Novel Tells Story behind Post-Disaster Idol Group

The cover of “Kesennuma Miracle Girl”

KESENNUMA, Miyagi — In March 2011, the city of Kesennuma, a fishing port town in Miyagi Prefecture, was devastated by a massive tsunami that followed the Great East Japan Earthquake. The novel “Kesennuma Miracle Girl” (the title was changed to “Smile and Go!” when its paperback was released) is set in the city six months after the disaster.

Satoken, one of the novel’s main characters, is a tough-looking man who can even intimidate the yakuza. Satoken tries to get his younger colleague Ryu — who has returned to Kesennuma after his dream of becoming a musician was shattered — involved in producing an idol group.

Some of the group members include a socially withdrawn high school girl, an over-the-top former theater troupe member and an elementary schooler whose father is a bigwig. The group doesn’t have a vocal coach or a choreographer, and the members wear cosplay-like uniforms. After a month of intensive training, the group takes the stage for the first time but comes under fire on the internet, mocked as phony idols playing disaster victims.

This off-beat dramedy is based on an actual group: SCK Girls, a Kesennuma local idol group formed in autumn 2011.

“The novel is mixed with a lot of stories about the group members, and most of them are real stories,” said Marika, 23, who joined SCK Girls immediately after the group’s first live performance.

The character of Satoken is based on Kenichi Abe, who led the formation of SCK Girls. Six months after the earthquake, Abe posted an ad in a local newspaper reading, “We’re recruiting members for a local idol group,” and accepted anyone who wanted to become a member.

They soon began practicing singing and dancing at a free space, which used to be a pharmacy that was damaged by the tsunami. Some members eventually became discouraged with the situation saying, “Can we still be called idols?” and quit the group. Even so, SCK Girls managed to hold its first live performance on Nov. 3, 2011. Since then, the group has performed at reconstruction-related and idol events held in and around Miyagi Prefecture.

In the novel, Satoken is portrayed as a foulmouthed, pushy person.

“The real Satoken was even worse,” Marika said. “I wasn’t good at singing, and he would get angry and call me tone deaf or said, ‘Why can’t you hit ‘do’ (‘C’) if you are told to sing ‘do’?”

Even though Abe was foulmouthed and ill-tempered, Marika said he taught her the importance of dreaming.

“He was just so optimistic and never gave up,” she said. “When I was about to quit, he asked me, ‘Won’t you regret it?’”

It was about three years after the earthquake when the novel’s author Takahisa Igarashi visited SCK Girls for an interview. He had learned about the group from a TV program and interviewed Marika and the other members shortly after. Unfortunately, Abe died of illness in 2013, and Igarashi wasn’t able to meet him.

“As a writer, I felt that I should never forget this earthquake and also that I had to write about it,” Igarashi said.

The novel depicts people who lost loved ones or had their houses swept away. However, the story is straightforward and mixes the pain and drama with comedy.

“I wanted to write a story that focuses on the fact that there are people who are trying hard,” Igarashi said.

Many of the now eight-member group have been replaced, and their practice spot has been relocated from the tsunami-damaged pharmacy. Next year, the group will celebrate its 10th anniversary.

Takeshi Sato, a composer who represents the group’s management and the person who Ryu is based on, said: “SCK Girls serves as the messenger of reconstruction efforts. We’ve been asked, ‘Why don’t you move on from reconstruction already?’ But that means memories of the disaster will fade away. We’ll continue what we’re doing with pride.”

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Members of SCK Girls pose in front of a pharmacy, where the group used to practice, on Oct. 17.