Idol Chit-Chat — Tokyo Idols (with Al from SliceOfAlfredo), Part 1

Trailer/Primer for Tokyo Idols here.

*You can catch Tokyo Idols (“Tokyo Girls” in some countries) on Netflix, BBC Four if you live in the UK, and if both options are not available to you, here’s a YouTube link to a “compressed” version of it — all the dialogue is kept but a lot of establishing shots are cut

No, this is totally not a ploy to get people to talk idols with me…
(and to be fair, I did ask nicely xD).

So, earlier this year I happened upon “Tokyo Idols” while I was in the middle of a documentary-binge (as you do) and after looking into it a bit more I was really just intrigued by the whole thing (it helps that I just got done with my first read-through of Idols and Celebrity in Japanese Media Culture at the time). I’d planned to write about my thoughts on the documentary right after watching it but never got around to doing so.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago and I find out that the documentary has since made its way to Netflix and it’s as good a time as any to finally talk about this, now that it has become more accessible to the public. In line with that I decided to call-upon Al from SliceOfAlfredo to help me out as we both engage in some Idol Chit-Chat!

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For this first part here we talk a bit more generally about the many themes that were explored in this documentary so there’s still definitely a lot to take away here even if you haven’t seen it.

“I’d quit my job. I was depressed. I wanted someone to talk to. I’ve never felt so passionate about anything in my life. I’ve never seen anything like it. This isn’t a fad. It’s a religion.”

Leap

I don’t really remember now where exactly I first heard of “Tokyo Idols” and I believe it’d be fair to say that even now that it’s on Netflix, I still don’t think that idol fans (or at least people who are interested in that world somewhat) have come across this one. So I guess that’s a good starting point for us.

Allow me to ask; what was Tokyo Idols about, Al?
And as an immediate follow-up — what was it really about for you?


Al

Well pretty much it’s a documentary revolving around the cultural phenomenon of female idols in Japan and showing us how much of an impact it has on a wide range of people whether it be young females who are aspiring to become famous in that particular industry or the massive and absolutely dedicated fan base.

“As an idol, there’s a best-by date. I can’t do this forever. I never really wanted to be an idol. I see this as a training ground. My real dream is to be a singer.”

What was it really about, hmm. It kind of shed some light on what goes on behind the scenes of both the idols and the fans, in my opinion. Obviously the idol industry is extremely competitive so it’s difficult to find success in it, and we saw a glimpse of a sort of aspiring freelance idol and her struggles with finding more popularity and work. In addition to that, we got to see the “fan side” of idol culture in a very detailed fashion and sort of see the real reason why idols change their whole lives around and how it makes them feel comfortable in society.


Leap

Well said. I posed my question like that because I was actually of two minds with this documentary myself. I agree that on the surface explains (or at least tries to explain) what we can call moving forward as the “idol phenomenon” that has swept and has been sweeping the nation of Japan in recent years.

But I also think it tried to unravel, so to speak, some sort of seedy underbelly in this supposed pure industry in a provocative manner. In so far as it was informative, I couldn’t help but feel that it tried to drive home a certain ideal.

“A new pachinko parlor had opened and a cute waitress was working there. I ordered a few coffees. I was hoping we could chat. That’s when she handed me this pamphlet. She belonged to a P.IDL starter team. I went to their concert. That was the first time I saw this girl… Yuka, who I’m obsessed with. She lit up the stage. She was exactly my type. I met her at the handshake. She asked me my name. A girl I had a crush on, asking my name… I was thrilled. She’s very thing. She’s energetic and cheerful.

You say it “sheds some light on what goes on behind the scenes” and you’re right — we do get to see some inner workings of idol activity that we don’t normally get to see as just a fan appreciative of the idols’ work on stage. But I gotta ask, did this documentary really shine the light at the right places? ‘Cause I don’t think it did. I think it purposely shone it’s (way) too judging light at some uninhabited corner of this world knowing they’d find something. I mean, for one — why not shine a light on one of the bigger names in the idol industry? How fair was this documentary in actually representing this world?


Al

I do agree that this documentary didn’t cover the idol culture as a whole, like as you mentioned, it didn’t really talk much about the more popular “attractions” in the idol industry, but I think with this particular area/aspect where it’s more gloomy and deals with things you wouldn’t expect in something like this fun and bright type of entertainment, such as the difficulties of aspiring idols and the fact that middle-aged men are the main fan demographic rather than young girls like you would suspect, it represents a good amount of the culture that is worth talking about.

“As a young man, I had many dreams. I wanted to be a teacher, or (an) explorer. But then I took the easy path of a salaryman. It’s been an easy, mediocre life. Totally devoid of excitement. When I saw Rio, I thought ‘There’s a cute girl that works hard.’ I liked her determination. Maybe she’s achieving what I couldn’t. I don’t want to become an idol (laughs), but there are so many things I’ve failed at.”

