Belle (2021) by Mamoru Hosoda

Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a shy high-school student living with her father. When her best friend Hiro (Lilas Ikuta) invites her to “U”, an online virtual reality world, Suzu is transformed into “Bell”, a beautiful avatar with a voice that soon attracts millions of followers. While her online alter-ego gains popularity, Suzu remains largely unnoticed at school, aside from her childhood friend Shinobu (Ryo Narita), Hiro, and “Kamishin” (Shota Sometani), the lone member of the canoe club. Suzu’s enviable online life is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious figure in the guise of a beast, known as Dragon (Takeru Sato) whose shocking appearance and pugilistic lifestyle pique her curiosity. She sets out with Hiro to discover who is behind this avatar.

Mamoru Hosoda returns to some of the themes of his earlier film “Summer Wars” with this modern take on the “Beauty and the Beast” story set partly online. The world of “U” differs from most depictions of online environments with the futuristic addition of biometric transfer, meaning that individuals own biometrics are used to generate their avatars, and a fully immersive environment, allowing them to see and feel as if they were in that other world. There is plenty of familiarity in the plot of “Belle”, with Suzu having lost her mother; struggling to “find her voice”; several teen romances; a geeky friend; and the idea of an outsider figure being helped by the protagonist; but the film combines these elements into a unique story. Despite the nods to the older fairytale, and the inclusion of a few references to Beauty and the Beast (roses, a romantic ballroom dance), the film actually diverges significantly from this to the extent that it has few of the same themes. “Belle” tells its own tale creativitely, often breaking into collage like scenes of multiple people talking on webcams, or the touching montage of Suzu’s memories of her mother. This inventiveness transforms a straightforward story into something more heartfelt and engaging, utilising the techniques of online discourse (multiple references, and a more fragmentary style) to create something that feels modern despite its traditional storytelling. The animation is excellent with the online scenes reminiscent of the aforementioned “Summer Wars” and Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” in the numerous avatars. There are moments that are almost transcendental as we see the vastness of this online space, a modern tower of babel of a million voices calling in unison. Music plays a major part in the story and the songs by a team of artists are inspiring and performed with spirit. While the film is a little overlong, perhaps over ambitious in the number of subplots it attempts to weave in, it manages to hit its emotional beats every time.

“Belle” deals with several themes. Through the online world Suzu is able to rediscover her true self again following a withdrawal into herself following her mother’s death. This transformative power of technology is shown in more stark contrast with the story of Kei, who is escaping a tragic homelife of physical abuse and attempting to create a hero for his younger brother to aspire to. It is interesting to see a largely positive take on the idea of social networks and online spaces with the central message being that they should be used to supplement and aid us rather than becoming an all-consuming other life. The film also finds time for a satirical dig at internet commercialisation, with the self-important guardians of “U” appearing in front of a bank of sponsor logos. Hosoda does an incredible job of dealing with difficult themes, of loss and child abuse, in a family friendly film that manages to be uplifting and positive.

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.