Tokyo Idols (MIFF)
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…draws a picture of a generation of men failing to properly connect with the real world and electing to live a safe, non-confrontational fantasy instead.
Japan often seems a strange country. It is similar enough to English-language cultures to feel familiar, yet different enough to seem a bewildering mess of contradictions and oddities. Take idol culture: teenage girls singing and dancing to cloyingly upbeat pop music, all the while developing frighteningly dedicated fan bases keen to pay regularly for photo opportunities and meet-and-greet sessions. They are the subject of Tokyo Idols, a fascinating but flawed new documentary by Kyoko Miyake.
The film primarily follows 20 year-old Rio Hiiragi, who is among more than 10,000 aspiring singers attempting to succeed as an idol. Rio sings and dances at small-scale concerts, holds Internet live chats with her fans, sells photographs of herself in various outfits, and regularly meets her most ardent fans at so-called ‘handshake’ sessions. Those fans are almost entirely middle-aged men. It is an immediately discomforting set-up that Miyake then explores over the course of her documentary.
It initially seems like some appalling sort of legalised paedophilia, with idols starting their careers as young as ten years old and with a seemingly endless array of nervously obsessive men following their every move and gesture. As the documentary unfolds, however, it begins to reveal a much more complex cultural phenomenon at work. Through a combination of fly-on-the-wall observations and interviews with idols, commentators and self-professed ‘otaku’ (the middle-aged obsessive fans), Miyake draws a picture of a generation of men failing to properly connect with the real world and electing to live a safe, non-confrontational fantasy instead. They find intimacy not in an adult relationship but in the momentary touch of a handshake and the security of worshipping attractive teenage girls who will never reject or argue with them.
It seems an odd combination of insecurity, sexual desire, romance and an almost paternal affection all at the same time. It would be easy to ridicule or even demonise these otaku, but Miyake carefully allows them to express and explain their lives in their own terms. For some it reveals quite disturbing pathological obsessions. For other it shows a surprising self-awareness; one man, who broke up with his girlfriend and started spending all of his money buying merchandise and access to Rio, openly admits he has effectively ruined his own life.
The film is an imperfect one: Miyake focuses her camera carefully on the otaku, and sidelines the broader audience that exists in Japan for the teen idols. You can see the women in most of the concert scenes, carefully framed so at to effectively render them invisible. As presented Tokyo Idols would suggest that middle-aged otaku comprise the entire audience for idols, yet while the otaku are clearly widely prevalent the documentary itself notes that idol culture is a billion dollar business. The most popular idol band, the pop culture juggernaut AKB48, regularly sells new songs and albums in the hundreds of thousands. By focusing so tightly on the most negative aspect of idol culture, Miyake creates an incomplete and slightly dishonest film. This is a shame, because the debate at the core of the film remains a fascinating and provocative one.
Idols – both male and female – already have a growing fandom in the English-speaking world. Those fans may be attracted to Tokyo Idols by its subject matter, but may come away feeling a little confronted by some of the truths behind the phenomenon. For anyone new to idols it does provide a strong and engaging insight; it is simply a shame that it displays an incomplete picture.