The idea of ‘Idol’ as it has come to be known in Japan is chameleon-like to those encountering it from outside Japan. Depending on who presented it, and when, it could mean anything from innocent agents of pop music and heavily choreographed dance routines to part of a more all-consuming movement that dictates the clothing its supporters wear as well as their behavior. Many outlets promoting Japanese culture abroad have presented features on Idols or advertised business that share the same cultural markers (Maid Cafes for instance, which also gained their foothold in Tokyo neighborhood Akihabara, have become a novelty in major US cities) in the same way that anime or J-pop is put forth as entertainment representing a Japanese identity. With TOKYO IDOLS, documentarian Kyoko Miyake takes a sober and evenhanded look at the recent phenomenon and how it is both affecting and fitting into Japan’s cultural landscape. Maintaining an objective stance behind the camera, her look at Idol culture is free of intimidating figures (save for one elucidating look at an Idol ‘election’ surrounding a collective at the culture’s forefront, AKB48) and charts or confrontational encounters with its subjects. It does not shy away from showing more insidious elements of its growth, however. The focus moves between aspiring Idols of different levels of notoriety (though, informative in its own right, none who have achieved mainstream success – were they reluctant to participate or perhaps even prohibited by talent agents?), their denizens, and analysts taken with the subject such as reporters and sociologists.
No bones are made about the awkwardness in seeing a dominantly adult male fan base rabidly following the activity of the young female personalities comprising this Idol scene. Scenes may inspire shock or a derisive sneer but Miyake gives voice to analysts who try to explain the phenomenon, critically, yet without ridicule. She also spends time with some of these followers, allowing them to speak for themselves. There are moments of sad self-awareness. Yet the humanity of the subjects is always there in the picture.
While there is much to be cynical about the industrious Idol machine given voice here, like the way it narrowly shapes the ideals of its young female hopefuls or the unrealistic notion of relationships it allows its consumers to remain bound to, it is not without hope. The star of the movie is certainly the plucky self-managing Idol hopeful Rio, whom we see working independent gigs with support from her daydreaming former rock musician father and more grounded mother. Her wit and determination is that of an individual who studies the game and is determined to win it on her own terms. We cannot help but cheer her on.
TOKYO IDOLS is being shown as part of the Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film at The Japan Society on Friday, July 14 at 6:30 pm. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.