the UK you could probably get a significant girl following, especially through the integrating dance with fashion tips and the tutorials. The personal touch makes a lot of difference to a reception of your public persona.
BC: They're easy to make and people always ask me "how do you do this" so I'm like, why not, I'll become a guru for a bit.
P: It's a world apart from otaku style tips which are usually for costuming, and that's all well and good when you're doing cosplay but applicable for everyday wear!
BC: Yeah exactly! And I think it's a bit dull just watching somebody dance, I mean if somebody found me they might end up bored just watching every single dance video I made on my channel. If they go onto my second channel and see all the other things I do like life blogs I think it makes it a bit more personal.
P: Do you feel it's important to personally connect with your fans?
BC: Yeah, definitely.
P: Have you made lots of good friends doing what you do?
BC: It's really nice because everybody who was my fan becomes my friend as well. Some of them are closer to me than others but I've made some really awesome friends.
P: Have you met many people in costume today? Any ones that you think were particularly good?
Beckii considers and cites a number of costumes that are from Western major motion picture franchises.
BC: The Stormtroopers were really good. Yesterday there was this awesome Johnny Depp. So many of the costumes are so good, you can see the effort people put into them.
From Star Wars to Pirates of the Carribean a franchise on many people's minds following the release of the fourth film in the UK the week prior to Expo. Beckii is evidently not an anime addict from her observations of the cosplayers for she makes no mention of them.
P: What's on the horizon next, do you plan to do any more modelling?
BC: I hope so, I mean anything that I can do and enjoy doing, so yeah I'd like to do modelling.
P: You did work at one of Marks and Spencer's events, right?
BC: Yes, I did the M&S fashion show on the Island and that was good fun, to be on the catwalk for more than, like, 30 seconds.
P: Was it tiring?
BC: Yeah, wearing five inch heels and trying not to fall over was quite difficult.
I empathise with the hazards of footwear as I point out that I'm wearing a pair of heels in the form of sparkling silver jelly shoes. They are by Vivienne Westwood the designer whose signature blue shoes once felled Naomi Campbell on the catwalk. Beckii is intrigued and as I extend silver stockings to show her, before a con goer asks if he can take my photo. After posing patiently I return somewhat abashed to my seat.
P: Unlike you I am still not used to getting my picture taken! I saw you even have a photo book in Japan (called Marugoto Beckii). I wanted to get a copy of it.
BC: It's hard to get hold of though as you can only import it.
P: The online store J-list I think has them.
BC: Oh right, yeah! J-list!
P: Which is good because it widens the chances of your exposure to people into J-culture outside of Japan. Are any there plans for an album in the pipeline?
BC: Yes, depending on how the next few months pan out...
P: Did you choreograph all the steps for the unofficial PV of You Can't Kiss Me yourself? Despite being in English, it is really clear that the influence Japanese dance style is still is very strong and I liked that very much.
BC: I did. The thing is though I'm not really a choreographer so I found it really difficult to do it.
P: Really? That surprises me actually.
BC: I don't know, I've never really choreographed anything before so it was hard.
P: I would have thought you would have to do that for dance classes though?
BC: Not really, no it's all set. At school we had to make things up and that was kind of fun.
P: Are you thinking of doing any dual language tracks or releasing songs performed in Japanese in the UK?
BC: I'm not sure how that would work in the UK, to be honest.
P: I think it might go down quite well, you do, after all have singers who occasionally mix a bit of another language into their songs and it's a hook and their tracks really take off. As Japanese culture has quite a following, it's seen as fashionable and fresh it has quite the potential for capturing people's interest.
BC: It might do, I guess, you hear Cheryl Cole singing in French in her songs and Shakira sings in Spanish as well... the thing is though the solely English tracks are always the more popular ones here because I think the British people generally who are interested in my pop music don't tend to want to hear other languages...
P: No way! The mix that you did for Danjo was amazing!
BC: (laughs) Thank you. Well... I don't know I just don't think it would work that well... maybe it would if I was more established as an artist.
P: I guess there's always bonus tracks as an option?
BC: That would work.
P: Are there any particular TV shows you watch?
BC: Family Guy
Her choice of animated comedy shows once again that Beckii is not an otaku herself and that her heart is really with Japanese culture in quite a different way to most people I meet in the fan scene.
P: Where does the moniker Cruel originate, you don't strike me as cruel yourself!
Looking as though she has been asked this question a thousand times, she smiles demurely and assures me that it is not a reflection on her personality.
