Visual Arts Thoroughly modern milliners

Sometimes it's hard to tell if a new fashion means liberation or exploitation

Come on up and see me sometime: 1930s Japanese film star Irie Takako lounges in a westerly direction on a chaise lounge. A contemporary counterpart, BLACKMARKETLA's logo girl, sports classic anime hair and doe eyes, appealing to American girls' desire for all things anime: "I just want to look as much like Japanimation as possible," 25-year-old Cassidy Karakorn told The Washington Post in 2003.

Everything old is new again: Sex appeal circa 1996 and 1920. On top, Hiroyuki Utatane's illustration from Countdown: Sex Bombs, contrasts the childlike mouth and eyes of manga and anime, Japanese graphic novels and animation, with a traditional kimono and elements implying bondage. Comparatively tame, Hashiguchi Goyo's "Summer Kimono" was provocative in its day for the subject's direct gaze, the Taisho¯ Chic catalog notes, "project`ing` a 'modern' psychological persona absent in most" portraits of this style. Utatane's girl has lost it.

When the postcard arrived announcing the new "Sailor Moon" suite at Santa Fe's Ten Thousand Waves resort, I knew anime chic had peaked. Now that well-to-do New-Agers are contemplating Yasuragi and hot stone massages in "hyper-modern Tokyo style" rooms decorated with stills from the critically acclaimed 1995 Japanese animation hit, it's time for the American counter-culture to move on. It was only 2003 when the nation's leading papers announced that Japan's "gross national cool" was guiding the Pacific nation out of its early '90s economic slump. "The global embrace of things Japanese has given us a new kind of influence, different than what Japan once had, but influence nonetheless," Tsutomu Sugiura, director of the Marubeni Research Institute, told The Washington Post.

The signs have been almost everywhere for years: Watch 1999's The Matrix, whose post-apocalyptic world and physics-defying "Flow-Mo" style are pale human shadows of anime classics such as Ghost in the Shell. Wear a schoolgirl plaid skirt with sexy tights and heavy makeup. Accessorize with Hello Kitty (or Badtz Maru) bags that are at once futuristic and childlike. Snap a crystal-accented bauble on your cell-phone antenna. Payback is hell, but it's only fair. Much of anime and its spin-off fashion reads like exaggerated Americana. We've been sexualizing young girls at least since Brooke Shields posed for her first Calvin Klein ad, and the almost comic objectification of anime's doe-eyed heroines is just a franker version of the concessions the U.S. cosmetic surgery industry exacts from today's liberated females. Japan's Empire of Cool, as it has been dubbed, is exporting a new version of a product that industrialization and modernization brought to its shores in the 1920s and '30s, a cultural exchange documented in the Taishõ Chic exhibit currently on view at the McNay Art Museum.

On one large panel, film star Irie Takako wears a kimono but lounges like Mae West on a European chaise lounge. Then, as now, larger social and economic shifts loosened some of the strictures on Japanese female behavior, which in turn drove fashion. The art and fashion of both periods capture the ambivalence that accompanies these changes. Scholar Brian Ruh calls anime a liminal art that can have two meanings - one for the dominant culture, which may choose, for instance, to see the doll-like heroines as objects of sexual fantasy, and another for a subculture of young women with increased purchasing power who identify with the characters' autonomy and fearless exploits.

Ruh compares this two-tone convention to scholar Jennifer Robertson's study of the all-female Takarazuka theater troupes, memorialized perhaps in the 1930s' "Clown and Cat" in Taishõ Chic.

The creators of the troupe, wrote Robertson, meant for it to teach women how to better empathize with and care for men, but for the actresses it may have been a form of subversion and emancipation.

The images - many of them advertisements - of Taishõ Chic also capture the moment in Japanese female representation when women first stare back at the viewer, as anime's chic chicks now do. But the latters' vacant gazes remind us that some changes are only skin deep.

By Elaine Wolff

Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.