And yes, it does give off a judging vibe but I actually thought that rather than sort of shaming these older men about being obsessed with women who are way younger than them, it sort of dismisses the quick conclusions society has that they’re just creepy old dudes and instead shows that idols genuinely make them happy in life.


Leap

I dunno. I mean, while “middle-aged men are the main fan demographic” does appear to be the truth that we are shown here (and it most probably is) I’m hard-pressed to believe that this wasn’t the main agenda of this documentary — rather than shaming these men, I find that they’ve been made an example of what the documentary sees as the problem with idol fandom; that it’s socially acceptable for middle-aged men to essentially fawn over girls less than half their age. The synopsis given by Netflix isn’t really shy about that fact — the headlines, much harsher.

But you’re definitely right in that, it did get us talking about this side of the overall culture. What’s your opinion on that by the way — how most fans (that were shown at least) were not only male, but also way older than the idols on stage?


Al

Yeah, the way people describe this documentary definitely paints a negative picture on the fans, it’s almost sad to see that. And to answer your question, honestly… it’s a little weird to me still. I guess because of living in a significantly different country than Japan, our version of “idols” mainly have the fan base of teenage girls, whether it be boy bands or even female icons. You rarely see male fans of the young celebrities/musicians in the United States, even with older fans, elders here don’t seem to keep up with the modern trends regarding pop music culture. And I know it’s ironic because I am a male and I really enjoy the idol culture but it’s still odd to me that it’s the complete opposite in Japan. Regarding the fans who are older men, I’ll admit that I’m a little skeptical about them but after watching this documentary, as I said, it both proves and disproves the “speculations” that I had before such as not all of them are creeps and such.

“At first it scared me, but then I discovered the fans are really nice, and that overturned my preconceptions. They’re like fathers to her.”

I also have an inquiry related to this, would you want to see a more diverse or balanced fan base in idol culture (with more females and children enjoying it also)?


Leap

Well, what say you we take on the task of making this documentary sound a bit more palatable to the public then? Haha!

I get what you mean, and I think that’s the crux to any sort of observation we can make as outsiders looking in. The cultural significance of “idols” for Japan is something that many believe to be deep-rooted in the Japanese psyche (but that’s a discussion for another day). The point here is that, you’re right — it may seem odd “to us” because that’s not what middle-aged men in our society do, but I also still think of it as a sweeping generalization to say as much. That, and the counter-idea that it’s not that the men are too old but rather the idols just happen to be too young.

“I was seeing a girl I thought I’d get married to. I started saving up money for that… but it didn’t go according to plan. She found someone else. I spent all my savings on idols. That year I went to about 700 idol shows. I’ve blown so much money. I could’ve bought an apartment.”

I mean, as fellow fans of the Love Live! franchise’s idols, we both know how consumer driven this industry is — meaning for one to be a “true” fan, one must be able to, “support the industry”, and younger folk might not be capable of that just yet; let alone participate in events that you have to pay for like going to live shows.

To answer your question though, yes, I wouldn’t mind that at all. I’ll go even an optimistic step further and say that that’s actually a reality in some fandoms. The thing is though, I understand too that the idol industry is very much one that is focused around pandering to a certain appeal.


Al

Huh, that is a good point when you say that younger folk might not be capable of supporting their idols and I think with the overwhelming amount of males/otaku who are die-hard fans of this culture, I’d say it’s preeeetty difficult for females or kids to get on the same level as them.

It would definitely be nice to see a balance in the fan base as Japanese idol culture would seem like an enjoyable experience for a wide range of people (we even got to see 10-15 year old girls being inspired to become idols in the documentary) but I don’t really see a change anytime soon. I know that overseas, there are a TON of international fans, both female and male, who are almost on the same level as Japanese fans when it comes to idols whether it be merchandise collecting or cosplaying so it’s nice to see a good amount of diversity being present somewhere.

“Fans who’d go to too many concerts, and buy too many CDs, or spend too much time collecting information on idols were given the name ‘otaku.’ Unlike normal guys with a mainstream hobby who have a real girlfriend and proper job.”


Leap

True, but there was a point in the documentary too where a sociologist says that being “otaku” is slowly but surely being acceptable now, and I would like to draw a parallel to that with nerd culture in the West, in the sense that both groups have started to become real functioning members of society — as opposed to the common understanding that otaku are “failures at life”, but it circles back again to how earning otakus are pre-dominantly middle-aged now (a bit of a funny chicken-and-egg really xD).

But yeah, our readers can rest assured that we’re not two 40-something men chit-chatting away about idols.


