Running Time: 89 mins
Director: Kyoko Miyake
Writer: Kyoko Miyake (Screenplay),
Many people will be aware of the glitzy and glamorous world of idols which is slowly but surely encroaching on mainstream life due to its increasing ubiquity thanks to the money it makes and the fact the culture is cultivated and energised online. There are many opinions on how innocent it is as unbelievably cute females have their innocence and erotic potential fetishised for profits by record labels but what is the reality?
Tokyo Idols is a documentary by Kyoko Miyake, a Japanese filmmaker based in London. She studied history at Tokyo University before studying the history of witchcraft at Oxford University. Miyake has stated in interviews (Women and Hollywood, for example) that her film is an exploration idol culture which offers a critique of the disconnect between men and women. Partly inspired by her own experiences as a woman growing up in Japan where refusing to be a cute girl was seen as an act of defiance, and her recent awareness of idol culture and its obsession with young female sexuality, Miyake covers a lot of ground as she analyses profound issues through the lens of the idol industry.
Miyake gives a platform to a plethora of idols, fans, music producers, parents, children, and cultural commentators to ensure the film has a choir of voices which she carefully orchestrates into harmonies and dissonances, forming a polemic that forms around an energetic lead vocal in the form of Rio (website), an idol on the verge of greatness (and her twenties when the filming begins in 2015).
We see her career from mid-tier idol with a dedicated fan-base following her on the underground idol circuit, all the way through to a brighter and glitzier future with the composer/musician Hyadain. From the get-go, her training and motivation set the screen ablaze as she makes her own internet show, performs on stage, creates her own goods and music videos, and converses with fans live and over the internet. She shows an industriousness that is awe-inspiring and her passion is reflected by her fans such as Koji, 43, a salaryman who went from listening to western music like U2 and Bryan Adams to leading The RioRio Brothers – Rio fans who show up at every concert to RIO RIO RIOt.
His story is a sad song that other male idol fans in this film echo. He was jilted by someone just before marriage and now, glow sticks in hand, he rocks out with other mostly middle-aged men (and a few women) to the pop tunes of Rio where he finds comfort in the solidarity of fandom and the kindness of Rio herself as she amenably presents a cute and caring facade and fawns over her fans. Not only that, he acts as an organiser of Rio’s fans, a loyal supporter who shows up at every live event, and appears in her music videos. There are other, more alarming examples Miyake unearths but the recurring message she paints is real women were hard for the fans to deal with so they chose the convenience of idols who they have some control over through financial backing.
Every party reveals their story in candid direct-to-camera interviews where people discuss the value of idol culture in their lives, how it has given them friendship or consumed them entirely. Amidst the talking head interviews are journalists and academics who place idols in a wider cultural context, linking fan behaviour to lowered levels of self-worth and a need to escape into fantasy felt amongst people following the 90s economic crash and how the internet has fuelled this escapism. This idea is linked to Japan’s falling birthrate and other issues. The journalist Minori Kitahara is particularly vocal on how society is geared up to protect male fantasies and comfort men at the expense of women.
It is tempting to see this conflating idol music and population crisis as hyperbole but Miyake links everything together quite convincingly and, apart from moments where she actively engages an interviewee with a leading question or two, she let’s people talk for themselves and prove her point as they state that real women are “too much work” and there is “no incentive to be in a relationship these days.”
Most of what Miyake unearths isn’t revelatory in any way since it is out in the open but there is one unnerving section, a disturbing trend of recruiting a young generation of girls into idol culture.
It seems that there is an increasing number of girls as young as ten opting to take to the stage and Miyake interviews candidates from underground idol groups. Their stories start off innocently enough as enjoyment in dance classes lead to recruitment by managers and then the disturbing stuff starts as they are taught to see their own physicality and the comfort they offer to men as their most important value. Miyake shows this in creepy sequences where hordes of middle-aged men fawn over girls, talk to them in a childish manner, shower them with gifts, and talk about the vulnerabilities and strengths of individuals in a way that is almost predatory.
It is disturbing to see children recruited and the way the culture warps an individual’s perceptions makes terms like “brainwashing” and “indoctrination” feel more appropriate to use and so Miyake cleverly completes her critique of gender relations as we see girls taught to believe that being at the centre of a male fantasy is a career option.
Miyake’s approach to this material means she leaves out a score of other voices which prevents this film being the definitive take on idol culture. There are many female fans of idols, some of whom are in the front-row at Rio’s concerts. There are many male idols, a large part of the culture (Johnny’s being the most prominent group) and they have a legion of female fans. Indeed, there is not much information on the work of talent agencies that dominate careers or the artists with more control over themselves. It is possible for idol culture to be innocent and even beneficial for a potential idol by teaching them self-reliance, self-confidence, determination, and how to look after themselves physically, but that isn’t explored here. Also not explored is the troubling treatment of idols who are exploited, made to go on dates, and those who have their creativity locked away and worse. It might be argued that the prominence given to idols is oversold considering Japan is rich with other types of music. These are not issues Miyake wants to look into.
In seeking to paint a particular picture of imbalances in gender relations Miyake presents an interesting and very relevant take on them through this film which is clever in the way it sells its arguments over the control of women by using the aesthetics of idol culture, footage of concerts and more and it acts as an interesting riposte to various AKB48 documentaries. Miyake succeeds in making her arguments and audiences will gain insights into the culture. This is just one truth. There are more documentaries that could be made.