How much would you pay for one minute of conversation with a 14-year-old girl? Kyoko Miyake’s unflinching new documentary about the shady transactions that surround Japanese pop stardom is available now on Netflix.
“This isn’t a fad. It’s a religion.”
Tokyo Idols, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, begins with two shocking stats: First, there are around 10,000 teenage girls in Japan that consider themselves to be “idols.” Second, the industry that engulfs these idols, young and bubbly singers with thousands of devoted followers, is estimated to earn $1 billion dollars every year.
It’s with this magnitude in mind that viewers are first introduced to 19-year-old Rio Hiiragi, a Tokyo-based idol with a growing following. The biggest concern surrounding Rio is that she is becoming too old to transition into a career as a recording artist. (Only in the world of idols is 19 considered retirement age.) For the first two thirds of the film, Rio remains infectiously optimistic about her shrinking window of opportunity and the fans that support her, mostly men that are old enough to be her father.
All of Rio’s cutesy pop-metal performances include a section of call and response. She shouts an optimistic lyric, and her devoted fans — they call themselves the RioRio Brothers — cry back to her in unison. Leading these chants from the front row of all Rio’s performances is Koji, a 43-year-old salaryman. Koji’s obsession with Rio and idol culture paints him in conflicting colors. Is this middle-aged man using a reductive construction of female purity as a replacement for meaningful relationships in his own life? Yes. But is he also organizing a robust fan base in order to help this strong woman realize her goal of becoming a serious recording artist? Yes.
Both Rio and Koji live on shifting moral ground, which make theirs the most compelling stories in the 88-minute doc. (There are other portions of the film I considered to be pure horror, like the moment that a room full of middle aged men lines up to touch a group of idols aged 10 to 14.)
This genuinely collaborative duo encapsulates the paradoxes of the booming J-Pop industry. Rio is a woman who sacrificed her education (her mother says she felt powerless when, at 17, her daughter was skipping school and sleeping on backstage couches) and social life in order to pursue her dream. “My fans are like my children,” says Rio. “They are the most important thing in my life.”
Meanwhile, Koji says his devotion to Rio is not sexual, but rather he admires her bravery and her desire to chase her dreams, which is something he never did. Yet he is still an adult man with no significant relationships who spends all his money and time chasing icons of pre-pubescent virginity. “I spent all my savings on idols,” says Koji. “That year, I went to about 700 idol shows.”
We understand that Rio and Koji’s thinking is flawed, but their experiences of sorrow and joy humanize the idol industry so that viewers can understand how this culture is able to thrive.
The most frustrating moment of Tokyo Idols is discovering that Japan’s lawmakers appear to be turning a blind eye to the commodification of underage girls. Thus, the hero of this film is journalist Minori Kitahara, who has received widespread ire for criticism of her country’s fastest-growing industry.
Kitahara does not mince words when she says: ”Instead of connecting with women in their everyday life, the men choose girls they can dominate. Girls who are guaranteed not to challenge or hurt them. This society will stop at nothing to protect male fantasies and provide comfort for men.”
Hell yes! This is the response I was waiting for!
While it’s easy to side with the badass female journalist and condemn this behavior, American viewers will quickly realize that one of the reasons Miyake’s documentary is so uncomfortable is because it shows a culture’s obsession with youth that’s just one or two steps removed from our own. Seeing teenage (and sometimes pre-teen) girls pose for polaroids with older men reminded me of a topless Miley Cyrus posing for Vanity Fair at age 15, and a 16-year-old Britney Spears transformed into a sexualized schoolgirl fantasy for the “…Baby One More Time” music video. Tokyo Idols is terrifying because it reveals a mindset that persists far beyond the borders of Japan.
Filmmaker Kyoko Miyake succeeds at examining idol culture in a way that reveals deep-seated bonds to Japan’s economic depression, advancements in communication, loneliness, misogyny, cultural rebelliousness, and declining birth rates. However, the film stumbles when it comes time to tie these disparate pieces into some sort of solution. Viewers are left wondering if Rio and Koji ever get what they desire, or if this unlikely pair even knows what it is they truly desire.