Momoiro Clover Z—these color-coded idols have performed your favorite anime themes, opened for Gaga, and dazzled 150,000 people at Japan’s National Olympic Stadium with their kinetic live act. But in 2010—before they added the Z, before they were Momoclo or MCZ—they were merely Momoiro Clover. They were simply six high school girls with a dream, who were about to have an enterprising horror filmmaker plunge them into a living nightmare.
By the time director Koji Shiraishi came onto the scene in the mid-2000s, J-Horror wasn’t just dead, it was a pile of bones resting at the bottom of an abandoned well. The boom brought on by titles such as Ringu—inspiring remakes, sequels, and sequels to the remakes—was now little more than a dulled echo. The productions threadbare, the tropes well-tread to the point of self-parody, and the lowest of expectations dutifully delivered upon with each passing title—all obstacles that Shiraishi would weaponize. Rather than fret over barren budgets, he’d dive straight to the bottom, and engage in the cheapest of thrills: the found-footage film.
It was in 2005 that Shiraishi established himself as a master of the macabre mockumentary with his second feature, Noroi. Eschewing the shaky cams and endless screeching improv employed by his U.S. counterparts, Shiraishi instead keenly riffed on the formula perfected by the BBC’s panic-inciting Ghostwatch. Both are faux-investigative/tabloid TV specials gone spooky, taking full advantage of the brand of comforting engagement these programs induce. Give in to the reality presented, and you’ll soon be filled with a sense of dread, before ultimately being confronted with pure, unrelenting terror.
Now if only the members of Momoiro Clover had been devotees of the genre, they’d have known something was awry when a smirking Shiraishi arrived—camera in tow—to pitch a TV fluff piece entitled Momoiro Clover: Haunted Spot Hunt! But in their defense, they’d been a little busy.
Formed by talent agency Stardust Promotion in 2008, Clover honed their chops performing free concerts in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, before graduating to touring electronics stores and sleeping in a minivan. It paid off in 2010, when the high schoolers were signed to Universal Records in a public signing ceremony. It’s here that the six member crew—comprised of Reni Takagi, Kanako Momota, Akari Hayami, Shiori Tamai, Ayaka Sasaki, and Momoka Ariyasu—declared their endgame: participate in Kohaku Uta Gassen.
NHK’s popstar battle of the sexes—known as Kohaku for short—is a long-standing New Year’s Eve tradition. At its peak this team singing competition was the most watched program of the year in Japan, and even in its declining years, being invited to partake remains a goal for every homegrown mainstream recording artist. And like he did with those dwindling J-Horror budgets that stood before him years before, it’s a goal Shiraishi would use for his own dark purposes.
Shiraishi’s proposed ghost hunting program focuses on the legend of Shirome—a butterfly spirit who will grant the wish of anyone who is pure of heart. But there’s a catch—those who aren’t will be dragged to the depths by this white-eyed entity. Momoiro Clover’s mission: locate a shrine to Shirome that’s purported to be inside an abandoned schoolhouse. Once there, they’ll sing to the spirit—because why not—before stating their ultimate wish as a group: Kohaku.
The girls agree—or were forced to agree by their management—and Shiraishi asks them one more question: “Would you sell your soul to the devil in exchange for success?” Their answer? An enthusiastic “Yes!” It’s here that we get our first hint that Shiraishi is after more than simply providing a few jump scares and appealing to our inner grinning sadist. But, of course, in the cruel Japanese prank show tradition, he does that as well.
The easily spooked idols are loaded onto a bus, blindfolded, and dumped outside of the abandoned school where Shirome awaits. Joined by a psychic and an exorcist, the gals shriek, sob, latch onto each other, and collapse in fright. And that’s before they even step foot inside. Once they enter the schoolhouse, they shakily croak out their would-be hits in an effort to find the strength to go on as they’re assaulted with a deluge of dark corridors, clanking furniture, rattling doors, and underpaid crew members banging on the walls. Shiraishi smartly keeps the whole affair lo-fi, knowing that the greatest special effect is their tears.
Are they pure of heart? Or will they be dragged to hell by Shirome? Or maybe they’re “cursed” either way, as Shiraishi suggests via voice-over, while concert footage of deranged male fans convulsing and clawing at the group plays onscreen.
It’s moments like these where it becomes clear that Shiraishi has been stealthily trolling the idol industry and its fans. Ultimately, Shiraishi is a gun for hire here—commissioned by Momoiro Clover’s management to produce a feature-length commercial for the group. He could have just showed up, flicked some lights on and off, and collected a check. Instead he chose to deliver the best possible version of what he was asked, while also splashing acid on the system that was paying the rent.
If I wanted to sap all the fun out of it, I could even say that Shiraishi is illustrating how these kids are shoved into the idol meat grinder and spit out for a buck and a few fleeting moments of entertainment. Because despite their screams, we get the feeling that this is probably the least horrible and demeaning thing a middle-aged man has subjected them to on camera. We get the feeling that perhaps Shiraishi wasn’t trying to scare them, he was trying to save them.
Momoiro Clover wouldn’t be invited on Kohaku that year; they wouldn’t be invited for another two, in fact. By then they’d be calling themselves Momoiro Clover Z, and shortly thereafter would be considered the most popular girl group in all of Japan. But to close this out, I think it’s more important to look back. Back to that public signing ceremony for Universal Records, their major label debut. At that event they didn’t just declare their Kohaku goals, they were shoved onto a scale and weighed in front of a crowd of onlookers, before being allowed to sign their contracts. Forget pearly-pupiled spirits or rattling doorknobs—that’s horror.