Idol Underworld is finally releasing their documentary about underground idols titled The Flowers Of Passion; here’s a review of the first episode!
If you follow even just a bit of the alternative idol scene, the name of Derek Vasconi will probably ring a bell: whether it’s for his previous and current collaboration with some groups or his idol-themed web store Idol Underworld, it’s clear that he has been working in this world for a while. Last year, IdolOnChaos did an interview with Derek, in which he mentioned the documentary about the underground idol scene he was working at the time; finally, the documentary is being released and now I’m going to review the first of five episodes of The Flowers of Passion: Stories from the Underground Japanese Idol Scene.
Let’s start by giving some context to this work: the underground idol scene is by definition a very niche world — at least for us in the West — meaning it’s something you probably discovered thanks to your deep interest in Japanese alternative and idol music; it’s like a niche scene born from two niche scenes, which makes it not really easy to find randomly. The Flowers of Passion takes for granted that you know more or less how the underground idol scene works and its target audience is people who already know this world and want to know even more; it’s not meant to explain the complete history of idols from the beginning to the modern days, it’s literally what its title says: stories from the scene, told by some of its protagonists.
Sure, there is a nice introduction about how the concept of idols was born and developed through the years in Japan, and it actually explains — although very quickly — how loud and alternative idols came to be in the last decade; but being so short, it’s clear that this is just to put some context on the main content of the documentary.
The Idol Stories
The first episode features a few groups and artists, some of which also appeared in the Know Your Idol interviews; however, instead of introducing them, the documentary goes more in depth about their experiences in the idol scene. I’m not going to spoil you everything of course, but let’s say that if you are interested in idols such as Mizuho Asakura (formerly in Bellring Shoujo Heart and now in SAKA-SAMA), NaNoMoRaL, Usakura Beni from Avandoned (now in FRUN FRIN FRIENDS) and MERRY BAD END, you’ll be glad to get a good amount of unique content about them.
All the artists involved prove that they indeed have their own stories to tell, and they all show the huge effort and the hardships that idols need to overcome; but, of course, there are also positive stories of actually overcoming these hardships. From the harshness of AQBI Records founder Koji Tanaka regarding Bellring Shoujo Heart to the difficult start Chihiro and MERRY BAD END had to deal with, passing through the deep artistic connection of the two NaNoMoRaL members and the interesting thoughts on the meaning of being an idol of Usakura Beni, the documentary delves into all the kinds of different experiences idols faced during their activities.
Interviews aside, you will also get to see very peculiar aspects of the idol life: not only small portions of live shows, but also idols chatting with fans during buppan and cheki sessions. This is something you probably would experience only by attending an actual show, so it’s a nice bonus for people who never had the chance to go in Japan.
I’ll be honest, I’m no big expert regarding audio and video quality, so I’m not going to pretend to be one. But let me point out a few things.
First, I was pleasantly surprised of the fairly good sound quality of the live shows and especially of the chatting with fans parts; it’s not something that obvious, and I’m glad that the quality allows us to get a very good taste on these aspects.
At the same time, I want to praise the fact the documentary does a good job at being visually interesting: the interviews are shot like you would expect them in a documentary and the switching between them and the live recordings are made to give you enough time to enjoy both of them.
All in all, judging from this first episode, The Flowers of Passion is an interesting documentary made for idol fans, and by who used to be just another fan and now works behind the scenes of this world. You can buy or rent The Flowers of Passion on Gumroad.
THE FLOWERS OF PASSION: Stories from the Underground Japanese Idol Scene – Ep. 1
We had the chance to have a chat with Derek Vasconi, mastermind of Idol Underworld; we talked about his past, current and future activities in the idol world.
Welcome on IdolOnChaos. Most people probably already know what you’ve been doing in the last few years, but would you mind giving us a short introduction about your work in the idol scene?
Hello everybody! My name is Derek. I have been working the past few years in the idol scene in Tokyo in supportive roles, both direct and behind the scenes. This includes working as buppan staff and international tour coordinator for the idol group, Necronomidol, which I recently have stopped doing. I also created Idol Underworld, a website dedicated to helping foreign fans acquire idol merchandise and chekis from idol groups here in Japan. I also have done several tours for various idol groups, including organizing, promoting, and actually driving around groups all over the world and flying everywhere with them. These groups include Necronomidol, Yanakoto Sotto Mute, Oyasumi Hologram, 14th Generation Hanako-san Of The Toilet, and even non-idol Toriena (who likes to play shows with idols).
