Most of the world is aware of Japanese idols by now, right? Those bubbly, talented performers that take the stage by the dozens to sing, dance, and look cute for our enjoyment are practically synonymous with Japan.
But like every cultural phenomenon, there is an alternative, underground movement. Called chika idol (地下アイドル, literally “underground idol”), these girls often veer into the wild, the weird, and the absurd. Also the extremely entertaining.
I was a late-blooming fan of Morning Musume, then boarded the Babymetal bandwagon rather early. While living in Osaka in 2016, I happened upon an underground idol show. There were regular seeming idols groups to be sure, but also more hardcore groups and even idol rappers. The venue – located literally 2 stories underground – was small and dark. I of course stood out. The fans at times worked themselves into a frenzy – with periodic mosh pits that I joined.
I met the group I came to see in the lobby while other groups performed, and got a signed Polaroid (cheki) with the member I liked. After the show, more groups sold pictures and merch in something I learned was called buppan (物販), which is really half the experience.
Since moving to Tokyo in April 2017, I’ve gone to countless underground idol lives. I’ve immersed myself in – and arguably become a part of – the culture. While not quite the disciplined, polished performers you may seen in an AKB or a Hello Project group, there is so much to appreciate with underground idols: the independent spirit, the outlandish gimmicks, the intimate setting, the ardent fans (otaku). I am a former GWAR slave, after all, so it’s right up my alley.
That said, I wanted to call out my dozen favorite underground idol groups. It wasn’t easy to narrow down (hence 12 instead of 10), so every entrant deserves loads of respect.
12. Chan Miyabi, Queen of Drugs (佐倉雅)
She looks a bit frail, but Miyabi-chan can wail! Her “Queen of Drugs” gimmick is unique, as is her sound – which blends an almost enka (traditional Japanese singing) style with hard instrumental tracks. She often tosses baggies of powder and empty pill packs into the audience – who then dutifully sweeps them up. Because Japan. I bought a Miyabi CD recently and really enjoy it. She’s also a good artist, drawing her own impressive logos and art.
11. Mayumura Chiaki (眉村ちあき)
I don’t know much about Chiaki, to be honest, but her talent blows me away! She can rap, play guitar, and even thrash a bit, yet she’s always very professional. I almost hesitate to consider her an underground idol; she’s got more of a pop image. I’ve never gone to a live expressly to see her, but I’m always happy when she’s in the lineup.
10. Fetties (フェッティーズ)
This trio is the S&M/fetish idol group. They shatter every trope about idol purity by acting suggestively and whipping/shaming/seducing the audience. While they live the gimmick, it’s still done with a wink. But their buppan is the most entertaining – with the girls engaging in sexy cheki poses that will have your jaw on the floor.
9. Mazui Yo Dasshifunyu (まずいよ脱脂粉乳)
Translated to “Spoiled Skim Milk,” these two were themselves idol fans until October 2017. Now, Towa-chan and Pararin are charismatic and clever idols who spend as much time on stage sitting and eating as they do performing. “Mazunyu” share consumables as well – at times pouring scoops of powdered milk down fans’ throats. Their art is often self-created and cute, and their small library of songs has lots of variety – highlighted by a song named after the group itself.
Nakamura-san is an unassuming girl whose work ethic and comedic timing put in high standing. She’s in a group I’ll talk about later, but this is her solo DJ idol unit. It’s more performance art than anything, with her often playing with then demolishing a toy train for much of her short set length. I’m usually the only one dancing to her music; most are taking pictures and watching with rapt fascination.
7. Death Rabbits (です。ラビッツ)
This group should be the next big thing: three talented girls (Yuzu, Emi and Karin), a bellowing robot man (Bucho), and live-houses full of fans who know every call and every well-choreographed step. Cute and cool, with catchy songs that range from ballad to metal, this group may not be underground for much longer. Hop on the bandwagon now!
6. Nameless (ネムレス)
The human embodiment of vocaloid EDM – think Hatsune Miku in real life wearing a half space suit. If that doesn’t make sense to you, just know Nameless has frenzied music that leans into dubstep, and her dancing is equally high-energy. How she keeps up that pace is unbelievable, yet the girl herself is charming and chill. I rock her CDs constantly. Her shirts are great pop-culture parodies. Bonus points because she was at 1 of the 2 GWAR shows in Japan.
Truth is, I found out about most of the other groups on this list because they were on the same bill as GARUDA. A Taiwanese metal/industrial fan named Yuffie; this girl continues to level-up, add unique aspects to her already-dynamic performances, and pours her soul into every performance. Every time I see her, she brings something new and interesting. Her music really hits the sweet spot I look for, being heavy but not too negative. Every original song unlocks more of her vast potential. She’s also a member of a group further down the list. My little metal sister is something special.
4. 14th Generation Toilet Hanako-san (十四代目トイレの花子さん)
Babymetal gets bagged on by some metal purists for being “false metal.” I disagree. But I don’t think anyone could put that label on Hanako-san. Based on Japanese horror themes; her trademark eye patch, slit throat and school backpack (randoseru) paint a striking image. But when she opens her mouth, she lets loose the chihuahuas of Hell! This girl is metal as fuck! At the gym, Hanako-san’s music is audio steroids, making me lift heavier.
Her character is well flushed out (pun intended) and amusing; there is definitely a smart woman behind it. But the main event is when she takes the center of the floor and starts tossing/spitting food/drink at anyone within range. I got a bottle of ketchup dumped on me one time; a carton of soy milk poured on my crotch another. And because Japan, she hands out giant plastic bags first and everyone pitches in to clean up after.
3. Ayame Oguma (小熊あやめ)
To Ayame-chan, every concert she does takes place at the famed Nipon Budokan hall. She gets on stage with virtually no plan – often delaying to go get water or mess with equipment. During songs – which skew toward lighter J-pop fare – she may ride on or stand on a fan. It’s improv at the highest level, in my opinion – some of the funniest stuff I’ve seen in Japan. She’s cute and crazy, and maybe a little cruel.
After the first set of hers that I saw, she accosted me at the bar – punching my pecs and demanding I speak English to her (despite little comprehension if any). It may have been a grand scheme, however, because now I’m a big supporter. She’s recently charmed my girlfriend in much the same way. But when someone is so unpredictable and hilarious, how can you not want to attend every show possible?
2. Deadlift Lolita
I’m a muscular stuntman/actor/wrestler. So when I saw one of my own kind, but wearing an idol costume and calling himself Ladybeard, suffice to say it caught my attention. A wonderful performer who embraces his character in a way that would make late GWAR frontman Dave Brockie proud, Ladybeard also has the chops on stage and with a mic in his hand. He has paired with adorabuff female pro-wrestler Reika Saiki to form Deadlift Lolita! Their choreography, energy, charming MC moments and honed ability are most impressive! They even throw in some wrestling during some of their bigger gigs! In my humble opinion, their star deserves to rise much higher.
1. Melon Batake a-go-go (めろん畑a go go)
They dress like superhero sidekicks. But they’re idols from outer space. They use psychobilly music. They often sing about sci-fi horror themes. It’s a wild mixture that works beyond comprehension. I love Melon!
The girls are a diverse quartet. Senior member Nakamura-san (see SOZELICA above) works harder and seems to be having more fun than anyone else in the room! Yuffie (GARUDA above) brings an intensity and edge to the group. Master chef Rucatama is a soulful singer and sexy dancer. And Rune is cute and quirky, shy but clever.
They just released a new mini-album (SICKxIDOLxSICK), and a movie is on the way (full disclosure: I have a role in it). Their producer/manager is ambitious and a gentleman. Melon should continue to amass fans!