It might seem alien to outsiders and westerners, but “idol culture” (which is sometimes lumped in under the nerdy Otaku banner) is a major, multi-million dollar industry. It’s also, as evidenced in Japanese ex-pat filmmaker Kyoko Miyake’s documentary Tokyo Idols (now available in Canada on iTunes), an increasingly dubious one.
Idols are starlets that range from pre-teens to late teens (although the latter is pushing it more than the former) who dress up in a sexy, but still moderately chaste manner and sing chipper, simplistic pop songs that mostly have to do with purity, innocence, and being young and naïve. Their core demographic isn’t young children who probably wouldn’t understand why this balance of the sanitized and sexy is weird, but middle aged men who should probably know better. Fans travel in packs and make sure that their favourite idol is exalted above all others.
Most rational people would see this culture as misogynistic or backwards in its point of view, but thousands of girls around the country vie to become “the next big thing” before they get too old and can’t capitalize on their youthful femininity. Large scale events like the positively massive AKB elections and the media frenzy that surrounds them makes becoming an idol a viable, if uneasy stepping stone to future success.
Kyoko Miyake’s Tokyo Idols looks at this phenomenon primarily through the eyes of Rio, a 19-year-old up-and-comer and savvy businesswoman who knows exactly what she wants to get out of being an idol. She’s aided in her quest to become a top idol by her male fans, known as The Brothers, which is spearheaded by Koji, a 43-year-old man with a day job who has had few romantic prospects in his life.
We caught up with Miyake for an interview at the Women’s Art Association in Toronto back in May during the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival to talk about Tokyo Idols, her own uneasy feelings towards idol culture, and the economic and social underpinnings of this phenomenon.
This film depicts a competition and culture that I think a lot of Western audiences will see as a uniquely inspirational and more than a bit creepy. How did you balance this story of a woman trying to build a career for herself on her own terms with depicting a culture that might seem more than a little strange outside of Japan, and even to some notable critics in Japan?
Kyoko Miyake: For me, there’s natural tension in that. I was rooting for Rio and other girls that I met, and I wished every success for them, but at the same time, I’m trying to critique this game that they have to play. It’s a game based on deeply misogynistic ideas, so I guess there was that tension throughout the making of the film that comes out in the film itself. By the last scene, I hope that the audience will be rooting for Rio, but also at the same time questioning what they’re seeing. I felt conflicted the entire time making it, and we wanted to strike a fine balance in both opposing and rooting for these characters. There was a lot of back and forth where we questioned if we were being too harsh or too gentle, or if there were too many men talking about this culture and not enough women. Finding that balance was definitely one of the trickiest parts.
It’s such a male drive phenomenon, and one of the things that really hammers that home is the simple art of translating a lot of these songs into English. If you saw those words written out in English, or any other language for that matter, it’s borderline unfathomable that anyone would write or listen to a song with some of this material. It’s definitely backwards and misogynistic in its thinking, but in Japan it seems celebrated by a lot of people. What’s it like for you to make a film for other cultures that will see this material and question the value of it?
Kyoko Miyake: You could describe me making this film as both an outsider on the inside and an insider on the outside. I worked in Japan, but I decided not to do that anymore because I realized that things didn’t have to be the way I was led to believe they would be had I stayed. Growing up there was very confusing for me. I was never the cute girl and people didn’t take to me very well. I didn’t try to be neutral with my film, and I think my judgment of this culture is maybe more than a little bit obvious, but I think you should definitely feel it. But what I wasn’t trying to do was offer a very clear answer to the audience. You can’t say “this is happening so go to this website and sign this petition so we can go in and save these girls tomorrow.” That’s not what I intended to do.
This film will be streamed on Netflix in Japan, and for me that’s nerve-wracking. (laughs) Maybe, I hope, it leads to some sort of discussion. One of the things that really struck me while making this film was that there was very little discussion about this and just as little mainstream criticism. Most of my girlfriends in Japan have a negative view of idols, but they really don’t have any opinion of everything. They just strike down the concept as another annoying thing that men do. They would say that it’s male nature to desire young women, and the younger and the better.
I think because I have been away from Japan now for fifteen years, I have gained this cultural distance to be able to ask a question that I think needs to be asked. Is it really male nature? Isn’t it odd what we’re doing here? For me, I think being based outside Japan was more of an advantage. Logistically speaking, it’s obviously a disadvantage because I was based in London when I was making this film and now I’m based in New York and most of my team is based in Montreal, but in telling this story it was overall an advantage. But every time we went back to Japan, it became so normalized for us. Even my non-Japanese teammates – my producer and cameraman – saw how people could see this culture as fun.
And on one level, it’s obvious why this is all legalized. It’s not pedophilia or anything criminal, and if you actually go to an idol concert, alcohol is rarely, if ever, served. I have yet to see a single drunken person at an idol performance. Everybody queues up in an single orderly line, there are so many house rules that have to be followed, and everyone follows them religiously. They actually keep creating more rules and impose them on themselves, so it’s a very sanitized and composed way of attaining some kind of unspoken desire.
I knew that I shouldn’t be too comfortable with it, though. Every time I went back to London, I kept getting reminded of why I wanted to make this film, and why this shouldn’t be seen as normal.
You contrast this scene and the people who buy into it alongside the material being sung, which often espouses the virtues of purity and chastity, but also sometimes comes from a perspective that Otaku culture is constantly being attacked. We can see criticism in some interviews, but it never feels like Otaku culture is actually being attacked within the mainstream, which is actually quite supportive, so the scene itself seems to come with a bit of a persecution complex.
Kyoko Miyake: Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s definitely a persecution complex there, and it might feel like you’re this minority that’s getting persecuted, but in a strange way this minority has become the mainstream. You go to idol events or you go to certain parts of Tokyo and you realize how many Otaku that are out there. There are so many of them.
