Screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2017
Tokyo Idols provides a fascinating insight into the Japanese phenomenon of ‘idols’ – the thousands of anime-styled teenage girls who make their living as disposable pop stars – and the middle-aged men (‘otaku’) who worship them.
Diving straight into the psychology of the bizarre sensation, director Kyoko Miyake’s absorbing documentary is quick to uncover contradictory motivations. ‘My fans are like my children,’ says 17-year-old idol Rio; ‘they’re like fathers’ opines another. Perhaps more fascinating is the enthusiasm of the otaku, who seek an escape from commitment and responsibility – one interviewed critic goes as far to present idol culture as Japan’s equivalent of The Sex Pistols, both created to deal with a sense of low self-esteem following times of economic hardship.
For all the ostensible naivety of both worshipper and worshiped, the film doesn’t shy away from questioning its obviously unnerving subtext. Even before we’re told that ‘historically, the handshake was a very sexual gesture’, we’re made to feel it through Van Royko’s visceral photography of the handshakes at the idols’ meet-and-greet events. Panning across Tokyo’s bright urban landscape and the seemingly alienated masses who populate it, the camera also wryly lingers on the cutesy cafés, theme parks and anime posters that fuel a society obsessed with youth.
Gifts in hand, glow sticks strapped to them like grenade belts, the otaku are a legion of militant sugar daddies – but when the choreographed dancing and chanting starts, the idol fans seem more like a religious cult. The film holds back from explicitly judging their faces, drenched post-concert in sweat and tears. But if the song lyrics hint at a disturbing obsession with virginity, the talking-head interviews make it very clear that idols are surrogate sexual partners. When the camera again focuses on handshakes, this time at an event with much younger aspiring idols, it makes for deeply uncomfortable viewing.
The film comes to a somewhat abrupt ending, but not before it is revealed that 17 is ‘getting old’ for an idol. What happens when the idols are no longer able to be infantilised as they are? It’s a shame that the film never answers the question it constantly hints at.
Image: Georges Seguin