Film Reviews

Review: Raise Your Arms and Twist’

Hot Docs 2017

Courtesy of Hot Docs


Raise Your Arms and Twist, Documentary of NMB48
(Japan, 95 min.)
Dir. Atsushi Funahashi
Programme: Made in Japan (Toronto Premiere)

Atsushi Funahashi’s film Raise Your Arms and Twist explores the pop culture phenomenon of Japanese teen idols: singing and dancing young girls with huge, enthusiastic followings. The girls strive for status within their own groups and engage in fierce competitions with the other ones. NMB48 is Osaka-based and therefore not quite in the same league as Tokyo performers.

The doll-like singer/dancers strut their stuff in ultra-choreographed shows that are like adoration rituals for the audience, which consists mainly of men. The fans have input into the girls’ development strategies and vote in the winners. Funahashi’s film covers the same territory as the new Eyesteel production, Kyoko Miyake’s Tokyo Idols.

The idols wear frilly outfits, and give off that impassive schoolgirl vibe you also see in manga, anime, Takeshi Miike films, and of course porn. Their music is bland romance pop that arouses intense emotions in the fans. Nine out of ten of the songs have topped the charts in Japan. The fans don’t buy show tickets; they win them in a special lottery

In Nuclear Nation (2012) and Nuclear Nation 2 (2015) Funahashi followed the lives of people whose hometown was devastated by the Fukashima nuclear catastrophe and the tsunami that followed. Raise Your Arms and Twist seems like a major shift in focus from mostly older people trying to survive the trauma of their homes being swept off the map to cavorting dolly girls.

Funahashi shows us rehearsals, backstage interactions between the girls, and so on. But above all, the film documents the ruthlessness and even desperation of the competition. The girls constantly undermine rivals and jockey for status, exemplified by where they are positioned onstage: up front or hundreds of feet from stardom in the fuzzy background.

The fans wait in line for hours to shake hands with their idols, and the numbers of supplicants are a major success indicator. Yamamoto, a very successful performer, sees 3000 acolytes in nine hours. She claims it stimulates her. Late in the film, a girl is virtually interrogated about relationships with men, which she denies having in any serious way. Nothing is as important to her as her fans, she tells the guy from the entertainment packager that calls all the shots.

None of this means that the girls are not hip to their situation. We watch one of them reading from her favourite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (!), and his advice that one should “live dangerously.” She is also fond of John Stuart Mill. “We are a fiction that is consumed by society,” she says on camera.

You could argue that the girls resemble the Fukashima survivors in that they are fighting to stay afloat in the Tsunami of a powerful, completely over-the-top popular culture.

Funahashi has a tendency to focus on minute details in the activities of his characters, whether they are teen idols or elderly homeless people. For me, the minutiae of the struggles to be top girl become excruciating, like the obsession of sports fans with every manoeuvre, every up and tearful down of the game in play. Whether or not one responds to this overload of detail, Raise Your Arms and Twist takes you deep into an alternate reality that makes American Idol, The Voice, and all those other U.S. reality-based performance shows seem like classical music by comparison.

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Maurie Alioff writes about movies for publications off- and on-line, and is a screenwriter currently collaborating on a documentary featuring Bob Marley’s granddaughter while researching other Jamaica-related projects, including a magical-realist crime story drawing on stories he hears on the island. He has written for radio, journals and TV, taught screenwriting and been a contributing editor to various magazines.

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