The Flowers Of Passion: A Journey Into The Japanese Idol Underground

The mysterious, unexplored world of the strange and wonderful chika idol scene.

It often feels like cultural obscurity is a thing of the past; like it’s hard to just ‘lose’ something from pop culture history when we’re hyper-connected and the internet stores everything in its collective digital memory box forever. In the past, it was easy for great bands – if not entire ‘scenes’ – to vanish from all but the minds of people who saw them live (especially since recording material of listenable quality was harder back then). You had to be there or you’d never know they existed, as brilliant as they may have been.

With technology having progressed so much since then, most bands are now able to record and release material, and have an internet presence that should ensure a degree of posterity. Yet, somehow, it’s still just as easy to ‘lose’ entire swathes of music. If anything now the problem is there’s just so damn much of it available at any given time and it’s hard to know where to look. Rather than just what your local record store stocked, we’ve now got a whole world of music at our fingertips. Great music gets washed away in the flood and is forgotten and obscure as it ever was.

This is why it’s so important for stuff that’s on the margins of pop culture to be properly documented. As every Reprobate reader knows, this is where all the best, most interesting things are anyway. Take Japan’s ‘chika idol’ culture, for example. Spinning off from mainstream J-pop idol culture, chika (underground) idols take the template of megastar girl groups like AKB48 but without all the corporate bullshit. Often self-produced and self-managed, chika idols rip up the rule book and take the concept of idol to the fringes of where it can go.

Burst Girl
As a result, there are idol units that perform black metal (Necronomidol), deathcore (Broken By The Scream), horror-themed grindcore (14th Generation Toilet Hanako-San), punk rock (Burst Girl), psychobilly (Melon Batake A-Go-Go), prog (XOXO Extreme), electro-swing (Craveit), hip hop (the Doping! Records gang) and much more besides. If this all sounds like it risks being a little ‘novelty’, it really isn’t. To limit it to just those bands who go to extremes does it a disservice. Anyone interested in leftfield music will find something to appreciate in its vast sonic playground. It’s a scene that’s sincere, tireless, bursting with creativity and amazing tunes in all subgenres. Chika idol acts are united by a punk spirit of DIY, an idol spirit of doing their best (頑張る) and a unique spirit that creates an environment between artist and fan that’s special and – when it works – surprisingly deep.

However, despite the seemingly obvious appeal, its very nature means it remains underground. Being underground is indeed part of the appeal. With the exception of a very small number of acts who broke the mainstream, chika idol is not just obscure but often frowned upon by many who don’t ‘get’ it and dismiss it as either pop fluff or something creepy where pervert uncles spend their nights in basements shaking glowsticks at young girls. Outside of Japan, it can be challenging to get hold of the music, nigh on impossible to see 99% of the bands live and even finding information is limited to a tiny handful of websites and forums. It’s as close to undocumented as it’s possible to get in the modern world, especially versus what a prolific scene it is.

This is why The Flowers Of Passion – Derek Vasconi’s five-hour labour of love that attempts to document the guts and glory of chika idol – is such an essential piece of work. As an American outsider who became an insider, Vasconi has both a unique perspective and exclusive access to his topic. Having gravitated to the scene via witnessing the legendary Guso Drop live, Vasconi began curating events in the US for chika idols, before relocating to Japan and working as staff for a number of acts. He also runs Idol Underworld, a website devoted to helping idol music and merchandise find its way to overseas fans as well as offering direct access to idols online. Despite never having shot a film before, Vasconi decided he needed to document all the incredible sights and people he was seeing and this is the result.

Merry Bad End
Split into five hour-long parts, The Flowers Of Passion is – above all else – an evident labour of love. It has its flaws but not even the harshest critic could say it wasn’t made with a great deal of blood, sweat, tears and heart. Shooting and editing on a shoestring with an extremely limited crew, the film’s production is indeed in the DIY spirit of the idols it documents, but it’s surprisingly well-shot. Vasconi has a good camera and an even better eye; Flowers looks fantastic, with a consistent aesthetic that succeeds in making the viewer feel like they’re as lost as Vasconi is in the neon-drenched underworld of Tokyo’s ‘live houses’.

The first part introduces idol through a brief history, before setting up the modern chika scene by interviewing Asakura Mizuho, who was part of pioneering group Bellring Shoujo Heart. She’s a perfect interviewee for the introduction and has a lot to say about what many see as the golden age of chika, offering real insight for fans new and old. From there, however, the film does start to lose structure a little, favouring a series of extensive interviews and live footage over presenting a start-to-finish story. While parts two to five are split into themes (the music, the fans, the daily grind and the triumph of the live shows, respectively), the inevitable crossover of intrinsically linked subject matter means a lot of the footage feels like it could’ve slotted in pretty much anywhere.

