Winter arts guide
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    In Focus

    At the MFA, documentaries show an unsettling present and shameful past

    A scene from the provocative documentary “Tokyo Idols.”
    Boston Festival of Films from Japan/MFA
    A scene from the provocative documentary “Tokyo Idols.”

    Two provocative documentaries are included in the Museum of Fine Arts’ Festival of Films From Japan (through Feb. 28). Their subjects are a disturbing pop-cultural fad in Tokyo and a shameful episode in our own country’s past. Both resonate with broader, more pressing issues of today.

    Kiyoko Miyake’s “Tokyo Idols” (2017; screens Thursday at 8 p.m.) opens with a disturbing image. An audience of middle-aged men hold up light sticks and bow to teenagers dressed as schoolchildren singing insipid J-pop tunes. 

    The performers are “idols,” members of infantilized girl bands that have grown in popularity in Japan. The fans are “Brothers,” also disparagingly known as “otaku,” men who have given up relationships and jobs to spend all their money on buying the CDs and merchandising put out by their favorite idols. Especially popular are the “meet and greets,” gatherings where a Brother can be in the presence of an idol, listen to her unctuously flatter him, and even shake her hand and have a picture taken with her. And buy more merchandise.


    More than a freakish phenomenon, the idols have become a multibillion-dollar industry, though who profits from it isn’t made clear in the film. Not the performers themselves, it would seem, judging from those whom Miyake profiles, such as 19-year-old Rio — over the hill by idol standards — who goes on stage with one boot falling apart. As for the fans, Miyake does not identify them as pedophiles so much as extreme, if pitiful, examples of patriarchal oppressors who diminish women into fantasy objects. As one female journalist observes, they epitomize the belief that “a girl’s job is to always smile and comfort men.” 

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    Closer to home, Konrad Aderer’s “Resistance at Tule Lake” (2017; screens Thursday at 6 p.m.) returns to an ugly chapter in US history, the internment of 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry in concentration camps during World War II. 

    The film focuses on the camp of the title, located in a northern California desert. Contrary to the abiding myth that Japanese internees had no hard feelings about being uprooted from their homes, losing their property, and being incarcerated, many of the 12,000 prisoners at Lake Tule challenged their debased status. The camp had become a kind of Guantanamo prototype, an extra-legal detention center for those who insisted on their rights as Americans. Insidiously, the government encouraged rebellious sentiments to coerce internees into renouncing their citizenship — resulting in their deportation to Japan at the end of the war.

    The film suggests, but does not fully develop, a notion that one motive for the internment was greed and envy — the desire to take over the property of successful Japanese-Americans and eliminate them as rivals in the workforce. But it makes clear that, then as now, racism, fear, and ignorance, stoked by cynical politicians, instigated injustice and left a legacy of shame. 

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    Peter Keough can be reached at