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Nobody expects to become an addict. But the opening scenes of Rikiya Imaizumi’s “In Those Days” show with chilling precision how easy it is to get hooked on the bane of contemporary Japanese society: idol pop.

Based on a memoir by musician and author Mikito Tsurugi, this bittersweet comedy-drama captures the heyday of the Hello! Project idol collective, whose popularity in the 2000s paved the way for the full-spectrum dominance of idol group AKB48 during the following decade.

It’s 2004 in Osaka, and Mikito (Tori Matsuzaka) is down on his luck. He’s flunked his university entrance exams, his rock band ambitions aren’t working out, and his career prospects don’t look much rosier. So when a concerned friend slips him a little pick-me-up — a DVD of pop idol Aya Matsuura — he’s easy prey.

In Those Days (Ano Koro. )
Rating
Run Time 117 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens Feb. 19

After hearing a minute of the singer’s “Momoiro Kataomoi” (which translates to “Pink Unrequited Love”), Mikito is smitten.

A trip to his local CD store leads him to a Hello! Project “talk event,” one of those free-wheeling panel discussions that are a pillar of Japanese fan culture. The organizers are happy to welcome him into the fold, though he meets some initial resistance from the cantankerous Kozumin (Taiga Nakano), who has all the people skills of an angry pit bull.

Soon enough, Mikito’s apartment is plastered with idol memorabilia, while his bass guitar gathers dust in the corner. He joins the geek gang’s evening hangouts, where they watch DVDs and plot their next moves.

After the fan group’s appearance at a university culture fair proves an unexpected hit, it’s only natural for Mikito to suggest forming a band. And if you thought the average idol had lackluster vocal talents, just wait until you hear these guys sing.

The group’s camaraderie is frequently strained by Kozumin, who starts message-board flame wars on their behalf, and later makes a move on a fellow member’s girlfriend. However, the bigger test comes from time itself. As Mikito starts to realize, the second adolescence he’s been enjoying can’t last forever.

For the first hour or so, “In Those Days” offers a fascinating glimpse into the world of pop idol worship: the merchandise, the meet-and-greets, the questionable gender politics. It manages the impressive feat of depicting a rich menagerie of oddballs without sneering at them.

It also conveys the intense emotional bonds that can be forged in the cauldron of pop fandom, like the moment of communion Mikito experiences with a complete stranger while attending a concert.

Even if the barrage of inside jokes and arcana goes over your head, there’s an infectious energy to many of these scenes, and the group’s members — including seasoned character actors Takashi Yamanaka and Tateto Serizawa — establish a believable rapport.

But despite the efforts of the performers, they register as archetypes rather than fully rounded characters, which makes the film’s midpoint pivot to more somber drama hard to sustain. Skipping forward a few years in time, the film finds the group’s members scattered and (mostly) moving on with their lives, only to be brought back together when one of their number falls mortally ill.

There’s pathos to be found here, and the final scene packs an undeniable punch, but the film gets less absorbing the further it drifts from the idol world.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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