It’s not every day that we get new long form content from the underground idol scene, especially now that we are in this whole sanitary disaster. So it was with great curiosity that I rented Derek Vasconi’s first episode of his documentary series Flowers of Passion.
Derek Vasconi has made his mark in the idol scene through several ventures: he organized the East Meets West Music Festival, and went on to create the idol merch website Idol Underworld, which aims to make idol merch more accessible for overseas fans, as well as producing original merch, like the many idol exclusive photobooks. Idol Underworld also has a sister site called Cheki World, a second-hand market to allow oversea fans to sell and trade their covetable idol polaroids. Flowers of Passion is his first foray into film and his first documentary.
The hour long episode, first of a series of five, seems centered on the production and self-production aspect, as well as the historic roots of idols. It revolves mostly around Asakura Mizuho via Bellring Girl’s Heart & Saka-Sama, NaNoMoRaL, Usakura Beni from avandoned, and finally, Merry Bad End.
Now that you’ve clicked on “Read More”, let me warn you, I have a lot of thoughts about this film. You might be looking at the scrollbar on the right with apprehension in your eyes. Fear not, I divided this into subsections so it is a little easier to come back to if needed. If you don’t read all the sections and come for me in the comments, I will not shy away from telling you to look back at the article if I covered it. Enough meta, let’s dive in.
As you might have gathered, this first episode features an all-star cast. I think Derek manage to pick people to interview that are very significant to the scene at the moment and/or that have had a significant influence on the phenomenon. Their candidness is really impressive and yet, they are very articulate. I feel like every bit of the interview that was kept is interesting. For a first documentary, I think it’s very nicely shot, the colours are vivivd and the camera angle for the interviews often feel intimate without being too close. The editing is also quite good for most of the episode, I have watched the documentary more than once and it really fired me up both times. It also managed to make me interested in the featured groups that I was not already following.
Previous Documentary/Academic Coverage
You might remember the release of Tokyo Idols which I could have sworn I had reviewed here, but apparently not.
We have covered some accounts of the underground scene from the inside through the repost of Osada Soukichi ‘s The Idol Suicides and posted about some other documentaries.
We have covered through interviews what it’s like to import that subculture on the other side of the ocean as well.
If you need additional food or more academic sources on the idol phenomenon in general, you can check out Islands of Eight Million Smiles: Idol Performance and Symbolic Production in Contemporary Japan by Hiroshi Aoyagi (2005) or the more recent Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture, edited by P. W. Galbraith, J. G. Karlin (2012) or Patrick W. Galbraith’s book on AKB48, titled AKB48 (2019)
In the most miniaturized nutshell possible, coverage of idol in western academia is on one of two things: either the economic relation or the affective relation of fans toward the idols. But rarely, if ever, do they touch on idols’ own agency.
History & Context in the Documentary
After the credits and title card, the documentary opens with the quote “Idols are here today, gone today?”. While I appreciate diving right into the ephemerality of idol, I feel like the timeframe of this quote is a tad confusing. Gone tomorrow would have made more sense (and given them a fighting chance!) without compromising the expression of the fleeting nature of Idol.
The documentary continues in this slightly muddled way by jumping from “Ok, so idols provide emotional support while their fans financially support them” to Idols are a very Japanese thing because as a people, they had the trauma of WWII and atomic bombs” with little to no transition is a tad jarring. The context part does this a lot, overtly simplifying whatever history comes before the documentary. I know it’s winter, but statements don’t get cold, they don’t need to be blankets.
The documentary spends less than 5 minutes on historical context but it would have benefited from a few more sentences on the topic. I take issues with the writing, as “This symbiotic relationship between idols and their fans is perfectly suited for Japan, a country that has pulled itself out of the ashes of World War II, all thanks to its citizens joining together to rebuild their destroyed cities and countryside” is one hell of a generalization and contributes to the persistent essentialism of western discourse on Japan (also contemporarily called “Ahaha Japan is so weird and its people so hard-working and rule-oriented”). Post-war rebuilding was a lot messier than “everyone coming together”. Between other things, everyone did not participate equally in the rebuilding of the country (you know, the usual class division and unequal repartition of resources), as well as the additional divisive elements of poverty and famine on a population traumatized by the violence of the war and the fact that the government had maintained to the very end that the country was just about to win said war. There is also persistently used violence to repress unionization efforts and perceived communist threats from inside the country. Let’s also note that Japan also left Okinawa to US occupation for an additional 20 years after the adoption of the peace treaty dispensed the remainder of the country from American tutelage.
