This is both a review and a discussion of Derek Vasconi’s third episode in his documentary series Flowers of Passion. If you would like context and an introduction to the series, I recommend checking out the reviews of the first two instalments. I have tried to label what is directly about the documentary versus what is in conversation with it, but as the two are intertwined, it was not always possible.
This third episode is shorter than its two predecessors, clocking in a little under 40 minutes, and it covers the relationships between fans and idols. It features Moe from XOXO Extreme, Chihiro from Merry Bad End, Koyuki and Yuka from Lilii Kaona, as well as Japanese pop culture academic Patrick Galbraith!
The documentary opens on a quote claiming that idols are 2.5D (halfway between fiction and real humans, basically) and that is what idol fans are supporting. I take issue with that statement, especially since I think this is a by-product of the documentary analyzing idol as a whole industry and underground idol in the same breath, as I find it way less applicable to smaller acts. The stakes are not the same as the scale changes. I engage in depth with Galbraith’s interview later in this article.
Much of the interest of this episode was the intertwining of Galbraith’s acafan perspectives (he seems to be really into Xteen, per his chekis) with the impressions of idols themselves on the idol-fan relationship. I was happy to see a more academic take on idol. While the interviews are gold, it is nice to have more reflective segments once in a while. The interiority of the performers we love is a very rare sight, and I really loved hearing from the Lilii Kaona girls what they thought about their fans and how it differed from their previous artistic experience, as they both used to be actresses and therefore have a much more distant and less involved relationship with their fans. The idol to fan relationship is unique to this scene, and that post-live proximity is where the crux of modern idol resides.
I loved seeing Lilii Kaona’s Koyuki talking about how despite being on a much smaller budget/scale, the underground idol scene is as compelling as bigger productions like music stations, because of the sheer energy of the fans as well as the strength and diversity of the music.
Modern idol is also rooted in catharsis. One of the interviewees, event organizer Ansan, said: “There are some people are coming to just cause a ruckus” [sic]. It made me laugh because I do know a couple of fellow fans who used to unwind through mosh pits and cheki interactions and who are now bored at the “no fun allowed” lives necessary in the presence of a pandemic. So I feel like the variety of music in the underground idol scene and this bit of loudol in particular has several avenues for cathartic release, including ones that go beyond the discussion after you took your cheki.
During the documentary, the following quote appears: “If a live house is like a jinja, then its front doors are the torii gates and the idols are the kami who live within. The fans visit these kawaii kami, offering prayers of thanks in the form of special chants, known as ‘mixes’, along with dance and hand movements that are similar to the nirei-nihakushu-ichirei (clapping your hands twice and lowering to the ground) custom. Fans also show gratitude financially through osaisen, tossing their money into the cash boxes of the idol groups via the purchase of idol merchandise. Finally, to commemorate their visit, fans usually will buy a kind of take-home ‘ema’, in the form of a cheki. And just like a real ema, chekis cost anywhere from 500 to 1,000 yen (or more).”
While discussing this with Daemon, who noted that the “worship at the altar of rock” was a fairly common analogy, this quote still doesn’t sit right with me. The docuseries spends a long time talking over several episodes about how the underground idol scene does not have that aspect of distant worship compared to previous iterations of idols pre-AKB, and then presents us this. It seems like an oxymoron. In addition to the contradiction, this quote also does two ideological things that rubs me the wrong way: first, by associating this contemporary and very modern phenomenon with something traditional, the traditional give it a form of forward momentum in time that means the present is a teleological endpoint of history. There’s no real looking beyond it. It cements “Idol” as being this exclusively Japanese thing, despite there being no real equivalency. Furicopy (copying the dance/hand movement of the artist on the stage) is not derived from nirei-nihakushu-ichirei, it’s literally just dancing. In addition, because Ema (the wooden tablets you purchase to write a wish and then hang at the temple) are meant to stay at the temple, I don’t think the chekis that you take home as a souvenir really works as an analogy. I know that tourists do buy Ema to commemorate their trips, but it’s not the intended purpose. Secondly, that deification really shifts the focus away from the fact that you are interacting with a real, live person, who has a history of their own, bills to pay, and exists beyond the context of the livehouse. And that is the core of my disagreements with this episode.
