Published May 02, 2017On the surface, there's no North American equivalent to Japan's "idol" culture. Pairing the fist-pumping energy of a DIY punk show with the off-putting cuteness of a beauty pageant, idol shows are singular experiences. And they've amassed massive fan bases complete with trading cards and other merch. Their fans are overwhelmingly middle-aged and male, and they geek out about the girls like they're bronies or fans of indie wrestling. Some men take things a step further, dedicating thousands of dollars to their chosen idols and building actual shrines to them in their homes.
The majority of idols are in their mid- to late teens, and their sweaty and obsessive fans are often triple that age. This makes for an increasingly creepy dynamic that permeates Tokyo Idols. Kyoko Miyake doesn't beat us over the head with just how fucked up the subculture is in her excellently shot documentary, nor does she offer a comprehensive history of the culture. Instead, she presents all sides of the story and the result is exceedingly compelling.
Early on, we're introduced to Rio, an idol who is nearing the end of her career at the ripe old age of 19. Though she's never broken through to the major idol league, she's still built a respectable group of disciples, led by the perpetually sweaty Koji. He's a 43-year-old who has quit his job as a salaryman to lead "the brothers" to each Rio show, where they perform choreographed dance moves and practically worship her with glowsticks.
In addition to the performances, the idols perform handshake meet-and-greets, where they make eye contact with their acolytes and offer up some beloved physical contact. We see the men lose themselves in little girls' eyes, often refusing to let go of their hands until they're forced to keep moving.
Further, as the movie unfolds, the men get older and more desperate as the idols get younger. By the third act, we've met men who have forfeited family life and home ownership in order to support their idol obsession. We've also met a large group of men who prefer their idols at a pre-pubescent stage because they haven't developed yet. Though one man clarifies that he means they haven't developed career-wise, the implication of something amiss is still there.
While Miyake does very little editorializing, she does offer talking head interviews with cultural commentators, sociologists and other experts. Minori Kitahara, a journalist who seems to oppose the idol movement, serves as a de facto voice of reason as she explains the ways idol culture only serves to reinforce patriarchal gender roles. Men love that these adorable girls merely exist for their own pleasure.
Still, the criticism of idol culture is not cut-and-dried. The off-putting nature of the fandom is countered by the fact that these girls are utilizing their unstoppable work ethic to make their dreams come true. At least in the film, their fans don't cross the line into inappropriate behaviour, rendering the obsessive fandom somewhat benign.
It's easy to gawk at this admittedly absurd facet of Japanese pop culture, but Tokyo Idols makes sense of the culture through its talking heads. As we spend more and more time online, human beings are exceedingly desperate for connection and community. While it's a distortion of reality, many men have found comfort in the superficial companionship that their idols provide. That quick fix for loneliness is not much different than North America's obsession with YouTube vloggers or Twitch streams of Tinder hookups. It's really just another way for human beings to feel slightly less alone.
(Films We Like)