Novala Takemoto’s Shimotsuma Monogatari: Kamikaze Girls and the Japanese Lolita

Posted by Kathryn Hardy Bernal on September 01, 2009 in Guest Blog, Ms Kathryn Hardy Bernal tagged with
Novala Takemoto’s Shimotsuma Monogatari
Kamikaze Girls and the Japanese Lolita
A true Lolita must nurture a Rococo spirit and live a Rococo lifestyle.[1]
Momoko Ryugasaki

So begins Novala Takemoto’s novel, Kamikaze Girls, known in Japan as Shimotsuma Monogatari (“Shimotsuma Story”), and the inspiration for Tetsuya Nakashima’s 2004 film of the same name.[2] Spawning a manga version, illustrated by Yukio Kanesada in 2005, it is an example of shōjo (teenage girls’) fiction that weaves together the stories of two unlikely companions, Ichigo (“Ichiko”) Shirayuri (played by Anna Tsuchiya), a yanki, or delinquent biker-punk and member of a rough all-girl bōsōzoku (motorcycle gang); and the narrator, and main protagonist, Momoko Ryugasaki (Kyoko Fukada), a so-called “Sweet Lolita” who, enamoured with the Japanese fashion brand Baby, the Stars Shine Bright,[3] lives in a constant reverie of Rococoesque lavishness, as an escape from the realities of Shimotsuma and her ignominious upbringing. The primary thread is the coming together of these two girls from opposite ends of the spectrum, at first a reluctant and seemingly incongruous partnership, and the bond that is formed through similar teenage anxieties related to “growing up”, memories of childhood hardships, feelings of alienation and isolation, and their escapist personalities. I aim to propose that these themes are pertinent not only in a reading of the relationship between the two characters in Kamikaze Girls but that they represent increasing societal concerns in regard to contemporary Japanese youth culture, poignantly reflected and inferred by ideologies surrounding the Gothic & Lolita subculture, and the phenomenon of the “Lolita”, who, in association with her appearance, is often referred to as a “living doll”.

 (Image Shimotsuma Story Media Partners)

A “Lolita” is a member of a youth subculture, generally known as the Gothic & Lolita movement (G&L), which originated in Japan and is rapidly gaining worldwide appeal. The style of the “Lolita”, or gothloli (gosurori), is influenced by fashions of the Rococo, Romantic and Victorian periods. It is based on the spirit of nineteenth-century Gothick; on Victorian mourning garb, particularly for the little girl; and inspired by dolls’ dresses, children’s wear, and clothing depicted in Victorian illustrations of fictional female child characters, such as those by Sir John Tenniel for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Alice, Through the Looking Glass.  Occasionally, garments are also decorated with Alicefigures, or motifs taken from Western gothic fairytales: favourites are Little Red Riding Hood and The Sleeping Beauty. The fashion involves a taste for layers of bloomers, petticoats, panniers, aprons, pinafores and ruffles, often finished off with bonnets, Victorian headdresses, parasols, and Mary Janes or platform boots. Particular footwear favourites, especially for Takemoto’s character, Momoko, are Vivienne Westwood’s Rocking-horse Ballerinas, an appropriation of traditional Japanese geta,ribboned ballet slippers, and modern raised-sole shoes. The total ensemble, a concoction of frills, lace, broderie anglaise, ribbons, bows and embroidery, combines to create an image resembling that of a child/doll.

