Release Date: September 23rd, 2020
Duration: 20 mins.
Director: Ryushi Lindsay
Writer: Ryushi Lindsay (Script),
Starring: Ryoka Neya (Miyabi), Miyu Sasaki (Kasumi), Sawa Takahashi (Ami), Akira Takanohashi (Yoshimura), Yui Matsuura (Rie), Yuki Mayama (Junya),
Ryushi Lindsay is a British-Japanese filmmaker based in Japan and the UK. Even with just a couple of shorts to his name, he is beginning to carve out an interesting filmography as he works across genres and approaches subjects with an eye for the politics that underlie things.
Lindsay’s debut film, the experimental baseball documentary Kokutai (2019), finds uncomfortable parallels with the pomp and circumstance of fascistic events of the past and the current martial aesthetics of Japan’s popular national high school baseball tournaments. His latest, Idol, is a drama set in the world of girl groups.
Long a ubiquitous facet of Japanese entertainment, pop idols present a broad range of issues ripe for examination, from the objectification of performers to their role in the mass media in defining femininity and gender relations. These issues were looked at in Kyoko Miyake’s 2017 documentary Tokyo Idols. Idol uses it as background for a dark drama but focuses on the economic drivers that make the parents push their children to perform as we get front row seats of one parasitic parent’s extreme behaviour.
Taking place over two nights in Tokyo, the story enters at the point of crisis for a young single mother named Miyabi as her child idol daughter Kasumi is unceremoniously dropped from the line-up of a stage act just minutes before a performance and replaced by someone more popular. At first Miyabi argues against her daughters firing, then begs with the manager for another chance, all to no avail. She won’t give up and this sets in motion a foolish plan involving another child idol named Ami that will have viewers tensing up with a sense of foreboding.
This sense of foreboding is created through some smart choices in set decoration/locations to ground us in the harsh reality that Miyabi exists in and compelling performances that sell the behaviour of characters.
Running contrary to the glamorous images of mega concerts and dazzling lights that the word “idol” at the very peak of performance conjures up, this 20-minute film is more a social realist glimpse at the miserable foothills of the industry. We are at the part of the production cycle where girls perform dance routines at small venues in DIY costumes and are lit with lurid lighting. While we get a sense that the money earned at this early stage is pocket change, it is vital for people who are at the poorer end of society. In effect, this creates the grounds for exploitation of the needy.
Unwilling to mask this reality, director Ryushi Lindsay deliberately withholds a view of the concerts that might provide relief through some showbiz magic and plants us in uncomfortable liminal spaces located around the stage and homes of characters, often caught in long shots and harsh lighting, as we have our noses rubbed in the heartless business end of things which Miyabi clings on to for survival in an unforgiving urban environment.
Already in financial hardship due to being a single mother, a demographic that has grown in Japan in recent years, it is clear that Miyabi is using Kasumi as her meal ticket. A few lines of dialogue as she pleads poverty with the manager and sight of her home life, a poky apartment defined by clutter and towers of unwashed plates littering the kitchen and 200 yen cup noodles shared with Kasumi for dinner, is enough to convincingly show that the two are living just shy of poverty. This explains Miyabi’s motivation and this understanding is bolstered by a sense of desperation that emanates from actress Ryoka Neya as her character goes off the rails.
Ryoka Neya, glimpsed in Love and Other Cults (2017), is on full display and gives an intense performance as the mother whose desperation to keep her daughter in the limelight has consequences she never thought about. The cloying insistence and spikes of anger she shows suggest a person so driven by emotion as to be unreliable and a glimpse of her personal life suggests she is more of a scavenger rather than a maternal figure so there is a tragic inevitability to disaster.
When things go well, Miyabi is kind and caring. These times are like a moment of clarity that offsets any negatives. As such, the camerawork feels more personal and the lighting warmer and the two beam at each other.
If we were judging Miyabi against traditional notions motherhood then she would be a picture of bad parenting but we have sympathy for her due to their situation which is so ably described by set details. Also key to this sympathy is Miyu Sasaki, the actress who portrayed the poppet rescued by the patchwork family in the Hirokazu Kore-eda film Shoplifters (2018). She provides the requisite cute factor as the innocent unaware of her value and what her mother is doing. She is happy and we cannot take that away from the two and so it creates an uncomfortable situation where, as much as we may want to condemn Miyabi for her behaviour and her objectification of her own daughter, there are mitigating circumstances that feel real and speak to a growing hardship in Japan that the the glamour of idol culture covers up. When the ending comes, it does hit hard.
Ultimately, this film is a well-conceived short that packs a lot in at 20 minutes. Looking at the world of idols through this lens makes it a refreshingly different and political look at the media phenomenon. I believe this short has the legs to be expanded into a feature, which is what Lindsay is doing right now, and I hope to see it and the performers as they tackle this story again.