2.5D, Authenticity and Context-Based Relationships
My issue is a fundamental conceptual difference in how we consider idols. Some idols, like Dempagumi Inc.’s Risa Aizawa, do identify as 2.5 people. It is also relatively applicable to more popular idols from bigger agencies insofar as the rigid context in which they exist and in which you can meet them means that the distance between the fan and the idol will always be palpable. However, the proximity with the performers in the chika idol scene, combined with how precarious indie groups are bringing a very different experience. It also means that some of us (us being idol fans) care about the girls as people rather than as characters. Idols show you selected parts of themselves, much like anyone in your life. There is always some sort of filter going on in social interactions and I would liken the chika idol experience more like this than a betwixt and between fictional experience. Also keep in mind that for smaller idol groups, due to the proximity with the fans, a facade or character might be harder to keep up, as you are seen much closer and in somewhat less rigidly geared settings.
One thing that is interesting to me is that it is fairly common for idols to aspire to be considered/labelled “artists” rather than “idols”. Being considered an artist carries that idea of legitimacy and authenticity in the sense that the person is doing their craft as they are, as opposed to the idea of playing a character. A fairly popular example of this would probably be Perfume, who started as idols but are now wildly just considered artists by the general public, as if they transcended idol. A smaller, more local example would be the proficient, multitalented Yoneko, who said they had nothing more to accomplish as an idol, but is certainly continuing their creative musical endeavours.
The musical diversity is really highlighted as part of the documentary, and I think that’s important. While I know this scene is not only about the music and rather about the whole experience of proximity with the performer, I sometimes wonder if there are people who don’t care about the music and how it must feel for the girls. This is anecdotal at best, but I have heard people talk about traditional idols as this “really cute but extremely dumb girl,” which is … disrespectful, to say the least. I wonder about the people who go to idol shows more for the experience than the music itself. Like people who like a group or a member but find the music literally unlistenable. Is that a fan I made up? A person who goes “Aaah, I get to spend time with a cute girl but you are so bad at what you like to do”? I don’t know how I feel about this.
During this episode of the documentary, Ansan also assesses that “Idols really think about the fans . . . the difference between any artist and idol is that idol shows aren’t over after the performance.” I do think this is an accurate and astute statement, but I wish we could also figure out a way or a system that would make idols support less unilaterally. I know that, well, fan pay for the emotional support they get from idols by giving them money for the interaction. However, per my own observations and per what you can see in the documentary, fans are not the only ones who struggle with alienation and other mental health issues. And while money does help (having a roof over your head and being able to put food on the table are pretty much requirements for living and not being immediately overwhelmed by the stress of trying to survive instead of living), it doesn’t fix your mind. Feeling the pressure of perfection, the pressure of being likable, the pressure of being thin enough or pretty enough are significant ordeal that fan money will not fix. I don’t know how it would work, but if I have only hope for the idol fandom, it would be to make it more about the performer as people rather than just the figure of a person.