In Kamikaze Girls, Momoko Ryugasaki is a “Sweet Lolita”, a type of gothloli.[4] In the case of the Sweet Lolita, there is an emphasis on the representation of the child, on Rococo elements rather than the Gothic,[5] on frothiness, bows, bonnets and pretty parasols. Her dress is generally made up in one pastel colour, mostly candy-floss pink or baby blue, and sometimes mixed with white or cream, raspberry, navy or black. Also associated with the Sweet Lolita, but often re-categorised under Country Lolita, are inclusions of ginghams, dainty dollhouse florals, spots, stripes, tartans, checks, and fabrics patterned with cakes, ice-cream sundaes, or fruit motifs, such as strawberries or cherries. Main sources for the sweeter Lolita ranges in Japan are Angelic Pretty, Manifesteange Metamorphose temps de fille,[6] Victorian Maiden, Innocent World,and Baby, the Stars Shine Bright (BTSSB), the latter being, the fictional Momoko believes, the only purposeful point to her existence, and the ultimate requisite for many discerning real-life Rococophiles.
The figurehead for G&L is commonly identified as Mana, one of the leading fashion designers of the movement. Although not the originator of the style, he is often accredited with its invention, due to his high profile as one of the subculture’s most recognised and prominent personalities, and certainly one of the most influential. Mana gained his cult status as lead guitarist for the legendary Visual-kei (vijuaru kei = “visual style”) band, Malice Mizer (1992 – 2001). The musical genre, Visual Kei, is marked by a highly flamboyant, theatrical, heavily made-up style that places an emphasis on androgyny, and an effeminate, even feminine, form of male dress. Mana, of the now defunct Mizer, as the ultimate “Lolita”, and consummate idol of the gothloli, is renowned for dressing in an overtly feminine manner. His most recognised persona is the Gothic Lolita; more recently, for his current group, Moi Dix Mois, he has turned to an intersexual male look, adopting his more feminine identity mostly for the purpose of modelling his own fashion ranges. As one of the first celebrities to embody the Gothic Lolita, Mana can be identified as an instigator of the craze, due to Mizer’s fanatical following by young women who mimicked, and continue to replicate, his style. In that the “Gothic Lolita fashion has been one of the most popular looks in the Harajuku area since 1999”,[7] the same year that Mana launched his label, Moi-même-Moitié,and released his two major fashion lines, the Elegant Gothic Lolita and Elegant Gothic Aristocrat,[8] he is implicated in the momentum of the subculture’s popularity, and may certainly have been the first to combine the terms, “Gothic” and “Lolita”.[9] 
However, Novala Takemoto, the author of Kamikaze Girls, professes that there are “no leaders in the Lolita world”, although he himself is “sometimes introduced as an authority on Lolitas”.[10] Like Mana, he is also a “Lolita” and self-confessed Rococophile:
I am… a Rococo writer who has been racing headlong in full-blown Lolita mode for years, in spite of being a straight male. Momoko… [the heroine] is pretty much my alter ego. So, if you found yourself identifying with Momoko’s spirit, it means that I have been understood….[11]
In a 2004 article, journalist Ginny Parker commented that “Takemoto… practices what he preaches. In a recent interview, the 36-year-old author wore a long black dress… and talked about his childhood interest in dolls and fairytales”.[12]
So, although the “Lolita”, or gothloli, is represented by a feminine fashion statement, some of the most significant leaders of the movement, many of them musicians and designers, are adult men. Nevertheless, although there is also a minority following of cross-dressing young males, what sets this phenomenon apart from Western subcultural groups, indeed from a model of what usually constitutes a “subculture”, is that the face of the gothloli is paradigmatically female.
Fashion theorist Yuniya Kawamura has noted, in reference to an observation by Dick Hebdige, that in the past “girls have been relegated to a position of secondary interest within both sociological and photographic studies of urban youth, and masculine bias [has existed]… in the subcultures themselves”.[13] The difference with G&L is that it is essentially a girls’ subculture.[14]
In critiquing the phenomenon, this unique quality creates two opposing perceptions: on the one hand, the movement is increasingly becoming recognised as groundbreaking; as a topic of interest, it has recently gained academic interest and media attention; on the other, the emphasis on what is deemed childish or frivolous behaviour by its members tends, for some, to lend it less weight.
Whilst the motivations behind the practice of what may be considered playing “dress up” is often, at best, passed off as merely an endeavour to make a fashion statement, the “Lolita” phenomenon should not be investigated as just another fashion trend. As the most visual expression of a subculture tends to be its fashion, so it is with G&L. To some fanatics, including the fictional Momoko, the gothloli persona is a way of life.
In the introductory narrative, via a dream sequence, of the film version of Kamikaze Girls, Momoko proclaims:
Rococo: 18th-century France at its most lavish. It made Baroque look positively sober…. Life then was like candy. Their world so sweet and dreamy. That was Rococo…. It was very cute…! Hedonism and love making were all that mattered. Out of bed they liked embroidery. Then it was back to the bedroom. And then? Countryside walks. I was smitten by Rococo. A frilly dress and strolls in the country. That’s how I wanted to live![15]
This nostalgic, escapist urge suggests and reflects deeper concerns. It should be noted that gothic revivalisms, of which G&L is arguably one, tend to coincide with eras associated with societal confusion, transition and cultural malaise.[16] These impulses have also arisen during economic crises. According to Kawamura, since “the early 1990s”, when the “Lolita” image began to take shape, “Japan has faced the longest and worst economic recession in its history”.[17] The gothloli motivation can be seen to be emblematic of a Japanese post-bubble fear, demonstrated by a reluctance to want to “grow up”.
Ginny Parker, quoting Japanese psychiatrist Rika Kayama has agreed, having stated that:
Some Japanese students of youth culture see the Lolita look as a sign of anxieties resulting from growing up in a nation beset by economic insecurities since the early 1990s. ‘They live in a society that doesn’t feel very hopeful about its future’…. By dressing up like babies, the Lolitas are attempting to hang onto the carefree days of childhood….[18]
In other words, for the “Lolita”, this fear of the future, and a wariness of the unknown, is translated not only as a desire to return to an era that is perceived as being utopian but is tranferred to a yearning for a more secure, idyllic past, in this case, childhood, which can also be viewed as a reluctance to enter adulthood. Gothloli are therefore, symbolically, riveted between the two worlds or childhood and adulthood, or in a perpetual state of adolescence.
It is often argued that the gothloli is not consciously sexual, supported by her choice to dress as a child. However, as an eternal adolescent, there exists a dichotomy: the gothloli persona neither wholly represses or embraces a sexualised identity; yet it does both. The gothloli, even in the sense of the term “Lolita”, appears at once as a sexualised child and yet she can be seen as an adult that refuses to grow up and be sexualised. Indeed, the association of the gothloli with Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita is reversed: the fictional character, Lolita, is interpreted as a child with adult feelings; the “Lolita”, or gothloli, represents an adult with childish sensibilities.

