Have you ever fell in love with one of your classmates? Peeking at her desk, hoping she doesn’t notice you, so you can keep looking at her. Someone you want to start a conversation with, but you’re too shy to do so. Japanese high schooler are often on the romantic side, thanks to this huge culture carried through manga and anime. Neru has this perfect image of lovely girl next door that you often see in shoujo or shonen. But it isn’t fiction. Sometime life doesn’t go the way you wanted, and you have to force your way through, building this such needed resilience to go forward. Behind this sweet smile, stand a girl who search for answers. Is Keyakizaka one of them?
“A girl in search of her honest feelings”
Let’s talk about the girl herself for a bit. Someone who’s into Keyaki most surely knows her unusual introduction to the group. Like Shinoda Mariko before her, Neru joined as 1.5 gen member because she didn’t went to Keyakizaka final audition. Her parents forbid it, even taking her back to Nagasaki. But seeing Neru’s potential, Keyakizaka staff invited Neru’s parent to attend a Nogizaka concert, and it eventually changed their mind. She then joined as Hiragana Keyaki (under-like members of Keyakizaka) and Kanji Keyaki kennin for the second single, Sekai ni wa ai shikanai. It was though for her; she couldn’t mix as well as the other kanji keyaki because she started late (she wasn’t in Silent majority senbatsu), but she didn’t took part in hiragana lessons either because she was busy in kanji keyaki promotion. Question rised: where did she belong to? Up to this day, we still don’t know. But don’t let her choose between kanji and hiragana, it’s impossible.
Most of pessimistic fans would say it’s a staged scenario to push her. Because she’s having an hard time, fans start feeling sympathy toward her. Well yes, she is popular (because of this romance affinity japanese have) but struggling to know her place in Keyakizaka was real. Yonetani nanami confessed in a Keya Room episode that she didn’t accepted Neru right away. It’s only natural, right? When someone is a newcomer in your close circle of friend, you can’t immediately be comfortable like you are with the others. However Neru won member’s hearts with her natural joy, easy going character, and light sense of humor. Members were fast to realize she just wanted to get along with everyone, and not taking someone’s else place. Being Hiragana instead of Keyaki didn’t matter anymore.
“Neru, like Yurina, was given a Solo in Keyaki second single”
With that issue resolved, Neru started to work on her individual skills. Fans started to notice her thanks to her weird and lovely individual PV, where she sang all names of the periodic element board, and thereafter all irregular english verbs. To see Neru doing a moonwalk while chanting uranium, or spelling sleep slept slept while headbanging, you have to admit it marks people mind. In her third attempt, it was a regular short film about “rules”, where she displays great acting skills, feeling very genuine and natural. Furthermore, she took part in Japanese variety show, answering quizz in order to earn 1 million yen for her team, something that only a few idol of the 48group could. Before being in Keyakizaka, she won a special prize in a cooking contest, with innovative kebab style sugar crepe.
Neru is smart, cute, funny and talented. She gets closer and closer to this “shoujo” ideal fans yearn for. It didn’t take long before she claims top position in member’s popularity chart, even being number one in Twitter most mentions in the group. Neru profile has high standard, but as a matter of fact, it isn’t something original. We have seen many other idols who are good at everything, like Yamamoto Sayaka. So why is she exceeding observers expectation in term of popularity? Because it is Keyakizaka. By contrast, something cool will always shine in a pool of cute, and vice versa. Because Keyaki is about rebellion and willpower, Neru orthodox image comes out amplified. Management is fully aware and try to develop it, by giving her a slow paced, cute song as solo. Neru presence and importance in Keyakizaka increased as her personality balance well with the style of the group.