If you are about to say “Papermaiden, this is way outside the scope of this documentary”, you are right. But there are certainly better, more elegant and accurate ways to transmit a somewhat more historical account of the immediate post-war experience. Other dubious writing includes “[…] A country which was keen to rebuild itself and rejoin the modern world.” which sounds plain bizarre to me. First, what do you mean by “Modern world”? Is it supposed to be something like “the great western powers” or the G7? Because Japan hasn’t quit the “modern world” through losing the war. It has also stayed as an important presence alongside aforementioned “great western powers” since it was forcefully open around a few years after 1850. I am nitpicking because context is important, and documentaries should be accessible to people who don’t know the topic beforehand. Therefore, I believe it’s important to be accurate in your words, especially if it’s going to be as minimal as this.
While the documentary mentions how the term came to be, through the movie Cherchez l’idole, I feel like you should also discuss why that French movie was popular in Japan and how it came to hold such a cultural significance. The direct jump between 1964 to 2005 was jarring. Forty years is a long time span. I feel like just a few additional sentences would have added much more substance to the historical account, perhaps using the 80s as a stepping stone between 1964 and 2005. I am under the impression that solo idols were the thing at the beginning, and how that changed to groups like AKB48 and its different regional iterations is not covered at all. I might be wrong on the solo/group idol thing, but I feel like I missed something there.
The documentary is very right that AKB48 changed the game by making contact with idols more accessible, as it made the relationship with idols a much more personal one. For small groups like the ones covered in the documentary, SNS also played a big part in that “accessibility” part, as it allows people from afar (away from the metropolis of Japan and even overseas) to interact with idols that can be virtually unknown in their city of operation.
The way the documentary is written doesn’t express the distinction with the gap between what AKB48 and their myriad of resources is versus the shoestring budget and precarity of unknown idol groups as covered in their documentary. I know it and you, reader of Homicidols dot com probably know it as well. However, should this movie go on the festival circuit, or if I wanted to show it to my mother or your neighbor, they don’t necessarily have the background knowledge to make that distinction. It also seems to suggest that all the underground scene is counter-culture, when you and I know there are a ton of traditional, pastel puppy-love idol groups without an ounce of subversiveness that are also underground as fuck. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the fact that our so-called alternative idol trailblazer also include BABYMETAL, which is very much an experimental offshoot from a big company.
In short, I find that the initial exposé flattens a lot of the depth of the history of our side of idol. I know you can easily spend an hour discussing it, as do many other panelists who covered the topic at anime conventions. But there is still space for either some nuances or opening doors so that people who come to the documentary with little to know knowledge of the topic can do additional research after seeing the documentary.
The documentary also says that *some* idols began writing their own music and in a causal relationship to this, created a counterculture movement. I’m not sold on this, but we’ll get back to that at the end of the series, I suppose. I am also not sure about the “extreme competition makes groups strive” (paraphrased) but again, I’ll get back to you on that in 5 episodes.
I would *love* to see the idol group genre map from 10:31 in more details!
The Gender Question
It is not there in this documentary. I hope to be surprised by any sort of discussion on gender in this documentary series, since, much like this website, it covers almost exclusively female idols. Arguably, most of said groups are produced by men who are older and have more social capital than the young women they put on the stage. So I think it’s kind of weird to not touch on that topic at all. I will develop on this at different points in the next section, but while the aesthetics of cuteness and innocence have been somewhat mitigated by said counterculture movement, the ideas behind it didn’t really go away. The “cute idol” archetype hasn’t really gone away. First, this is an industry where looks are important. I have yet to meet someone who comes up to me and is like, “This is my oshimen because I think she is butt ugly and my repulsion made me buy 100s of cheki tickets”. A big attraction in the alt-idol scene is the “gap moe” of it all; the shock when you see a cute girl under 150cm scream like a banshee or a pig being strangled. There is still an expectation of perfection, physical and behavioral, that does not involve the polish of the skills themselves. The idea is that the girls work hard to get better at the craft of singing and dancing, but you are compelled by the stage presence and personality (this is where SNS is important).
And the “extreme competition” in the underground idol scene, as stated by this documentary, also contributes to the idea/self perception that the girls are expendable, or that they need to step up their game to not be discarded for a cuter, newer model. Regarding innocence, even in the alt-idol scene, you will upset people if you are like, “Listen dude, pretty sure your oshimen, who is an adult woman, is probably not a virgin”. The dating ban is still a thing in smaller groups contracts and even if it’s not in the contract, there is still this idea that dating is a form of “betrayal” because you are shifting away your attention from your fans. You still have to be a people pleaser even if your fans are big creepos. Agreed, some groups will kick you in the face if you get too close. But it’s not a norm. Edginess =/= emancipation from gender expectations.
