From video games and anime, to instant noodles and possibly even karaoke, the influence Japan has had on world culture and entertainment is almost unrivaled. However, like any entertainment powerhouse, there is always a seedier more taboo side to the mix, and in Japan that comes in the form of the Japanese Idol. To the western mind, Japanese Idol culture can be confusing and even disturbing at times. But in Japan, the line between the taboo and socially acceptable is consistently being blurred, and Tokyo Idols is a film documenting what happens when the lines disappear, and when taboo becomes mainstream.
For those unfamiliar with Idol culture, a simple google search of the words “Japan” and “Idol” would serve as the ultimate spark notes. Just make sure to have the family filter turned on if you’d decide to click over to the images tab. Essentially what the Japanese have done, is found a new way to sell sex without the need to provide any sort of physical interaction (save for a short handshake). According to the film, Japan has over ten thousand girls that label themselves as professional “idols”, and the vast majority of them fall in the 15-18 age range. In the idol world, youth is valued above all, and it’s not uncommon to find idol groups with girls in their very early teens.
Approaching this subject is one that has to be done with a lot of care, and filmmaker Kyoko Miyake does her best to try and offer the most objective documentary that she can. The thought of forty-something year old men crowding into tightly packed rooms to watch groups of preteens in uniforms dance and sing songs straight off the Dance Dance Revolution soundtrack are extremely hard to portray in a positive light. Instead she chooses to focus on the human aspect of this story, and at times perhaps even the smallest amount of empathy can be had with what would otherwise be the film’0s antagonists.
The film is not without its fair share of limitations however. For instance, we are given extremely fascinating interviews with both idols an fans alike, but female commentators from outside the idol world are few and far between, save for one. What does the common woman think about this new fad? What about the female fans that were almost completely absent from this film? What affect do Japanese cultural values and societal pressures have on sexual expression in Japan? All poignant questions, yet all lightly skimmed over.
Miyake, whether it be by fault or intent, also left out a key piece to the Idol story. She does a great job of offering an inside view of the daily life of a few Idol girls, but fails to approach the countless numbers of ex-idols that must certainly be littered throughout Japan. What happens when your small window has expired? What is to become of these girls, some of which have given up schooling and job opportunities, when their 15 minutes are up? The answer is a lot darker than this film was willing to delve, and may have had audiences feeling has if their heart was in a tourniquet.
Overall, Tokyo Idols is a fascinating look behind the curtain of the idol phenomenon in Japan. For all its faults, it works as an intriguing character study, giving its viewers a unique opportunity to observe this craze that has been sweeping over Asia for the last few years.