When New York City–based filmmaker Kyoko Miyake was watching TV while visiting her mother’s house in Japan, breaking news came on the screen. It wasn’t about Syria. Nor was it about North Korea. It was about a girl leaving a J-pop band. This was national news.
Miyake wanted to find out what, exactly, was going on with this pop-cultural phenomenon.
What she unearthed was troubling, enlightening, and complicated. Her resulting work, the U.K.–Canada coproduction Tokyo Idols (with producers from Montreal) screening at the 2017 DOXA Documentary Film Festival, reflects her multifaceted perspective.
On the line from NYC, Miyake says that growing up in Japan was a “confusing and awkward experience”, as she felt inherently uneasy with gender roles. “I just didn’t know how to act or be cute,” she says. “People seem to take it as a sign of defiance.”
Living abroad for 15 years, combined with her innate understanding of the culture, gave her the ideal vantage point from which to analyze the realm of “idol” worship, in which middle-aged Japanese salarymen devote themselves to teen female J-pop idols with religious fervour and to jaw-dropping extents, from spending almost all their savings on concerts and memorabilia to rehearsing and performing the same dance moves as their teen-girl stars.
Although she says the subject matter “symbolized everything that made me feel uncomfortable about being a woman in Japan”, she also realized that she had to go beyond simply following a few female idols and delve into the world of the otaku, or people whose social skills suffer in the face of their all-consuming obsession with particular interests or subcultures.
Her inability to find overtly critical voices to feature in the film reflects how normalized and mainstream these idols have become. As one interviewee states, it is extremely difficult to express criticism of otaku from within Japanese society.
How quickly she and her non-Japanese crew adjusted to what initially seemed creepy and strange surprised her. She was also disturbed by how early the girls start, some as young as 10 years old (with girls being phased out, or “graduated”, as they reach their later teens), and how many girls aspire to enter the industry, with their parents’ endorsement.
“If you grew up as a girl or woman in Japan…the male gaze is internalized at such an early age and it’s so deeply ingrained that you’re just not aware of it,” she says.
But the documentary explains why it’s so appealing to them, as it’s one of the only fields in Japan where girls dominate.
“Within that world, girls have such a power over their fans,” Miyake says. “They’re like a goddess to their fans…but it’s based on deeply misogynistic ideas. In most parts of Japanese society, women are not allowed to play a leading role and idol culture is sold like a dream factory for girls with ambition.”
Nonetheless, she refused to construct a black-and-white view of the matter or to incite audiences to want to rescue these girls.
Instead, she exposes several surprising aspects that offer a more complex view. For instance, the roots of the subculture are traced to the country’s economic depression. One interviewee calls the idols the equivalent of Britain’s Sex Pistols, from which the salarymen find self-empowerment and the strength to rally against the system or even change their lives for the better.
Miyake points out that these men are enmeshed in gender roles of being strong providers for women and children, but are either unemployed or struggling with their careers and are unmarried.
“When they come to an idol concert and spend money on those girls, and then the girl tells you that she’s only there because of their support,
I think it probably gives them some pride and probably it might even be able to restore a failed sense of masculinity, in a way,” she says.
Although there have been some cases of attacks by fans reported in the news, the fan community, like much of Japanese society, is heavily governed by unwritten rules. An equivalent practice with such an age disparity might be impossible in countries without such social discipline. Although many of the fans fall in love with these underage girls, they remain highly respectful, with men not even drinking alcohol at bars where the concerts take place.
“I still don’t condone what they do, but I think I have a deeper understanding of where they come from or why they need to do this,” Miyake says.
She sees this subject as merely a microcosm of a larger sociological issue. “Idol culture is a reflection of the wider society,” she says.
Yet working on this project, she says with a laugh, made her feel “very Japanese and very un-Japanese at the same time”. Criticizing old men, she explains, is very untraditional, and yet her deep connection to the subject, which she thinks is far stronger than if it were happening in another country, made her realize how Japanese she is.
“If this starts some sort of discussion or debate in Japan, I would be very happy,” she says.