Film Review: In Those Days
While the film's attention to detail builds trust to take on a story about idol otaku, it remains skeptical about the shameless pursuit of one’s passions
This feature is part of Idol Watch #10: September/October 2021. You can return to the main newsletter here.
The trailer for In Those Days captured the attention of idol fans through flashes of Hello! Project merchandise and memorabilia circa 2004. The film follows the twenty-something Tsurugi develop a bond with a group of Hello! Project otakus through his newfound love of Aya Matsuura. And in the scene at the group’s monthly idol-talk events, you can spot a person-sized cutout of former Morning Musume member Rika Ishikawa; an otaku from the crew then holds up a huge placard of Miki Fujimoto as he delivers his speech. The movie-makers establish solid credibility through their attention to detail, building a sense of trust that they are well-equipped to tell a story involving a niche subject as touchy as idols.
Apart from flaunting the idol gear, the trailer convinces of its integrity through a scene of Tsurugi watching a music video of “Momoiro Kataomoi” for the first time. After he hits play on the DVD of Matsuura’s music videos which his friend bought on a whim to cheer him up, he immediately bikes to a record store to buy every one of the idol’s singles. It’s a casual, unassuming event like this that kick-starts a life-changing obsession. The tear-filled reaction of Tsurugi from watching the music video already feels good to watch, and his discovery leads into an even better outcome: a community of peers who are as passionate about his obsessions as him.
Despite how heart-warming the first act can be, especially for an idol fan, In Those Days turns out not to be a celebration of shameless pursuits over one’s obsessions or the friendships formed along the way. The film instead remains skeptical about the degree of investment into one’s passions until the end. It doesn’t seem interested in the value of living in the present, enjoying the company of like-minded peers, as much as it’s fixated about how both your passion and relationships will eventually all fade away.
With the limited knowledge I have, it’s difficult to say whether or not the film’s perspective of idol fans accurately resembled the people’s perception in 2004. What I do know is that the movie is based on the autobiographic comic essay of the same name, which illustrates the experience of the author, Mikito Tsurugi, the early days of his Hello! Project fandom and the relationships he formed through it; Tsurugi is the author himself in the original work. The movie also makes no claim to speak for anything beyond its own main characters.
All that said, In Those Days puts in effort to depict idol fans as unappealing to society at large. As Tsurugi brings his group’s idol-talk event to his college campus, his female classmates look in disgust at both the panel and the crowd they’ve drawn. The friend who bought him the Matsuura DVD talks to Tsurugi after the event like he doesn’t recognize who he is anymore. Once it looks safe for Tsurugi to fully subscribe to his obsession, the film throws him something to second guess his choice of interest.
Trailer for In Those Days
The most bitter resentment of idol fans ironically comes from within the friend group. When Tsurugi first talks to him, Kozumin, the Miki Fujimoto otaku, dismisses any potential coolness about the rest of the gang, describing them as unemployed, sleazy, middle-aged men. But he turns out to be the slimiest out of them all. He soon makes advances on the girlfriend of a new kid to the friend group. The night after, he brags about it to the rest of the group, gloating about how he’s the winner in this game of sexual conquest.
Kozumin’s toxicity influences the impressions of the rest of the friend group. The guys including Tsurugi share Kozumin’s crass humor and sensibilities. During one of their idol-talk events, they leak as a joke—with the new kid also up on stage—an audio clip of Kozumin bragging about making his advances, recorded unbeknownst to Kozumin. A mutual interest in idol cannot turn “locker room talk,” betrayal and manipulation as sources of silly comedy. It’s a shame how something as sentimental as Hello! Project has to become a window into such crude male friendship. I at least wouldn’t really care for idol culture as a possible way to find friends if this is the kind of community it’s going to lead me into.
By the film’s second act with Kozumin revealing his true face as a real incel, idols return in pieces merely to tell the passage of time. The fade-out makes partial narrative sense: Tsurugi admits in an exposition even before Kozumin’s sleazy turn of character that he might be growing tired of idols. And he remains an increasingly passive viewer of everything happening around him, from the graduation show of Rika Ishikawa, moving to a different city than his Hello! Project friends and Kozumin’s diagnosis of lung cancer. He hardly shows a reaction to the latter news, and he eventually says outright that he fails to find anything good about him. If the main character can’t see a reason to care for a person who drives the entire third act of the film, how can I bother as an audience?
In Those Days closes out with a dying Kozumin sleeping on his hospital bed, listening to “Romantic Ukare Mode” by his favorite idol, Miki Fujimoto. The film tries to go out by using Hello! Project one last time for a sentimental tool. But their decision to bring the idols back up is almost insulting when Hello! Project had stopped mattering to the story by the film’s second half. After two hours spent with the characters, there’s hardly a fond, tangible memory attached to “Romantic Ukare Mode” or any of the idol songs in the movie: viewers don’t learn much about why Hello! Project mattered so much to the group on a personal level, and Tsurugi only vaguely prizes the movie’s central friendship formed around it in retrospect. Idols in In Those Days remain a thing people once liked in the past but forget why they exactly liked them in the first place, and the film treats relationships formed around idols in the same shallow way.
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