Japanese fashion magazine LARME recently yanked and apologized for a video intended to celebrate its 10th anniversary. But the backlash misses the point of the production – and, in doing so, attempts to silence women in Japan.
Bunny! Bunny! Burning bright
On the 5th of May LARME magazine released a short promotional video for their 10th Anniversary. In the video, four models, wearing ethereal pastel tulle and brandishing sparkling pistols and parasols, strut down a pink catwalk. The video features voice overs with young women speaking with disdain about sexual assault, harassment and online bulling.
The video juxtaposes these images to a tiny Sylvanian Family (aka Calico Critters) dollhouse, set ablaze.
The toys burn in the densely overpopulated streetscapes of Kabukichō, a red light district in Tokyo. Two Sylvanian Family fuzzy rabbit toys look at each other as they are burnt alive. The flames light up the model’s faces with an orange glow. They give the camera a knowing smile.
LARME is a fashion magazine that started in 2012, featuring a soft and girly aesthetic and kawaii world created for girls by girls. Here, “girls” refer to a playfully kawaii and assertive disposition and hyper-femme presentation rather than age.
LARME is best known for popularizing “crying” or “sickly” makeup, where blush is placed under the wearer’s eyes. Garments made of soft twinkling tulle, embellished with satin ribbons and ruffles feature on LARME’s pages, as models look wistfully at the viewer. The publishers chose “Larme” (trans. tear) to express this sweet and sad, but also playful and resilient, kawaii aesthetic.
With frustration and disdain, the young women in the video’s voiceover rail against aggressive catcalling (nanpa; ナンパ), groping assaults and molestation (chikan; 痴漢), and cyberbullying as “sad” and “gross”. One speaker boldly declares, “without you, I can live a strong life as a woman”.
In disclosing the violence they’ve experienced, another says, “…if I get attacked here and now, no-one will help me. I don’t know how to act. It’s sad, disgusting, and it’s frustrating”.
The video closes with a final statement about isolation and belonging: “My country is also my identity, I was really sad and feel its unforgivable to be denied it. I like Kabukichō because it accepts everyone”.
(See the end of this article for transcription excerpts from the video)
Japan’s #MeToo movement
This video forms part of a country-wide rallying cry of #MeToo among women in Japan. As Unseen Japan has covered previously, molestation on public transport is particularly insidious, with perpetrators targeting young women whom they perceive as vulnerable.
Molestation is said to increase during peak exam times in January, where women might be in a hurry and be too stressed to report. School girls are concerned that the time taken to report their assault will impact their school attendance records.
Femme and strong women are also targets of violent cyberbullying. One famous case is Kimura Hana, whose death sparked outcry and a national conversation. Japan’s Ministry of Education (MEXT) has even sought to address bullying as a national issue.
LARME’s video provides an important intervention for their audience, hitting back at the rape cultures that underscore this violence against women. Molesters will often slut shame and blame women for wearing “provocative clothing”. Sometimes, idols, who appear as models in magazines like LARME, are pressured to apologize for their own assaults. The video forms part of kawaii and femme women’s resistance to this culture of blame.
What LARME presents in this experimental video is both kawaii and vengeful. The picturesque dollhouse and its sweet bunny occupants represent the promise of a peaceful womanhood that is sold to girls through kawaii culture. It burns in a trash laden alleyway in Kabukichō, melting and cracking under the flames and toxic smoke.
Throughout the video there are jump cuts to a fashion show, presenting a transcendental, angelic escape from the grim reality of the violence narrated. The video presents a kawaii dystopia, setting flames to our understanding of cuteness. The stuffiness of the domestic house burns, abusers are rightfully shamed, and the models float above the smoke and grime, triumphant and resilient.
Burning dollhouses, Twitter flames
This provocative video has provoked much public commentary in the past few days. But what is surprising is that, rather than speak to the social issues of the video (harassment and assault), folks are more put off by the fuzzy critter arson.
Sylvanian Family was founded in 1985 by Epoch, a Japanese toy company. Originally named “Pleasant Animals of the Forest Epoch Family System”, these line of toys imagines a picturesque world populated by anthropomorphic animals. They’re sold internationally and, for many, are treasured childhood memories.
In Japan there is a lively community of adult collectors who make custom clothing for their fuzzy friends. The toys are considered a very family friendly product. Grinpa Theme Park at Mt Fuji has its own Sylvanian Village attraction. Meanwhile, the Sylvanian Family Kitchen in Saitama offers a kid friendly place to dine and meet these critters in mascot character form.
Fans were enraged to see their beloved childhood toys and LARME’s previous soft and gentle image literally on fire. After severe on Twitter backlash, LARME took the video down.
Across social media, posters complained about how much LARME has changed from its early days, making disparaging remarks about jirai (landmine, 地雷) girls, a fashion movement that began in Kabukichō. Others mention that they think it’s inappropriate to put the suffering of girls to such aggressive imagery.
There are many complaints in particular of the video’s setting in Kabukichō, considered an “unseemly” place for kawaii women. In this reading, “menhera women playing crazy in Kabukichō” have “spoiled” the soft, fluffy world of LARME.
Sylvanian Family fans, seemingly unconcerned by the disclosure of violence in the video, fret about the plight of the little fluffy bunny toys, wondering why they needed to be used for such an avant garde film and why the women “laughed” while these toys burned. Shouldn’t kawaii girls be sweet?
LARME later in the day posts to their Instagram story an announcement, apologizing for the “inappropriate expressions” in the video and announcing they had taken the video down.