“high socks, pink cardigan and silver ribbon; Japanese uniform aesthetics bring out the best of japanese girls feminity and youth”
Neru’s situation can be seen as very propitious to a success in Keyakizaka. But it isn’t the case, and she had to deal with a lot of pressure in a short period of time. People are often worried of Yurina hectic schedule, but Neru’s has nothing to blush from it : Not only she participates in all Kanji A and B side, but she also has to learn Hiragana B-side songs. Not counting her 2 solo and duo/quatuor with Yurina and Yuichanzu. Despite her hard work, she had to compromise. It’s quite cruel to put her in Yurina’s place in hiragana first showcase for their silent majority performance. You could obviously feel the lack of training, and beyond that, the gap of character between Neru and Yurina. It was management mistake to think Neru could manage to do a decent performance with such little time. And it affected her image. That her dancing is subpar of other members, or keyakizaka standard.
Can you imagine it? She was 17 when joining Keyakizaka (like Akanen) and was at the end of crossroads, where you choose to continue college. She’s a diligent student, but chose to be an idol. This same world that sometimes shows a cruel side, like asking for a perfect performance with minimum of preparation. An unfairness that could waver anyone’s determination to reach their goal, because they are not capable. Japan is still a society that hugely rely on academic background, and to choose the idol path instead of college is understandably contested by her parents. This is something that contrast with her overall sweet side. She went as far as confronting her parent to do what she wants to do. She’s not hesitant like those shounen female character who are often painted as weak and dependable to the male hero.
It’s not about being all sweet, or all cool of a character. Even though Keyakizaka staff built Neru character to be sweet, it doesn’t exclude the fact that each person hold a complex personality, that you need to cover as a whole to understand someone. Neru didn’t dislike studying. She likes subject like Philosophy, or science. But she wanted to try something new, something she decided for herself, and not what her parents told her to do. Despite her sweet character, she was actually the first to do an act of rebellion.
“Nagahama Neru is in fact a very entertaining girl, very connected to her fans”
It would be pretentious of me to know what kind of girl is Nagahama Neru. But there’s few hints scattered on all the data available. First, her blogs. She talks a lot about her relationship with the members. Probably because she was in a delicate situation of not belonging to kanji nor hiragana, becoming an important member on both side is now her biggest strength. She entrusted herself the mission to help the members get closer, like W-Keyakizaka no uta song. To break the distance between generation, is a harder task than we think. For example, Yukirin confessed she never was close to Kojima Haruna, despite many concerts, senbatsu promotions they did over the years. It’s hard, but it is also essential to build the group unity. The girls need to learn to open their heart.
In variety, she shows that her intelligence isn’t all about having good grades. There’s also how she use her screentime to get noticed. When to make cute face, react to host pun or joke, give sassy anecdote of other members. She’s also aware it’s good to show her emotions, when being overjoyed by other members reaction when joining the 2nd single senbatsu, or when Watanabe Risa read Yonetani nanami’s letter apologizing to her. How she juggles with those opportunities helps her not being a one-dimensional idol. Watanabe Mayu was much more of the orthodox style, but her image of cyborg idol was too strong and she had a hard time to graduate from it.
“In Keyakizaka 4th single, she was next to Techi. Will she be center in the 5th?”
With all the opportunities brought by management, her good image as an individual (the others are more known as pairing, like Za cool, Yuichanzu), and the necessary change of Keyakizaka type of song makes me think she will lead the A-side of the next single. Neru never showed the ambition to take the 0 position, but if it’s the need of the group, she will gladly take it on. Because Neru has a great sense of responsability. When we think of reliable, mother figure-like character, we tend to think of Fuuchan or Oda nana. Neru is more like of a “i will do my best” responsible type. She doesn’t want to let people down.
In the future, we can expect her to break through in variety. This little sister character is loved by japanese audience, like Hirose Suzu or Arimura Kasumi before her. Her presence in variety is Key for Keyakizaka to get national recognition. But as said above, she’s also the key to tie kanji and hiragana keyaki together, and ensure the group unity. Without noticing, Neru became an irreplaceable existence for Keyakizaka outside and inside. You don’t need to read manga to follow exciting stories. You just have to follow neru’s normal life. I wish i could live such an exciting life, but unfortunately, pink cardigan and cute skirt doesn’t suit me as much as they suits her.