Anyone with an interest in Japanese pop culture is no doubt familiar with the “idol” industry, which turns young girls into pop music superstars with a hugely devoted legion of fans. On the surface, that description doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the early experiences of performers like Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus – but when you take into account that most idols dress in skimpy schoolgirl outfits and perform for an audience largely composed of middle-aged men, it starts to feel a little creepy.
Kyoko Miyake’s Tokyo Idols examines this phenomenon through the eyes of 19-year-old Rio Hiiragi, keenly aware that she’s pushing the upper age limit for her chosen career path and hoping to land a professional recording contract before reaching her perceived expiration date. In the meantime, she stays busy with regular performances in multiple cities and providing her most devoted followers with a glimpse behind the curtain via her YouTube channel, which chips away at the mystique of her celebrity lifestyle and affords her the opportunity to connect with her fans on a more personal level.
One of those fans is 43-year-old Koji Yoshida, the leader of a group of die-hard followers dubbing themselves the “RioRio Brothers.” These men shell out absurd quantities of cash for concert tickets and “handshake events” where they can snap a quick photo with the object of their affection/obsession – one member of the group confesses to spending more than $2000 each month on his infatuation, while another proudly claims to have attended more than 700 idol concerts in the past year. And more than a few readily admit “romantic” feelings toward their favorite stars – luckily, there are strict boundaries in place for their interactions. “When fans take pictures with me,” says Rio, “there are rules about where they can touch.”
There would have to be, because the handshake events – much like everything else in the idol industry – are a major source of revenue. One journalists remarks upon the way many idols will “lure” fans to their events via their social media platform, while a cultural analyst acknowledges the “sexual component” inherent when fans are permitted to make physical contact with their favorite performers. “Bringing in the handshake events was a very smart move,” he says, and the same holds true for an idol’s meticulous devotion to each fan, and a refusal to treat anyone differently than the next person. Their careers depend on the illusion of being friendly and approachable, and if anyone were to feel rejected by an idol, it could jeopardize their popularity – and more importantly, their drawing power.
The relationship between idols and their middle-aged male fanbase feels symptomatic of larger issues about the way women are perceived in Japanese culture, where innocence, purity and virginity are revered. Indeed, the entire idol industry – which generates more than $1 billion annually – is built on the objectification of young women, and one journalist cautions the danger of teaching so many girls to derive their self-esteem from the approval and allegiance of men. Conspicuously absent from the film is the missing piece of the equation – the talent agents, managers, and promoters pulling the strings behind the scenes, and no doubt collecting a sizeable share of the profits.
With its open, honest exploration of the ever-growing cultural sensation, Tokyo Idols posits a number of questions that are certainly worth delving into, but stops well short of truly exploring these ideas. There’s a noticeable air of exploitation hanging over the entire industry, and it’s a shame that Miyake’s film doesn’t venture further into the darker side of this world. As interesting as the material may be, I would have much preferred a more well-rounded scrutinization of the factors that precipitated the industry’s rise to prominence – and the damage it very likely does to those left in its wake.