J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Sundance ’17: Tokyo Idols

They have done something beyond the powers of American pop and rock stars. They have maintained a strong CD market. That is because Japanese idols are the crack cocaine of cuteness and their addicted fans will purchase discs as another form of collectible merchandise. Their bubbly school girl images are anathema to most feminists, but the degree to which middle-aged Japanese men have used fandom as a substitute for real relations might be even more problematic. British-based Kyoko Miyake examines the phenomenon from the perspective of aspiring performers and the men who “support” them in Tokyo Idols (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Popular amongst idol-fans, Rio Hiragi is poised for mainstream crossover success. To breakthrough, she is working the idol scene hard. As the industry demands, she is in constant contact with her fans online and regularly meets them face-to-face at handshake events. These are exactly what they sound like: one minute of ostensibly innocent physical contact and fannish conversation. Miyake zeroes in on the sexual aspect of these events, which is certainly fair and pretty darned disturbing given some of the age differentials. At least Hiragi is maybe old enough to vote—and frankly seems rather together. It just gets creepy when we watch grown men cheering and chatting up fourteen- and twelve-years old idols.

As an expat who still returns to Japan semi-regularly, Miyake (who documented her lovely aunt’s resilience after the 2011 earthquake-tsunami in My Atomic Aunt) had the right balance of critical distance and common cultural references to do justice to her subject. She asks plenty of tough questions, getting many fans to admit they have given up on legitimate romantic relationships, preferring their brief intervals of chaste “girlfriend experience” with their favorite idols. However, she never directly drops the “p” word, even though it hangs in the air like a skydiving white elephant. Yet somehow, throughout it all, the audience will still find themselves rooting for Hiragi to make it to the next level up.

Frankly, based on the interactions and interviews Miyake captures, it is hard to say which are the more pitiable, the girls (and they really are still girls) who sacrifice their youth for the sake of fame, or the men who throwaway any hope of connecting with a woman in real time and in some cases, slavish devote all their disposable income to boosting their favorites’ careers. It is a fascinating and sometimes uncomfortable deep dive into Japanese pop culture. Highly recommended for fans of J-pop and anyone who wants to put the Japanese national psyche on the couch for analysis, Tokyo Idols screens again tomorrow (1/24) in Salt Lake and Thursday (1/26) and Friday (1/27) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance.

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