Sad-sack middle-aged men in Japan are flocking to ‘pop’ concerts performed by underage girls. These artist are called Idols, they perform in ‘girl groups,’ and to date there about 10,000 of them. They are so intoxicating that one 43-year-old man has blown his life’s savings on this “religion” that saved him from depression.

They’re providing a coveted, if creepy, role in modern Japanese society: comfort to men who have very little else going on. In a tanking economy, middle-aged men find themselves with poor jobs, little money, and even less confidence. It’s no wonder they’ve stopped dating real women, which mat partly explain Japan’s falling birth rate, and have shifted their fantasies toward little girls, who run no risk of rejection.

The Idols host “meet and greets” where their fans will of course pay a lot of money to have a minute’s worth of childish conversation and a handshake – in a culture where the handshake still has a sexual component to it, having been completely taboo between the sexes until only a few decades ago.

Yes, watching these stunted men fawn over children is uncomfortable. They worship virginity, prefer girls who are “still developing,” and believe that 17 is past prime. Their worst fear is that these girls will grow up to be strong women. Idol culture is proliferating. The men who adore them beyond all reason are called ‘Otaku’. Not long ago, Otaku were considered failures, some song lyrics even called them filthy pigs, but they are becoming more and more mainstream.

Director Kyoko Miyake does an excellent job absorbing her audience into this obsession. I almost felt like a voyeur, that’s how intimate her access is. And as morbidly fascinating, as this phenomenon is, Miyake expertly nestles it within a social context that deepens our understanding of it. While I was discomfited watching these transactions take place, it’s clear that the lines are blurrier in Tokyo. Miyake carefully shows both sides, the good with the bad, finding what sympathy she can in the humanity of it. Tokyo Idols is a really interesting watch and my only complaint is that I wanted even more. I’m positive there are even darker themes here to explore (what happens to the past-prime girls, for example?) and I can only hope that we’ll see more from this director in the future.

Monday, May 1, 9:15 PM, Scotiabank
Wednesday, May 3, TIFF Bell Lightbox
Sunday, May 7, 10:00 AM, TIFF Bell Lightbox

Tickets can be purchased at the Hot Docs website.