You walk down the streets and you feel this deep sense of failure, sadness, and alienation in certain parts of Tokyo these days, and there’s no obvious connection, but I see this lengthy economic depression as leading to people needing that sense of escape. People sometimes get stuck with a job that they didn’t want. People wrestle with financial and social insecurity. I can understand that.
I definitely had a lot of prejudice going in against a lot of these men. These were men who were from the same generation as me, and I had nothing in common with them, but this film taught me to learn to try and understand where they come from. I don’t condone what they do, but I have a slightly better understanding of where they come from and why they feel compelled to do this.
Our generation, especially men, probably feel like they’ve been betrayed. We grew up during an economic bubble before it all burst. When we became adults, that was all gone, and we’re doing exactly the same work that our parents did, but somehow we’re not doing as well as they did. We were expected to do even better than our parents and grandparents, and it isn’t our fault that we aren’t. People feel betrayed by something, and in times like these, people have to find ways of assuaging that betrayal. When you don’t know why something failed in your life or what went wrong, one of the easiest ways to combat that is to find something you believe in or something you can root for. There’s a lot of anxiety and desire to go back to the old ways when men belonged where they were elevated to a higher status, and I think idol culture makes some of these men feel free from judgment and failure that might be going on in their life.
I think the best way that I can describe what I felt about Rio’s fans was that they were creepy and misguided, but I never saw them as dangerous. Somehow in my mind I was able to not completely rationalize the behaviour, but at least understanding. I think I would have been more turned off by idol culture if I felt like I was watching Rio being placed into dangerous situations by these fans. Given the subject matter, this seems like a culture that could take on some very dark connotations. What was it like being able to converse with these fans, even though you don’t necessarily agree with what they do? Did you tell them up front where you were coming from or did you just stick to engaging with them on a more topical level?
Kyoko Miyake: I tried to be really honest with my intentions, and many of them thought I was just making a film about how useless Japanese men are, and a lot of them took that in stride. (laughs) But I really appreciated the kind of self-deprecating humour that a lot of these men are capable of, and I think, for me, that was a welcoming sign. They have a really low self esteem of themselves. A lot of these fans felt close to me because I was their age, and my presence there didn’t phase them. Maybe for some of them, they saw women their age as an enemy, but it’s so fascinating to watch how differently they would talk to me as opposed to a sixteen year old. It’s very different, and that’s really interesting.
But Rio was a great person to follow because she’s not really girly and her fans appreciate that, and there’s a lot less misguided feelings there. Rio’s music, perhaps because she’s a bit older, is about as age appropriate for these fans as idol culture could often get. (laughs) Also, she’s not a typically cute, overly made-up girl. I felt a lot safer in her company and in the company of Rio’s fans than I might have felt had I chosen someone else to follow that might have been a bit younger.
I realized that when you’re a teenager, it’s hard to articulate your feelings well. I know I couldn’t. I realized that all of the teenage girls that I had been interviewing for the film weren’t really telling me how they were feeling or what they were thinking. If we had followed younger girls, I felt like we would have only had a film where we were observing these girls while these men are watching them, and we wouldn’t have much explanation about what was happening. We wanted to make a film about the objectification of women, but if we followed one of the younger idols, we would have fallen into the trap of objectifying these women almost unwittingly. That would have defeated our purpose, so we had to focus on someone with more agency. Rio knows what she wants. She’s a businesswoman. She has a close, communicative relationship with her manager. I felt safer in her company.
And also because she’s not this typical, cute, younger girl, she’s also subject to a lot of abuse. She would get these ugly, hateful messages like, “You’re so ugly that you should just die.” She’s not even a powerful celebrity with a lot of bodyguards. She’s just an everyday nineteen year old girl, so how does it feel when you get this kind of abuse? Then think about what it must be like to be a younger teenage girl getting this same kind of abuse. Somehow Rio rises above that, but I don’t know how she does it.
The scale of some of these idol events is overwhelming. One of the most mind-blowing things I have seen all year was witnessing just how massive the idol elections were and how chaotic that must be. Even stranger than that, however, are these handshake events where thousands of men will line up for hours just to shake the hand of one of these idols while some guy with a stopwatch keeps track of how long the greeting can last. What’s it like trying to capture events as large and expensive as these?
Kyoko Miyake: I mean, those handshake events are something these fans hold dearly. For those thirty seconds to a minute that you’re up there, it’s only you and the girl existing in that moment. Many fans that I talked to would quote verbatim actual conversations with the girl, and the girl will usually remember the name of the fan and remember what was said the last time they shook hands. It feels almost like talking to a friend or girlfriend, and in that moment, either the fan or the girl comes across like a hero or heroine of their own story. One fan described it to me as a moment that makes him feel special and unique, and I think it works both ways. The girls are performing and getting something out of it, but these girls also make the fans feel special. Rio, in particular, has a very warm handshake, and she won’t let people go very easily, and many shy fans will try to take their hand back. It looks strange, but it’s very functional.
In a culture like Japan, people don’t just queue up for anything like this because it’s so distant. When you grow up as a child in Japan, you don’t have that sense of openness. Even a parent will rarely if ever hug their child. When I was growing up, I remember that when I was sick was the only time my mother would touch me, and that was to check if I had a fever. A handshake feels so official, especially if you don’t have a partner, boyfriend, or girlfriend. That’s a very special moment.
There are a growing number of young people in Japan who don’t get married or don’t seek a partner, and many people seem happy to be alone, so there are a lot of business opportunities that cater specifically to these people, and idol culture is just one way of monetizing that desire to be next to someone and to be a part of something, and it’s a very clever business.
Tokyo Idols is now available on iTunes.