Sundance 2017 Favorites: Tokyo Idols


This is my second year as a festival staffer for Sundance Film Festival. Due to the amount of time I will be spending working and attending films vs. writing, I am only going to be posting updates about my absolute favorite films.

At 21 years old, Rio Hiiragi feels that her career is near its expiration date.

Rio is an idol singer, who has spent the last several years playing concerts in Japan, filming daily live streams, posting updates on social media, and attending frequent meet and greets. Her ravenous fans put as much time, energy, and money in all things Rio as someone would in pursuing a hobby or skill. While this type of obsessive behavior might often be associated with teenage music fans, nearly all Rio fans–and fans of other young women in the idol industry–are unmarried middle aged men.

Director Kyoko Miyake has noted that she is the same age as many of the “brothers”, Rio’s super fans who idolize her. With how intimate the idol scene is in Tokyo, interacting frequently with Rio can feel like a substitute for having a girlfriend or a wife for these single men. Rio’s fans admire her and other idol singers because of their carefully constructed public image of being youthful, innocent and pure. The frequent meet and greets after her performances give fans a one minute time slot where they break the physical barrier by shaking hands, where they get to talk to Rio about whatever they want (the more childlike the discussion and interaction the better, one interviewee noted), and where they get to take an instant photo with her to have signed and take home as a keepsake. Watching footage of the meet and greets almost felt more like somebody meeting Cinderella at Disneyland than seeing a fan talk to a favorite musician.

And while Rio is half the age of a vast majority of her fans, there are new, younger idols who are starting to pick up momentum. Some upcoming idols are as young as 10 years old. A musician and performer since a young age, Rio is hoping for crossover success that will allow her to secure a more long term career in the music industry and to adopt a more matured and accessible image.  However, she feels that her time is running out.

The film is at its best during its most intimate moments with Rio. While we do see many scenes of the carefully constructed Rio persona onstage and with the brothers, we see just as many of Rio one-on-one with the director or in her childhood home with her family. The private Rio is a quick-witted, savvy, talented and intelligent young woman, and I enjoy seeing her creative process and her strategic choices in furthering her artistic vision. Miyake does not vilify Rio’s choice to enter this industry, while it is clear that she is supportive of her finding an exit.

I deeply feel that a big part of Rio’s musical career and personal identity being treated with respect has to do with the fact that a Japanese woman helmed this project. It would be extremely easy for a western filmmaker to take a xenophobic spin to this tale. I could see this subculture of men projecting their romantic aspirations onto these musicians being skewed as a reflection of Japanese culture as a whole, or would shame Rio for the emotional labor she performs at these meet and greets with fans, potentially comparing her career choice to sex work. Through Hiiragi’s more initiated lens comes a level of understanding of the culture and industry, we are able to understand why Rio was drawn into and stays in this line of work, and why children are reported through annual surveys to be more interested in becoming an idol singer when they grow up than any other career.

The in-depth look at the fans also helps to show that this fixation and fetishization of youth is universal. I, along with many other young women in the digital world, have received unwanted solicitation from similar men. This happens frequently on my Tumblr, where these men assume that my love of pastel colors, baby animals and animated films means that I am interested in being infantilized by someone whose profile picture is a headless mirror selfie of them in a suit and tie. I choose to not even acknowledge these men at all, but the rationale for trying to forge these connections and contact these young women seem to be similar. They know that nothing will come of it romantically, but the validation and attention from whatever their feminine ideal might be seems to outweigh any potential negatives or criticism in their eyes. For many, these men’s actions cause discomfort, but calling them out often goes ignored. Hiiragi confessed to the audience in her Q&A that any previous attempts to criticize this side of idol culture has been excused by her being “jealous” of the attention. She hopes that this film’s release in Japan will allow viewers to see the idol phenomenon with a more critical eye. I am hoping other viewers will see this film and do the same.


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Hey there, I'm Ellen. 23-year-old film & gender studies student. Art house valley girl. A full-on Monet. I wish Sofia Coppola directed my life.

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