Tokyo Living Dead Idol (2018) by Yuki Kumagai

When the lead singer of a popular idol group, Tokyo 27-ku, is bitten by a zombie, she has 72 hours to find a cure before the virus transforms her. Miku (Nana Asakawa) comes off stage with her bandmates, Moe (Yumeri Abe) and Yuri (Runa Ozawa), arguing about their performance. After starting as underground idols the trio are beginning to gain popularity. However, this is put on hold when a zombie takes a bite out of Miku’s arm. Miku flees, with police sent out to search for her, and teams up with a small-time detective (Shogen). The two of them set out to find Dr. Kumozawa (Koichi Takamatsu) and Alicia (Chisato Koizumi), whose blood is rumoured to be a cure for the zombie virus. They must also evade the attentions of the Zombie Hunters, who roam the streets of Tokyo.

“Tokyo Living Dead Idol”, written and directed by Yuki Kumagai, brings a few new elements to the zombie mythology. In this tale the zombie infection takes three days before beginning to rot the brain core and turn people into the flesh-eating monsters we all know. This gives an impetus to the story as Miku races to find a solution to her problem before it is too late. For this low-budget film it also means they can largely avoid having to do large crowd shots of rampaging zombies, with the populace here appearing largely unphased by the occasional infection. The film does feature a few entertaining, anime-inspired, fight sequences, with katana-weilding zombie hunters; and the inclusion of parkour zombies is another fun addition. The plot is workmanlike, establishing several threads and tying them all together neatly, albeit sometimes without much fanfare (as in the case of Miku’s reunion wiht her bandmates at the end of the film). The comedy is largely in the dialogue and situations, with some of the best moments coming through off-hand remarks. Not all of the jokes land and the horror is sometimes undermined by overuse of CG blood rather than practical effects, but the final third provides an action-packed and emotionally fulfilling climax.

The blend of two popular subcultures, idols and zombies, is unique and entertaining. Miku is not a typical heroine, being portrayed as arrogant and disrespectful to her bandmates early on we are nevertheless sympathetic when she is bitten. Miku, Moe and Yuri are played by members of the Idol Group Super*Girls, which lends some believability to their performances. The film comments on government corruption, with the man developing the zombie viruses in kahoots with the department responsible for controlling them; the cure being withheld from the population until such time as it is financially beneficial for the government to release it. “Tokyo Living Dead Idol”, with its unique protagonist, also includes characters such as the two idol fans who want to protect Miku. These are contrasted later with a group of zombies who fetishise her, interested only in her sex appeal. It is an interesting concept, the positive and negative aspects of fan culture, also emphasised by one of the Zombie Hunters who turns out to be a huge fan of Tokyo 27-ku. This theme is never fully developed, but it provides an interesting angle to the traditional zombie story. The ‘mindless’ nature of much of the entertainment industry and fandom. “Tokyo Living Dead Idol” is a unique take on zombie lore, with the inclusion of idols and a countdown to becoming a zombie creating a fast-paced, horror-comedy for fans of B-movie action.

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.

Stream Flowers of Passion on Gumroad

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Hysteric Betty (2020) by Iori Kedakai

A story of female liberation starring writer-director Iori Kedakai. 30 year old Iori (Kedakai) is picked up by a fashion scout, Tomiyoshi (Tatsuya Nakayama), on a visit to Tokyo, who convinces the shy Iori to take some revealing photographs. He convinces her that it would be a waste not to use the photographs, so she uploads them on a social network and soon has a number of followers. When she returns to her hometown, her childhood friend Shui shares the photos with a much wider audience, causing Iori to flee back to Tokyo in shame. She soon makes friends with the members of an idol group “Betty’s”, Rei (Rei Horie) and Mami (Mami Misami), and a woman who works at an assorted goods store, Hitsuji. With this small group of friends, Iori learns what it means to be a woman, dealing with objectification, and the simultaneous lure and dangers of the modelling and idol industries.

Writer-director Iori Kedakai also stars in this film that gives us a look at idol culture and the effect it can have on people. The story is a journey of discovery for Iori, an outsider from the sticks coming to the big city, with all the promise it holds. The actors all do a great job with their characters, and Iori is a great protagonist, her meek manner at odds with the often vicious dog-eat-dog world of idols. It is interesting to see an idol group that is working at small clubs, dreams of major success still some way away, and all the actors have great rapport and chemistry in their performances. At times the directing is a little rough around the edges, being the first project from Kedakai, but it has something of the vitality and inventiveness of “Love and Pop”, capturing that brightly coloured, youthful energy associated with the subculture of idols. The film features sex and nudity, but for the most part this is hinted at rather than shown. Instead we see the film largely from Iori’s perspective, wide-eyed and innocent, constantly surprised by each revelation about her new friends from the city. The soundtrack is similarly exuberant, featuring hip-hop as well as the bright pop of “Betty’s” show.

“Hysteric Betty” has a lot to say about the female experience, the objectification and infantilization of women, and female empowerment. We see Iori coming to terms with the often conflicting narratives that are given to young women. On the one hand there may be a desire to be seen as sexually attractive, but it comes with the threat of exploitation and not being taken seriously. At one point we see an idol asking if they will consider her book idea, only to be talked down to and told she only needs to be cute, and not to worry about anything else. Iori’s relationship with Tomiyoshi too shows the dangers present for people lacking self-belief. In a twist on the usual stories, the idol group actually seem to find solidarity together. The character of Rei, who we learn does sex work beside her job as an idol, and Hitsuji, whose love of cute things is a disappointment to her mother, offer a heartening message that women should not be ashamed of whatever they want to do or be. A film about breaking free of the restrictions of society and following your dreams.