Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Japan First Hand: The Wide Wild Wacky Word of Chika Idols

When most people think of idols, they think of cute and sweet young girls aiming for mainstream popularity. Some may see them as distant role models, while others think of them as nothing more than models who pose with microphones. Although idols are often cute and moe, "denpa" is not often a word associated with them. I too didn't see much overlap between idols and the world of denpa, so I rarely took notice of idols in general for many years, until at some point, the world of  "地下アイドル" (Chika Idols) started to spark my interest, and I realized the world of idols goes far beyond the stereotypes.

"Chika" literally means "underground", which is where you'll have to go digging around to experience the awesomely fun and definitely obscure world of chika idols. (Some prefer other terms like "Live Idol", "Indies Idol" or "Real-kei Idol".) The different kinds of "idols" you can find is almost endless, so you might as well forget most of your preconceived notions about what an idol should be, from performance to looks to personality. Often, people have the negative image that idols hate their "gross" and "kimo ota" fans. Meanwhile, many chika idols aren't afraid to hop in the audience and join in the otagei while waiting for their turn to perform on stage. It's not to say that they aren't ambitious and aiming to be their best, but you get the feeling many of these girls are happiest performing this way: close to fans, in small venues, rather than the distant "star" feeling so often associated with the idol world.

Most chika idols are, like the term implies, quite underground and unknown, so in order to garner up enough funds for lives, joint lives with many artists are the most common way to see them, so even if you are only a fan of one or two artists, you'll become more and more familiar with lots of other artists over time, and feel a strong sense of friendship between their collaborations rather than rivalry.

Here's a few artists who have stood out to me in my relatively short history exploring the world of chika idols:


FICE is a group that just emanates such a purely WEIRD vibe, it kind of feels weird to apply the term "idol" to them. Going to their lives is like being transported to another dimension - strange music blares as the audience dances in perfect unison to the members on the stage, who include some comical, alien characters in addition to the expected line up of girls in an idol group. Their lyrics vary from suggestive to just outright weird, with songs like コンチ音頭 or even venturing into the world of BL by writing the OP song for Naked Butler.

At first, FICE can be shocking and even confusing, but any denpa fan will quickly pick up on the appeal. Their music is not necessarily cute or moe, but when you look back on their past, you can see how they evolved as a fusion of idol and denpa and culture. FICE was founded in 2001 when 炎 (e-nne meaning "fire") and 氷 (hyou meaning "ice")  chose their identities as FIRE and ICE and started performing together claiming to be androids, making their own original music under the concept of "Denpunk", meaning "Denpa" and "Punk" fusion hailing from Akiba. Back then, idols were not particularly popular, and terms like "akiba-kei" idols simply didn't exist. The closest thing was "pre-idols", who were all basically idols seen as having potential for a major debut. They attempted going to these kind of events, but found themselves quite out of place. Being the pioneers they were, they decided, if there isn't a place for us, well, make one! They began performing on the streets of Akiba, renting out karaoke rooms and doing joint lives, and performing in the first budding otaku restaurants. However, their street lives were featured on TV, and soon Akiba's steets became crowded with tons of performers, often with bad manners. Eventually street lives became banned in Akiba, but FICE's impact was already made, and to this day they still routinely hold join lives with other up and coming chika idols, working as performers, event promoters, composers, lyricists... They do it all. And don't forget they also perform with a full band under the name FICE座RAINBOW.

FICE is definitely inspirational in the way that they built their own place to belong instead of trying to fit into a pre-decided mold. At their recent 10th anniversary live, they proudly proclaimed they don't plan on stopping any time soon, and are looking forward to their 30th anniversary and beyond.

One of the most unique aspects of a FICE performance is not the performers, but the audience. Split in half between fans in blue shirts and pink shirts, they stand to either side and do slightly different choreography depending on which side they are on. The dances are quite unconventional - one song even has the audience doing squats, push ups, and laps around the venue. Usually when you think of idols, you think of cute girls up on stage basically being worshiped  by the audience, but FICE's lives are completely different. Rather than worship or admiration, the feeling is friendship and unity, considering the audience is performing along. It's not about being cool, or even about being cute. It's about embracing nerdiness, weirdness, and DENPA... and it sure is refreshing to take a step out of the real world for a while, forget about society, and step into FICE's fantasy world.

Official site • Official blog • GREE blog: • Official Youtube • えんちん twitter • ひよちん twitter

らめる (Rameru) (aka 珠洲ノらめる)

Mixing the world of doujin music with idol music, plus add a splash of cute artwork on the side, and you have Rameru. Her name comes from KyaRAMERU (Caramel), and she is just as sweet as the candy! Maybe you remember her from the doujin circle "caramel paradox" where she teamed up with CHEEBOW in 2008. She also formed the unit "さんせっと…" in 2009, both have since disbanded, but Rameru continues releasing her own solo music at M3, plus performing at numerous chika idol lives. Her music ranges from cute and soothing to funny and denpa. You can really feel the earnest effort she puts into everything, from drawing the album covers to working up the audience at her live performances. One of her best idol buddies is 栗宮まろん (featured later in this article), and they're teaming up for a 2 man live "らめる&栗宮まろんツーマンライブ~キャラメル☆マロンラテ~" on 10/30 at 大塚deepa! Who out there cares to join me, huh?? In the mean time, you can check out the recordings of their past web show together, まろん&らめる の 笑っていいかも?