This inversion is expressed eloquently via the characterisation of Momoko (during the aforementioned dream sequence of the film version of Kamikaze Girls, whereby everyone is continually and comically jumping in and out of bed), who, in her desire to live in the “sweet and dreamy” world that is Rococo, removes herself from the “hedonism and love making” as something that they do, and pictures herself in this “candy” lifetime, busily embroidering, wearing a “frilly dress, and [taking] strolls in the country”.[19]

 (Image Shimotsuma Story Media Partners)

However, despite this emphasis on childish innocence and purity, Ginny Parker has also stated that “many in mainstream Japan are contemptuous of the Lolita look”.[20] As with many subcultural identities that sit outside the normative, the gothloli tends to shock and even anger her audience, as she is seen to disrupt the social order of what is acceptable and responsible. Parker has claimed that “[fans]… talk about being called stupid by strangers, getting mean looks, and having chewing gum stuck to their dresses”.[21] Whether it’s appropriate for the public to react this way or not, as reporter Jane Pinckard has observed, “after all, [it’s] alienating to want to be someone else, even in pretend”.[22]

In returning to Takemoto’s fictional character, Momoko represents this alienated, yet simultaneously intimidating, gothloli figure, who typifies the increasing mentality of many contemporary Japanese youth, growing up in a society filled with uncertainty and therefore anger. However, “Sweet Lolita” Momoko is an anomaly in this equation. Her obsession with adorning herself in doll-like frilliness, and her desire to escape “growing up”, is not chosen in an effort to hang onto her own childhood, or retain childhood memories; her revulsion of being “grown up” rests solely on the thought of entering, and joining with, the unsavoury adult world.

