While remotely attending the 26th Busan International Film Festival last month, I saw a documentary titled “Fanatic.” It attempts to come to grips with the attachment some Korean people have to their idols, whether pop stars or actors.

Much has been written about the cultural and economic aspects of pop fandom. What makes “Fanatic” both different and immediately intriguing is that the director, Oh Seyeon, identifies as a diehard fan herself, with the movie functioning as a means for her to investigate a state of mind that she admits can seem strange and intimidating to outsiders.

Oh is a film student, and while the production values of “Fanatic” come across as those of a graduation project, the often sardonic tone of her voiceover narration gives the movie an air of witty sophistication. As a fanatic herself, Oh not only knows what questions need to be asked in order to explain the phenomenon to nonfanatics, she has access to other fanatics who trust her enough to open up fully. It is this directness and the resulting candid conversations that distinguish “Fanatic” from the usual studies of fandom. She realizes that some people will find it a trivial topic, and she’s keen to have fun with it.

Nonetheless, her reason for making the film springs from a serious matter. Oh’s target of worship was the K-pop singer Jung Joon-young, whom she once met during a televised fan event, thus lending her enough credibility (and celebrity) to endear her to the fellow travelers she seeks out for comment. Several years ago, Jung was tried for rape and distributing videos of his victims. He is now serving a five-year prison term (which was reduced from six after an appeal), and Oh followed the case closely. Many of the female fans she interviews have also had to come to terms with their respective idols’ scandals. Some abandoned them in disgust (one hooded woman who also followed Jung says she hopes he “dies in jail”) while others loyally hang on, knowing that they may look like fools for doing so.

I searched the internet for anything that might follow a similar tack in discussing Japanese fandom. The most recent thing I found was an academic paper by Haruka Nishikawa, who admits to being a huge J-pop fan and uses the thesis format to try to understand her feelings. She refers to diehard J-pop fans as “otaku,” the well-worn description of somebody who has an almost granular interest in certain cultural phenomena. Though as terms both “otaku” and “fanatic” contain elements of obsession, “otaku” has a more passive implication. In contrast, Oh is so virulent in her backlash against Jung that in one scene she needs to get drunk just to talk about it with a fellow fan.

Nishikawa studied the psychology and purchasing habits of J-pop and K-pop fans. Much of her analysis is unsurprising, but she does have an interesting take on the emotional connection between female fans and male stars, saying that the fans don’t necessarily see themselves as possible sexual partners to their idols, but instead are attracted to the male intimacy projected by the intra-group dynamics of boy bands like SMAP and Arashi. As with “boys love” manga, she says there is no “existence of other females” in this dynamic, and so the female fan can fantasize about inserting herself into their milieu. This is an extension of psychologist Chikako Ogura’s famous theory that female fans of boy bands did not see them so much as potential Prince Charmings but more like the asexual Seven Dwarfs. They are safe to be around.

This projection is why management companies make sure their charges don’t have romantic relationships, or, at least, publicized romantic relationships. According to “Fanatic,” this is also the case in South Korea. Though the fans Oh interviews say they know it’s unrealistic to expect their idols to remain celibate, they think they at least have to take their fans’ feelings into consideration. After all, they wouldn’t be stars without them, which is why the fans feel betrayed when those stars fall foul of the law or public morals.

This possessiveness seems less overt in Japan, though it’s usually manifest in media coverage of idol scandals, especially if it involves female stars. A Sept. 24 report in Aera Dot reported one such incident as uncovered by Shukan Bunshun magazine. Minami Hoshino, a member of the female idol collective Nogizaka46, was caught holding hands and embracing the son of a corporate leader. Hoshino’s star had been rising within the collective, but now her future is in doubt, since Bunshun’s revelation could mean a decline in the number of her dedicated male fans.

That’s where the economics comes in, because idols are, by definition, manufactured, not born. Nishikawa discusses the idea that management companies essentially make their money exclusively off the idol-fan relationship. Oh doesn’t, perhaps because she takes it for granted. In fact, she interviews one woman who was enamored of a popular indie musician. Since indie musicians are thought to achieve success solely through their own talent and originality, this infatuation would seem to be qualitatively different from that of a K-pop fan for an idol, who are bred and controlled by entertainment companies. But Oh doesn’t see any difference, especially when the indie musician in question became involved in a sex scandal and the woman denounced him almost as vehemently as Oh did Jung.

Still, while idol-making operations tend to follow the same manual throughout Asia, there are distinct differences in outcomes. K-pop has been successfully marketed to the world while J-pop remains mainly a local delicacy. There are many reasons for this, but it comes down to determination. If K-pop stars are better singers and dancers and their material more appealing to international audiences, it’s because someone invested enough in the product to achieve those ends. Scandals happen when the product doesn’t function as it should. If the scandals seem more serious in South Korea, that may be because the desire to break free is stronger.

See www.philipbrasor.com for addenda to Media Mix contributions.

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