Tokyo Idols


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Tokyo Idols - this exploration of Japan’s fascination with girl bands and their music follows an aspiring pop singer and her fans, delving into the cultural obsession with young female sexuality and the growing disconnect between men and women in hypermodern societies.
"Miyake takes a thorough approach to her subject, showing both the fan-side and the opinion of those who make money from the industry, all the while probing at the psychological drivers fuelling the craze." | Photo: Kyoko Miyake

"This isn't a fad, it's a religion," says one of the interviewees in Kyoko Miyake's increasingly unsettling documentary. They're referring to the Japanese phenomenon of "idols" - a status claimed by around 10,000 teenage girls in the country, who sing and dance frothy J-pop for a, predominantly, middle-aged male fanbase. Their followers, in keeping with that quote, display a reverential fervour for the girls that hovers somewhere between being funny, depressing and sinister.

Miyake takes a thorough approach to her subject, showing both the fan-side and the opinion of those who make money from the industry, all the while probing at the psychological drivers fuelling the craze. Rio Hiiragi - RioRio to her fans - is 19 years old and under no illusions. "I can't do this forever," she says, as she contemplates trying to move into a more adult pop groove. Almost all her energy seems to be spent on pushing her career, whether it's recording YouTube make-up guides or even embarking on a cycling tour to get closer to her fans - and, by extension, their money.

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This cash element is highly important. Koji Yoshida is one of her admirers and freely admits a large proportion of his pay packet goes on attending RioRio's concerts or on the associated 'fan events'. These handshake sessions permit fans to have a couple of minutes of face time with their idol, to take a photo and have that all important handshake. Like much in Miyake's film, this seems pretty harmless at first glance, but takes on more of a creepy vibe once we learn that handshakes in Japan are culturally and sexually loaded, not particularly for the younger women who have grown up with the practice but for the older men, who recall a time when touching of this sort was forbidden.

There is no attempt to present this situation simplistically. Miyake shows there are many elements at play, not least the over-worked salarymen and obsessed 'otaku' who see this as getting attention from women the easy and quickest route, without any of the usual messiness that comes with relationships. She also isn't out to blanket condemn those who are obsessed by the idols, many of whom are chiefly motivated by the camaraderie that joining the fanbase brings, with even the name of RioRio's core fans - brothers - implying family.

But, as the film progresses, Miyake starts to probe at the more sinister aspects of all this, showing us younger and younger girls who are becoming involved in the industry. What might seem like harmless fun for a young woman with her head screwed on like RioRio, doesn't seem so innocent when you see Yuzu, 10, meeting her fans or hear one make make the observation that, "If they were older, they wouldn't interest me".

If Miyake refuses to draw any firm conclusions, she certainly opens the subject up for the uninitiated and provides plenty of thought-provoking areas for debate. You're left yearning for a follow-up film in a few years' time to see where RioRio's career trajectory has ultimately taken her.

The film is currently showing as part of Fantasia Film Festival.

Reviewed on: 20 Jul 2017
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Tokyo Idols packshot
Exploration of the J-pop teenage girl band phenomenon.

Director: Kyoko Miyake

Writer: Kyoko Miyake

Year: 2017

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK, Japan, Canada

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