For Momoko, childhood was less than idyllic, and does not represent a safehaven: her  recollections are of the adult world that she has witnessed; for her, adulthood means entering a life of debauchery, depression, disappointment, economic hardship, and thus struggle and pain. Growing up with no siblings, and no friends, her only real human contact has been with dysfunctional adults; with a prostitute mother who left her behind as a young child to live with her sweet, but insane, grandmother; and with her heartbroken yakuza father, who she addresses as “the loser”.[23]

 (Image Shimotsuma Story Media Partners)

Momoko has coped with this upbringing by becoming resolute in the face of hardship, by creating a defense mechanism that helps her to avoid emotion, and by “escaping” to another place that she has fantasised about, to a “world so sweet and dreamy”, where life was “like candy” and everything “was very cute”.[24] Therefore, it is not her real-life childhood that she wishes to revel in but that of a childlike dreamworld. Moreover, she fantasises about and withdraws to an imagined representation of the “Rococo” past, rather than an historical one, a place that never existed except in the realm of her own reveries. Thus she wishes to reside, forever, within this land of frilly dresses, embroidery, fairytales, and dolls – and with imaginary friends.

What alienates and isolates Momoko further is her choice to become a real-life “Lolita”. In that she lives in Shimotsuma, a place far removed from any awareness or understanding of the G&L subculture, and where she is the one and only gothloli, her decision to be “Lolita” also makes her an outcast. At one point in the film’s narration, she states: “I thought I’d always be alone. Eighty years old, in a Baby dress, dying alone….”.[25]

What saves Momoko from her fate of “dying alone”, is the meeting of Ichigo Shirayuri, a foul-mouthed yanki, who, although appearing in the beginning to occupy the other side of the universe, is a kindred spirit. When they meet, each girl is essentially alone, friendless, lonely, isolated and alienated. What unites this pair, then, is the similarity in their differences. Each of these girls has experienced a difficult childhood, and both now belong to culturally transgressive, or outsider, groups. What actually makes them unique, but the same as each other, and different from other members of their groups, is that they live outside their outsider groups. They are outcasted by the outcasts.

 (Image Shimotsuma Story Media Partners)

What marks a subculture is that individuals, in an effort to be individual, or alternative, in order to reject or refuse to conform to normative society, paradoxically, choose to be seen in the “uniform” of a movement, to align themselves with its membership. This “uniformity” is what usually binds members together and creates a group based on acceptances of similarities. However, what makes Momoko and Ichigo different, but fundamentally the same, is that they don’t actually belong. Neither of them fit neatly into a paradigm of what consitutes a gothloli or a yanki; for a start they don’t have any real friends and, therefore, they are not accepted, not part of a clique. Momoko is completely friendless, only partly because she knows no other Lolita; Ichigo has “friends” but she just doesn’t fit in, especially when she begins to hang out with Momoko. So what emphasises their sense of isolation is their alienation from their respective congregations.

However, the determination to be individual, even if it means being friendless, is what Ichigo ends up admiring the most about Momoko. In defending Momoko’s “coolness” to her biker group, Ichigo says:
Momoko ain’t my friend, see? I kept saying we were buds but she never did. She never wanted to be friends with me. And you know what? I just figured out why. You all wanna be friends all the time. You all wanna be part of a group. But that’s just cuz you’re afraid to be alone, ain’t it…? Momoko here’s always alone, see? She don’t listen to nobody.[26]
Momoko is strong. She knows who she is. She is Lolita.
There is a sense of empowerment in choosing the “Lolita” way of life. Japanese gothloli, reinforced by Takemoto’s “bible”, have taken the negative connotations associated with the term “Lolita”, especially in connection with Vladimir Nabokov’s young, vulnerable, victim, or, depending on a particular reading of the 1955 novel, the precocious, promiscuous sexualised girl, and distorted the message.
There is no doubt that in simply choosing to accept the “Lolita” tag, gothloli open themselves up for interpretion and sexual discourse, especially due to the Nabokovian reference. However, they infer, “we’re aware of this, but we’re going to take this, turn it on its head, and make this our own”. It’s a defiance against perceptions, and expectations. It’s also a rejection of a particular model of what is considered “normal” behaviour. The yearning for a safe haven, in the gothloli’s urge to retain childhood security, should not be read as a retreat. It’s a resolute refusal to accept an uncertain future, and a stance against a defenseless state. As a girls’ subculture, Lolita also allows young girls to be feminine, and, at the same time, allows them to feel in control of something. It’s their choice. And their own right.
Why “Kamikaze Girls”? For me, this label stood, originally, for Ichigo’s self-destructive personality as a wild, rough biker girl who rode with an attitude of “live fast, die young”, because “if you’ve got nothing much to live for you have nothing much to lose”. However, eventually, when Ichigo is ousted and brutally ejected from her gang, a gang that she never really belongs to, this title, I believe, becomes a more apt description for the fearless Momoko. After realising she really does care about and for somebody, for the first time, and has actually something real to live for, Momoko goes screaming off, frills and all, on her crazy grandma’s vintage motorbike, to protect her new friend Ichigo from the savage violence she is due to receive from the other biker girls, thinking nothing of the danger, and thus possibly sacrificing her own life.
Oh Ichigo. My darling Ichigo…
You’re also the one who showed me that growing up might not be such a bad thing after all.
Thank you, Ichigo… you’re the best friend I could ever have.[27]
Like the G&L subculture, Kamikaze Girls is all about girls.