Galbraith seems to refer to an unnamed “they” (The Tokyo Idols documentary producer and her team, perhaps?) as people who just don’t know about idols and don’t have data to be forming their opinions of thinking this is an icky scene. The thing is, we do have data to back the fact that there is (occasionally) gross abuse happening behind the scenes. It is (as far as we know) occasional. However, as the idol scene involves several performers who are minors (and therefore considered vulnerable by about any ethics committee), it is particularly important to scrutinize this. We don’t want more of this happening. There are idols like Wada Ayaka (of S/mileage & Angerme fame) who give interesting and nuanced interviews about her experience as an idol and what she thinks should change. You can find one here, please give it a read. That is one part of it. The other part of it is that although the documentary works very hard to make everything seem very platonic, not talking about gravure, nor about photobooks with bikini pictures. Now, in very crude terms, I am not saying, “if you bought a photo book with bikini pictures in it, you clearly rubbed one off on it”. But gravure is titillating, it’s not on the same level as artist profile photos. In the previous episode, they even go so far as translating Gachikoi as “they really like that idol ^_^” whereas it means being in love with an idol. Like, dissolve the idol/fan relationship, “I want to date her for real for real” love. Gachikoi means that this love goes beyond supporting her dream and involves wanting her for oneself in your personal life.
I am not saying that these are necessarily reprehensible things1, nor am I even thinking it. You can be an adult and platonically support idols. You can even think “Yes, she is surely a fine young woman that could be the age of my hypothetical daughter” in a non-creepy way (maybe don’t use my wording, though). I know and love very respectable and respectful idol fans who are exactly the kind of people to give no mind to gravure. Heck, I am arguably the Horniest for Idols ™ member of the Homicidols staff. These nuances aside, I find that this sanitization of the idol experience in order to make it seem respectable both to us and to the exterior, uninitiated world is not doing us a service. At best, it simply glosses over a non-negligible part of the industry, at worst, it makes us sound disingenuous or in denial.2
Speaking of gachikoi, I thought Yuka’s assessment of the idol/fan relationship being like a regular at a coffee shop rather than having a wall between them was very interesting. It’s not the first time I hear this. A friend of mine once compared the oshi experience to going to his usual bar to see his favourite barmaid. But while there is no wall, there is still the same idea that this relationship takes place in certain contexts. While it’s not impossible that you could build links strong enough to hang out with your favourite barmaid as a friend outside of her work, it is more likely that she really appreciates you in the context of her work, but keeps her private life separate from the customers who happen to go to the bar and chat with her. And the same is true for idols and their fans. I am absolutely willing to die on the hill that the idol/fan relationship in their gratitude and how they remember you and bits of your life is genuine, but I also think compartmentalization is an essential part of this job, in order to keep yourself from burning out. I still believe this compartmentalization does not equate a 2.5D relationship.
Now, one very interesting and important element of this documentary that is not addressed is that the part of the idol scene that Derek documents also has a tendency to have older performers. That part is extremely good news for many idol fans and idol advocates in that it demonstrates that this is beyond a scene akin to watching an extremely good high school talent show. In Episode 2, for instance, Lilii Kaona’s producer talked about the fact that Koyuki and Yuka were adults when they started, which makes it likely that they have more more leeway in how they decide to live their life (compared to an adolescent doing this as a part-time job) and likely more life experience as well. Featuring performers who are (somewhat) older is an important debunking and an integral part of the current modern idol experience. It also vouches for the legitimacy of idol as a “genre” rather than something that performers inevitably get tired of.
All in all, this episode was the one that was probably the most consistent in having one very explicit theme and treating in a concise way. Despite this, it might be the episode I liked least so far. While the other two episodes really fired me up with new content and tidbits about idols I didn’t know about, I felt like this episode didn’t bring much of something new, if only maybe defending its points of few compared to the content presented in other documentaries on the topic.
1 Except,obviously, the “taking advantages of minors” part. That is absolutely, 5,000% reprehensible, don’t do that. Garbage. Gravure done by people old enough to know what it entails, then that is your business.
2 Should it be necessary to precise, I am not saying this is what Derek’s documentary is saying. A five hour (approximately, estimated) documentary series cannot and should not be expected to cover everything. This is part of a larger discussion on the conceptualisation and representations of idols. So literally all I am saying here regarding the documentary is that this translation of Gachikoi is a little sterile, and it works with the larger message that idol = support system that is the essence of this docuseries. But let’s not kid ourselves and pretend that there is no horny system in idol.