Also, because the documentary transposes from the context to the interviews by asking “Can [the girls themselves] find what it is that they are searching for?”, I really hope we’ll get an answer to that question!
The Interviews & Group Focus
This is the meat of the documentary and where it really shines. The quality of its interview content doesn’t really exist elsewhere. You just don’t have this form of in-depth discussion of idoling in other media or interviews available in English because, usually, they serve as an introduction to the group. Having both producers and idols (and idol-producers!) allows for a tightly knit comprehensive account of their feelings.
I feel like there is such a shift in the energy of the documentary when they actually start introducing the groups. As soon as it switches to the Bellring Girls Heart coverage, you know we are in business and the tension is rising.
I don’t want to spoil all the good bits (there are many!), but here are some train-of-thoughts ideas I had based on what I gathered from the interviews:
One thing I noticed is that producers aren’t always kind with the girls in the group they produce. Despite lauding the (accurate) fact that fans appreciate the girls in all their imperfections, it is still heart wrenching to hear a producer say, “Oh, they were not good on stage” right after:
- He assesses that what makes idols good is how they move the public
- The public was going absolutely bonkers.
So I’m not sure where that statement comes from. It’s interesting to be, because the producers are working in the shadows, as artistic/everything directors, but I am not sure where the line between the vision they have and empathy for the girls exists. It’s always in the back of my mind when I see idols. It also reminded me of The Idol Suicides, as part of the appeal of idol is that because they have “no credibility”, they can do anything because it’s seen as insignificant/non-threatening. The “[…] futile efforts to replicate the feeling they used to have” really stabbed me deep in the heart.
I am impressed the documentary managed to capture footage from the conversations occurring during buppan, as it’s such an intimate experience, so it’s nice that the fans accepted to have their 30 seconds documented like this.
One thing that really surprised me was that Usakura Beni said she only really became more of a producer for avandoned around February-March 2019. She also discusses that they had a producer initially who eventually quit. I was under the impression that she took on the production mantle much earlier, but I think I am confusing this with her propension for DIY merch and other amazingly underground things. The avandoned reboot is refered to by Beni as Alphabet Avandoned, which is an amazing name.
I think Beni’s statement on the energy levels necessary to be an idol is very interesting, because I never considered that part despite the fact that my body started breaking on me in pretty notable ways after 25, which is not a unique experience. The way she emphasize the importance of individual “branding” or identity for idols, in order to be able to exist outside of the group if it disbands is very interesting as well. Considering how well the members of avandoned alphabet have done for themselves, I think she was right on the money!
Considering Beni’s sensibilities as a producer and what her personal projects are, I feel like Art Idol is a label that really suits her.
One thing I really appreciated is that the video footage manages to capture the energy NaNoMoRaL has on stage. Few groups have wowed me with the sheer lifeforce of their stage presence and this is one of them. While watching the footage of their shows presented in the documentary, I got the same tingly feelings of pleasure I did while seeing them in person.
I have a deep admiration for Paseli-san and I really appreciate the mutual respect between the two parts of NaNoMoRaL. Miku’s spontaneity and strength is really appreciated, while Paseli’s thoughtfulness is perceived acutely by Miku.
I checked and Shizuoka is like a solid 3 hours car ride from Tokyo, so that commuting must have been HARD.
Thank you for including photos of the cat, Derek.
I am not sure why they used Kari-uta in the subtitles instead of simply going for guide vocals (it feels a lot like “All according to Keikaku; TL note: Keikaku means plan”. The documentary also differentiate between the two types of merch sales (during the show versus after the show) without providing a translation for either of them. So Shuuengo Buppan is not explained at any point as a “after show merch sale” and it made me realize that a certain old school group really chose a confusing name.
Getting the last 20 minutes with Merry Bad End was sort of a surprise. I get that the fourth member is not part of the group anymore, but I was surprised to see her face being censored since the photos are otherwise public and available elsewhere on the internet. It’s really interesting to see the struggles of a self-produced group and the unfortunate friendship falling out that can come out of it. Now that they have been with an agency for a year, you can compare the advantages and drawbacks of being with an external producer as opposed to completely self-producing. It also gives you a really good idea of how time-consuming an idol group is (they meet 4 times a week, for shows and/or practices). It is certainly difficult to hold another part-time job with that schedule (although doable?) so it evokes the question of how important it is for idols to be able to make a living wage with their craft.
TL;DR: Yes, I did enjoy this documentary and I think you should give it a go if you are interested in this scene at all. I wouldn’t write nearly 3000 words on a subject I hated. I am awaiting the next 4 episodes with open arms.