I was first drawn to her CDs while browsing at M3 and the cute cover artwork caught my eye. After a quick sample listen, I snatched up some CDs based on her recommendation of which were the most "denpa". Since then, I'm always looking forward to chatting her up at the next M3 or live event, and we even have done art trades! "Sweet" doesn't begin to describe the kindness! I finally got to see her perform live at J-Geek, and confirmed she is great live in addition to her CD recordings. Denpa, doujin music, and idol fans should all keep their eye on her. Her goal is to become an anison singer, and I'm cheering for her all the way!

Homepage • Twitter • Nico Nico Douga Mylist

メトロポリちゃんV (Metropoly-chan V)

Another wacky idol who's attitude is pure crazy denpa. Unlike your average idol who stays up on stage... Metoko-chan (Don't call her "Metro-chan!) isn't afraid to not only hop off stage, but... beat her fans to death?? Is this kindess or not?? Don't worry, it's all an expression of love! Being an actual nurse, her outfit took inspiration from none other than Nurse Witch Komugi-chan, or more recently traditional moe-nurse cosplay, and violence inspiration from Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro-chan. Metropoli V-chan describes herself as an idol who's  the fairy of the subway living underground in Tokyo Metro's subway system by day, and working as a nurse by night. She used to go by "Tokyo Metro-chan", based on the idea that subways (chikatetsu in japanese) is underground just like a "chika" idol. However, Tokyo Metro didn't like her using their company name, hence the name change. (Supposedly her current name was suggested by Tokyo Metro's lawyers.) (The "V" is pronounced "Five" for those who are wondering.)

Probably best known for her "unique" way of expressing love for fans by beating them with a giant syringe  she has appeared on many variety shows in Japan, bewildering "normals" by exposing them to the wild side of chika idols. Claiming to be born on 7/4/1941 (currently putting her at 71 years old!), her real name and any other personal details are completely unknown. She is quite cute, but she isn't afraid of acting completely weird, dorky, and over the top, charming otaku and frightening normals, respectively. If you're looking for an idol who is the sweet and refined type who has a perfectly trained voice... look elsewhere. Metoko is here to kick butt and make you laugh!

DnS readers probably know her from the occasional doujin music collaboration, but to this date, she's only released one album as far as I know: 撲殺天使ドクロちゃん -メトロちゃんVersion-. The title track is her cover of the iconic Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro-chan OP song, filled with her trademark mix of cuteness, violence, and humor. Check out all the other tracks, and you'll find a pleasent mix of slower, uptempo, even rap songs, all oozing with Metoko-chan's unique character. I surprised myself by getting addicted to the somewhat slower paced "東西線あなた専用車両", which references lots of station and line names familiar to those who ride the Tokyo Metro subway system. The actual sound of the song is somewhat melancholy, but the weird background vocals and lyrical puns make the song quite hypnotic. She also has one single, 「恋は一撃必殺~120%ラブパワー~」, which I haven't managed to get my hands on yet.

Of course, like with most chika idols, the best way to experience her performance is live! For those of you who can't get enough Metoko-chan but can't get to any of her lives in person, check out the other CDs she's been a guest on, and cruise her many clips on youtube to cure (or fuel?) your Metoko fever.

Photos via ブゅるっグ and Akibamap

Homepage • Twitter • Blog

森永まみ (Morinaga Mami)

 No stranger to DnS at this point, Morinaga Mami aka "Mamipyon" has quickly become one of my favorite artists. Taking inspiration from old school tokusatsu heros, Mamipyon takes the identity of a hero of justice, fighting evil aliens and the like. Her most common opponent is "Tarirariran", the little girl evil alien who is usually seen wearing a randsale backpack and/or bloomers. Tarirariran's "evil" is usually limited to petty crimes such as pretending to cry and then stealing the lunches of school girls who comfort her, but she is Mamipyon's rival none the less. These stories are played out in short drama tracks on CDs, skits during lives, or video productions screened during the costume changes at her lives. (Her mini episode featuring Super Mami and Tarirariran is available on Nico Douga, for a fee.) The best part is, every role, from Mamipyon to Tarirariran, to Tarirariran's masked minions are all played by Mamipyon herself!  The humor she injects into these skits is great, and the B-movie grade production values are endearing to anyone familiar with old tokusatsu TV shows. Despite her current career as an idol, Mamipyon's initial goal was to become a seiyuu, and she attended seiyuu school while performing street lives in Akiba, singing her famous "Tornado" song even back then. She also is the leader of the unit TEAM雪月花 (Team Setsugekka) along with 杉田琴美 (Kotomi Sugita)  and 桜田麻乃 (Mano Sakurada) and used to also be in the spacey band known as NECOMIMI☆スペースノイド.

