What saved a 43 year old man from depression? What is he so devoted to he refers to it as a religion? What is so intoxicating he’s blown through his life’s savings? Sad-sack middle-aged men in Japan are flocking to ‘pop’ concerts performed by underage girls. They’re called Idols in Japan, they perform in ‘girl groups,’ and to date there about 10 000 of them.
They’re providing a coveted if creepy role in modern Japanese society: comfort to men who have very little else going on. In a tanking economy, middle aged men find themselves with poor jobs, little money, and even less confidence. It’s no wonder they’ve stopped dating real women and have shifted their fantasies toward little girls, who run no risk of rejection. The Idols host “meet and greets” where their fans will of course pay a lot of money to have a minute’s worth of childish conversation and a handshake – in a culture where the handshake still has a sexual component to it, having been completely taboo between the sexes until only a few decades ago.
Yes, watching these stunted middle aged men fawn over children is uncomfortable. They worship virginity, prefer girls who are “still developing,” and believe that 17 is past prime. Their worst fear is that these girls will grow up to be strong women. Sapped of self worth, many men in Japan have quit dating ‘real’ women altogether. The birth rate is falling. Idol culture is proliferating. The men who adore them beyond all reason are called ‘Otaku’. These super fans would put even the most fervent Justin Bieber fan to shame. Not long ago, Otaku were considered failures, some song lyrics even called them filthy pigs, but they are becoming more and more mainstream.
The Idols, meanwhile, are on constant parade, never far from a judging eye. Every year there are Idol elections, where the men pick their favourite girls to perform for the next calendar year. For the girls it becomes about winning male adoration, and they become conditioned to want it from an alarmingly young age. The men can spend thousands (monthly!) attending concerts, accumulating merchandise, and buying time with the girls. If this sounds like prostitution to you, you’re not wrong. It’s even creepier than prostitution, isn’t it? There’s no intercourse taking place, but money changes hands for its substitution.
Director Kyoko Miyake does an excellent job absorbing her audience into this obsession. I almost felt like a voyeur, that’s how intimate her access is. And as morbidly fascinating, as this phenomenon is, Miyake expertly nestles it within a social context that deepens our understanding of it. While I was discomforted watching these transactions take place, it’s clear that the lines are blurrier in Tokyo. Miyake carefully shows both sides, the good with the bad, finding what sympathy she can in the humanity of it. Tokyo Idols is a really interesting watch and my only complaint is that I wanted even more. I’m positive there are even darker themes here to explore (what happens to the past-prime girls, for example?) and I can only hope that we’ll see more from this director in the future.