Let’s go a little back in time: before entering the idol world, you’ve been playing in a post-math-metal-something-core band called From A Second Story Window and I’ve discovered that you’ve also been in N.A.M.E., or at least that’s what the Internet says. Would you tell us about your past experiences in the music scene?
Yes, so what seems like forever ago, a different life even, I started the band From A Second Story Window. It was basically metal music for people with A.D.D. It was just… crazy, random, but totally insane music. I wrote the first two albums for the group and toured the world with the group. I left that group and then soon after joined the group N.A.M.E., but was only in the group for a very short time. I played like… one live show and that was it. It never went anywhere, unfortunately, but these days N.A.M.E. does play shows here and there and are still just as incredible as they were back when I joined them. I would say even more incredible these days.
Back to the present, or more like the recent past. You’ve been working with Necronomidol as their international tour coordinator until recently; as a result, the ultradark idols got to bring Cthulhu’s favorite music around the world. How would you describe your time with Necroma?
Well, working with Necroma had significantly changed my life and impacted me on every single level of my existence. It was my first time to truly and completely become immersed in the real idol scene in Tokyo. Ricky, Necroma’s creator and manager and producer, showed me so much in this scene and taught me a lot and introduced me to many of the idol groups I now currently work with through Idol Underworld. Working with all the Necroma members directly was also an eye opening experience, as I got to see what it truly means to work and grind day to day as an idol group. I experienced the struggles, highs and lows, and the incredible, almost mind-defying accomplishments that the Necroma girls day after day had done while I was with them and around them. It was truly one of the best honors and privileges of my life to work with them like I did. I will never forget them. Ever.
Now let’s talk about your main project, Idol Underworld. What is IU’s goal?
As stated earlier, the goal is to bring idol merchandise to foreign fans in a way that is safe and easy, since it’s not so easy to really acquire idol merchandise unless you actually come to Tokyo and go to shows. However, IU’s goal is truly something even larger than this, as my goal really is to promote idols and make it so big and important that one day I’ll see at a live in Tokyo more foreign fans than Japanese fans. And also, I plan to establish IU as a kind of brand name, with doing possible overseas tours sponsored by IU and also taibans here in Tokyo too. And also create idol good exclusive to IU, such as sponsored photobooks, and interviews, etc. Many ideas are being considered and worked on at the moment. We’ll see what happens as I develop the site and increase the fanbase into something much larger than what it is now.
Aside from Necronomidol which you were already close with, you’ve been adding many interesting idols. Some of them are quite well-known like Pikarin, Burst Girl and Hanako-san, other ones are more underground such as Squall and Satanic Punish. How do you choose the idols to include on Idol Underworld?
Some of them came to me directly and asked to work with me, which was very humbling. Others I just have known from the years of being both a fan of idols and working with them or knowing them because Necroma played so many shows with them. My main goal right now is to work with groups I personally like or seem to have a real desire to reach out to foreign fans. Or just catch my eyes or the eyes of people I know and respect here in Japan and overseas. I often ask customers of IU who they want to see me work with, and I take those suggestions seriously as well. But mostly I have to like them, since working with groups means I have to deal a lot with them every single month and I want to be around idols I actually care about and enjoy personally. So… many factors, I guess, go into who I decide to work with, but always at the end, it’s been an incredibly rewarding experience to work with every group and solo idol I’m working with at the present moment.
Aside from CDs and DVDs, Idol Underworld sells merchandise like photobooks, chekis, clothes and accessories. Is there anything you would like to add in the future?
Yes, definitely! Whatever idol groups want to put up on the site, I’m game to try and see what we can make of it. Also, I want to eventually do downloads for digital music, and possibly concert tickets you can buy if you plan to go to Tokyo or abroad to shows I set up overseas. And of course, I might even decide to pull an Ichiho and sell bags full of garbage from idols and see if that sells. Bonus points if you know what I’m talking about there lol.
