Flowers of Passion: Stories from the Japanese Underground Idol Scene (2021) by Derek Vasconi

An exploration of the subculture of underground idols and the personal stories behind the performers, fans and producers. For those unfamiliar with the concept of ‘idols’, they are musical acts, with stylised song and dance numbers, that attract devoted fans who support them through their shows and merchandise. This documentary establishes the historical context of ‘idols’, explaining the origin of the term, and with a mix of academic commentary alongside performances and candid personal interviews, gives viewers a full overview of what the scene is all about.

For non-fans the documentary gives simple introductions to many important elements of the culture, these include ‘cheki’ (signed polaroids), birthday shows (performed to celebrate band members), as well as showing the amount of effort that goes in to their acts, with performers often doing their own choreography, strenuous dance practice, writing their own songs, and managing their own marketing. The idol scene has grown to encompass many genres of music, including motown, EDM, rock, pop, and almost any conceivable mix of styles. Whatever your musical tastes you are likely to find it represented here, or at the very least appreciate the talent and passion of the acts.

If you are already familiar with idols, or a fan of any of the groups featured, there is also plenty here to enjoy, with exclusive backstage footage and interviews with the group members and producers giving an insight behind the scenes. The documentary features ample performance footage that allows you to experience the atmosphere at their shows, often held in small venues that allow the unique interplay (in idol culture) between enthusiastic acts and fans. Some of the groups who are featured include, Avandoned (produced by group member Usakura Beni, who also works as a DJ), NaNoMoRal (a male-female duo of Miku Amamiya and Paseli Kajiwara), Merry Bad End (Yuina, Honami and Chihiro, a whose stated mission is to tenaciously resist the ‘bad end’ and fight for their dreams), Lilii Kaona (a duo of Koyuki and Yuka, produced by Michito Mishima, with a mature sound and stylish, sinuous choreography), and Hanako-san (who blends avant-garde performance art, a horror aesthetic, and a comic personality). The interviews with these artists are often incredibly incisive, revealing personal as well as professional secrets. Not only giving us background on their journey to becoming an idol, but what it means to them, and their thoughts on the scene. One particular interview, with Chihiro of “Merry Bad End” is particularly affecting in her candid discussion of a difficult home life and how becoming an idol helped her to deal with this. A striking element to these young women is their unbelievable drive and creativity, many in their late-teens or early twenties already thriving as self-sufficient musicians, producers and D.J.s, managing their own career and image.

What separates the idol scene from other types of performer is the symbiotic relationship of idols and fans, the idols giving the fans a form of escapism, a dream of a brighter tomorrow, while the idols draw from fan support to chase their own ideals. In episode three of the series, this topic is discussed in depth, with academics going so far as to suggest a religious aspect to the role of idols. For fans, the stage is their temple, the performers their priestesses, chekis are holy tokens. But what are they seeking for? The idol scene is described as a ‘life support system’, offering a form of joy in an otherwise monotonous existence. However, what comes through most strongly throughout the documentary is the importance of community and human connection. We see this between bandmates, with their cameraderie onstage and off, between fans in special bars and groups to share their hobby, and most importantly perhaps in the connection between fans and idols.

A second interesting throughline to the series is the idols’ and fans’ focus on their journey towards some notion of perfection. The idols are frank about their talent, often overly self-deprecating, under no illusion about the gap between them and stadium-filling superstars. But it is this quality, of being unpolished or not-quite-there-yet, that endears them to people. The fans get a sense of fulfilment from watching them improve each show, and the idols themselves find comfort in knowing that that support comes not from a sense that they are perfect, but imperfect, always on the cusp of fame, always striving to be better.

“Flowers of Passion” is written and directed by Derek Vasconi, who has spent a number of years as a supporter and promoter of the underground idol scene. He shows a clear enthusiasm and respect for the culture, both as a fan and as someone who takes the subject seriously, including interviews with performers, producers and academics who have studied the scene. The direction keeps things simple, allowing the idols and their performances speak for themselves, using long takes to bring the most out of them. The music by Shou Yanagita and Opus.Travellers bridges the sequences between live performances with a calm ambience. The way that the documentary is cut together, with talking heads, concert footage, backstage chats and more formal interviews, keeps things fresh, giving us a complete picture of many aspects of the scene, both performers’ public and private personas (often surprisingly similar due to an emphasis in the culture of being ‘genuine’). The filmmakers’ love for the idol scene is also evidenced in episode three, discussing fans, by rewriting the oftentimes negative narrative surrounding the largely male, middle-aged fanbases. This documentary series does a fantastic job in raising the profile of the idol sceen, shining a light on these talented artists, celebrating the passion and determination that goes in to putting on these shows, and the joy that both idols and fans get from being part of the culture.

This documentary is made both for fans and non-fans alike, an accessible work yet with exclusive access to the performers that makes it a pleasure for fans. Whether you are a long-time supporter of the groups featured, or completely new to the scene, you fill find something to enjoy here. Highly recommended both as an exploration and celebration of what makes idol culture so beloved by so many people.

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