Fantasia Review: Tokyo Idols

In Japan, the “idol” industry provides a living for young girls, and fulfills desires of much older men. The girls range between the ages of 10-20, and the men appear old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers. The girls perform pop songs, while dancing along to the music while these men dance and cheer for them the way North Americans may imagine young children cheering for boy bands on this side of the globe. Sounds harmless, right? Kyoke Miyake’s (Director/Writer) documentary sheds light on the dark side of this industry.

The film opens with a popular Tokyo Idol named, Rio. At the age of 19, Rio confesses to the camera that she’s near the shelf life of her career. She talks about how she needs to seize the opportunity, and make the most of it while she can. Rio’s most loyal fans are called, “Rio Rio Brothers.” As previously mentioned, a vast majority of idol fans are adult males all the way from 20-65. We’re introduced to Rio’s most devoted fan, who confesses that he has spent his life savings on idols. Income is generated through many channels: CDs, premium streaming/chat service, concerts, and handshake events. The handshake events grant these men an opportunity to talk with these girls, and because the girls require their business to thrive and grow, they cannot deny their praise and conversation. It would have been interesting to discover exactly where the money goes, but you never know what you’ll find under those rocks.

A journalist in the film discusses the current landscape of the men in Japan – most of the men are terrified of rejection by females in general. There’s conversation about how young men in Japan are becoming less social among the opposite sex in part because of idol worship, and isolation through social media. The handshake events feature a brief one on one discussion in which many idols group together, fans chat with each idol and security taps the men on the shoulder when it’s time to move on. It seems harmless on the surface, but from the outside looking in, this entire process feels creepy. Some idols break into the industry through local competitions, others quite literally walk street corners, selling their own merchandise, music, and photos. It’s gross to watch underage girls wearing small outfits in order to get the attention of men walking by.

Miyake exercises great restraint because it would be easy to paint all of these men as perverts. An ominous score to the film would push the audience into feeling a certain way, but for the most part, Miyake remains neutral while allowing everyone involved to comment on this industry: supportive parents, enthusiastic fans, hopeful idols, a journalist, and a sociologist who all have positive or negative things to say about the industry. There is, however, a point in the film where it becomes blatantly obvious that many of the men see them as sexual objects – One man tells Miyake why he enjoys discovering “underdeveloped idols” so he can watch them grow. I dare you to try to watch the film with a straight face during that scene.

Tokyo Idols is certainly a frustrating watch because it’s disgusting to see such young girls being sexualized. Should this industry go unchecked and unrecognized, who knows where it could end up. Tokyo Idols is an informative documentary that will likely enrage most viewers, but this conversation has to start somewhere. There are no solutions offered here, but it’s such a massive industry run by men that there may not be a solution to this problematic industry.

Tokyo Idols appears as part of our coverage of the 21st edition of Fantasia 2017.