Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (2020) by Kyohei Ishiguro

Yui Sakura (Someguro Ichikawa), known familiarly as ‘Cherry’, is a quiet, thoughtful young high-schooler, working part time at a day care centre for the elderly, and spending his free time compiling haiku. Yuki (Hana Sugisaki), known online as ‘Smile’, is an outgoing social media influencer who has taken to wearing a face mask to avoid revealing the braces straightening her buck teeth. The two bump into each other at the mall and soon form a strong friendship despite their differences. Yuki agrees to help Yui find a record for one of the old people at the care centre, Mr. Fujiyama (Koichi Yamadera).

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” treads familiar ground as a feel good teen drama, with strong visuals, and simple, brightly-coloured art, giving it a dazzling quality that instantly captures the imagination, creating an upbeat, enjoyable, summer atmosphere in keeping with the characters and setting. The character and world design all utilise a simplicity of style with recognizable characteristics, this stereotyping further emphasised by the use of nicknames for many of the main characters, including ‘Cherry’, ‘Smile’, ‘Japan’ and ‘Tough Boy’. The story too is pared back to its most basic elements, essentially a youthful summer love story twinned with Mr. Fujiyama’s search for the missing record and his own forgotten romance. With an upbeat pop soundtrack and colourful animation the film is a perfect watch to lift your spirits.

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” creates a tension between the traditional poetry form of haikus and the ultra-modern elements embodied by Yuki, such as an obsession with mobile phones, social media and celebrity. The film brings haiku to a contemporary world, showing the power of words and poetry. The “beauty through simplicity” of haikus is an ethos that aptly describes the film itself. The story, the visuals, the animation, are powerful precisely because of their simplicity. Examples of this include the moments where we see Yui and Yuki in split screen, drawing our attention to their similarities and differences. Yui wears headphones to avoid having to engage with the world, while Yuki wears a face mask avoid the attention of the world. It is these moments that make the film such an enjoyable watch; what appears on the surface a straightforward story, on second glance has so many elements just below the surface. It is possible, just as with a haiku, to find genuine beauty in this simple romantic tale.

Burst City (1982) by Sogo Ishii

A wild joyride through the heart of the punk subculture of the early 1980’s, “Burst City” offers a snapshot of the rebellious spirit of a generation. The film revolves around a number of punk gangs and their struggles against the police, each other, and the development of a new nuclear power plant. Every night these leather-clad young men and women gather to rock out to punk bands, take drugs and drag race. Meanwhile, two vigilantes on a motorbike and side-car, drive around looking for revenge for an earlier murder; and a man pimps out a young woman to wealthy businessmen.

“Burst City” plunges us into the heart of the riotous, chaotic heart of the punk movement, capturing and embodying the essence of anarchism, youthful exuberance, violence, and excess that typified it. The plot, such as it is, takes a back seat to a montage of exciting moments, whether it is people engaging in racing their tooled-up cars or the musical performances of several popular punk bands such as The Roosters, The Rockers, and The Stalin. It feels at times much more like a documentary than a film, a collage of characters and scenes that come together to present a complete picture of the period. Sogo Ishii’s direction embraces the spirit of the punk subculture, with a dizzyingly active camera often fighting its way through the action, flashing lights, speeded up footage, and raw energy and creativity mirroring the energy of the subjects. The punk aesthetic exudes from every frame and the rough way the plot and scenes hang together only adds to its charm. The music provided by the punk bands involved also offers a raucous, passionate rage to the film.