BC: No, I'm not cruel... A producer in Japan came up with the name, it's just something to make people intrigued, so we were like "why not? That sounds good."
P: You cite Japanese idol Kozue Aikawa as one of your dance inspirations. Have you had the chance to meet her?
Beckii brightens instantly.
BC: Yes! I met her! I did a stage performance to promote my record Tsubasa wo Kudasai on February 14th 2010 and she watched it! She was there and she came back stage to meet me! She was amazing.
P: Would you like to collaborate with her?
Beckii looks for the first time a little surprised and is instantly and emphatically dismissive of the notion.
BC: No! No I wouldn't! She's too good!
P: No way! I am sure you could hold your own alongside her!
BC: Also her fans don't like me!
P: What!!! Really? No way!!!
BC: I know, well some of them do but the majority don't. Because they're like, "Japan – super race" kind of thing and have that exclusive mentality.
P: Did you get meet much resistance when you were in Japan?
BC: Not when I'm over there, the people who are there are nice to me. It's generally the Western idol fans who have a problem.
P: Really? So they have some misplaced gaijin prejudice? That's a shame as you're evidently not just some performer who makes tenuous token gestures about Japanese style to get popularity or to follow a shallow trend. You do have the total heart and soul of para para in your performances.
BC: I think it's also that not everyone is going to like what you do and you just have to deal with that to be honest.
P: Have you really had to toughen up whist in the public eye?
BC: Yes, people have taken the piss out of my appearance, saying "oh you've got a massive nose" and I was never even conscious of it before they started saying it. It really hurt my feelings at the start but then I just accepted that people are going to say mean things and it's not worth giving them a reaction.
P: I think people should cut you some slack. It's seriously gutsy to break into performance at your age, especially as living through your teens is often really hard as you're establishing the person you are and to put yourself out there during that transition is proof of strength of character. It's nice that you're a self-made star, you controlled your image, you broadcasted and people just came to you, which is refreshing, to see such a young star who hasn't been prepacked and processed by pop manufacturing. I think that will serve you really well in the future.
BC: Well thank you!
P: Do you want to stay in the UK or do you ever think about relocating to Japan?
BC: I'd like to for maybe like a year or two but I don't think I could move there permanently, I just think the cultural differences are just too vast.
P: So did you get culture shock?
BC: Yeah, I didn't find that anyone I met in Japan was very outspoken. I miss that wildness of people I guess. Everyone there was quite reserved and I think I'd go crazy after a while. I think I wouldn't really want to live there because...
P: ...it'd always be somewhere that would be change of scene and never mundane?
Getting the sense that for all her international achievements Beckii is a Brit through and through, I asked her what she thought of Japanese cuisine.
BC: I don't get on with it that well, it just doesn't agree with me that much. It also tends to be tiny servings, so it's like "when is the main meal coming?"! I don't eat that much, well, I do eat, sometimes I'll eat loads and then there's a little lull... I don't know but whenever I'm there I have to order a bowl of boiled rice along with everything else!
So Beckii's verdict of how to handle dining in Japan is definitely OKAWARI!
P: As you have to work overseas often, do you have any travel essentials - things that you must take with you anywhere you go?
BC: Yes! Whenever I'm on plane I always have this bag full of facial moisturisers, facemasks and everything. When I'm on a plane my nails will break and it drives me mad.
P: Do you have any beauty rituals?
BC: Not really, I do a facemask once a week because I like it. Moisturiser, cleanser...
Evidently, natural charm and a youthful countenance keeps things simple for Beckii's beauty regimes!
P: Planning to come back to London anytime soon?
BC: I should be back again at the end of June.
P: Well, if you can make it back for Gackt's concert that would be really cool ♥
BC: I did meet Gackt's management once...
BC: Yeah they got in contact with us once.
I begin to get dewy-eyed as my mind wanders.
P: A collaboration with him... now that would be something!
Again, Beckii looks a little bashful at the notion of working alongside a superstar. The prospect proved to be a little overwhelming for her.
BC: I know but I just got kind of like Gackt is so sexy and then there's just little me...
P: Oh no! But could you imagine having a photo shoot together! That would be so awesome!
BC: I would probably die of a heart attack if I'm honest!
P: Yeah but what a great way to go!
Thanks goes to Beckii Cruel for being such a great interviewee, along with the London MCM Expo.
Beckii can be found on-line on the following sites:
Website - http://beckii.co.uk/
Twitter - @BeckiiCruel
YouTube - http://www.youtube.com/xBextahx