Place: New York

Not a Fad, But Religion

Art Categories:  Film, Movie

In the rapidity of the expansion of the Internet, the world beyond the screen becomes more and more and realistic. And, riding on that current, Japan has a gigantic business using the very virtual reality. It’s the female idol industry, which estimates its worth at one billion dollars a year, even during the prolonged economic recession. Filmmaker Kyoko Miyake’s “Tokyo Idols,” which premiered at JAPAN CUTS! in July this year, explores the Japanese idol industry which is the country’s phenomenon.


Columnist Akio Nakamori says in the film, “There are parallels between 1970s London and Tokyo today.” Various things in society including the economy have been stagnant for a while now, and in these circumstances, especially in the past ten years, Japan has established the idol culture as its special facet. This idol culture, which involves not just youth but middle and old ages as well, is giving a kind of salvation to society. Now in Japan, idols have become the altar where hurt people visit to heal themselves. While worshiping their favorite idols, fans meet their comrades, they communicate with each other, and liberate from isolation. Sociologist Satoshi Hamano states that Japanese idol culture is “not a fad. It’s a religion.”


The film unfolds focusing mainly on 19-year-old solo idol Rio Hiiragi. But not only her, the camera also follows 14-year-old Amu Kayama from Harajuku Monogatari and 10-year-old Yuzuha Oda from Amore Carina, and captures men, who are as old as the girls’ parents, showing excessive love for them. So the film gradually discloses how women are produced through the male gaze in Japan, and how the idol phenomenon influences the whole society. There is an increasing movement to liberate women from male domination all over the world, but through the film you see the fact that Japan still peculiarly protects its own gender values. Is it still going to be protected, or will we hear the voices to change it? “Tokyo Idols” multilaterally reflects this new Japanese idol culture, and sharply reveals what state the country is in today.



COOL sat with Kyoko Miyake at JAPAN CUTS! to discuss “Tokyo Idols.”



They are reproducing the girls that they liked

when they were in the bloom of youth



Why did you want to make a documentary film about idols in Japan?

I’ve spent most of my life in Japan and visit the country many times in a year. So when I thought about what only I could do, one of the themes that I came up with was idols. I’m uncomfortable about the view of women and the state of man and woman in Japan, and I think the idol phenomenon truly represents that. Not only the music industry, but also because the idol phenomenon hugely influences Japanese culture itself is another reason.


The film unfolds centering on the solo idol Rio Hiiragi. Why did you want to follow her?

Rio Hiiragi © Van Royko

I approached many idols actually, but popular idols who are featured in the media all the time only have 3 to 5 minutes for an interview, so it was impossible to really have a conversation with them. And they need proper make-up and to be in certain costumes, and I had to listen to their many requirements, so I thought I wouldn’t be able to explore their true selves. Even though the film has a theme of showing how men measure women, if I choose someone who can’t talk about their own opinions, it’s impossible for me to see her true self as a woman.


An idol concert has about twenty idol groups, and each has about 15 minutes on stage. I was filming some idol group at a concert, but I was curious about Rio Hiiragi’s concert and looking at it. Then she came to me and said, “My name is Rio Hiiragi.” She also gave me her pamphlet and was telling her manager what to do, which convinced me that she would be perfect.


You analyze the society in which female idols are in high demand through the interviews with many different experts in different fields.

Originally I had a vague idea to follow three different idols: the one who is already famous, the one who is on the frontline to break out, and the one who just started. But while filming, we began following the idol fans. However, if we made a film that followed just idols, people outside Japan wouldn’t know what is really going on in Japanese society, so we decided to interview many various experts.


There are also enthusiastic boys’ group fans in Japan. What is the difference between them and female idol fans?

We didn’t follow boys’ group fans this time, although it could make certain contrast. The idol phenomenon that is based on girls is recognized as an industry. Comparing to that, there are only several boys’ groups, even though they have so many fans. Japanese boys’ groups are super-popular, but I think they don’t really have the same economic effect as the female idol events, which could produce millions at a time.


You mention that Japanese men worship virginity in the film.

© Van Royko

Japanese tradition embraces something transitory. I can tell you an example. The popular idol game now is something like, you can pick up a young girl you like, take time to take care of her, and raise her as your perfect woman. That aspect could be somewhat similar to “The Tale of Genji” by Murasaki Shikibu, which fumes an idea that you can raise a woman as you like if you cultivate her when she is younger.


What I also felt while filming was that what we desire from idols has not yet changed at all since thirty years ago. One of the reasons could be nostalgia. The managers of the female idols are from the same generation as I am. So they make the girls sing popular songs from our adolescence in the late-80s through early-90s without re-arranging. So I have an impression that they are reproducing the girls that they liked when they were in the bloom of youth and the nostalgia for the Showa period (1926 – 1989), without facing reality.




They’ve begun to understand

how their young flesh affects people



It was rather shocking to see a 10-year-old idol girl surrounded by middle aged men. I think it would be repulsive for people outside Japan.

I actually hesitated to include that scene. Foreign media like the BBC supported this film. So, because pedophilia is an absolute crime in the West, if I question that aspect in this idol phenomenon in Japan, there was the possibility that I would digress from my main focus, which is to show how men put women in a box. I was worried about it, but I had to include the scene even if there was a risk. I wanted to show that not only 10-year-old but even 7-year-old girls start to have this mentality: older men can fulfill their dreams. And adults in Japan never doubt that at all.