About The Idol Scene
Outside Japan, the idol scene is mostly seen as a niche genre, although in recent years it got a little bigger also thanks to the new generation of unconventional idols and there is surely potential to make it grow even more. Do you feel that Japanese idols and their staff are willing to get more audience outside their country?
Yes, definitely willing, but actually doing it is a whole other thing. Many groups have no clue how to do it, which is where I come in and try to help them. A lot of them love the idea of having foreign fans, but that’s just it… the concept is about as foreign as the actual fans they would get if they were to really sit down and think about how to make it a reality. Because for starters, the language barrier is so big that it automatically makes these groups say whatever and just move on and kind of pay lip service to foreign fans but that’s about it. Because those lips can barely even speak a whole sentence in English. And likewise for the foreign fans who like idols but can’t communicate more than a few basic words in Japanese to these groups. So that is a very gigantic hurdle that both foreign fans and idol groups and their producers have to figure out how to jump over to reach other. Many often opt to not jump at all.
But, again, many of the groups I’m working with have BEGGED me to help them do this… they want to reach more people outside of Japan. They saw what I did for Necroma and OyaHolo and YanaMyu and know that I’m the person who can make it happen for them, and so often they really come to me on bent knees and really say they’ll do whatever I tell them to do to make it happen. And a lot of them listen to me too, which is super super super humbling, because I’m seriously a nobody. I’m just some random dude who deeply loves idols, because they’ve saved me from my horrible life reality, and so I want to give back to the idols. And I think they know that and so they want to work with me because the idol scene kind of runs on certain kinds of passion, such as otaku passion, wota passion, and crazy people passion. I fall into that last category, I think lol.
The rise in popularity of idol music can also be seen through the birth of idol-inspired groups around the world; there are even some in Italy, for example. Do you think that this format can work outside Japan as well?
Honestly, I used to think it could, but I’ve seen how horrible a lot of the idol groups are outside of Japan, so I’m not sure it can anymore. Because many groups that start outside of Japan forget who they are trying to emulate and imitate and then begin integrating their own cultural references into what they think is idol and then it immediately becomes something else. A hybrid of Idol that is more of the culture those groups come from than the Japanese idol bunka. And that pisses me off, if I’m being REALLY honest, because it’s lessening the beauty and value of what Japan has created for our pleasure and satisfaction. I mean, don’t get me wrong… if you do idol correctly outside of Japan, I could support it. But very, very, VERY rarely do I see it happen with these so-called idol groups outside of Japan. I think if you want to do an idol group and aren’t from Japan, you should come to Japan, study the idol scene for a few years, learn to speak Japanese as perfectly as possible, and then go back to your country and do idol CORRECTLY, as in the manner and tradition of what idol is here in Japan. I know that is a strong opinion to have, but I just have not seen it done all that great by groups outside of Japan. I wish I could say the opposite were true, and maybe someday I can, but for now… yeah, not really seeing it.
Working in a scene so deeply rooted in Japan as a foreigner may be challenging, but having a different background can also make the difference in some cases. Do you feel that your non-Japanese origins affect how you are working in the idol world?
I do. When I first started working in the idol scene, I had to seriously undo everything foreign about me and redo it in the style and pattern of how things work here in the idol scene in Japan. For example, when you first arrive at a venue and greet the staff and idols and their producers, you need to say ohayo gozaimasu which technically means good morning, but you say that first. Then you have to say otsu-kare sama desu to idols and producers and staff every single time you see them at the live after that. And that’s something that replaces what I would normally do when I would go to shows before in my life in America, which was high fiving people, hugging them, saying, what’s up?! and so on. I had to learn a level of formality that is truly different than what I was brought up with in the States. Add to this the fact that there is really no physical touching in the idol scene, and that also kind of puts a weird kind of splinter in your movements here. Like, I’m a hugger, and I kiss people on the cheeks sometimes, and love to shake hands and high-five people and all that. You can’t do ANY of that here really, or else that can get totally and completed mis-interpreted as something else entirely by those around you. Especially the idols. And also… you have to keep a kind of barrier that should almost never be crossed. I say almost never because there are times when you have to, but it’s rare. I’m talking about when I’m with idols. Like, you don’t get into their personal lives, unless it’s something that’s unavoidable, like if the idol is sick and you need to know why they are sick. Then that kind of conversation is okay, but you have to keep things super professional and not so chummy and again… something totally different to my gaijin instincts to do.
