The J-Pop “Squid Game” Girl Group Project That Exploited Indebted Women For Entertainment
Just like the Korean idol industry, the one in Japan is competitive and always on the lookout for something new and eye-catching that sets a group apart from the others. But in 2014, when The Margarines debuted, they grabbed the public’s attention in a way that no other group had done before.
The Margarines were a 9-member Japanese girl group, whose very concept was based on the personal debts of the members. They were marketed as a group that is on a “mission” to sing and dance their way out of a combined debt of 127 Million Yen ($1.17 Million USD).
Like any other idol group, the members for The Margarines were selected through an audition where over 500 hopefuls participated. But instead of the regular singing or dancing skills that are evaluated at such auditions, the main qualifying factor for this group’s members was to have a big debt and an age between 18 and 35. The members who made it to the final lineup of the group were Akino Fujiwara, Ran Takahashi, Miku Ono, Marie Christine Krause, Miu Ishiharaa, Kanami Yoda, Natsumi Watanabe, Yua Kinoshita, and Mami Nishida.
Nishida had the biggest debt of all, around $915,000 USD, due to her parents’ bankruptcy. The rest of the members’ debts ranged from $4,500 USD to $64,000 USD, mostly due to student loans. The girl began promoting with the motto of “people with big debt have big dreams,” chasing their contractual goal of pushing 10,000 units as a group in whatever way possible.
On paper, The Margarines was a good project. The girls get to become idols and pay off their debts, and they were not even bound by the usual contractual restrictions like the no-dating clauses. But in reality, there were a hundred ways things could go wrong with this group, and it did, according to one of the now former members of the group, Marie. On December 17, 2014, the group released their first song, “Goodbye Debt Heaven,” but they sold only 2,000 copies. Their second release, “Sakura Wa Sakura,” also underperformed, charting at #172 on the Oricon chart.
Realizing that they need to reach out to the public more, the members suggested to the label that they do more hands-on marketing approaches like distributing flyers on the streets. But according to Marie, the label was not used to handling underground artists and wanted to take the same marketing approaches as they do with their top groups. Sadly, that didn’t work out for The Margarines.
The group was also made to do a livestream once a week, where they would interact with fans and play games. However, things often got ugly on these lives, especially when the group’s producer Makkoi Saito would join those streams. He would routinely make the members strip on the live, or get physically aggressive by slapping or kicking them.
Our producer was a really famous TV show producer, and he would sometimes come onto the show as well. And everyone hated it when he came, it was so scary. There was this rule like whenever he comes on the show, bring your bikini because he’s gonna make you take off your clothes. And loved to slap or hit people…Their reason was ‘You don’t have money so you have to do what we tell you to.’
The members were not even paid for sitting through these humiliating livestreams, eventually making them even more reluctant to join in. Many of the members, like Marie, started doing other odd jobs on the side that they would prioritize over the group to pay their bills.
As The Margarines kept acquiring losses on the business front, their management decided to rebrand the group as a comedy group, renaming it to Gekidan Margarines. But even that was proven to be a futile attempt to turn the fate of this group around. Disbandment was unavoidable for the group, but even before they could peacefully part ways, the management compelled all of them to audition for another girl group, Ebisu Muscats. Though it was a much better performing group, their concept was a lot more sexually suggestive. The group was known for being comprised of Japanese gravure idols and AV idols. In other words, Ebisu Muscats’ selling point was that its members worked in pornographic films. Though some of The Margarine members didn’t have any interest in being part of such a group, they were forced to audition.
In September 2016, the group officially disbanded. Some of the girls transferred to Ebisu Muscats and were happy to do so, while others moved on in different career fields.