Before Arashi, there was Westlife.
The year was 1999 and I was listening over and over again to their debut album (Fool Again!, Swear It Again!, If I Let You Go!). I had no idea that somewhere across the Pacific Ocean, five Japanese boys had just debuted on a yacht.
And while I was chasing after the Irish lads and watching my first Westlife concert, Arashi was struggling with disappointments after an impressive million-seller debut single. But I wouldn’t know them until about six years later.
Meantime, I went on fan adventures that are for the books even before “sasaeng” has made it into pop culture consciousness. (Serendipity has looked down on me kindly only twice in my entire fan life, face-to-face, handshake-to-handshake, and that was with Westlife and Arashi.)
I don’t remember how I got into Westlife (my friends were more into NSYNC and Backstreet Boys). But soon, I was so immersed into them, listening to their debut album day in and out. I don’t remember either when exactly I stopped following them, but last week, I was able to relieve that phase in my life when I went to watch them live again. It was a last-minute decision and luckily for my Westlife bff and I, there were still tickets within the range of how much we wanted to spend (my main consideration: it should not be more expensive than a ticket to Arashi’s concert–not the ones from auction of course; and it made me appreciate how equitable the system that J&A uses where you pay the same amount for a ticket regardless of where the lottery will seat you, but I’m sure those who want to be front and center and be VVIP won’t like that.)
But I’m past that phase of wanting to see them up close and personal. We were center all right but not that near, nor too far (I suspect our seats were opened at the last minute and must have been meant for friends of friends of friends of sponsors). It didn’t matter. I just wanted to listen to the music, sing along too. Many times, I found myself wondering–has it really been 20 years? If we’re going to be technical about it, this is the band’s 21st year, and 18 years since I first watched them live.
It was a night of nostalgia as my friend and I, and the people around us, sang along like we were at some karaoke party (thankfully, no one was screaming our ears off calling the members’ names; maybe, the audience have grown up too, just like the band). The members (only four of them now because one quit a few years on and by then, I wasn’t following their news anymore) have gotten even better with time. They were more relaxed onstage, bantering with one another easily in between songs, and interacted more with the audience. This is something that can only come with years of performing onstage.
In those 21 years since they debuted, they were on hiatus for six (2012-2018), pursuing individual endeavors. The irony is not lost on me being a fan of one band that’s returning from hiatus and another preparing to go into one.
But watching the recent interviews of Westlife on their reunion that they didn’t even plan until two years or so ago has made me more hopeful about Arashi’s future. It also made me reflect on how Arashi probably needs this too. Because of the things that struck me from Westlife’s interviews, it was what they said that they needed to experience life outside the (Westlife) bubble, because since they were 18, this was the life they already knew. That was also the age when Ohno debuted as Arashi, but they became Johnnys years before that with the youngest, Jun, entering the jimusho at 12. So indeed, for Arashi too, this has been the life they have known for more than half of their lives now, and perhaps, stepping out of that bubble would give them a different perspective on life, pursue interests they couldn’t because they had to prioritize Arashi, even settle down. Who knows? The possibilities are endless. And as long as they will come out of it as fulfilled, happy individuals, then by all means–because they deserve nothing less after having devoted themselves to 20 years of being in Arashi and making their fans proud and happy.
And just as Westlife also said (I’m not sure whether it was Shane or Kian), it was only then, when they took a step back, that they saw what Westlife was like–the records they’ve broken, the stages they’ve conquered, the memories they’ve made, the career they’ve built together, and most importantly, what Westlife means to people, even until today. They said they didn’t realize how big Westlife has become, and this reminds me of that episode on Share House where Yoko (who was guesting with Becky) asked Nino and Ohno pointblank what it’s like to be in Arashi. Nino and Ohno could not give any reply and from their faces, they looked like they did not know what to say or were even perplexed at the question (basically, how Riida looks most of the time anyway). It was Becky who answered: that they wouldn’t know because they’re in the “eye of the storm” (not sure if these were her exact words or the subber took artistic freedom with the translation to make it sound like a pun or more poetic, either way, it carried the message across). In their interview for the 5×20 PV Making, Ohno said that there are many things that only the five of them understand, and really, all of us are just mere onlookers to what they’re going to decide during their hiatus.
Westlife’s hiatus, meantime, gave the members the break and breathing room they needed, and at the same time, made them realize that they share this legacy. A legacy to go back to–something they said they only saw from being away from it. There’s a Westlife song (When You’re Looking Like That) that goes: “…you never miss the water until it’s gone.” That’s something I will hold on to when 2021 comes, that the break will give Arashi time to recenter themselves, miss each other, and later, regroup, when they feel it’s the right time. Never forget, it was Ohno himself after all who likened Arashi as a home, where members leave every now and then to pursue things on their own (dramas, films, hobbies), but that at the end of the day, they will return from their journey to this place they call home. An oasis, as what Sho had likened it to. And that place is Arashi.
When Westlife decided they will come back, they wondered if they still have fans who will go and see them. They have since performed to sold-out concerts across the world in the past year and are now preparing for a new album. It took them six years. I hope it doesn’t take that long for Arashi, but even now that they haven’t even gone on their hiatus yet, the fans are already counting down to they day they will return.
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