‘Tokyo Idols’: Film Review | Sundance 2017

Courtesy of Sundance Institute/Kyoko Miyake
A lively inquiry that reveals more contradictions than consensus.

Kyoko Miyake’s pop culture profile spotlighting Japanese singers premiered in Sundance’s World Cinema Documentary Competition.

The Japanese pop music trend featuring young, predominantly female singers known as “idols” has been around since at least the 1990s and shows no sign of fading anytime soon. Idols rarely play their own instruments, instead performing J-Pop tunes in fancifully styled, colorful costumes while dancing energetically to recorded tracks or backing bands. They also will be familiar to fans of many anime films and TV programs as the performers on the genre’s uplifting theme songs that typically celebrate individuality and personal fulfillment.

Filmmaker Kyoko Miyake’s lively documentary attempts a critical examination of the role that the idol industry plays in contemporary Japanese culture, but comes up against myriad contradictions that frequently frustrate clear conclusions. The widespread popularity of J-Pop performers and music, however, would seem to assure the film’s potential to attract a broad audience in a variety of formats.

First encountered at a Tokyo performance for her most loyal fans, vivacious Rio Hiiragi (known to her followers as “RioRio”) is pushing the upper age limit of a typical idol’s career now that she’s turned 19. “I can’t do this forever,” she acknowledges, viewing the idol route as necessary preparation for attaining a career as a professional recording artist. That lofty goal is a long way from the low-key events that she’s currently confined to because of her limited popularity, however. With a small but loyal fan base known as the “RioRio Brothers,” her mostly male coterie aged 20 to 40-plus devotedly attends her live performances, displaying their distinctive dance steps and supportive chants when she’s onstage.

Fans like Koji Yoshida, 43, sometimes spend thousands of dollars a year on concert tickets, promotional merchandise and “handshake events,” where participants pay a fee to snap a photo with a performer and chat one-on-one for a couple of minutes. These encounters are an opportunity for many men who may feel awkward around women to approach them in a controlled situation with clear protocols and boundaries. While the rules of engagement may ensure that they won’t feel rejected, they also contribute to the impression that most personal interactions with stars are primarily transactional.

As the informal leader of the RioRio Brothers superfan group, Koji attends all of Rio's performances, helps coordinate post-show events and even occasionally appears in her music videos. He considers himself an idol “otaku,” a general term referring to hardcore pop culture fans. Although female followers may not be as common, they still constitute a sizable share of a typical idol’s audience, even if they’re essentially passed over in the film.

Discussing the development of her idol persona, Rio cites her longtime devotion to anime as the inspiration that got her started performing in a downtown Tokyo “idol cafe” at 16. Even after she finally signs a recording contract and partners with leading J-Pop composer Hyadain, Rio recognizes that there are major challenges ahead if she’s going to make a successful career as a performer. Still, she says, becoming a professional singer marks a milestone in her career, signifying that she’s now an artist and not just an idol any longer.

“This isn’t a fad, it’s a religion,” remarks one of the film’s commentators regarding idol culture, and there’s certainly a wide variety of opinions on the subject. Asahi Shimbun newspaper reporter Motohiro Onishi notes that the ascendancy of social networking and internet culture may contribute to a sense of isolation that some men experience, leaving them vulnerable to being influenced by media representations of young women. Another observer asserts that in Japan’s recession-hit economy, men may be discouraged from seeking longterm relationships without the prospect of being able to support a family.

Journalist Minori Kitahara suggests that idol culture objectifies women and encourages them to seek men's approval, although male idols and boy bands also are extremely popular. Some female performers, however, find the idol experience empowering, saying it allows them to gain self-confidence and develop entrepreneurial business skills. The contradictions inherent in these conflicting opinions are exacerbated by Miyake’s reliance on sometimes obscure sources (who may only be identified as “sociologist,” “journalist” or “analyst”) for commentary on idol culture and trends. Any examination of the talent agencies behind recruiting, training and promoting idols through concerts, events and merchandising is also largely absent, although the idol industry reportedly is booming even during Japan’s current economic downturn and may be worth more than $1 billion a year.

Meanwhile, as Rio attempts to expand her career by appealing to a wider audience, she launches her “Rio Trans-Japan Campaign” to reach fans in the provinces. It’s an uncertain strategy that could end up alienating her core followers if she’s away from Tokyo for too long, before the next aspiring idol captures the limelight.

Production companies: Brakeless, EyeSteelFilm

Director-writer: Kyoko Miyake

Producers: Felix Matschke, Bob Moore, Kyoko Miyake

Executive producers: Mila Aung-Thwin, Daniel Cross, Jutta Krug, Nick Fraser, Kate Townsend, Margje de Koning, Axel Arno, Tore Tomter, Mette Hoffmann Meyer, Melissa Kajpust, Maureen Levitt, Julie Di Cresce

Director of photography: Van Royko

Editor: Anna Price

Music: David Drury

Sales: Cinetic Media

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Documentary Competition) 


Not rated, 88 minutes