‘Tokyo Idols’ examines exploitation of artists and fans
Documentary premieres Friday
January 17, 2017
Over the past 30 years, the pop idol culture in Japan has exploded with the rise of the Internet.
Rather than watching Japanese pop singers such as Akina Nakamori, Yuki Saito and Seiko Matsuda on the TV a few times a year, fans can see their favorite singers streamed online every day, said filmmaker Kyoko Miyake, whose "Tokyo Idols" has been accepted in the Sundance Film Festival World Documentary competition.
"In a way, the early singers in the '70s and 80s are idols of the Golden Age of Japanese television," Miyake told The Park Record during a phone interview from New York. "They were all stars, but they weren't accessible. They were more distant because you could see them on music programs on TV. If you were hard-core fans, you would see them in concert maybe three times a year."
The big difference was fans usually wouldn't meet these singers.
"Instead, you could admire them from afar," Miyake said.
Today, there are more than 10,000 Japanese pop idols that are active in Japan, an island country about the same size as California.
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Idols are big business because the idols today are easily accessible to their fans, the filmmaker said.
"Not only can you can see them streaming online, producers set up sessions where you can meet these girls and talk with them for 10 or 30 seconds," Miyake said.
While this aspect of the Japanese pop-idol culture is examined in the film, another, more disturbing issue is examined: a culture that objectifies female sexuality.
A majority of the idols' fans aren't young girls, but men who are in their 40s and older.
"I was born in Japan and spent all of my formative years there," she said. "When I see these idols today, the situation reminded me of my life, and they somehow represent everything that made me uncomfortable about being a girl and being a woman in Japan."
When Miyake decided to make a film that illustrated what she felt, she reached out to a group of idols that include Rio Hiiragi, who turned 21 during the shoot, and Amu, who was 14.
Rio, who works out for hours a day to keep herself attractive to her fans, does online streaming as well as embarks on a bicycle tour throughout Japan to meet her fans.
"I think Rio knows that she is promoting herself as a sexual idol, but she doesn't really show it intentionally," Miyake said. "When she's with her family and manager, she's quite natural and funny. But when she's on stage, she puts on an idol persona. She's bubbly, playful and even maternal at the same time.
"I think she's really aware of her value in the market," Miyake said. "She's savvy and a good business woman. And while she's quite intelligent, she also dumbs herself down, to have this affect on the men."
That's something that Miyake found commonplace in the idol culture.
"Many of the idols are cute, but not stunning, and they can't really sing or dance very well, either," she said. "Some producers have told me that when they audition girls, they won't choose girls who are tall or very good at singing or dancing because they might intimidate their fans, especially the men."
In the case of 14-year-old Amu, Miyake wanted to show how young the girls are when they start learning how to appeal to men.
"This was one of the most uncomfortable and challenging part of making the film," Miyake said. "The qualities that are emphasized in men in the Japanese culture are age, experience and power, and those aren't recognized in women.
"The culture for women is the idea of the younger the better," she said. "When a girl turns 18 or 21, it's all downhill from there."
As filming continued, Miyake found her focus shift from just being about the girls, but also the exploitation of the fans.
Many of the men are known as "otaku," which is a Japanese word that depicts a fan obsessed with aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills.
"Many of the men have given up their careers and, in some cases, their families, in order to meet these idols," Miyake said. "Many will spend their life savings on meeting the girls or creating gifts for these girls."
The idol business takes advantage of the men's loneliness and milks money by requiring them to pay for everything from a handshake to taking a photo.
"I worked hard to keep objective, to show the girls' side as well as the otaku side," she said. "I didn't want the film to be about evil people who exploit these girls. I wanted to make a film that also showed where the men's needs and desires come from. And spending more time with the fans made making the film more rewarding in a way."
On a very personal level, Miyake is honored "Tokyo Idols" is premiering at Sundance.
"This is important to me because I want this film to start an ongoing discussion about this culture," she said.
Kyoko Miyake's "Tokyo Idols" will screen at 9 p.m. on Jan. 20, at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre; at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21, at the Redstone Cinema 1; at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 24, at the Broadway Centre Cinema 6 in Salt Lake City; at 3 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 26, and 9 a.m. on Friday, Jan. 27, at the Temple Theatre. For more information, visit http://www.sundance.org.