Director: Kyoko Miyake
North American Premiere: April 29, 2017
It’s sold as a platform where dreams come true.
Tokyo Idols is a fairly straightforward film. Like its title, the documentary from Kyoko Miyake is direct in its introduction of Japanese idol culture. We meet 23-year-old Rio Hiiragi as she prepares for a show, her pale limbs clad in white silver fabric cut to expose her midriff and legs. She laughs as she lifts a leg to show the camera the sole of her right boot, the canvas fraying away. She repeats this gesture after a few songs, telling her rapt audience of mostly middle-aged men that she’s going to have to take the shoes off so she can dance.
“I feel like Cinderella,” she giggles, and they answer with enthusiastic laughter, their yellow Rio Brothers shirts clear as day in the low light of the bar.
It’s an apt comparison for the girls—because most female idols are girls, barely old enough to order alcoholic drinks in many Western countries—because after all, what is Cinderella but a transformation story? Miyake knows this and spends time in Tokyo Idols documenting exactly how Rio Hiiragi and her peers have transformed themselves into shiny glittering idols over the last 30 years. They come from all over Japan, arriving in Tokyo idol cafes and shaking hands and hoping, hoping, hoping for that big break. And behind them, always, are fanbases consisting of men, many of whom are 10, 20, or even 30 years older than their idols.
Miyake explores idols across the industry spectrum, from aspiring idols working at cafes and serving food to their fans to the AKB48 National Elections (Senbatsu Sousenkyo) covered on national news. At each stage, the audience meets several men who have quite literally devoted their lives to idol culture (although there are one or two women in the background), as well as journalists and sociologists commenting on the rise of these obsessions since the 1990s. Miyake doesn’t engage beyond asking questions that are left off-screen. We only hear the responses from the male fans, many of them with a note of self-consciousness, defensiveness, perhaps borne of knowing, to a degree, what their attention may imply.
Tokyo Idols is a deeply uncomfortable film. I watched it all the way through twice and revisited specific parts in a third skimming. Each time was unsettling, to the point of pausing and saying “yikes” out loud. I’m not a stranger to Japanese idol culture, or to sexism in Asian contexts, and yet, the layers in this film left me disconcerted. It’s also worth acknowledging that there’s no real equivalent system to the idol industry in North America or the UK, which means that at least some aspects are going to come across as absurd from inexperience.While the Rio Brothers—led by Koji, a tech reseller—give off a support system vibe in how they attend all of Rio’s shows and assist her with merchandise sales, others are a little less palatable. Several older men, all gray hair and wrinkled faces, pray for the success of their favourite AKB48 member, Ryoka Ooshima, at a shrine on New Year’s Day. They share their worries about how this could be Ooshima’s final shot at making it to the top team, after all “she turned 17 last year.” It’s jarring to hear them speak of Ooshima as though she’s a piece of meat, her expiration date quickly approaching. Her youth only keeps her relevant for so long. They want to see her gilded and shining before she becomes too old for their fantasies.
Fantasy is a strange concept in this film. For the girls, the fantasy is of stardom, of standing on a stage and seeing and feeling the support of their fans. For the men, it’s a little more complicated than that. They seem aware that their favourite idols won’t ever be their girlfriends, but admit to giving up jobs, relationships, and thousands of dollars every month to support them. They are conditioned to expect a similar layer of devotion from their idols. The girls aren’t “allowed” to publicly date anyone while they’re idols, for fear of shattering the fantasy. They speak of once wanting to be teachers or husbands, but have decided to pursue idol worship, for what purpose, the film doesn’t actually answer. They speak of being inspired by the girls, of finding it wonderful “that a girl could work so hard for her dreams.” They never speak of what their dreams are and how these girls play into them.
It’s an omission that adds to the tense undercurrent of Tokyo Idols and the reality of overt sexualization of young girls in Japanese society. It’s not a surprise that many female idols start in schoolgirl-esque outfits or that AKB48’s most scandalous single “Seifuku ga Jama wo Suru” (The School Uniform is Getting in the Way) uses that imagery. Rio Hiiragi is 23, and she wears her hair in pigtails. At 18 or 19, AKB48 members “graduate” from their idol careers. There’s a very clear distinction that women are not the stars of idol culture. It’s girls, and girls in the prime of their youth as determined by men.
Tokyo Idols doesn’t shy away from that realization, but it doesn’t quite ask its subjects to engage with that truth, not to the full extent of discussing how it plays into their lives. The film presents their desires and their engagement with idols, but stops before positioning itself directly for or against idol culture. Instead, it rests somewhere in the uncomfortable middle, providing a glimpse into an industry that never quite rings true to being “women-led,” as journalist Minori Katahara says. And so we are left to wonder if Rio Hiiragi will be the next big star, her Brothers faithful to the end, or if time and fickle hearts will tie off her career as it has many other women.
I spoke with Kyoko Miyake around the conceptualization of Tokyo Idols, and her film process.
How did you develop the concept of the documentary around female idols? Was there ever a moment where you considered looking at male idol groups (i.e., Johnny’s, etc.)?
A few years ago, when I became aware of the phenomenon called idols during my visits back home, it felt like it had something to do with what made me uncomfortable about being a woman in Japan, and I wanted to explore it. I still remember the moment when I saw a breaking news on TV, announcing one girl was leaving AKB48, and I asked myself, “What the hell is happening here?” I didn’t really consider looking at male groups as they are not comparable in scale. It’s not an industry like the girl idol groups are. What I wanted to explore was how mainstream/socially accepted this phenomenon is, so I focused on the girl group.
Why did you decide to focus the film on aspiring/mid-level idols instead of groups like AKB48?
We wanted to follow someone who could show us the non-idol persona. The bigger the management, the tighter the control. With some established groups, it had to be when they had the right costume, right makeup, not while they were eating. It was not easy to ask for an all-around access anywhere, but especially in Japan where this kind of documentary style is not very common, many people didn’t understand why we had to follow the same people for so long and so extensively. Rio, her management, her fans, and her family let us in from the beginning. It might have helped that I am from the same area of Japan as she is.
Were there aspects of idol culture that surprised you as you filmed the documentary? How did this affect your perspective from when you began filming to when you finished it?
I was surprised to find how “sanitized” and “healthy” the idol concerts felt like when I first started to go to them. I was surprised how quickly that sense of creepiness went away. We were trying to retain our initial perspectives: to look at this culture from a critical perspective while being open-minded to learn what is really happening there. Initially, our idea was to follow a few aspiring idol singers. The film ended up becoming as much about their fans—the men who have become increasingly disconnected from women of their age and shy away from real relationships. While I don’t condone their behavior, I now have a deeper understanding for why they act or think the way they do.
Journalist Minori Katahara says at one point, “In idol culture, women are the stars. There may be nowhere else in Japanese society where [women are]the driving force.” Did you have particular experiences while filming that affirmed or did not affirm this for you?
At idol concerts, the girls are at the center of attention. They are the little goddesses who exercise an enormous power of their fans. I’ve witness how “small” and “shy” the fans become when they are in front of their idol girls.
What are you working on next?
I’m developing a script for my first narrative feature at the moment. I’m also interested in doing a long form documentary. I’m firming up some ideas.
Tokyo Idols screened at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival from April 27-May 4, 2017.