‘Tokyo Idols’ on Netflix Examines Quirky (Some Would Say Creepy) Japanese Pop Phenomena (2024)

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Tokyo Idols

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The film begins with glow sticks waving in the air as we’re told, “This isn’t a fad. It’s a religion.” A parade of young female pop singers prance about on stage, like anime characters come to life. We then see the crowd is not, like them, young or even remotely female, but a crush of adult men. Text in all caps then tells me, “THERE ARE AROUND 10,000 TEENAGE GIRLS WHO CALL THEMSELVES IDOLS IN JAPAN.” This is the world of Tokyo Idols, Kyoko Miyake’s excellent 2017 documentary, which is currently available for streaming on Netflix.

As a “journalist” – a term I apply to myself very lightly – I feel it’s important to admit when I am out of my element. Though I am aware of the basics of Japanese pop culture – anime, manga, those wacky game shows that blur the line between risqué sexuality and torture p*rn – I am by no means an expert. While watching Tokyo Idols, Ihad to continually Google such terms as “Otaku” (an obsessive pop culture fan, basically, the Japanese equivalent of the British term “trainspotter”), and “Akihabara” (Tokyo’s electronics district which caters to otaku).

Idols are young female singers in their late teens and early 20s that play J-Pop, Japanese pop music, which like its Korean variant K-Pop, isn’t drastically different than the slick, upbeat, hyper-melodic computer-generated pop music found in America or Europe. The only difference is the lyrics, which are sung in the native tongue and, in the case of J-Pop, often celebrate otaku culture and its obsessions; gaming, anime, manga, junk food, hanging in Akihabara, etc. While they wear form fitting outfits which riff on sexualized versions of school girl uniforms and anime characters, they’re never too revealing and in fact are meant to embody the virginal purity of the glorified girl next door.

The idols are supported by their fans, which according to the film are predominantly adult men, ranging in age form their early 20s to mid 40s. They form fan clubs, such as The Rio Brotherhood who follow singer Rio,Tokyo Idols’ de facto main character, and go to her every show, waving glow sticks, singing along and performing synchronized dance moves. They speak of spending thousands of yen on CD’s, posters, daily livestreams, weekly concerts and meet and greets, where they can actually shake hands with the idols, a physical contact not socially acceptable in Japan until the modern era.

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Of course the idea of middle aged men obsessing over preening teenage girls has disquieting sexual implications, which Tokyo Idols examines in full. Besides the obviously problematic “little girl fantasies,” as journalist Minori Kitahara calls them, the idols’ reliance on their male fan base for donations and to help them win various competitions fosters the idea that a women’s purpose in life is to please others, specifically men.

According to Kitahara, the idols represent women at their least threatening, a rebuke of modern sexual equality. “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.” A montage of idol posters, anime characters and ads for sex dolls on display in Akihabara makes the sexual fetishism crystal clear.

Meanwhile, sociologist Satoshi Hamano sees the idols as systematic of Japan’s current national malaise, where men would rather fantasize about women they can never attain than get in relationships and start families they can’t afford in the recession weary nation. He holds idol and otaku culture responsible for the country’s declining birth rates, and jokes that they should be banned.

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While all valid criticisms, there’s another intriguing dynamic at play. With their ritualized customs, and ecstatic devotion, the men who follow the idols seem more like soccer supporters than music fans at times. “WE ARE RIO!,” The Rio Brotherhood chant, seeing her success as an affirmation of their own self-worth. 43-year-old Rio fan Koji even tells us, “In helping Rio fulfill her dream, I realized I can do more with my own life.”

Tokyo Idols is a fascinating and well-made look into a world where teenage girls seek fame and fortune and men get first-hand access to the women of their dreams, and the problematic sexual politics that follow. Watching it, I often felt like Bill Murray’s character in Lost In Translation, a middle-aged Westerner observing Japanese culture and not quite understanding what was going on. While parts of the otaku and idol phenomenon seemed odd, and yes, even creepy, the same could be said I’m sure by any outsider looking in at America, with its own unique and sometimes disturbing obsessions.

Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.

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‘Tokyo Idols’ on Netflix Examines Quirky (Some Would Say Creepy) Japanese Pop Phenomena (2024)
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