One of the more baffling and maddening aspects of the pop music scene here for a lot of foreign observers, especially those who write about it for the English-language media, is the long-continuing and now overwhelming popularity of girl idol groups, whether or not their names end with "48." For the past three decades or so, I've read nothing but bad reviews of idols from outlander critics, who typically regard the entire idol phenomenon as another example of Japanese weirdness on the same level as maid cafes and their knapsack-wearing otaku patrons.

That weirdness is on full display in Yukihiro Kato's gory action musical "Idol is Dead," which features the idol ensemble BiS (Brand-new Idol Society). After a diminutive club hostess ends up tossing three members of a punkish idol group to their deaths in a street (or rather bridge) brawl, she recruits two of her mates to form a cover group to hide her crime. The ensuing action is bloody and cartoony, but the film entertainingly illustrates the strong, if twisted, bond that develops between idols and their more obsessed fans. You may not like idols more after seeing this film (though BiS on stage is infectiously energetic), but you will better understand their business model.

One who is trying to change that model, at least as far her own career is concerned, is Atsuko Maeda. A former leader of AKB48, the most popular of the girl idol groups, Maeda has focused on film acting since "graduating" (i.e., retiring) in August 2012.