“People don’t really think about striptease these days,” says director Yoichiro Okutani, “it’s seen as old-fashioned. They don’t care. Normally, you wouldn’t even go there.” So with his debut film “Odoriko,” which takes its name from the Japanese word for exotic dancers and has its premiere in IDFA’s Feature-Length Documentary Competition, Okutani’s has decided to take us there: “Odoriko” opens a window into the twilight world of Japan’s few remaining strip clubs. “In my film you see a very old-fashioned strip club,” says Okutani, “but the strippers are young. This gap between the old and the new has always been one of my interests.”

With such a sensitive subject, Okutani obviously had to gain their trust first—and pay to see them perform, just like anybody else in their dwindling audience. “They didn’t know me,” he explains. “I am not famous. After a while they started to recognize me and then I would send them long letters, asking for interviews. I wasn’t interested in sensationalizing what they do—I am not that kind of person.”

Luckily, the girls were receptive, and Okutani was admitted into their world, which he found to be surprisingly social. “The odoriko know that popularity is part of their job,” he says, “so you almost never hear them talk about their fans to each other, neither to brag or complain. I saw fans starting out by following their favorite odoriko and then gradually making friends with others in the audience as well, cheering on their girl.”

Shooting mostly in their small dressing rooms and narrow hallways, sometimes with his boom operator and a colleague credited as an assistant director, Okutani accompanied the girls without actually “directing” them, he says. Not interested in their backstories, he wanted to show their lives in the moment, which consist of rehearsing, cooking, performing in one place for 10 days and then swiftly moving onto the next.

“They don’t have the luxury of an extra day for rest or travel in between gigs,” he points out. “After their last performance they hurriedly pack up their costumes and things, and leave the same evening or the next morning. They travel alone. As the saying goes, a departing bird does not foul its nest or cloud its water, and the ephemeral nature of their work is something that has fascinated me. It was my intention to capture the repetition of their daily reality in these ‘transitory nests’.”

“I only asked them not to look at the camera,” he continues. “But they were busy, putting on makeup, readying for the performance—they didn’t care about me at all. I knew the daily routines of these strip clubs, or the girls’ own particular habits, before I started to film, but once in a while, I was able to capture a movement or a conversation that went beyond my imagination—I called these moments ‘miracles’. Four years went by until I finally got the shots and scenes I was waiting for.”

Now 42, Okutani, who was in his thirties when he began to formulate the project, quickly found himself sympathizing with their struggles. “I am an independent filmmaker, and back then I was thinking about how I was living my life quite a lot,” he recalls. “They also worry about their future. They can’t do this job their whole lives. They start in their twenties, and if they work for 10 years, the focus turns to much younger girls. Some of them want to get married or get pregnant, but they also have to look after their parents. I wanted to show this turning point in their life.”

Eavesdropping on their conversations, often very personal, he shows them perform and then change, completely unbothered by the camera and comfortable in their nudity.

“At first, I was thinking about making a film about boxing. I wanted to show our generation’s bodies, that moment when people are slowly starting to age. We are all earning money by moving our bodies, you know? By writing, driving some vehicles. I wanted to show these bodies, that’s why I show nudity in the film.”

On that score, to protect their privacy, Okutani assured his protagonists that the film would be only seen abroad. But a screening in Japan is not completely off the table just yet. “Before starting my research and filming,” he says, “I handed each odoriko a documentary project proposal stating that the aim is to show the film at international festivals overseas. As some of them have since left the profession, I am still in the process of tracking everyone down to tell them that the film had its world premiere at IDFA, and to check how they would feel about showing it in Japan now.”

“People in the strip industry are still judged rather unfairly in our country,” he says sadly. “My wish is that this film can provide them with pride and confidence in themselves, and the extraordinary profession they chose.”