Student Critic Laura Hancock reviews Tokyo Idols (Kyoko Miyake, Canada/UK, 2017)
Kyoko Miyake’s documentary Tokyo Idols explores the phenomenon of Japanese idol culture: a world where young girls aspire to be pop stars and are adored by an obsessive fan base known as ‘the otaku’.
Rio - an ambitious 20-year-old idol - is the main focus but Miyake also directs her attention to the experience of younger aspiring idols and otaku interspersed with commentary from figures within and looking in at the phenomenon. Idol culture is one of the only areas in Japanese society where women and often alarmingly young girls are the successful status quo. The documentary subtly unearths the problematic undertones of this success, which is predicated by the idols predominantly male middle-aged fans who go to extreme lengths to maintain their connection with their chosen idol.
The idiosyncratic, cultish behaviours of the otaku often teeter on the edge of being absurdly funny, but the value placed on the sexual purity of young girls that lurks beneath the surface of idol culture is deeply disturbing. One commentator suggests that idol culture is a commercial guise for validating inappropriate male sexual fantasies towards young girls. The idols meet and greet events where fans can chat and shake the hand of idols as young as fourteen is suggested to be a historically sexual gesture. Repetitive, lingering close-ups of this gesture and crowded shots of the otaku’s choreographed reactions to the idols performances reinforce the uncomfortable relationship between these men and their young idols. A sea of glow stick armed hands perform their routine with intense passion and synchronicity as the idols perform.
Despite the subtext, Tokyo Idols makes an effort to understand the actions and motivations of the otaku rather than villainising them completely which makes for interesting viewing. Its well-executed attempt at objectivity balanced with thoughtful sociocultural critique makes Tokyo Idols a documentary worth investing your time in.
Laura Hancock is 22 and has just graduated from the University of York with a degree in English and Related Literature.