Why you should care
Because you can take the woman out of Japan …
One by one, the 14-year-old girls come out onto a makeshift runway, a tiled floor in a plain building, where a unique sort of fashion event is going down. Middle-aged men sit cross-legged, oohing, aahing. Skirts are short; colors bright. After the exhibition, the girls line up to meet their admirers. The couplings are odd: young women, older men, discussing cats or music.
From behind her camera, Kyoko Miyake was dying a little inside as she recorded the proceedings of what purported to be a Halloween Costume Contest in the Shinjuku neighborhood of Tokyo, where Japan’s kawaii (cute) culture was on display. In her mid-twenties, the now-40-year-old Miyake left her motherland of Japan for England to get away from these images of femininity. But the documentarian chose to get close again for her Sundance-premiered documentary, Tokyo Idols. That distance from her own culture leaves her straddling the line between understanding and criticism. Having directed her third feature film, Miyake holds a Peabody, was picked out by Cannes Festival Cinéfondation Atelier and works with acclaimed producers from the BBC and NHK, Japan’s public broadcaster.
Tokyo Idols follows Idol culture in Japan. Those little girls in Halloween costumes are just entering pageantry age. They perform, herd a loyal group of male followers and cultivate a girl-next-door image. The protagonist is Rio, a 19-year-old aging out of being an idol, with little singing talent but fanatic older male fans. The men spend their income on her CDs and call themselves her brothers, but there’s an odd sexual tension always in the air. Still, despite her skeptical feminist eye, Miyake gives the men “the benefit of the doubt,” film critic Scott Nye says. One male character, the leader of the so-called “Brothers” of Rio, is middle-aged, living alone. Rio continuously films herself for her fans, posing with her yummy meals and pigtails often. She bikes to isolated locales with a couple of her superfans to meet up with other fans, and her family proudly has a poster of her up in their house, all shiny and made up.
Being part of a group is most beautiful, and individuality is secondary. I was always wondering why?
Growing up in Chiba, a middle-class, homogeneous Tokyo suburb, in the 1980s, Miyake lived through the template of Japanese salaryman-and-family life during the peak of Japan’s economic boom. The stock family had two kids, a house, a garden. Fathers logged long hours at the office, mothers stayed home and kids overachieved in an exam-ridden environment. Miyake despised even her own achievements: She won Head Girl in school, only to be subordinate to her male counterpart. She was given pink everything, while boys got blue. And she remembers the motto of her school clearly. It exalted the beauty of the collective, she says: “Being part of a group is most beautiful, and individuality is secondary. I was always wondering why?”
When nuclear disaster hit Fukushima, where relatives lived, in 2011, she took it personally. She went back to Japan with money to film. PBS got the rights to that film, titled My Atomic Aunt, which focuses on her aunt’s new life. She once owned a wedding parlor, funeral parlor and patisserie. Now the aunt’s stores have high radiation — “too high for living,” Miyake’s aunt says. Three years later, Miyake made Brakeless, a film about a 2005 train crash in Japan: A commuter train ran into an apartment because the driver panicked over a delay of only 80 seconds. The thesis of the film: Stress about efficiency may put lives at risk. Miyake felt this would only happen in Japan; having lived in Britain she knew that delays of minutes were normal. Brakeless also caught the attention of PBS and the Peabody Award committee. Then, with her third feature film about Japan, she finally earned her place at Sundance.
Her work prods at a society admired for its order and harmony; to her, the peace belies homogeneity and conservatism. Miyake herself grew up with feminism in the air. Her mother attended an all-girls college, which was a hub for feminists in the ’70s. Because of her mother’s background, Miyake says she was told contradictory, “confusing” messages. Goal one: study and create a great career path. Goal two: find a fantastic husband; be a great wife.
Living in England she picked up her first camera, found at her parents’ house, to film a reunion between Japanese and British veterans who fought together in Burma. She lacked a basic knowledge of shooting and taking cutaways, but the story was so compelling, she says, that the film went to a few festivals. With a witchcraft grad degree in hand and no official training in film, she applied to internships and assistant jobs in the U.K., but she was a thirtysomething foreigner. She didn’t get the jobs. The festival scene picked her up, though. She got into Berlinale’s program after applying with a film about a Japanese woman in Britain who became obsessed with British food. She teamed up with Berlin-based producers to direct her own documentary about foreign-born mothers in East London whose kids were ostensibly British.
Though her career has been defined by returning to her homeland, Miyake’s most pivotal decision was leaving Japan. “Once you leave, and you’re not attached to any company, it’s kind of hard to reintegrate,” UC San Diego assistant professor of history Wendy Matsumura muses. But Miyake knew this. She chose to study witchcraft in England for its very Westernness. And yet, she keeps looking east.