Within the Melbourne International Film Festival’s programming this year were two films that closely examined the lives of young women in modern day Japan through the filter of pop culture: Kyoko Miyake’s documentary, Tokyo Idols, and Daigo Matsui’s latest feature, Japanese Girls Never Die.
With Miyake’s documentary, she dismantles Japan’s idol culture by capturing the rise of one young idol and following the idol otakus (hardcore fans) that make up that culture. Her film informs its observations on Japan’s obsession with idol culture through industry experts, economists and journalists. While teen idols have long existed since the Old Hollywood era, Japan has turned the concept into a well-oiled machine, one that generates up to a billion dollars in revenue amidst a prolonged recession.
Meanwhile, Matsui’s Japanese Never Girls Die continues the director’s focus on young women in 21st century Japan. It has a distinctly erratic structure that flits between several different narratives. The first storyline centres on Haruko Azumi (Yu Aoi), an ordinary 28-year-old woman who soon goes missing. The second follows a group of aspiring graffiti artists who turn Haruko’s missing person poster into graffiti art which goes viral. Meanwhile a third story lies in the background of the entire film, and features a gang of teenage schoolgirls terrorising and attacking men.
Both films pick apart the ingrained misogyny in Japanese culture and conditioned deference to male desire by women in their own way but ultimately complement each other with their insights and observations.
A society that only values youth and ‘purity’ in young women
The infantilisation and fetishisation of young Japanese women are among thematic concerns that both films explore.
In Tokyo Idols, 19 year old idol Rio Hiiragi knows that she has a “sell by date”, and that she is part of a culture that values youth and beauty above all. She, and other Japanese idols, rely on costumes and gestures that are more becoming of a toddler than that of an adult. Many groups also fall back on the ever-reliable teenage schoolgirl image, an image popularised by Japanese otaku culture (the Japanese schoolgirl image itself holds many meanings on screen, as we have covered in a previous feature article).
The male otaku fans are upfront about their preference for teenage or even pre-teen girls — “their selling point is that they are not yet developed”, they say. And while they claim that this is because they prefer to support girls who aren’t yet popular, ultimately their attitudes are more deeply tied to the sexual fetishisation of young girls.
Hyadain, a music producer interviewed for the documentary, even acknowledges it: “Japanese men have always prized purity in women. Now, idol culture feeds off that. Worshipping virginity. There’s a fear of what happens when that purity fades. Fear of girls becoming strong women.” A girl’s worth lies in her youth because of its perceived association with beauty, innocence, and the archaic notion of virginity and purity. This makes her desirable romantically and sexually by men. Age is associated with maturity and experience, and with that comes strength and knowledge that is no longer desirable in a girl.
In Japanese Girls Never Die, Daigo Matsui subverts the sexual fetishisation of the teenage schoolgirl. A gang of teenage schoolgirls roam the streets, attacking random men in the night. “We only get revenge on men,” their leader says to the film’s protagonist, Haruko. Revenge on what? Perhaps they too are sick of being sexualised and taking matters into their own hands. In pitch black comedic fashion, a voiceover news report states that “men are advised by the police not to go out at night”.
Matsui’s girl gang is dressed in seifuku, the traditional Japanese school uniform for young girls. Their uniform is offset by hot pink accessories. Their violent acts on the men of Japan are captured by Matsui in pink tinged smoke, lights and feverish glee. Though it may seem disconnected from the main story — a fun if shallow subversion of the roles of teenage girls and predatory men in society — this third narrative also helps flesh out the other two narratives in Matsui’s film.
Through Haruko’s story, we see the story of a young woman who is already past her “sell-by date” at 28. At her job, she endures the casual ageism and sexism that she and her 37-year-old female co-worker Yoshizawa (Maho Yamada) are subjected to. Through Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), the girlfriend to one of the graffiti artists in the second narrative, we see how girls have been socialised to place their self-worth in youth and beauty. Aina is only 20, but already she is being passed over by her boyfriend for a teenage girl. These two narratives are more grounded in the reality we know, and inform the fantasy-like subplot in the background. Their violence may not be the solution to misogyny, but it sure as hell feels good.
A woman’s role in society, as defined by her relationship with men
In the media, women are often placed into two roles — girlfriend or mother. Their role revolves around their relationship with male characters. As the girlfriend or mother, they provide comfort for the male lead. The girlfriend also provides sex. Even in death, their role serves as motivation for the male’s character arc. This reflects a society that demands women to smile, as if they only exist to be happy and pleasant for male pleasure. They only have value as girlfriends or mothers, otherwise they don’t exist.
“A girl’s job is to always smile and comfort men. Some people say that the girls have chosen this, so there’s nothing wrong with the ‘little girl’ fantasy. If outsiders like me speak out against it, we get an aggressive backlash,” laments Minori Kitahara, a journalist interviewed for Tokyo Idols. Throughout the documentary, we see that most of the female idols’ fanbase are men — many of whom are middle-aged. Rio talks about how initially she found the swarm of male fans “overwhelming” but now considers it okay, simply because “they’re all really nice”. When 14-year-old Amu of idol group Harajuku Story is asked if she is ever scared of the men, who “are her father’s age”, she pauses for a moment before saying, “No, they’re all very nice. I’m okay.”
The girls are not subjected to any unwanted sexual advances from their male fans — only because they are kept in line, quite literally, by staff who push them along after their one-minute allocation to talk and shake the hands of the girls. And the men often linger. They pay the girls for one minute to give them pleasure through their smiles, attention and conversation and still expect more, exemplifying a culture driven by male entitlement. Kitahara sums it up: “Instead of connecting with women in their everyday life, the men choose girls they can dominate. Girls who are guaranteed not to challenge or hurt them.”
