Japanese idol culture isn’t a new fad by any means, but its popularity has been steadily increasing in the last few decades. You can attribute a myriad of reasons to that popularity, but it’s mainly due to the dedication and enthusiasm of the culture’s young stars. Although some boy groups do exist, idols are mostly peppy, fresh-faced girls admired for their overblown cuteness along with their singing and dancing talents. They generally don’t play any instruments, and most of the time are on stage accompanied by a pre-recorded track – a song which they likely did not write. But these songs bubble over with positivity, exuding messages of freedom and individuality, which is what makes them so appealing to the thousands of dedicated idol fans all over Japan. Of course, Western culture does have an equivalent form of manufactured pop stars, but there’s something about the Japanese version that is strange and idiosyncratic. Plus, there’s kind of a hidden darkness to J-pop that might blow your socks off if you dive in too hard. Kyoko Miyake’s documentary Tokyo Idols at once celebrates the spirit and energy of these ambitious young women, while cautioning against the systemic sociological impact of idol culture. Miyake seeks to examine (and perhaps expose) the driving forces behind idol culture, and, in a film that is such a lovely treat full of color and emotion, does so with ease and determination.

We’re introduced to 19-year old Rio Hiiragi, an enterprising and dynamic young woman pursuing her dream of becoming not only an idol, but a recording star. Rio has a group of devoted fanboys (in Japanese culture, they’re called otaku) who dubbed themselves the Rio Rio Brothers, led by a 43-year old former salaryman named Koji Yoshida. The men devote themselves to Rio, loyally attending every live performance they can (sometimes on a daily basis), and acting like a street team for the singer. Commonly, idols will have a meet-and-greet session after a performance where fans have about one minute to speak to them, shake their hands, and take a photo. It’s a way to make the idol experience more personable to fans; yes, it seems transparent, but the men don’t appear to mind. Miyake is careful to paint these men as real and relatable, if not slightly pathetic, and her lens presents a definite positivity in their attitudes. Koji speaks many times about how following Rio has inspired him to get his life back together after his divorce – to have responsibility and achieve goals. In fact, Rio’s influence inspired him to start his own company. Later in the film, we rejoin the Rio Rio Brothers as they’ve gathered at Rio’s 21st birthday concert. After her performance, Koji leads the men in a sort of invocation, commending Rio for signing her first recording contract. “She is no longer an idol, but an artist!” Koji yells, and all the men cheer in revelry. One of the film’s commenters, a “music creator,” presents that “alone a man may feel powerless, but when he goes to an idol show, he (feels) a sense of solidarity.” And that solidarity isn’t just between the otaku; they feel a type of oneness with the girls’ positivity and individuality that contributes to a sense of belonging that is not unlike certain sects of American geek culture.

But now, to the dark side. Idol culture has always lauded virginity and purity, in a way that is almost afraid of what happens when that immaculacy fades. One of the film’s commenters states the culture has a fear of strong women, remarking that “instead of connecting with women in their everyday lives, the men choose to be around girls whom they can dominate.” The general consensus is that the otaku are looking to the idols because they’re girls who won’t challenge or hurt them. And in the case of idol group Amore Carina (comprised of 10-year old girls), the men gravitate toward them because they like how “energetic and youthful” they are, saying things like “if they were older, I wouldn’t be interested.” Another contributor, a female journalist, adds insight into how the nation is conditioned to want the idol culture: that it’s “sold as a platform where dreams come true.” Further, she says, “this society will stop at nothing to protect male fantasies.” And even more so, Japanese girls – especially the idols – are taught that winning male affection will bring them ultimate happiness. It puts the girls in such a sad state of arrested development, as they’re taught to stay as childlike and pure as possible. Miyake really exhibits her knack for arousing emotion as she presents how these girls actively choose to align themselves with what many perceive to be a system that exploits their lives and their merits.

Miyake also allows some thought-provoking insight into the sociological causes of the rise of idol culture. One interviewee suggests a parallel between Japanese culture of recent years and 1970s London. Both have the common experience of a collapsing economy and a stagnated way of life in which people were desperate for something new. He says London’s answer was the Sex Pistols, and Japan’s is the vivacious splendor of idol girls. The Japanese rallied around the idols because they represented something fresh and exhilirating, something that many of them weren’t feeling in themselves. The men want to feel free and not be tied down – not be bogged down by social obligations or worried about their rank. Simply put, idols give them something to live for.

Visually, Tokyo Idols is quite a delight: not only are the the brightly-colored idol costumes and energetic performances predominantly featured, but the audience is treated to some beautiful shots of the Japanese countryside while Rio takes her idol campaign on the road, biking across Japan. Rio exudes an infinite amount of charm herself, showing class and poise to each fan she meets. It’s easy to cheer her on, due in part to her engrossing personality, but also in the way Miyake presents her. You kind of get the feeling Miyake is trying to inspire more young women to mature past the idolatry and free themselves from the manufactured side of things.

Ultimately, Tokyo Idols falls a bit short as the focus of the documentary pivots back and forth from uplifting to relatively disturbing. Dichotomy can be effective, however this film seems as if it’s trying to dive deep into a controversial expose of the dark parts of idol culture all the while offering praise and affection for the girls who choose to remain a part of it. And, although insightful, the vagueness of how the commenters are presented is a bit unconventional – that’s not to say they should be discredited, but when titles are limited to “journalist,” “sociologist,” or simply, “analyst,” without further acknowledgement of the individual’s credentials, it leaves you wondering. Nonetheless, the film is gripping and entertaining, and does achieve its main goal of examining the culture itself, giving the viewer much to take away and consider. If only the thesis were just a bit clearer, this film would be more of a rousing success.