Director Kyoko Miyake’s Tokyo Girls, a queasy yet compelling film for the BBC’s superb Storyville documentary strand, focuses on the 10,000 girls who perform as ‘idols’ for their largely middle-aged male fan base. Dancing in frilly, Harajuka-inspired childish white and pink outfits on stage, their effect is somewhat akin to a bizarre religious cult. The men wave UV glow sticks around and know all the dance routines off by heart, screaming at the objects of their desire.
This sleazy ‘kawaii’ (cute) pop industry is of course propelled by money, and the late teen performers have meet and greets arranged by managers, where their fans pay to have handshake sessions- such sessions are odd, as handshakes were taboo for a long time in Japan, and have sexual connotations.
Worryingly, some idols are even younger, aged around ten-fourteen: one fan in his twenties, quite openly, says on camera that he would not be interested in older girls, as they would be developed. Yet this Lolita syndrome seems actively endorsed- the parents of the performing kids see no problem as ‘the men are friendly’.
The girls are showered with gifts, the men follow them around the country (one had seen some 700 shows) and many even give up their jobs to pursue their favourites. How they manage to finance their obsession is never actually addressed.
Miyake’s film is even-handed,though, she makes no judgement on the adulation of these lonely men, who seem incapable of interacting with real women- crucially, women their own age. The most fervent fans are called ‘otaku’. Koji, 43, is a huge otaku fan of the central idol in the film, Rio Hiiragi, who, it is fair to say, is not blessed with Beyonce- like pipes, but some charisma, and is undeniably hard working. Koji has met her many times, and when questioned about his love for the girl singer, he opens up, and speaks of having lived ‘a mediocre life’ where failure has been the only consistency. Real women, he admits, are too problematic for him.
Rio’s own parallel tale also seems somewhat bittersweet. Away from the handshakes, toys and saccharine smiling appearances, she seems ambitious; although distrait, disappointed and lonely. All work and no time to do ordinary teenage things, like hang out with friends or see other gigs, appears to be taking its toll. She wants to be a real singer, with credibility, conflicted about the interminable push for stardom.
One question hangs over the film: what happens when the girls get older? Are they washed up at twenty two, only to be replaced by a younger model? Journalist Minori Kiatahara says she has been criticised for speaking out against the youth-obsessed culture permeating Japanese life, where beauty and submissive female attitudes still endure. The endless conveyor belt of kawaii pop is a massively profitable industry for Japan- I would like to see what happens next, when the youth fades and the women have to adjust to making it in the real world: now, there would be a story worth telling.
Available on BBC i Player