“I’ve never felt so passionate about anything in all my life. This isn’t a fad. It’s a religion.”
‘Tokyo Idols’, written and directed by Kyoko Miyake (‘My Atomic Aunt’), explores “idol” culture in Japan, where approximately 10,000 teenage girls consider themselves to be idols. They sing, dance, and remain pure and chaste for the pleasure and entertainment of their fans... most of whom are dorky middle-aged men that have few prospects in life, professionally or romantically.
In this Japanese-language documentary, we follow the girls trying to become stars (the idol industry is worth $1bn in Japan, even during the country’s prolonged recession) and using idoldom as a way of boosting their self-esteem.
It introduces us to several idols, each younger than the last. And with each, Miyake peels back another layer on the smelly, unsettling onion of fandom, as we meet the obsessive “otaku” (nerds) who follow the idols.
The film chiefly focuses on Rio Hiiragi, who is transitioning from her career as an idol on the underground circuit to that of an artist. At 19, Rio is all too aware she is approaching the “best before date” for an idol, and harbours ambitions to rebrand herself as a J-pop singer.
‘Tokyo Idols’ also highlights one of her most devout fans, Koji, aged 43, who saw about 700 idol shows in one year. Describing himself as adrift in a life “devoid of excitement” as a “salaryman” and searching for meaning, he thinks he has found it in following Rio’s career.
Several of the male fans in ‘Tokyo Idols’ admit to being socially awkward. Rio even performs a song called “Akiba Romance”, in which she describes her fans as “commusho”, meaning that they have “communication disabilities.”
In addition to mail-ordering personally branded plush toys and buying CDs, devoted fans can attend “handshake events”. These are not as innocent as they sound to Western audiences, as we learn that handshakes were seen as sexual in Japan up until the last few decades.
A supporter of 14-year old Amu reveals that he harbours something “close to a romantic feeling for her,” while another man says of Yuzu and her ten-year-old contemporaries, “their selling point is they are not fully developed. If they were older, they wouldn’t interest me.” Commentators point to the pressure of Japan’s long-running recession and a culture which finds infantilisation comforting and freeing. The fans’ “relationship” with the object of their adoration is viewed as a low stress alternative to the hard work of a real girlfriend.
In addition to mail-ordering personally branded plush toys and buying CDs, devoted fans can attend “handshake events”.
Journalist Minori Kitahana lends her feminist view on the idol craze. She indicates that men state that the girls “chose” this career path and therefore, everything that happens to them is okay. “They choose girls who are guaranteed not to challenge or hurt them. This society will stop at nothing to protect male fantasies and provide comfort for men,” notes Kiatahara. “These men never try to hold hands with regular women. They think they should be loved and accepted without making any effort.”
Kyoko Miyake’s film does a good job of portraying the complexities of the otaku mindset, particularly the loneliness and longing for connection. But, aside from a few interviews and lingering shots of sweaty handshakes, it skims over the fact that for some fans the idol attraction seemed to take on a queasy sexual form. We also never meet an idol who has emerged from the end of her career - where do these girls actually go when they are finally too old to sing and dance for these gross old dudes?
A few unanswered questions aside, ‘Tokyo Idols’ is a very strange, amusing, and uncomfortable look into a particularly odd facet of modern Japanese culture.