Very active in the chika idol live circuits, Mamipyon has some of the most dedicated fans out there, and she is always kind and thankful to all of them. At a joint live with other aritsts, she covertly mixed in with the audience during the finale, and then surprised me by approaching me personally to thank me for wearing her t-shirt and cheering for her. It doesn't get much more personal than that! But of course, the most important thing to me for any artist is their songs and voice, and Mamipyon does NOT disappoint in these areas. I always lament she doesn't have more samples up online to help spread the word of her awesome songs. The PV for Tornado is at least available on nico nico douga now, but I assure you, she is much more than a one hit wonder. Her wild denpa songs are extremely fun to listen to live and go wild with wotagei, but it's just as fun to listen to her cute voice and wild music on headphones at home. Mamipyon really is the whole package when it comes to a DENPA idol.

Mamipyon photos via Girls News

Blog • Twitter • Nico Community

Mini features:

栗宮まろん (Kurimiya Maron)

Another chika idol aiming to be a seiyuu, this cute and talented girl sings lots of great covers of Momoi Haruko, Karen Girls, and others while proudly proclaiming her love of denpa songs. Unfortunately, she doesn't have a dedicated homepage, only a blog, so finding out info is a bit difficult. As far as I can tell, she hasn't released any CDs, just a DVD which appears to be more gravure focused than music. Her one original song I've tracked down, "UP TO ME", sounds quite promising, and anyone who covers Momoi songs is worth checking out in my book. I'm looking forward to her 2 man live on 10/31 with Rameru to become more familiar with her, as I've only seen her live once so far.
Check her duet with らめる covering 太陽曰く燃えよカオス!

Youtube • Blog • Twitter

Photo via R-Family


Their music isn't denpa style, but from their wild visual-kei style to their tradition of passing out tequila shots and chugging the rest of the bottle in the crowd, this group offers a unique experience you aren't going to find anywhere besides a chika idol live. Yui Kanan and Minori Takei's wild style is certainly a far cry from idols who could create a scandal by drinking alcohol. They love both cosplay and visual kei style, mixing up cute, cool, feminine, and masculine. Another unique factor is they have performed overseas quite a bit and put effort into connecting to their fans around the world online. Any of our readers see them at Japan Expo or any of their other overseas appearances?

Homepage • Blog •  Facebook

Photo via Deadly Kawaii


This contrasting pair of Shibuya gal 『立花さな』 and Akiba-kei moe voice girl 『はるかぜらんらん』 are regulars in the chika idol world, evident when you attend their lives and the entire audience starts dancing in unison to their complex para para dances. Known for their sexy outfits, they are notorious for going on stage in a costume with no skirts, just bare shimapan. They were even stopped by another performer as they walked out on stage who hurridly warned them, hey, you guys forgot to put on your skirts!!

Photo via 綾川ゆんまお's blog. From left to right: 立花さな、綾川ゆんまお (Collaborator, not a member of noisy), はるかぜらんらん.

ゅん((・∀・))ゅん (yun((・∀・))yun)

Self proclaimed denpa artists, I am eager to track down some more info and experience more of their lives, as I've only seen their brief guest performance at FICE's 10th anniversary. Another blue and pink combo who isn't afraid to mingle with the crowd in their otagei antics, going by the names of 白湯 (Paitan) and 天空みりん (Amakara Mirin).

Youtube • Blog • Paitain Twitter  • Mirin Twitter

You might be wondering at this point, WOW, these artists sound so amazing, why haven't I heard of them before?? Where can I hear / see more?? And this is where the downside of chika idols comes into play. Most of them run on a shoestring budget, working other jobs to support their idol career. Online promotions for the most part are very low priority and limited to a personal blog and twitter account, and maybe if you're lucky, a few poorly shot live videos. Online PVs, song samples, online ordering, purchasable song downloads, all are few and far between, which can make it quite exhausting to follow multiple artists, especially for those outside of Japan. I personally really hope that more chika idols learn from the doujin world, who strangely are often even better than most pro artists at promoting themselves online, understanding the value of videos, samples, and easy to navigate sites in addition to personal blogs. (Even if doujin music is still annoyingly difficult to order for those overseas, usually their online presence is good at least.) It's easy to see how effective good online presence can be when you look at how far Dempagumi.inc has come - full or short size free PVs on youtube, live streaming of concerts, itunes downloads, effective use of social media... We can only hope other artists see their success and follow in their footsteps. But one thing is for sure, if you are looking for a fun slice of otaku culture you can't find anywhere else, make sure to check out some chika idol events next time you visit Japan, you won't regret it.

Any readers have any chika idols on their radar they'd like us to check out? Let us know if there's anyone you'd like to know more about, and of course, comment on their blogs, twitters, and such to let them know they have fans across the globe!

No comments: