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The cyber goddesses of Tokyo Idols and the men who worship them

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Rio performing for her fans

The objectification and exploitation of young women is not confined to one particular society, but may take intriguing culturally specific forms. Japan has seen the rise of an increasingly mainstream phenomenon where teenage girls -- known as “idols” -- compete to perform an alluring yet innocent femininity through singing and dancing in carefully choreographed pop music bands. In so doing, they command the veneration of legions of older male fans, or otaku, who spend most of their money on the idols' music and other promotional products, line up to meet them at "handshake" events, perform their own choreographed chants and movements at their shows, and dedicate their lives to supporting their favourites' careers with a quasi-religious passion.

Tokyo Idols, a new documentary by Kyoto Miyake, opens with a slow-motion forest of glowing lightsticks, wielded in elaborate ritualized movements by the middle-aged male devotees. A religious connection crops up again and again, for example when some fans are shown dedicating their traditional New Year prayers to their favourite idol, Ryoka. Miyake observes that the men of her generation used to be drawn to religious cults. "Now they turn to idols." 

Van Royko's photography, accompanied by David Drury's haunting soundscape, reveals at once a shimmering beauty and what Miyake describes as a typically Japanese urban "portrayal of alienation, the feeling of being lonely surrounded by thousands of people." However, Miyake explicitly rejects the stereotypical foreign depictions of the urban Japanese as faceless masses. Her film's painstaking montages highlight the faces and the stories in these crowds.

When I asked Miyake about the difference between idol culture and North American celebrity culture, she pointed out that the Japanese platform is designed for a very specific audience. "If you go to Katy Perry’s concerts, the majority of the fans are teenage girls… 90% of the [idol] audience are men twice the age of the performers." The film explores Japanese idol culture through a lens that is fiercely critical, yet also curious and compassionate, weaving together questions of masculinity, femininity, culture and exploitation. It starkly shows how the exaggerated girlishness of the idols is commodity-fetishized to the extent that an idol's career is typically over as soon as she reaches grown womanhood.

Tokyo Idols principally follows the story of Rio, a talented performer on the cusp of grown womanhood (or nearing her "best-by date," as she puts it), who is struggling to break out of the idol mold by launching her career as a singer and voice actress. She is cheered on by an indefatigable band of Rio Brothers sporting t-shirts in yellow, her signature colour.

But other idols shown in the film are much younger than Rio. Amu, of the idol band Harajuku Story, is fourteen and Yuzu, of Amore Carina, is just ten. On her bike tour, Rio meets Mana, a seven-year-old who wants to be an idol just like her. Indeed, Miyake told me that being an idol is now the second top choice of career for girls as young as five or six. One of Amu's fans remarks that he is interested in her and Amore Carina because they are "not fully developed… if they were older, they wouldn't interest me." This "squick" factor only increases during a scene when a room full of men roar appreciatively at the members of Harajuku Story while Amu and the other children pose and swirl for them in skimpy Halloween costumes, and when the camera lingers on the hentai and erotic manga characters that line the streets and shops of Akihabara.

There is no escaping the sense that the performances and costumes of the idol groups uncannily mirror these Lolita-esque fantasies. Idols are a fusion of the virtual and the human, whose role it is to portray at once a cartoonish fantasy and be the adorable little girl next door. Numerous scenes abound of the girls frozen and fixed into collectible photos, cards and posters, even as they dance, giggle and chatter with the fans.

Idols are expected to also constantly interact with their fans via digital platforms. Fans get to enjoy the illusion of intimacy, and the girls are expected to be constantly available, constantly connected. One of the most striking aspects of the film is its close tracking of every single facial expression, movement, gesture and interaction of an idol, showing how she is wholly consecrated for visual pleasure, whether she’s dancing, livestreaming, answering the filmmaker's questions or posing for photos with her fans. Indeed, the idol's role forbids her to live a normal human life. In one recent scandal, a member of AKB48, the most prominent of Japan’s idol bands, was caught with a boy and subsequently appeared in an excruciating public act of contrition by shaving her head and offering up a tearful apology on YouTube.

As journalist Motohiro Onishi explains in the film, it was a marketing stroke of genius to create lucrative opportunities for the fans to meet with the idols themselves. Under tightly controlled conditions, the fans get a fleeting minute to grasp the idols' hands, a gesture suffused with sexual meaning in traditional Japan. Online connections to pop stars were not enough. "We wanted virtual plus reality," he says. 

But Tokyo Idols also raises important questions about the reality of such a "reality" by resolutely refusing to accept its artifice at face value. For example, the film centres the performers' voices, showing them displaying their worn-out, soiled shoes or drowsing on subways, practicing their dance moves with their little brothers, crying over career setbacks, hanging out with parents and livestreaming their lives. While the film seeks above all to understand idol culture, it constantly challenges the propensity to normalize it, although Miyake told me her crew had to take breaks in order to not get too comfortable with it. When "the sense of creepiness went away" they needed to get "physically away from Japan to absorb and digest what we had seen."

For Miyake, idol culture "symbolizes everything that made me uncomfortable about being a woman in Japan." When she left Japan, she realized that "things didn’t have to be that way," but upon return visits to her family, she couldn’t help but notice the growing ubiquity of idol culture. Miyake decided she needed to make a film when she was watching TV at her mother's house and breaking news came onscreen, not about Syria or other current political events, but about a girl leaving AKB48.

It is difficult to raise gender issues in Japan. The film features journalist Minori Kitahara, who refers to the "aggressive backlash" feminists must face by being critical. With a strongly feminist voice, she describes herself as an "outsider," clearly exasperated with the men who choose to escape into idol culture fantasy and reject the idea of holding hands with "regular women." Miyake comments that being a feminist in Japan is "not part of the mainstream culture and not supported by most women." Rather than protesting the culture, most Japanese feminists seem to have "given up" on stopping it. However, she added, "we are complicit if we don’t do anything to change it. I wanted to make this film because [idol culture] is now a mainstream culture widely accepted by men and women. What does it say about Japanese society and why are we not having this discussion?"

The film does not flinch from showing the darker aspects of idol fetishization. For example, the camera at a meet-and-greet lingers on the desperate face of a young man trying to cling to an idol’s hand as he is pulled away from her to the next girl in the lineup. However, many of the otaku in the film seem less creepy than confusedly seeking connection, even with the full knowledge they are pursuing unattainable fantasies. For example, a middle-aged fan Mitacchi, who worships a 22-year-old waitress named Yuka in P-IDL, a "starter band," creates fan swag for her with glitter glue and talks about how he spends almost all of his money on the idol shows and merchandise that lines his shelves.

Rather than simplistically portraying the otaku as lechers, Miyake’s film deconstructs the ideal of traditional Japanese masculinity itself. Idols displays a genuine curiosity and sympathy for otaku such as 43-year-old Koji, a leader of the fan group Rio Brothers, who talks about the futility of following the "easy" yet "mediocre" life he was expected to pursue as a salaryman in a corporation. As a salaryman, Miyake explains, "you are defined by your position in the hierarchy. Otaku is more equal, you can have more control over your life."

It is for that reason that a comparison is made in the film between the rise of punk as counterculture in 1970s London and the rise of the idol culture in 1990s Japan. Koji demonstrates his sense of freedom from the constraints of normative culture again and again; for example, when he and a few other fans accompany his idol Rio for part of her promotional cross-Japan cycle tour. Fixing a chain on another Brother's hilariously broken-down bike, he says with a big smile: "It’s so much fun with us guys all here together -- makes me happy." The film thus connects the rise of the homosocial otaku network to Japan’s economic recession, the lack of jobs and daycare, and the consequent rejection of traditional marriage-and-children aspirations.

Kitahara observes scornfully that men no longer have to work at real relationships -- they simply buy fantasies. A university student echoes her observation by saying that having a girlfriend is "too much work" and a sociology professor adds that idols are contributing to Japan’s plummeting birthrate and should be banned.

"Men of my generation are the lost generation," observes Miyake. "The economic bubble popped, leaving a sense of betrayal and disenfranchisement: they don’t have the security of their parents’ generation… A lot of what idols do is tell the fans they are okay the way they are --soothing and comforting; they are restoring their failed sense of masculinity, they are being the financiers and breadwinners.”

At the same time, she admits that, even understanding some of the context of their fandom, she found it very difficult to relate to these men: "I couldn’t believe they belonged to the same generation and weren’t even trying to face women their age. I forced myself to try to understand where they were coming from. I still don’t condone their behaviour."

For the ultimate Rio fan Koji, his idol is "like a mirror. An expensive mirror." His joy in helping to birth her into her dream of becoming a singer is evident because it heals his own sense of failure and brings him a sense of accomplishment.

In counting some of the costs of such expensive mirrors, Tokyo Idols is a document well worth reflecting upon.

Image: Tokyo Idols

Tokyo Idols was screened at this year’s Toronto Hot Docs Film Festival. For more information, visit https://kyokomiyake.com/tokyo-idols/

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