It was 1964 when 19-year-old ye-ye singer Sylvie Vartan captured the hearts of Japanese cinemagoers in the French film “Cherchez l’idole,” released here as “Aidoru o Sagase” and in English as “The Chase.” Her track from that film, “La plus belle pour aller danser,” was a hit here, selling more than a million copies.
Vartan’s true impact on Japanese culture, however, was her je ne sais quoi: She was young, cute and musically gifted. Taking from the film’s title, the Japanese entertainment industry began to assign the term “aidoru” (“idol”) to singers here such as Momoe Yamaguchi, Junko Sakurada and Masako Mori, who all had the same aesthetic.
Fifty-five years later, the idea of the Japanese idol has gone through numerous transformations. From Seiko Matsuda and Takuya Kimura to Namie Amuro and AKB48, Japan has made the concept its own, split it up into several subgroups and exported it around the world. Thousands of young women and men have set their sights on becoming the next big idol, and an increasing number of them come from abroad.
Eleonora Guglielmi is one of them. Adopting the style of a more modern idol, she is better known to her fans as Yuriko Tiger.
“Yuriko was inspired by a character in the ‘Bloody Roar’ video game,” says the 25-year-old, who was born in Italy. “I’ve always liked the name Yuriko because it literally means ‘lily girl.’
“Tiger is a sort of wordplay on Taiga who is a character in the ‘Toradora!’ light novel-anime-game franchise. It’s also a reminder of my fighting side. I used to be quite a rebel, especially when I was in high school. So you could say that ‘Yuriko’ shows my gentle and sensitive side, and ‘Tiger’ my determination to succeed in Japan.”
When Yuriko first came to Japan in 2013, she already knew she wanted to become an idol, though she thought it would be a long shot.
“I’ve had this dream since I was introduced to manga and anime at the age of 10,” she recalls. “My father used to buy me a lot of comics and video games, I think I first played ‘Tekken’ when I was 3. Then I fell in love with ‘Sailor Moon,’ but I really became crazy about otaku (geek) culture when I discovered ‘Inuyasha’ and all the other works by Rumiko Takahashi.
“I actually began to draw manga myself. Then, in junior high school, I became interested in Japanese music and fashion through YouTube and a now-defunct monthly called Benkyo, the first Italian magazine that offered in-depth coverage of different aspects of Japanese pop culture. I was fascinated by cosplay but I thought it was something they only did in Japan. So I was shocked when, at 13, I went to Lucca Comics and came face-to-face with Italian cosplayers. It was the best thing I had ever seen. For me it was like acting, choosing a different character you liked every time you did it. So I began to make my first costumes and take part in national contests.”
At first, Yuriko’s family didn’t take her otaku aspirations seriously. They quickly changed their minds, however, when she took a part-time job to pay for a trip to Japan.
“I guess they were won over by my determination and began to actively support me,” Yuriko says.
The pitfalls of Wonderland
When Yuriko finally arrived in Japan she was still 19 and had just finished high school.
“Just before leaving, I attended a once-a-week basic Japanese class for six months,” she says. “Then I studied in Tokyo for three wonderful months and vowed to come back for a longer period as soon as possible.
“Back in Italy, I was even contacted by a TV program called ‘Game Time’ that offered me a job as an assistant reporter in Tokyo. So I returned to Tokyo for a second, six-month stay. The reporting job turned out to be a very small and short-lived experience, but at the same time I got signed by a modeling agency.”
Yuriko had a few good studio photos taken and asked a Japanese friend to help her write a proper CV in which she listed her past pop culture-related experiences: anime-related events, cosplay competitions and so on.
“Then I had to pass an interview,” she says, adding that even in the world of idols “it’s very important that you approach your job hunt in a professional way. You have to show them that you are serious and reliable. You can’t just send them a selfie, as some people do.”
Even though Yuriko’s working career got off on the right foot, she quickly realized that her career path hadn’t led her to the kind of Wonderland she’d always dreamed of.
“At first I thought I was in paradise,” she says. “However, things changed when it was time to sign a contract and I saw a different side of Japanese culture that I knew nothing about. For example, the agency sponsored my working visa and they said I had to leave my Japanese school because now my job came before anything else, including studying. Secondly, I had to move from the share house where I was living into a condo that, among other things, was much more expensive.
“There were many other things, like having to ask for permission every time I wanted to go out with my friends. Last but not least, though, I was completely forbidden from having a boyfriend.”
On top of the strict terms of her contract, Yuriko’s agency tried to turn her into a gurabia (gravure) idol — or, to put it another way, a bikini model. In fact, her first job was for Playboy Japan.
“These producers were a bunch of extremely rich, bad-mannered chauvinists and they tried to intimidate me into posing for nude pictures. One night we were in a club and, in response to their threats, I flipped a table over in anger. After that episode they tried to boycott me, so eventually I left the agency and began to work with my current manager.”
A chance TV encounter
Yuriko’s breakthrough arrived in 2014 and came completely by chance, after she had been to Italy on a job-related trip.
“On my return to Japan I was interviewed at Narita Airport by the TV program ‘Why Did You Come to Japan?’ They ended up devoting a whole 25 minutes to me: They showed my tiny apartment including my huge cosplay collection; then we went together to a maid cafe; and in the end they reported on my job as an assistant MC at the World Cosplay Summit in Nagoya.
“At the time I had about 1,000 followers on Twitter,” she says, “but the night my episode was aired on TV that number suddenly shot up to 10,000.” Yuriko currently has almost 48,000 followers on Twitter, as well as around 82,500 on Instagram.
The year after her TV appearance was huge for Yuriko as she was brought on TV for appearances as a tarento (talent), recorded her first CD single, did a few performances around Japan and was recognized as a professional cosplayer.
“That was very important for me because in Japan foreign cosplayers never get paid jobs,” she says.
In the years since, Yuriko has seen her career branch off in several directions, but she still maintains connections with the otaku scene, even back in Italy.
“In 2016, I had to take a break from working in Japan because of visa-related issues, so I spent a few months in Italy where I took part in about 15 otaku events around the country,” she says. “The interesting thing is that while in Japan I have developed a more grown-up image, in Italy they still want Yuriko the colorful otaku idol who dances on stage to the sound of anime songs.”
Speaking of visas, Yuriko says that getting a visa as an entertainer wasn’t difficult because it was sponsored by her agency.
“The problem, though, is that there are many restrictions on the kind of jobs you can actually do,” she says. “That’s why most foreigners who work in this field are either married to a Japanese or of mixed heritage with Japanese citizenship, so they don’t need a visa.”
Yuriko also has a pretty hectic working schedule. “As you can imagine every day is different but meetings are a constant,” she says. “The Japanese love business meetings so we have about three or four meetings every week to discuss upcoming engagements. The weekends are devoted to photo and video shoots (they take between four to 10 hours), cosplay events and such. Then three or four times a month I go to Sendai to work on a new music project with Samurai Apartment, a band that mixes traditional Japanese instruments and pop.”
On first glance it looks like Yuriko is overworked, and while it may be par the course in Japan it is certainly not what Italians are used to. She says, though, that it doesn’t present a problem.
“I like to keep busy,” she says. “Some time ago, for example, I had a whole free week for myself but I managed to find something to do anyway. If I have too much time on my hands I get bored, so the more I work the better.”