This backlash highlights a degree of callousness that the public still holds towards to violence against women. Much of this commentary follows “madonna/whore” binaries, implying that there are good kawaii girls and “fallen” ones, and that LARME has shed its “innocent” halo for a pair of horns. This disregards the messaging of the video, and the nuanced existences women have as autonomous beings, who live outside these labels that society seeks to impose on them.
When kawaii girls resist the roles placed upon them, the response is fast and violent. In many ways, the backlash mirrors the very violence the video complains about.
The backlash also missed the key value this video might offer the new generation of LARME readers. Could this video not be used as an ice-breaker, to embolden young women to continue their discourse around the harassment they experience? Is it wrong for women to experiment with toys as symbols of their own girlhoods? In truth, this approach has long been part of LARME’s philosophy.
“I Am More of a Dystopic than Utopic Person”: Nakagori Haruna, LARME’s visionary
Some complaints about the 10th anniversary video speak to a change in artistic direction. This fierce video stands opposed to their school girl nostalgia as readers of the magazine during its early issues. But kawaii is actually a dynamic aesthetic, cultural and affective force.
As Professor Akiko Sugawa-Shimada explains, “kawaii is a highly versatile adjective” that women actively experiment with. Likewise, Professor Makiko Iseri encourages us to consider the ways in which women queer and make kawaii strange as a form of self expression and subversion.
Professor Laura Miller has also long documented the many ways women resist, transform and experiment with kawaii, including kogal cultures and tarot. Her edited book Bad Girls of Japan with Professor Jan Bardsley brings together a lively network of experts on women breaking and burning down the rules. Rebellious kawaii isn’t new, but rather a staple of girl cultures in Japan.
What many haven’t realised is that Nakagori Haruna, the magazine’s founder, has always been interested in darkness, and the harsh reality young women face. There is more to her sparkling pink kawaii world than meets the eye.
Part of Nakagori’s inspiration comes from her previous work as an editor for Koakuma Ageha (2005-2014). Ageha was an iconic magazine for hostesses and gyaru alike, and was known at the time for pushing the envelope of acceptable discourse in women’s magazines. Topics covered were often “sickly” (yami, やみ) in nature, exploring issues of trauma, abuse and addiction. For many young women, it was one of the only places they could be “real” with others like them.
In her interview with TV-Asahi for the 10th anniversary event and its fashion show, Nakagori describes herself as “more of a dystopian than utopian person.” Setting the show in Kabukichō was ideal, as to her it is a site where chaotic cultures are born.
For Nakagori, the world she created through LARME has always been shadowed by feelings of sadness and trauma. She wanted to create a space free of men that women could occupy. Toys for Nakagori have always played a key symbolic role in its pages, she explains.
Nakagori says she is particularly inspired by texts like The Poem of Wind and Trees (風と木の詩; 1976-1984) by Keiko Takemiya. This serial BL manga used flowery imagery to explore tragic themes of abuse of power at a time where society shamed women for their bodies and assaults. Nakagori is very familiar with how kawaii can be used to explore serious issues with femme audiences.
Since 2019, LARME has introduced darker styles to its social media and print magazine, including jirai-kei. Some of LARME’s readers might enjoy the pink and black, cute and dark aesthetics of jirai, but to others the fashion is a sign of solidarity among young women with trauma and rage against the social roles assigned to them.
While jirai aesthetics don’t appear in this latest fiery video, its spirit is there, striking the match and tossing it onto the dollhouse with glee.
Frills, Pistols and Glitter: A Guerilla Fashion Show
The video uses clips from LARME’s guerilla fashion show, held on April 20th at Tokyu Kabukichō. Nakagori in an interview for Fashion Snap explains that the outfits took 8 months to complete and that she spent much time and effort in crafting each look.
There is both a playful cuteness and aggression to the performance overall. Powerfully kawaii and in control, the LARME girls walk for an audience of cheering women. To celebrate, guests enjoyed a pink and frilly cake, decorated with corset lacing, angel wings, and two pink pistols. The weapons twinkling with rhinestones are reminiscent of the blinged-out cellphones school girls treasured in the 2000s.
The models who feature in both this fashion show and the anniversary video are well known idols and style icons, including Femme Fatale members, Senritsu Kanano (戦慄かなの, Twitter @FABkanano) and Tonchiki Sakina (頓知気さきな, Twitter @tonchiki_doll), Risa Doll (中村里砂, Twitter @RISA_DOLL) and previous Clover Z member Ayatsu Sasaki (佐々木彩夏, Instagram @ayaka_sasaki_official).
Senritsu in particular is a rising star and advocate for marginalized young women. As a family violence and school bullying survivor who went through the juveniles reformatory system, Senritsu advocates for the rights of young people. In January 2019, she created a not-for-profit organization for young people experiencing neglect and bullying called bae.
From 2018 Senritsu began studying law in Tokyo by daylight, slaying the catwalk and idol scene by moonlight. Her latest album with Tonchiki as Femme Fatale, F***kin’ Sisters, was released just after the fashion show on 28th April.
The LARME video is disruptive in many respects. Mainly, it challenges ideas of what kawaii is and can be. It brings to the fore the very real violence that young women experience. This violence has always been there, hidden amongst the flowers in the sparkling worlds they create for themselves. Kawaii is both a respite from the precarity young women experience, but also a creative tool of resistance.
With new cute and dark movements on the rise, so too are the dissenting voices of women. Tired and fed up, kawaii women are setting the world aflame in their own way, with their own voice. It’s time for us to stop and listen.
Transcription Excerpts from the LARME Video
Transcriptions courtesy of Rei Saionji.
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