JAPAN CUTS 2017: Tokyo Idols

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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.

Lucha Librarian 1: Video Vortex @ Yonkers Alamo, LUCHA MEXICO @ DOC NYC

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Lucha Libre, the signature style of pro wrestling born in Mexico has come a long way since I was first attracted to the exotic masks associated with the culture as a kid. Or the days when access to it was limited to fuzzy transmissions on touch and go cable tv stations in the high numbers on Saturday afternoons (with no DVR to capture it for later viewing).

Now the phenomenon is far more accessible to the public at large. A few generations have grown up with icons of the style who have worked in the major North American pro wrestling organizations WWE and once upon a time WCW (Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, Psichosis, Sin Cara and presently Alberto Del Rio, Kalisto). The recent television show Lucha Underground, which includes Roberto Rodriguez in its cast of producers, appeared on the cable channel El Rey bringing important figures active in the sport in the Mexican promotion AAA together with wrestlers from the US Indy scene and former WWE workers, in a highly stylized program with intensive production. It is currently gearing up for a second season. Those wanting to dig a little deeper could find the words of a Lucha Libre luminary, Konan (one K-Dog in the WCW’s popular NOW faction) transmitted via podcast on a regular basis through the MLW family of shows. He is also behind the scenes at AAA and Lucha Underground.

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This is a good week for young and old fans alike in the New York City area to celebrate their love of the unique form of entertainment. At the Alamo Drafthouse Theater in Yonkers, New York on Wednesday November 11 (note: TONIGHT) their always bonkers series Video Vortex, which shows old and rare movies direct from VHS to screen, will show SANTO AND BLUE DEMON VS THE MONSTERS. You can bet the ‘monsters’ will be in trouble in this special tag team match, which will highlight the amazing connection between Mexico’s film industry and pro wrestling, and show the celebrity status these masked figures of the sport achieved. Video Vortex screenings are always just a dollar(!) but bring finances for the delicious food and beer options. Plus some spending cash on the table of VHS and dvd oddities for sale before and after the screening, usually set up right in the theater. It is always good to show up a half hour before start time (8 pm) too to take in a stellar preshow reel, which this time is sure to include trailers of other lucha libre movie classics.

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LUCHA MEXICO is a documentary featured at this year’s DOC NYC festival of documentary movies. It will be screened on at 9:45 Friday, November 13 at the IFC Theater in the West Village with director and writer Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz, as well as subjects and real luchadors Shocker and Jon Strongman in attendance. An additional screening will take place 4:45 on Wednesday, November 18 at Bow Tie Cinemas in Chelsea, where only Hammond and Markiewicz are scheduled to appear.

It is an ambitious film covering a lot of aspects of lucha, including its history, the perils and prestige of those in the sport, and behind the scenes aspects of the business. One meets a colorful cast of characters ranging across generations, though there is a strong focus on Shocker and Strongman. While not entirely focused (it is not quite a history of the sport and not quite a biopic on Shocker though at times feels like it could be either of those things) it is a pleasure to take in the beautifully captured visuals that look better than much of those tv broadcasts I snuck in ages ago. Fans, especially those new to lucha stand to learn a lot. The colorful cast of characters also speak volumes for themselves. One gets a sense of how vividly different the scene in Mexico is from the mainstream wrestling products in the US, with strong female wrestlers like Fabe Apache and Sexy Star, and Mini-Estrellas like the KeMonito all getting a bit of representation.

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The movie also gives a strong sense of how deeply rooted lucha libre is to the Mexican cultural identity, with the top stars presented here seeming just as at home doing shows in large arenas and open air exhibitions in more remote villages. The vibrant colors that lighten the more dilapidated locales are breathtaking. The doc also boasts a smart, snazzy soundtrack embodying the melding of tradition and style, which is especially effective over some montages toward the feature’s end. One must stick around for a very smooth and smart title sequence animation over the end credits.

A lot of the footage may feel dated for those keeping up with Mexico’s largest brands and talent featured in them. However, an updating of events definitely occurred, as the movie focuses a bit on the recent tragic passing of Perro Aguayo Jr. during a match. This is spiced into the film seamlessly, and while sad, presents Aguayo and his risk taking peers as heroes.