Tokyo Idols (2017) Dir: Kyoko Miyake

Tokyo Idols    Tokyo Idols Film Poster

Running Time: 89 mins

Director:  Kyoko Miyake

Writer: Kyoko Miyake (Screenplay),

Starring: N/A

Website IMDB

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).

Tokyo Idols Rio

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.

Tokyo Idols Rio and Fan

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.

8 thoughts on “Tokyo Idols (2017) Dir: Kyoko Miyake

  1. humbledaisy1

    I’ve read about similar situations in the Korean music industry but not so much about the “lack of dating” situation for the general male public. You’re working abroad – how did you see the reality of the situation described as “no incentive to be in a relationship these days?”

  2. Hmm, I’m not in Japan anymore and I can only speak from what I saw from when I was there. I’ll qualify this further by saying I didn’t do the dating thing although the temptation was there. I went to a couple of mixers as a wingman but was more interested in having fun exploring and going to museums, festivals, and jazz bars and making friends. Anyway, my take is what I saw was nearly EVERYONE working really hard and that can sap a person’s spirit.

    People in employment were pushing themselves hard and it can be pretty expensive to entertain people if you’re time or cash poor. I guess that qualifies as enough of an incentive-killer for some men. You’re overworked, tired, rushing between jobs and bills so why add kids and a wife to the mix. Plus there’s pressure to get things right in a relationship but It’s not as if that’s unique to Japan.

    Some of the guys I knew (and they were all great) wanted to date but didn’t know how to get started when they had so little time or weren’t in a situation where they felt like they could because of demands from others. I’ll also say that the guys I knew weren’t into idols at all.

    In terms of heading to idols because real women are “too demanding”, I let out a sigh of exasperation whenever I heard that one. That’s down to personality. Idols are okay but I found being out with women was a lot of fun. Walking along the Sumida river and to an izakaya on a winter’s evening and just chatting for a few hours with no expectation of anything except affirming friendship was really exhilarating. Why consort with idols when you can have something genuine? Making friends and getting to know people at parties etc. was a lot of fun. Much more fun than going to idol concerts but again I guess that’s down to personality. I was exploring. Guys who live there permanently might feel differently.

    I’ll get off my soapbox now.

    That’s my take and it’s pretty shallow and I’ll admit that I am probably being naive and missed out on something.

    Thanks for reading the review, by the way 🙂

  3. But dude – idols…. 😉 😛

    Seriously, I only saw the slightly trimmed version on BBC 4 which conveyed enough to understand the situation, but what gets me is the way the men become fanatic at a grass roots level when the girls are still nobodies in small cafe’s.

    Obviously it is nice to have fans at that early stage who will support you on the road to something bigger, but I personally find their obsession hard to reconcile since the accessibility of the girls is more open compared to having a corporate safety bubble around them.

    I’m sure they are harmless enough but the detachment between fan and celeb is what keeps the relationship “healthy” in my opinion and makes it okay if/when one moves on to their next celeb crush – or even meet someone in real life. We don’t want “Perfect Blue” to become a reality now, do we? :/

    1. I totally agree with you. Even detachment isn’t enough to protect idols, though, since some do get attacked at handshake events and some get stalked.

      The sort of obsession that develops is predatory and listening to the fans talking, well, from their perspective it was innocent but coming from another culture where we have the debates that Miyake is provoking and our awareness of these issues and the seriousness we give them is greater or more open, it was incredibly troubling.

      The fact that we’re talking about this means that the documentary has worked so all credit to Miyake.

      I’d be interested in getting a documentary from the idol’s perspective and hearing what benefits and problems go with the job.

      1. I would expect the girls themselves would be typically polite and wholly appreciative of having a keen army of fans for fear of biting the hand that feeds them. This may be a genuine sentiment though, as it should be, but let’s face it – without an audience a performer is nothing, so even if they do have personal reservations, publicly nobody is going to denounce their loyal supporters should they end up alienating them.

        Perhaps they are protected from the worst case scenarios by their managers, agents, etc. and are told “smile, be nice and enjoy the ride” unaware of any potential danger out there while they rake in the money. Or maybe – just maybe – because Japan is hardly progressive when it comes to female empowerment, it is inherent in the girls to accept this for what it is and metaphorically “lie back and think of the money” since they are the honey that benefit the most from attracting these bees and their disposable income.

        For whatever reason, the Japanese appear to be the most obsessive when it comes to fandom, going beyond the usual perimeters of simply buying all their products, merchandise and attending live shows. I suppose we shouldn’t mock anyone for having a passion in life (we wouldn’t be film bloggers otherwise) but it seems our presumed British reserve holds us in good stead for knowing where the line is concerning hero worship.

        I recall seeing another BBC show about a British teen who became a YouTube hit in Japan and she would receive loads of gifts from her (male) Japanese fans on her birthday and at Christmas. One man even sent her a bass guitar – and i doubt the sender wasn’t a 16 year-old boy either! Then again, Stacey Dooley’s film about child/teen exploitation in Japan showed schoolgirls working at cafe’s where they serve older men who see it as a no strings attached job, providing a service to help hard working (but eager) salarymen unwind. So who is zooming whom?

        But as you say, culturally this is apples and oranges when viewed through our western lens and no explanation may satisfy our concerns, which we can’t help gauge by a different moral and social barometer, so we may never get the full picture anyway.

      2. I remember! The British girl you’re talking about is Beckii Cruel:

        I remember watching a documentary and reading how she went over to Japan and formed an idol group with two other foreign girls. I have no idea what she’s doing now.

        There are probably idols who have been mistreated or attacked who are eager to blow the whistle on issues but fear the consequences.

        One of the good things about this documentary is that everyone is pretty open and honest about exploitation from all angles. Will it last?

        Culture changes. Just like we’re transitioning in the West from patriarchy to parity it’s taking place everywhere else. I’ve met too many intelligent and brave and hard-working women everywhere to believe otherwise. We as men have to work together with women to make sure nobody loses out and gets hurt. That’s evolution for you. Those idol fans will have to get on board eventually…

  4. Ah yes that was her. It was he bit about the bass guitar and the scene when her Brit school mates were slagging her of ON CAMERA that stuck with me (more than her name did apparently!).

    I think if the dark side of being an idol was ever truly exposed then that part of the music industry would collapse and take a chunk of the Japanese economy with it – not to mention the lives of many obsessed fans, if they don’t turn into weirdo perverts and start stalking real schoolgirls instead… :/

    1. Politics behind idol culture aside, I totally respect what she did. Being able to travel to the other side of the world, appear on television, perform music. That’s great.

      Japan would survive the end of idol culture. There’s a lot of great music being made.

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