This is the very tip of the surface, but yeah, as a foreigner working in a very distinct Japanese scene, it’s been incredibly difficult to re-align how I think and act here and try to be something that is more suitable to the needs of the Japanese people and idols and their staff and the fans here. They are accepting of my foreign side… to a point. But nowadays, it’s not really an issue… I’ve figured out how to still be myself and please those around me who I work with, since many of them do see me as one of them due to how much grinding I’ve done over the past two years working with idols and being in every live house imaginable here in Tokyo and Osaka and Nagoya and just… being a fixture as one of the only two gaijin really working in the entire scene. Everybody kind of knows me or knows about me, or just accepts my presence because of how I talk to them, since I know what to say and how to say it so that they identify me as staff, or not a fan. Though sometimes the idols will still treat me as a fan, and that is when it can get funny as hell and I play right back and yeah… those are fun moments where the foreign stuff comes into play to my advantage, as I can then pretend I’m a dumb foreigner who doesn’t know anything and the idols play along and it can get interesting when that happens. But that’s also kind of rare these days, I suppose, since everybody knows who I am lol.
Since you work with idols, you surely are constantly checking on the scene. Are there any groups you would recommend us to keep an eye on in 2020?
Wow… that’s a hard question for me to answer, but I would say every single group on IU, for starters. Merry Bad End are absolutely ridiculously talented. Their leader, Chihiro, is also at the center of my upcoming idol documentary I’m making. She’s a very rare talent in the idol world, and has a great story, and her voice is unbelievable. I would say Satanic Punish is a group to look forward to as well, and Squall, who are going to surprise everybody next year, I think, with some of the stuff they have planned. And HAMIDASYSTEM… my God, their new album DOWN… it’s seriously the definition of re-invention, considering HAMIDASYSTEM was down and out for the count in 2019 but then came back in a huge way with what they are doing now. And so on. There are just so many groups to really keep an eye out for, including a few groups I’m about to start working with in 2020… one of them is really going to take the idol world by storm, but I don’t want to say who that is just yet… keep your eyes peeled for them to appear soon on IU, since they kind of came out of nowhere and really have improved who they are and what they are doing. This group who I can’t name… yeah… they are going to be big. Like ZEPP DIVER CITY big. There’s a hint for ya lol.
Looking back at 2019, which are your favorite idol releases of the year?
Ah, so many. So so so many. I would say Necroma’s EP of course was a highlight for me. HAMIDASYSTEM’s DOWN cd, Merry Bad End’s Diamond Single was ridiculously good, Squall’s debut CD, all of CY8ER‘s stuff which blew them into the stratosphere and now have made them actual major artists, and Lilii Kaona’s new CD… I listened to that CD for like everyday for a month straight. It was the best music to feel emotional too, as that group knows how to bring the feels out of everybody and everything. Oh, and Nanomoral’s new cd… Miku is still as adorable as ever, and Paceli-chan constantly writes songs that just are super catchy, infectious idol pop goodness.
I guess that’s all for now. Thank you very much for your time. If you want to say anything else to our readers, you can do it now.
Thank you, everybody who continues to support me and what I’m doing with Idol Underworld and also with my vision to bring idols to the rest of the world. Please consider supporting me on Patreon, where I offer you an even more in depth chance to support idols you love through things I’m doing and need help with. Also, please keep your eyes open for my documentary I filmed about idols. It is set to release sometime in 2020, and also, if you want to talk about idols, or have an interest in bringing idols to your country and have actual finances to do it and want me to make it happen, lets talk! I’m open to working with anyone out there who wants to also bring idols to the Western world. And also, if you are coming to Japan and want to go to an idol live and want me to come with you, I would love to do that! Just hit me up! All my contact info is below, as well as my Patreon account. Thank you so much! And please keep supporting your favorite idols! And thank you so so much for your kindness these past few years!
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