September: Tokyo Idols

“Idol Worship”

Alyxandra Vesey (University of Alabama)

A fourth of the way into Tokyo Idols, Kyoko Miyake’s 2017 documentary about Japanese idol culture, columnist Akio Nakamori compares post-millennial Japan to pre-Thatcher England by claiming that the economic malaise that engendered British punk resembles the Lost Score, a twenty-year period of stagnation following Japan’s price bubble collapse in the early 1990s. It’s fascinating to think about how financial crises may have created both the Sex Pistols and AKB48. However, while professionals like Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren used celebrity to commodify rebellion, British punk nonetheless presented itself as anti-establishment – even as its bands signed lucrative contracts with EMI. If Japanese idol culture has a Western analogue—though it doesn’t need one—Tokyo Idols’ depiction of the phenomenon suggests common cause with the New Romantics, a glamourous strain of British post-punk that traded punk’s gritty cynicism for pop’s aspirational materialism by plying their fans with glossy pinups, extravagant videos, and mallrat couture.

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Like the New Romantics, the young stars featured in Tokyo Idols aren’t openly critical about the socioeconomic systems that compel them to pop stardom. Subjects like Hiiragi Rio internalize that capitalism is a game and invest in themselves by spending cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention. Quite often, this means exploiting the parameters of heterosexual desire. Miyake is most concerned with the idol-fan dynamic between young female pop singers and their unmarried adult male following. At various points, she asks these men about their fixation on girls young enough to be their kid sisters and daughters. Miyake’s offscreen questions are reinforced by onscreen criticisms from Minori Kitahara, a feminist-identified journalist and sex shop proprietor who challenges idol culture’s asymmetric power relations and girls’ self-commodification. Tokyo Idols illustrates this uneasy interpersonal dynamic with concerts and handshake events, where idols interact with fans and pose for pictures. To some extent, handshake events resemble meet-and-greets and expos like Fan Fair, a country music festival in Nashville that critical musicologist Keith Negus perceives as a way to authenticate the genre through fan accessibility. However, analysts Masayoshi Sakai and Motohiro Onishi frame these handshake events as safe spaces for men to engage in physical behavior that has been perceived as inappropriate within Japanese culture but reflects attitudinal shifts resulting from digital communication’s mediated intimacy. Kitahara indicts the fans’ conduct by arguing that they’re able to make such physical contact with strangers but are unwilling to extend such gestures to adult female colleagues and romantic partners.

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I don’t disagree with Miyake and Kitahara’s feminist critique of idol culture, but I wish it went deeper. As a white woman from the United States, I’m ambivalent about Idols’ depiction of Japanese male fandom. Creepy guy behavior hovers over pop music and can be weaponized by misogyny. But men’s identification with girls’ media culture is rarely explored, and I don’t want to pathologize their fandom as inherently predatory any more than I want girl fandom to be dismissed as hysterical and frivolous. To that end, Idols gives us little more than passing glimpses of female faces in the crowd. But their fleeting presence as concert-goers and handshake event moderators also challenges the documentary’s focus on adult male fandom. Late in the film, Rio meets a seven-year-old girl named Mana who follows the singer’s livestream. Idols positions this exchange as a way to recruit Mana into the idol industrial complex, but I wondered if online fan communities have also created alternative spaces that have centered girl fandom and countered the handshake events’ assumed masculine address.

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Furthermore, the livestreams and handshake events don’t materialize out of thin air. These spaces—along with cafes, recording studios, venues, and staged ceremonies—are all sites of networking and commerce. While I appreciate Idols’ attention to musicians and fans’ lived experiences, I wanted a better sense of idoldom’s industrial dimensions—what corporate and government entities nurture it, how much money it generates, how idols interact with label executives and producers, and how J-pop interacts with C-pop and K-pop on the international stage. Idols glances at these issues but doesn’t stare. Midway through the film, Harajuku Story member Amu observes that the stage she performs on is too small for her entire group, so fans vote for their favorite members. She reasons that if she wants to sing, she has to work the crowd both on- and offstage. This scene follows an extended sequence detailing AKB48’s Senbatsu Election process where fans select the group’s top eighty members for that year. While I’m happy to hear from the players, I’d like to know more about the institutions and entities that set idols’ rules of engagement.

“Idol Therapy”

Michelle Cho (McGill University)

Tokyo Idols is an exposé of Japanese idol culture, a fan culture that relies on and reinforces a strict gender binary. The extremes of the gendered fan/idol dyad at the center of Tokyo Idols—avuncular, middle-aged masculinity and cartoonishly juvenile femininity—converge in a common, though variously embodied abjection. This commonality leads to the central paradox of the idol phenomenon, as Miyake presents it: power stems from proximity to patriarchy and capital, yet each side of the dyad feels the other to be its bearer. It’s of course as absurd in Japan as in North America to argue that heterosexual men are today’s underdogs. But, as the toll of toxic masculinity becomes an increasingly common explanation for all sorts of symptomatic behavior, the idol phenomenon that the film portrays starts to seem like a spectacular example of defensive masculine regression in the face of irreversibly destabilized gender roles in post-bubble Japan. At the end of a century and a half of modernization, the nation is handicapped by a culture made nihilistic by economic precarity and ecological disaster, in which fantasy offers comfort, care, and collectivity far beyond what “real life” could ever offer.