Amore Carina is an idol group that consists of 9- and 10-year-old girls. They just enjoy being praised by adults. Until they became idols, adults were people who instructed them at home and school, but suddenly after they became idols, adults began complimenting them like “You are great!” and “I love you!” Some of them don’t even recognize the difference between their fans and me who was making documentary.


© Van Royko

However, the 14-year-old girls of Harajuku Monogatari definitely know the difference between their fans and me. They see some sense of distinction between their fans, whom their power can influence, and others. They’ve begun to understand how their young flesh affects people. Knowing that aspect, I had a dilemma if I should follow the 10-year-old girls who haven’t realized that yet or not.


I was also worried about the girls’ parents. I met many of them, and they think it’s a good thing for their girls to have fun. None of them are using the girls for their income. Rather than that, they invest the money for their children’s future. So, I had an impression that the parents are letting the girls be idols, like one of their extracurricular activities: piano on Monday, swimming on Tuesday, and idol on Wednesday. I was concerned that parents in the West might criticize those parents of the idols without knowing the situation.


Journalist and feminist Minori Kitahara was memorable in the film. There was the Women’s March earlier this year, and “Wonder Woman” has made a big impact in entertainment. So, there is a movement in society to scoop women out of the box. But on the other hand, women who are dominated by men are lionized.

By internalizing the male gaze, girls unconsciously put on the make-up that men would like, or teenage girls can be sex objects; a lot of things that are conscious of the male gaze exist in different aspects of society. If you look at the details, even the countries that have advanced ideas of equal rights for men and women have it.


Even though there is a movement to free women in the world, people in Japan think it can’t be helped. No one says, “It needs to be reexamined.” They just say, “It can’t be helped that men like younger women.” I showed some editing materials to the foreign TV stations that were supporting us while filming, and they suggested to include the critical voices of women, former idols who are criticizing the idol phenomenon, and people that are protesting in front of idol concerts. But zero people are protesting.


The British paper The Sun has a traditional “Page 3” which features topless women. But more and more people protested it, so that finally that traditional series came to an end. So, imagining something like that, the TV people thought that there must be people who are protesting the idol phenomenon, but there is no one who is criticizing it out loud. However, even so, I believe that there must be people, both women and men, who are feeling discomfort towards it.




Everyone wants to believe

that it’s OK to be themselves and feel special



While exploring the idol culture of Japan, the film also refers to youth’s views on love and marriage, as well as the declining birth rate. Why did you want to include those aspects in the film?

While looking at the idols’ fans, I realized that many of them don’t want to look at a woman around their age, or a woman who’s right in front of them. There may be some among them who have marriage aspiration, but there are surprisingly so many men who don’t want to deal with women who are in the same generations as them. The guys who are following girls who are more than twenty years younger than them are just happy about coming to see their idols’ concerts everyday. And they look really happy, so I didn’t feel like disturbing that. But if everyone retreats into fantasy, more loneliness will spread in the society, I’m afraid.


America and Europe wouldn’t really allow this kind of idol culture, but it has gained a certain diversity in Japan. What do you think about that?

Most people are following the rules. And different types of music inspire the idol songs now, so that culture is a place where creativity is born. I didn’t include this but we interviewed Marty Friedman from Megadeth who said, “The American and other countries’ music industries prefer ‘cool music’, but anything goes in Japanese idol music. It’s really a symbol of Japanese culture.”


Music producer Hyadain also said this, but idols music has swelled since Japan began facing inward. That’s why the idol music isn’t a copy of foreign music, and people in the idol music industry and their fans are doing it with might and main while America is ashamed of doing it. They enjoy a sense of relief doing it. I think Hyadain has found joy in it, and he keeps working with Momoiro Clover Z.


There was a memorable line when the fans talk to the really young idols, “They feel safe and can let their guard down. They can feel pure and free again.” What is your opinion when that feeling is in demand?

Kyoko Miyake at JAPAN CUTS! © Taiyo Okamoto

People around my age are the Lost Generation. Men have been doing the same things as their fathers did, but can’t get decent jobs, can’t find a spouse, can’t buy a house and have a family, so they might have been feeling betrayed by society. So, the idol fans around my age might be having the feeling of being healed, comforted, and cherished.


The idols also fulfill their desire for recognition: “Just be yourself.” That’s why many of the idol songs are rooters’ songs. The idols themselves also fulfill their own desire for recognition by hearing their fans shout out their names. The Japanese idol industry cleverly uses that aspect. Everyone wants to believe that it’s OK to be themselves and feel special.



Text & Interview by Taiyo Okamoto

Photo Courtesy © Van Royko


JAPAN CUTS! Official Website


Tokyo Idols Official Trailer from EyeSteelFilm on Vimeo.


Smilar Interests:

“An Actress Called Idol” Atsuko Maeda Interview (“Mohican Comes Homes”)

“In Search of the Centroid” Ryusuke Hamaguchi Interview (“Happy Hour”)

“Her Participation As Reflection” Clotilde Courau Interview (“In the Shadow of Women”)

“In Search of Freedom” Hisako Matsui Interview (“What Are You Afraid Of?”)

“When the Soul Regains Its Voice” Kiki Sugino Interview (“Taksu”)