Fearless girls, flying in the face of adversity.

Link to the English version of the trailer:

[1] Novala Takemoto, Kamikaze Girls (first published in Japanese as Shimotsuma Monogatari, Shogakukan Inc., Japan, 2002); English edition, translated by Akemi Wegmüller, VIZ Media LLC, San Francisco, 2006, p. 5
[2] Released on DVD with English subtitles by VIZ Media LLC, San Francisco, January 2006.
[3] Baby, the Stars Shine Bright (BTSSB) is a real-life fashion label, created by Akinori Isobe (played in the film by Yoshinori Okada), who runs the company with his wife, Fumiyo. Its first branch opened in Shibuya, Tokyo, in 1988. The brand name is said to have been taken from the title of an album by British music duo, Everything but the Girl (EBTG), released in 1986.
[4] Sweet Lolita (Jap. amaloli),is a variation of the Gothic Lolita style. Gothic Lolita is often truncated to gothloli (Jap. gosurori/gosuloli).
[5] As opposed to the Gothic Lolita who is usually dressed entirely in black, and whose style is based more on Victorian mourning dress.
[6] Often shortened to Metamorphose temps de fille, or just Metamorphose.
[7] Yuniya Kawamura, “Japanese Street Fashion: The Urge To Be Seen and To Be Heard”, in Linda Welters and Abby Lillethun (eds), The Fashion Reader, Berg, 2007, p. 344
[8] Note that Elegant Gothic Lolita (EGL) is often used to describe the entire movement. However, this term should only be used in reference to the creative output of Mana, who has, since 1999, applied EGL, and its variant EGA (Elegant Gothic Aristocrat), to his fashion ranges for Moi-même-Moitié.
[9] Although one should note that BTSSB opened its doors in 1988, offering this style of clothing.
[10] Takemoto, op. cit., p. 213
[11] Ibid.
[12] Ginny Parker, “Parasols and pink lace: Japan’s Lolita girls; ‘I’d like to go back in time, like to the era of Marie Antoinette’, says 24-year-old nurse”, Globe Style, The Globe and Mail, 25 September 2004
[13] Kawamura, op. cit., p. 344
[14] Ibid.
[15] Tetsuya Nakashima (dir.), Kamikaze Girls, DVD, Engl. subtitles, VIZ Media LLC, San Francisco, January 2006.
[16] See Barbara T. Gates, “Century’s End: The Coming Universal Wish Not to Live”, Chapter Eight in Victorian Suicide: mad crimes and sad histories, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1988
[17] Kawamura, op. cit., p. 343
[18] Parker, op cit.
[19] Nakashima, op. cit.
[20] Parker, op. cit.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Jane Pinckard, “Playing Dress Up”, Zine, 2003, p. 1, retrieved 13/09/2006
[23] Yakuza = a member of a Japanese criminal organisation.
[24] Nakashima, op. cit.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Takemoto, op. cit., p. 201
[27] Ibid, p. 211

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