Tokyo Idols (Japan, 2017)

The sun has set over the Tokyo skyline but dark it does not become: illuminating the night are the bright lights of the city’s hallucinatory mecca of all things otaku; godlike emanations of revered manga and anime characters guide its denizens down Akihabara’s labyrinthine streets crammed with stores, cafes, and bars. It is a place where fantasy is brought to life and dreams are made, a place where even the most humdrum existences become forgotten; those who yearn for escape from the void of work, school, and commitment can find solace amongst the attractions the Electric Town has to offer. But it is not just the sights which bedazzle those who wander here, for within the walls of the cafes and clubs are the droves of young girls, collectively known as idols, aiming to reach the pinnacle of stardom; girls who sing and dance with the energy many of their onlookers have rarely possessed; girls who are sought after for their purity and youth by men across the country. With hopes of making a name for themselves, these idols have ignited a passion in the lives of adult men – many of whom are much older than them – who become more than mere fans. These are men who devote their entire lives to their chosen favourites; men too disconnected from mainstream society to face the real world head on.

Such is the microcosm reflected in Kyoko Miyake’s eye-opening documentary Tokyo Idols, a film that not so much introduces viewers to this unique Japanese phenomenon as it does examine the complicated relationship between these young women and their fans in pursuit of their own happiness. The district of Akihabara is vividly brought to life in this beautifully edited film becoming intertwined in the narrative between professional idol Rio Hiiragi and her unofficial entourage of super fans dubbed The Brothers, headed by forty-three year-old Koji Yoshida, as they follow their idol towards her ultimate goal. The audience assumes the role of spectator as the stories of these people unfolds; their motivations unfurl against a misleading backdrop of vibrant and energetic pop songs performed by the girls Miyake follows. Interspersed between the performances and intimate moments are insights from a variety of professionals, writers, and academics contributing to an already woeful portrait that includes windows into the lives of other ‘super fans’ and idols, each addition perceivably more disturbing than the last. What follows are stories of objectification, commodification, and exploitation which feed on ambition, youth, desperation, and loneliness.

Miyake’s Japan is a phallocentric microcosm void of human connection where the need to connect with real people is non-existent, a world where virginal youth is idolised. The narratives taking place outside the dominant relationship between Rio, Koji, and The Brothers, shows this in all its intimacy: men of all ages who have nothing to live for, working dead-end jobs and have no desire to have real romantic relationships. One fan, Mitacchi, is obsessed in being seen by P IDL’s Yuka as her number one fan; though his home is adorned by Yuka and P IDL memorabilia he is “rational enough” to know she only likes him as an idol. This does not stop him and other fans – sometimes inaccurately dubbed as otaku­­ – peering into the group’s radio broadcast. The film spends little time with him, rendering the audience’s experience with him as inherently uncomfortable. Fans of Harajuku Story’s Amu, 14, and Amore Carina’s 10 year old Yuzu exemplify this further; that they dance to stirring music and that their selling point is their lack of development. Amu’s fan, Naoyamumu, a student, goes so far to consider he may have romantic feelings, yet prefers to be free and not tied down to a relationship.

Nowhere does Tokyo Idols explore this need for a simulated and predictable experience more than the after-show meet-and-greets, an arena of near assembly precision where photographs are taken followed by one-minute hand holding and conversation – all at a price. Whilst the idols themselves claim these to be fun and innocent (and as it happens necessary) the viewer cannot help but be overwhelmed by the magnitude of these events. Sure, meet-and-greets aren’t new, but what Miyake makes us see is heavily orchestrated and two-dimensional – which is the point. Fans only desire the image of the idol and to feel special so this is what the organisers/managers give them. Out from the realm of fantasy and into the not-so real: this is still fantasy and the film assures us of this.

Underneath the “pure” flesh however are very human stories. For Amu, performing for Harajuku Story has granted her the confidence to become what her mother calls an independent adult. For Rio, it’s about training to become a professional singer. Much of Tokyo Idols is dedicated to this: To become the very best, Rio lives and breathes as her own idol. From her lebensraum, packed with stuffed toys, she packs her own merchandise to fans, livestreams, and practices. It’s hard work that takes a toll and isn’t always rewarded; after losing out on a voice acting role she hates how she feels sorry for herself yet strives to push stronger than before. Yet, as both her and her ex-drummer-turned-chiropractor father surmise: “If we don’t please people, they won’t come back.” In a cutthroat industry where popularity is prized as much as youth and cuteness, it is the fans with whom their fate lies. This is the unsettling truth lying at the film’s heart, one which the film allows the viewer to realise on their own accord, more unsettling than the exterior upon which Miyake wishes you to despise more.

Whilst the film’s priority is exhuming the underbelly of the culture’s symbiotic relationship between idol and fan, it spends a great amount its dominant narrative humanising the leader of Rio’s unofficial entourage and thus shedding some light into this super-fan mentality. Koji Yamada, a 43-year-old electronics reseller, leads The Brothers in its unwavering support for their favourite idol. In a series of interview vignettes across the film, it is revealed than the once ambitious Koji took the easy salaryman life straight out of college, a move made by many in the country, and was once engaged to be married before his fiancée found someone else. His passion for Rio seems to lay more in what she represents: someone with the youthful determination to pursue her dreams, something which Koji has never had. With the concerts and his gender-exclusive group of followers however, he finds happiness and purpose outside the confines of mainstream society, a world which many of the film’s academics inform us still has not recovered from its 90’s fall from economic grace. For him it’s all about having fun before his time on Earth is up.

The seemingly benign relationship between Rio and The Brothers seems more about pushing her to succeed and supporting her through every step of the way; it seems unfair to liken this relationship to the others in the film. Despite the comments about the kindness of and fatherly supportive nature of the fans made by the idols and their mothers the film insists on distancing emotions between the viewer and their fans. The film does not demonise these men. It has no need to. Instead, Miyake’s film projects the sadness and desperation that embodies them: incapable and reluctant at forming real, meaningful relationships, men such as Koji turn to the simulated experience idols give them to provide them with a way out of the loneliness, a portal through which they enter a domain they are in control of, no matter how brief.

Framing this world in a dimension between Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and All About Lily Chou-Chou (2001) with its numbing yet exquisite electronic score amidst the hyperflat decadence of Akihabara, Tokyo Idols does not speak with a strong (and necessarily female) voice against these men; it is as empathetic is it is derisive. It guides viewers by the hand into this unnecessarily complex relationship which commodifies virginal purity as much as it exploits reclusiveness and loneliness. We come to take pity on these men as much as their surface-intentions make us shudder. Though a billion-dollar industry appearing as a platform upon which thousands of girls and young hope women launch their careers, it is an industry prone more towards giving men someone to pine and root for than it is to bringing success: once an idol graduates, or becomes too old, there is still no guarantee of a career after this, as Rio’s narrative makes clear.

Tokyo Idols is not necessarily a film if you wish to gain insight into the lives of those behind the cute façade, but more into how meccas such as Akihabara enable even the meekest of men to achieve ultimate happiness whilst paying through the noses for it.

Tokyo Idols is available on DVD as part of The KimStim Collection from Icarus Films.