Frenchness and Transformation in Japanese Subculture, 1972–2004

From: Mechademia
Volume 5, 2010
pp. 118-137

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Frenchness and Transformation in Japanese Subculture, 1972–2004

The 2004 film Shimotsuma monogatari (Shimotsuma story; translated in English as Kamikaze Girls) opens with a voiceover.1 It longingly describes an era long derided, when not neglected, for its vulgarity and excess: the rococo court life of eighteenth-century Versailles (Figure 1). The 2002 novel, on which Shimotsuma monogatari is based, embraces the rococo, using the very terms French philosopher Denis Diderot had employed two centuries earlier. Then, Diderot had spurned the paintings of François Boucher by saying they feature only "elegance, cloying sweetness, fantastic gallantry, coquetry, virtuosity, change, brilliance, made-up skin tones, and lewdness."2 Anticlassical and pro-rococo to the core, Shimotsuma monogatari tells the story of two girls: Momoko, a hyperindividualist rococo-phile, and Ichigo, a biker girl who travels with a pack, who form an unlikely friendship in a less-than-idyllic countryside in millennial Japan. In this article, I want to trace the path of the baroque and rococo aesthetics in postwar Japanese subculture. I do so by using the film and novel versions of Shimotsuma monogatari interchangeably, with some additional passages of the novel that offer art-historical meditations on the resemblances between subcultures. My goal is to suggest how and why the 1970s emergence of shōjo manga (girls' comics) as well as the millennial [End Page 118] street fashion of gothic Lolitas featured in Shimotsuma monogatari, reprise the logic of the rococo, the hallmark of the seventeenth–to-eighteenth-century "consumer revolution" that provided women an entry into the marketplace during the transition from a feudal to a bourgeois regime. How does a baroque or rococo aesthetic provide an exemplary interface for entering the market of adulthood in the 1970s and in the millennial world?

The two characters in Shimotsuma monogatari meet through an eBay-like online market. Despite their polarized identities, they discover they both long to get out of the provinces, inhabited by real cows and a hapless bourgeoisie of superstore bargain hunters. In a nod to the most hallowed tropes of the "coming-of-age" novel, independence and social mobility, they move to the metropole and find their fortune by marketing artisanal items of rococo embroidery to an upscale boutique, where Momoko falls in love with the storeowner, and Ichigo becomes a star model. The tropes of "self-discovery" and adult subjectivity found through love are typical of shōjo manga and the young adult genre known as light novels, including Takemoto's Shimotsuma monogatari. What is less typical is that every sort of relationship in the novel and film—except the bonds of the biker gang and Momoko's care for her elderly grandmother—is entirely enabled and resolved through the market, from the cementing of the girls' friendship to the discovery of true love through the handmade bonnet.

Figure 1. A scene from the introductory reverie of Shimotsuma monogatari (2004, Kamikaze Girls), with Nakashima Tetsuya, Kyoko Fukada, Anna Tsuchiya, and Nobara Takemoto.
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Figure 1.

A scene from the introductory reverie of Shimotsuma monogatari (2004, Kamikaze Girls), with Nakashima Tetsuya, Kyoko Fukada, Anna Tsuchiya, and Nobara Takemoto.

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Shimotsuma monogatari's move from country to city, connected to the coming-of-age narrative in the context of feminine solidarity cemented through the market, is staggeringly different than the rococo we see in the first subculture to popularize Frenchness in association with independence and autonomy, the manga Rose of Versailles (Berusaiyu no bara).3 The rococo first appeared in this wildly popular manga, serialized in eighty-two chapters between 1972 and 1973 in the weekly girls' magazine Margaret. The "rose" is a metaphor referring to the strangeness of fourteen-year-old Marie Antoinette when she is sent from the Hapsburg court in 1769 to marry the young dauphin, the future Louis XIV, and prevent war from breaking out between France and Austria. The manga series tracks Marie's rise and fall at court against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Ikeda adds a second, fictional character, Oscar, to dramatize an emergent politics of solidarity that catalyzes as the Revolution looms. As a narrative, Rose of Versailles dramatizes the ideology of postwar social realism in the nationalist version advocated by the JCP (Japanese Communist Party). That is to say, despite, or...