As a cultural documentary, “Burst City” offers us a look at a startling and era-defining time. Anti-authoritarian youth sub-cultures found their most strident voices in the punk movement. The shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still hung over post-war Japan, morphing into the activism against nuclear power and nuclear weapons through subsequent decades. Ishii’s film does not delve too deeply into the values and politics of its protagonists. Though we see them fighting with the power plant developers and the police, this seems to be largely down to them being seen as natural enemies, rather than an in-depth discussion of the rights and wrongs of their position. In one amusing scene we see a group of punks asking each other what day it is and what they should be doing, their supreme goal to bring down the goverment and authority forgotten in a haze of alcohol and fatigue from nightly revels. The film seems to both promote their values, while also criticizing their lack of meaningful contribution to society. Likewise, we see this moral ambiguity in the treatment of women. While the young woman forced into prostitution is raped and abused by the businessmen. her horrifying ordeal stands in stark contrast to the mixed-sex congregations of the punk band audiences, and the genderfluidity of their fashion and make-up choices. We also see the drug use affecting the scene, with people lost to the needle, while others enjoy more harmless pursuits. The punk scene is shown as one full of contradictions, with violence and agression sitting alongisde youthful joie de vivre and a search for fun and community. If you want to understand what the punk movement was about and what it meant to those who lived through it, this film offers a warts-and-all portrayal of the scene.

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.

Our 30 Minute Sessions (2020) by Kentaro Hagiwara

A recently deceased young man is given a second chance to make things right with the band and girlfriend he left behind. In a montage sequence we see Aki (Arata) meeting his girlfriend Kana (Sayu Kubota) on the way to a music festival; he starts a band with his friends and Kana; they have their fallings out; and Aki is later killed in a car accident. Later, Sota (Takumi Kitamura) a socially awkward job-hunting graduate finds a tape player Aki had dropped. When he hits play, Aki’s spirit is magically transferred to his body, while Sota is left to watch himself in an outer-body experience. The two soon discover that the tape player offers Aki the chance to live again for 30-minutes at a time inside Sota’s body. When he is not inhabiting him, Aki appears as a ghost who only Sota can see or hear. Sato realises the outgoing and jovial Aki can help him with his as-yet unsuccessful job interviews; while Aki wants the chance to get his band back together and make Kana happy again.

“Our 30 Minute Sessions”, directed by Kentaro Hagiwara from a script by Satomi Oshima, treads some familiar ground for the young adult romantic comedy drama. The premise of a ghost returning in an attempt to reunite with his lost love is given a fresh take with the use of the tape player and its various limitations. Singer Arata is great as the exuberant and eternally hopeful Aki, giving off an energy that makes us root for him, meanwhile Takumi Kitamura’s Sato is the perfect foil, a young man struggling to come out of his shell and discover his potential. Sayu Kubota as Kana is charming and the band all have good chemistry in their interactions.

Music plays a central part in the film and much of the cinematography is reminiscent of music videos; stylish shots and metaphor heavy montages. At one point it even tips into a musical number that does not seem out of place with the rest of the film. Montages are used in the film not as a shortcut but in a genuinely impactful way as they emphasise the themes of time passing and the partial and imperfect form of memories. The film wastes no time either in this approach, with the opening sequence in particular being a perfect example of efficient storytelling without long establishing or expository scenes. The story has few unexpected twists as once the premise is established there are certain beats that are bound to be hit; but with excellent performances and clever interweaving of narrative and theme it is impactful when it wants to be. As with any film involving magical elements, many things are left unexplained, however the film is well-paced and heartfelt enough that the plotholes and narrative trickery rarely detract from the story.

“Our 30 Minute Sessions” deals with the theme of death by instead focussing on the memories that the deceased leave behind. Aki explains to Sota that the tape recorder he uses to record song ideas has been taped over numerous times, largely erasing what has gone before. This is something that Sota, who is overly concerned about every detail of his life and how he is perceived, finds hard to comprehend. Aki’s philosophy is that life is for living; there is no point dwelling on past memories, but instead we need to be constantly moving forward and creating new ones. This is not to say that he should be forgotten, but rather that the best way to honour him is to continue moving forward with that same positivity and lust for life. When Sota first meets them, Aki’s bandmates and Kana have largely shut away their memories of Aki. They do not wish to continue with the band, or play the old songs. Sota’s appearance, quite literally embodying Aki’s spirit, gives them licence to begin enjoying life again, and truly respecting his wishes to be happy. An entertaining drama that breathes new life into a familiar format, with great music and a superb cast.