However, this assessment of idol culture is the most conservative polemic in Tokyo Idols (and, based on a quick survey of reviews of the film, e.g. here and here, the one most apparent to viewers new to the subject matter). The film also documents an alternative appraisal, in which idol culture, however superficial, can give rise to relationships of genuine care and solidarity. The idol’s stylized gender performance becomes a platform for empathic (and sometimes ecstatic) transference that resists normative gender identities, especially in the male idol fans’ fervent identification with the idol and her putatively feminine emotions and desires. As I watched the film again, Miyake’s efforts to add complexity to the straightforward reading of idols as products of normalized misogyny began to emerge more clearly in the film’s extended focus on the entrepreneurial, “indie” idol Rio and the Rio Brothers, her coterie of fans.

Repeat viewings also made glaring the lack of attention to the workings of the idol industry. For example, the film flattens mainstream idol groups like AKB48, marginal groups like Harajuku Story and Amore Carina, and free agents like Rio into more or less the same condition. While the young female performer is the obvious common denominator, there are stark contrasts in industry practices and economic scale between mainstream and independent idol celebrity. Rio’s self-nominated idol aspirations, fan interactions, and financial motivations seem quite different from those of Amu or Yuzu, the pre-adolescent idols that also appear in the film, who perform in groups with male management that mediates (and profits from) the idol-fan relationship.

The film also gives short shrift to the transmedia environments that shape the aesthetics of idol performance—both for male and female performers/fandoms. While the film presents ample footage of the streets of Akihabara, the Tokyo neighborhood that is the mecca of idol and otaku (extreme fan) cultures, the film’s generic, slow motion panning shots of urban disaffection (crowded intersections, overstuffed shops filled with kitsch) does little to explain the crucial links between the media and fan cultures adjacent to idol culture (e.g., of manga and anime), and the plasticity of the shojo (girl) figure as an assemblage of tropes within these subcultures. When the film approaches idol fandom as the straightforward consumption/exploitation of young girls, rather than an affinity for varied genres of the shojo figure, it can’t help but vilify its subjects, as in the segments of the film that concern Amu and Yuzu and their seeming inability to distinguish themselves from their idol personas. The film displays the same category error itself, when it resorts to an oft-repeated heternormative criticism of otaku: why can’t idol fans have “real” (i.e., normal) relationships with girlfriends and wives? This question flattens the complex sociality of subcultures and their fandoms, which are often characterized by an utterly serious engagement with fantasy, that nonetheless has real, material effects. Although, from a feminist perspective, it may be difficult to entertain the notion that otaku do not necessarily consume idols as sexual fetishes, a key distinction exists between the shojo—a magical figure unsullied by norms of reproductive sexuality (and the impossible demands ported with them)—and the women and girls who embody this role in the arena of idol entertainment. As fan cultures come to resemble forms of public assemblage and collectivity (and vice versa), in Japan as elsewhere, a historical approach to the mainstreaming of otaku identity seems like a key factor in what the film is trying to address. The question then becomes whether or not community can exist at all anymore, without consumer identity to catalyze it. This is a question that I wish Tokyo Idols would have taken up, rather than pathologizing adult men for behaving in ways that we normalize in teenage girls.

What is actually conveyed, by the end of Tokyo Idols, is quite distant from where the film begins, where the activities of Rio and her boosters like Koji are diagnosed as manifestations of a depressive state at the level of the national psyche. We see that Koji and Rio’s fantasies of mutual uplift do have actual outcomes. Koji identifies his involvement with the Rio Brothers as a form of solidarity and an avenue for emotional connection that he would not otherwise have, especially not in the corporate or nuclear family structures he has found the courage to reject, despite this choice also leaving him economically vulnerable. Rio has found a calling, leveraging her idol repertoire of stylized cheerleading into a budding career as a pop artist and anime voice actor. Rio has also eschewed the status quo. However, the characteristics that make Rio a mascot for men like Koji—her approachability, visible effort, and can-do attitude—also make her unlikely to emerge as a genuine pop celebrity. So, the film leaves us with a character study of two people who are living the contradictions of late capital, unable to satisfy their simultaneous desires for intimate connection and self-transcendence. Ultimately, to its credit, Tokyo Idols rejects the impulse to portray idol culture as a form of extreme cultural difference and, instead, highlights the powerful affective appeal of circumscribed intimacy that motivates its current growth, which also characterizes the social media forms lived in various virtual and actual locales around the globe.

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