Tokyo Idols is a documentary about the culture of pop idols and their fans in Japan. The “idols” are young girls. The youngest we meet in the film are ten years old. The oldest is twenty-two. Their youth is essential. One of the first things we’re told by an idol, Rio, is that idols have a “best by” date. These girls dress in the fashion of anime characters and sing and dance for fervent crowds of men. Most of these men are single and middles aged, though not all of them, and there are a few women in the crowd. The men who devote their lives to idols are called “otaku” in Japan.
There is, of course, a sexual element to the relationship between the idols and their fans, though it is not explicit or intimate. Purity is a high value in Japanese society, and the girls are idolized in part because they are seen as pure. The most physical contact an otaku ever has with his idols is a handshake (long seen as a sexual gesture in Japanese society, a sociologist tells us) or perhaps when his shoulder touches his idol’s as they take a picture together. It’s more the idea of sexuality than the realization of it that fuels this curious relationship between the young girls and the men. The girls are symbols for the men. The girls relish being symbols.
They also relish the financial gains that come from being symbols. Idol culture is a billion dollar industry in Japan, and some of the otaku we meet spend their life savings to be involved in the community that surrounds each idol. The idols we meet work hard to earn those rewards too. Rio, the idol the film principally follows, does live shows every day for her fans, and she live-streams constantly from her bedroom (again, nothing explicit). She is always “on” for her fans; they repay her with their constant attention.
At one point, an otaku says explicitly that idol culture is more than a fad – “It’s a religion,” he exclaims. For devotees like him, there is indeed religious aspects to his idol worship. Otaku don’t believe the girls are divine figures, but they are the source of needed encouragement, compassion, and meaning for the men. Tokyo Idols includes cut-away interviews with cultural theorists, sociologists, and economists who note the rise of idol culture after the collapse of the Japanese economy in the last two decades. Without jobs, men lack the self-worth to seek marriage, and attaching to an idol is easier than struggling to build a respectable life with an actual woman. Idol encounters also provide a highly structured space for the men to interact with women, and many of the men are, by their own admission, socially inept.
Recently, my wife and I listened to two different audio stories that, together, get at some of these same aspects of Japanese society. Aziz Ansari and Eric Klininberg’s book Modern Romance (we listened to the audiobook) includes a section on the dying marriage culture in Japan. It points to many of the same sociological trends as Tokyo Idols. Also, while it’s not about Japan, Radiolab’s recent episode of K-pop idols and their fans explores a similar dynamic in that Asian society. I recommend both.
I actually recommend those two stories with greater enthusiasm than I recommend Tokyo Idols. The phenomenon it documents is compelling. The documentary itself is intriguing for the first forty-five minutes or so, and then it repeats itself for the next forty-five minutes without exploring the phenomenon in greater depth. It also relies on talking heads to question the relationship between idols and otaku instead of doing the questioning itself cinematically. Perhaps the filmmakers were too respectful of the idols and otaku they followed and didn’t want to inadvertently make fun of them. That would have been a shame, but it is somewhat disingenuous to interview them and get to know them intimately and not recommend, even subtly, ways in which they could all live more worthwhile lives. Maybe the filmmakers don’t see these peoples’ lives as lacking worth. Maybe the point of the documentary is that this phenomenon is fine. I don’t know. The film isn’t clear. Still, as an ethnographic document it is fascinating.