Indeed, these girls believe that this is their job, and it is not their place to feel uncomfortable by male attention at such a young age. “This society will stop at nothing to protect male fantasies and provide comfort for men,” Kitahara finishes.
Similar themes are also explored in Japanese Girls Never Die. One of Haruko’s male superiors comments to Haruko that she should “try and dress more feminine” by wearing a skirt, reminding us that old-fashioned workplace sexual harassment from the ‘60s is still well and alive today. They further complain that Yoshizawa, Haruko’s female co-worker, is a “biological failure” because she is single and unmarried at 37. They blame “women like her” for dragging down the birth rate and causing high taxes. Although Yoshizawa tells Haruko she doesn’t care about their sexist comments, she also urges Haruko to find a husband and get married. It is depressing to hear Yoshizawa call out her colleagues’ sexism but still see marriage as the only other option for a woman like her.
Later, Yoshizawa announces her resignation as she is moving to Africa to marry a man she reconnected with. The male co-workers are shocked and possibly hold her in higher esteem when they hear the man is French. This move is a catalyst for Haruko to pursue her doomed relationship with Soga (Huwie Ishizaki) a layabout who later starts an affair with Haruko’s married friend, Hitomi. Haruko even accuses him: “Do you like her because she’s married?” implying that perhaps Hitomi is seen as being more desirable than her because she is wanted by other men.
Aina is initially frivolous, clingy and desperate for the attention of Yukio and Manabu, using sex to keep both interested. She sets her goals on marriage even though she is a licensed nail artist and becomes lost when the two men abandon her. Thankfully, she becomes more than a cliché when we witness her meltdown upon realising Yukio and Manabu have not only abandoned her, they are taking credit for the graffiti ‘art’ she was part of.
Through her anger and sadness, she is able to see the limits of her thinking and is aided in her revelation by the form of an imaginary Haruko. Aina initially wants to use the old-fashioned method of revenge through suicide against Yukio, but imaginary Haruko persuades her. “The best revenge is living a good life,” Haruko says. In the end, Aina listens to imaginary Haruko and we see a brighter future for her as the film concludes.
Preserving Japan’s unique pop culture to empower all women
Still suffering from the effects of the Asian financial crisis, Japanese media rolled out idol culture to ‘heal’ its society, according to cultural commentator Akio Nakamori (interviewed in Tokyo Idols), only to breed another kind of sexist culture that builds on traditional patriarchal values.
Tokyo Idols offers a nuanced but unflinchingly honest take on the kind of unhealthy male entitlement that idol culture has fostered. While the documentary sympathises with the salarymen-turned-otakus who are at the mercy of a capitalist establishment (thus turning to idol entertainment as a way of ‘healing’), Miyake’s documentary also asks what price is being paid for such entertainment — the value placed on a girl’s youth, her beauty and appeal to a man is already deeply troubling.
For all its critiquing, Tokyo Idols does end on a hopeful note as rising idol Rio Hiiragi, the focus of Miyake’s film, sings a song about turning all the things society considers her ‘flaws’ into ‘assets’: “My job is Rio Hiiragi”, she says. Her song’s lyrics may seem superficial, but when you see that the glut of idol music is fixated on romance, being cute and puppy love, hearing an idol sing about her flaws and embracing them is a step towards empowerment for these female idols.
Japanese Girls Never Die also constructs a hopeful fantasy while still reminding its audience of the very real misogynistic landscape we live in. In figuring out the mystery of Haruko’s disappearance, the imaginary Haruko points out to Aina in a wistful tone, “All those girls on the wanted posters, they’re all alive somewhere and having a great time… aren’t they? Otherwise it’s just too unfair”. Haruko is one of those girls that ‘escaped’ the vicious cycle of mundanity to carve a new path for herself, but for many of the other missing girls, they are part of a statistic of abused, unwanted and dead women as a result of a misogynistic culture. It is even more galling to note how delinquents Yukio (Taiga) and Manabu (Shono Hayama) initially try to profit off the images of these missing women.
In the end, the women must rely on themselves and each other in their fight against the patriarchy. Sisterhood according to Japanese Girls Never Die is more than just a pink-tinged fantasy involving misandristic teenage girl gangs in seifuku, as the film moves to a more moving goal in its final sequence. As the girls run past and defeat the establishment, represented by blue clad policemen, we see that it’s not just young girls who are part of this rebellion. They are joined by older, forgotten women, also clad in seifuku — Haruko’s mother, grandmother and other older women are part of this rebellion. Their inclusion helps to elevate and reinforce Matsui’s message of giving older and forgotten women a voice, not just the young women of Japan.
Observations provided by Tokyo Idols and Japanese Girls Never Die feel unique to contemporary Japanese society and culture, and demonstrate the ways in which technology and social media have been twisted to supply a false sense of connection between people. They offer ‘fast food intimacy’ for Japanese men while also enabling their sexist diatribe behind a veil of anonymity. Popular culture — namely otaku culture — only serves to reinforce a very damaging male gaze.
Japan possesses a unique culture that keeps its traditions alive while always looking towards the future. At its worst, that culture manifests in the oppressive societal expectations placed on young girls and the forgotten women past their prime, and is bolstered by patriarchal Japanese traditions. Both films however, offer hope and some optimism. At its best, the women of Japan can band together and empower themselves while never losing the gloss and charm that makes Japan’s pop culture so unique.