Al

Other than that, I want to come back to the topic of the male/otaku fans and their relations with more younger girls (like 10-15 year olds). I actually thought this part of the documentary sort of changed my mind about older males being fans of younger idols. Simply because of the fact that they were buying photos of said girls and some fans even admitting that they get a romantic vibe, relationship-wise (only from the fan’s perspective, keep in mind) but I want to get your opinion on if you think most of those fans are leaning towards the “father/big brother” type of figure to them or something more… disturbing.


Leap

As much as I want to play devil’s advocate here, that would be a bit too unfair to your otherwise fairly sound question. One of the narratives to idol fandom (amidst the handful that try to explain why it is exactly that some people gravitate to idol fascination) is how man is naturally attracted to “youthful innocence” — to a fleeting existence that can never be reclaimed. The theory proposes the idea that the fans don’t necessarily look at the idol, but at what she represents for the viewerwhich in this case, would be youth.

[Interviewer] : “Is it like a romantic feeling?” [“Naoyamumu”] : “It might be close to that.” [Interviewer] : “Surely you could find a girlfriend at university?” [“Naoyamumu”] : “It’s too much work. I want to be free. I hate being tied down.”

Of course, I wouldn’t really dismiss the notion either that something else is going on in the minds of some of these fans — but to ultimately answer your query, I would assume that most fans don’t really lean towards any sort of familial tie to the idol, but something a bit more closer to themselves, and more distant to the person behind the idol persona… if that makes sense.


Al

Yeah… I think I should be glad that I’m not a 40-year-old writing about young idols, especially in the society I am in currently 😛

And ah, I see. I guess that’s a good way to look at it but as we mentioned earlier… not sure if society will buy that theory.


Leap

We’ll all be 40 eventually xD

A good way of looking at things, yes — also waaaay too ideal. It’d be much easier if I said yeah, statistically speaking there should be one or two actual creeps in those crowds (would’ve saved you some time too), but we try to be classy and intellectual here (lol).

What say you we move on to the actual meat (poor word choice considering what we just talked about — also “classy”) of this documentary with the storyline of one Hiiragi Rio and her number one fan, Koji.

to be continued

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Admittedly, both Al and I didn’t really expect to have such a lengthy discussion about this documentary but there’s really just so much to talk about here that even after sitting on it for a good 4+ hours (yeap, it was a doozy for sure xD), we still had so much left to touch on that we had to stop and call it a day. In a way it kinda works out since the second part of this will have us talking a bit more about the contents of Tokyo Idols (for the most part) so if you’ve read through our talk here and are now curious about the documentary then, do give it a go in the meantime (although whether or not we actually want to recommend this documentary will be our concluding thoughts in Part 2, lol).

That said, for as long as this conversation that I had with Al was, I’m sure we missed out on discussing a lot of things too so if you’ve watched the documentary yourself, have your own thoughts on the subject matter), OR you wanna talk about some that we brought up above then feel free to use the comments section down below!

Lastly, lemme know what you thought of this collaboration of ours. This isn’t really a format I’m all that used to so do tell us what you think. Giving it sort-of a series-y title such as “Idol Chit-Chat” does lend some room for future projects so if you guys like this then eyy we might have a good thing going here 😀

See ya in Part 2!

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8 thoughts on “Idol Chit-Chat — Tokyo Idols (with Al from SliceOfAlfredo), Part 1

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  2. Now you’re making me interested in the documentary myself! It was great reading such an in-depth discussion on the subject. I don’t think I have much to offer myself so far, but I’m looking forward to reading pt.2!

    • We’ll give our official verdict in Part 2, but off the record, I do think it’d be worth your time to give it a look-see 😀 Happy to hear that, and yes, it’s definitely in the works!

  3. I love documentaries,and I’ve seen one about idols.
    I’m a bit surprised you guys find the middle age fan demograpghic surprising. isn’t that always the norm? quitting a job for religion also feel normal to me. am i f*cked up? hahaha
    this reminds me of bronies. I’d love to see idol culture mash with MLP. there’s an alternate dimension out there that already did it, I’m sure. xD
    great collab, btw!!!!

    • Try giving this a go one of these days (preferrably before we give our final thoughts on it :p)
      Nah, our surprise wasn’t so much about the fans being primarily middle-aged, but about how much emphasis the documentary gave to that fact and that fact alone. And, lol, to be fair to Koji (the guy who said the quote about religion) he quit his job because he got depressed that his wife-to-be left him, not because he started following idols xD

      Don’t worry, this dimension already has it I believe, haha! (fun fact, one of the seiyuus from the original Love Live! series did a voice for the Jap dub of the MLP movie)

      and thanks xD

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  5. Pingback: Idol Chit-Chat — Tokyo Idols (with Al from SliceOfAlfredo), Part 2 | Leap250's Blog

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