Japan’s idol industry may appear very strange to Western music fans. In North America, it’s common for the star to be guarded and fenced in, away from their fans’ grubby paws and selfie sticks. In Japan, idols hold events specifically designed to allow human contact and photo ops. Japanese pop stars (and their management) in the Internet era attempt to bridge the communication gap with face-to-face interaction. The relationship between idols and their fans is portrayed as “a religion” in Kyoko Miyake’s Tokyo Idols. The story about real-life idol Rio begins at a concert. The screen fills with lightsticks while audience members perform synchronized dance moves. This scene would be familiar to anyone who has attended pop concerts in Japan. It is so very Japanese that Western viewers may not recognize or understand the strange fandom behavior.
Tokyo Idols gives a glimpse of many behavioral concepts that would be entirely foreign to non-locals. Without elaborating too much of the whys, Miyake has created a little gem of a documentary about the sometimes absurd rituals in Japanese pop culture. Even to locals who don’t follow what’s ‘cool’, the interaction between fans and their idols might seem obsessive and unhealthy. However, idols have given a place in society to many people who otherwise would never fit in. Such commusho appear in the lyrics of one of Rio’s songs. A fan explains that commusho are people with “communication disabilities”. In recent years, these socially awkward folks have become more and more accepted. Their otaku (zealous fan; someone who obsesses over hobby-related interests) lifestyles are now often mirrored by Western geeks interested in anime, kawaii (cute) culture and Japanese street fashion. In our era, otaku has become the mark of cool, where people may be socially awkward, but love what they love with a lot of heart.
And Rio’s followers give her a lot of heart. Director Miyake classifies the male fans as emasculated, with macho ideals. In fact, their portrayal is painfully sad. If not for these idols, “I’d be unmarried and alone forever,” one fan states. These middle-aged men are painted as pathetic misfits – losers – who wouldn’t have a life if it weren’t for fandom. Idol worship not only gives them a so-called life, but alas also perpetuates the cycle of them not going out and finding one.
In a society where handholding is historically seen as having a sexual connotation, it is near squirm-worthy to watch these men attend what is known as “handshake events”. Holding a star’s hand for any length of time can feel like a dream come true. But what happens when the idol is willing to hold the fan’s hand on a regular basis? Some of these fanatic supporters attend concerts and meet-and-greet events every few weeks (or more frequently if the artist is on a promotional tour). They dump their savings into collectibles, trading cards, and the most extreme – multiple copies of CDs – because newly released CDs have golden ticket-like vouchers for these meet and greet affairs. The more vouchers a fan can collect, the more time they can spend with their idol. In a related activity not mentioned in Tokyo Idols, known as “high touch”, fans line up to quickly high-five the idol, and keep moving. The difference with high-touch, is that the rigid rules do not allow touching in any other way. No photo ops, no conversation, and no lingering. The benefit that the fans depicted by Miyake have, is that a handshake event allows the idol to bond with each fan. This no doubt plays psychologically on the fan. It may feel like this idol, over time has become a pal, a girlfriend and a confidante. Unfortunately, the fan that never removes himself from this cycle, can rarely find a real girlfriend. Their social life begins to revolve around the idol, as well as like-minded fans. Some can’t see the abysmal hole they’ve dug themselves, yet others seem reluctantly aware that the idol is not their romantic partner, nor friend. Still, they write lovey-dovey poems, offer the girls their artwork, visit them at their place of (non-idol) work. The faux courtship is one-sided, but the idol never refuses the attention. Rio sees her fans as her children. They mean a lot to her, but not in the same way as these men regard her.
Even in modern times, Japan perpetuates the notion that a woman’s job is to smile and to make men happy. Girls are taught this from a very young age, even if involuntarily. The result is younger and younger female idols doing everything to coddle their worshippers. More shocking than the of-age Rio’s hold on these men, is the stranglehold the younger idols have. Miyake introduces the viewer to a group of up and coming idols as young as eleven years old. They play cute and pacify these overgrown, maladjusted menchildren. The line between knowing the girls are largely acting, and thinking their affection toward the fans is in any way romantic is a slippery slope. There is a rule that dictates that every fan is equal. If the fans know this, they should also understand that they are no more or less special than the next fan. Still, they appear to honestly think the girls are their ideal type, marrying material, and that perhaps the idol remembers or cares for them more than another fan. This gives the men the fantasy world they crave to escape their otherwise mundane or unhappy lives, but may be harming them in the long run.
Tokyo Idols reveals a world that feels disproportionate through the almost clownish behavior of grown men. They don’t appear to have any responsibilities or life goals other than to hold hands with their favorite idol or collect numerous Polaroids of them posing together. Miyake’s vision is both unsettling and fascinating. As pathetic as some of the fans may appear, they also invite empathy. In their awkwardness, they are somehow lovable. The relationships they have with each other show a brothership they probably never felt in their ordinary salaryman lives. The investigation into the sexualization of young girls and the sexually maladroit men who follow them is simultaneously intriguing and alienating.
Fantasia Screening: J.A DeSève Cinema (Concordia), July 26th, 2017 at 7:30 pm.
*** Tokyo Idols will be presented in Quebec starting July 28th, 2017, at Cinema du Parc with English subtitles, and at Cinémathèque Québécoise with French subtitles.