That said, Vasconi makes a wise decision to keep his focus on just a small number of idols, as the scene is so huge and it’s easy to go down myriad rabbit holes. He also sticks with the acts he’s visibly, deeply passionate about, although this is perhaps a double-edged sword. It affords him both access to and a degree of emotional intimacy with his subjects, which makes the footage he shoots feel exclusive and, at its best, deeply engaging. But it also means that he suffers a little from attachment issues – his evident fandom makes it harder for him to ‘kill his darlings’ and apply a more prudent edit to some of the footage.

I worry that The Flowers Of Passion falls into a challenging place in terms of finding its audience. Casual viewers will be put off by the loose structure and investment of time required. As an introductory overview to chika idol, it would need substantial tightening. There’s footage here that really only has appeal to existing die-hards and, in watchability terms, feels more like it’d make a nice DVD extra than be part of a film. Sadly, some of the live footage falls into this category, as it’s shot by one guy on one camera. While it does create a certain ‘realism’ that puts you in the moment, the sound quality and lack of dynamic editing means that if you’re not already into the songs or the artists, some longer live sections can feel a bit draggy. It’s a shame because, at its best, idol is electrifying live. To be fair though, you do get a few tastes of this here, in either the shorter clips or the occasional performance where it all just works no matter what (e.g. NaNoMoRal’s insanely high energy show, or the eerie, sparse rehearsal footage of LiLii Kaona).

It’s an admittedly difficult tightrope to walk. It’s clear that Vasconi wants people to see what he sees and love it to the same extent, and he does make a convincing case for the most part. It’s just almost a shame there isn’t a 90-minute cut for the curious that could slice this down to just the best footage and be a total firecracker of a film. That said, and coming back to the eternal conundrum of art, perhaps aiming for a larger market goes against the countercultural spirit of the groups here. Perhaps it’s best that a documentary about such a niche topic is a niche work in its own right?

Either way, there’s no disputing that The Flowers Of Passion has hit on an excellent, very rarely covered topic and wrung some superb footage out of it. Even the full five-hour version is a huge treat to existing fans of the acts it covers, who will be enraptured by the depth of the footage that’s on offer.

14th Generation Toilet Hanako San
14th Generation Toilet Hanako-San is perhaps the most interesting subject here, as her whole approach – roleplay as a vengeful ghost while performing an act that mixes hyper-aggressive grindcore with screwball humour and a lot of fluids being thrown around – is so out-there. Being able to understand a little more about what drives her to do this was fascinating and she comes across as a glorious oddball in the best way. The interview with her feels penetrating and funny, loaded with poignant soul-searching as well as insight into her art. Also, the footage of her extreme live show is rare and exciting to watch, with the guerilla camerawork actually making it feel even more dangerous and urgent in this instance (filming is usually strictly forbidden at Hanako’s shows – probably for your own good unless you want a camera covered in milk and noodles!).

The idol who goes on the most interesting narrative story here is Chihiro from Merry Bad End, a newish rock idol act, formed and initially self-produced by Chihiro. The film strikes gold with her story, which is quite remarkable, in terms of how she got her start, the creative side of what she does, the way she makes ends meet (including nightshifts at an idol theme bar) and her heartfelt drive for Merry Bad End’s success. Ultimately, the revelations she makes in the interview about her upbringing are the film’s most shocking, emotive scenes and where it really feels like it has a story to tell about the redemptive power of music and about why and how idols are the hardest workers in the business.

On the more joyful end of the spectrum, there’s some extremely charming footage of boy/girl duo NaNoMoRal talking about their friendship and a really interesting section in which we see LiLii Kaona create their beautiful tribal dreampop song Rust from scratch. Music nerds will definitely get a kick out of this but it’s also a magical reminder that even music that’s often looked down on by the types who blather on about ‘real music’ takes considerable effort and artistry to craft, produce and arrange. These are just a handful of examples, but there are some excellent scenes throughout that show off both Vasconi’s documentarian skills and the quality of the idols’ work. It’s also arguable that, with the wealth of footage here, everyone will walk away with different favourite moments.

So while The Flowers Of Passion is not exactly an accessible Beginner’s Guide, I think anyone with a bit of patience and a love for outsider culture will find at least a regular feature’s worth of stuff to love here, one way or another. For existing chika idol fans in the west, it’s a must-see and I think even Japanese fans would appreciate just how far behind the scenes of this notoriously secretive scene it gets to go.
Most importantly though, this stuff now has a document. A real film that shows what it’s like and why it matters. As episode one’s epigraph reads “idols are here today, gone today”. It’s an ephemeral, fast-moving scene and being able to capture this one moment of time, this handful of acts and the magic they’re creating is invaluable. For that alone, it’s worth your time now and – who knows? – twenty years in the future this may be all that remains to show any of these amazing, fascinating people were ever really here.
The Flowers Of Passion is available to stream here:
And to purchase on DVD here, with a variety of extra treats:

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