November 26th, 2003


Dolls, dolls, dolls

Since I was subsequently contacted yesterday to further expound my thoughts on various currents in Japanese pop culture, I've been reworking some of the research I did on this area for an email and thought I may as well post it in a slightly amended form, since it will wash the (possibly far preferable) flavour of the Caucasus entirely from our mouths. Here we go:

I could only find a hard copy of the research I'd done and even that isn't really complete, since I've lost the URLs to a number of underground kigurumi and cosplay fetish clubs and MBs. These may turn up again, but I doubt it as I had to get these through a quite lengthy procedure. Once you've researched a subject as much as you can from afar, you get kind of tired of it, not to mention that some of this stuff is fairly kimochi warui for my tastes. Now, if the TV company was willing to pay for me to go to Japan, that would be a different story! I haven't lived there for three years and it's hard to gauge things properly through a web-based lens. Sorry if this is all a bit lengthy and at times quite irrelevant for your possible purposes, but to cut down on duplication, I may as well stick the body of this email onto my LJ page as well, just to give any visitors a break from Georgian politics! It's opinionated at times and I'll probably disagree with myself about ten minutes after sending it. Anyway, where to start...

There's a number of elements here, all of which strike me as being connected. I'll try and leave out the hefty (and frequently incorrect) theory behind much of this. Let's start the trail this time with Shibusawa Tatsuhiko. Shibusawa was a prominent author and translator and is best known for his post-war translation of the Marquis de Sade's Juliette (Juliette's the naughty sister as opposed to prissy Justine), which resulted in a famous obscenity case. He also helped disseminate information about the Surrealists to a largely ignorant Japanese readership. He remains a cult author in Japan and I only really discovered him because I was browsing in a bookshop one day and came across a photo of him, he had a sort of 50's sunglasses rive gauche look ‚ standing in his house, which was filled with strange looking bric-a-brac. Intrigued, I started collecting his books, mostly because they were exquisitely bound and printed. In all honesty, I've not read most of them. Unfortunately, he's never been translated as his fictional style is a quite specific sort of fantastic Japanese gothic. Non-fiction, his works were about the occult, art, eroticism, etc... Anyway, one artist that Shibusawa effectively introduced to Japan was Hans Bellmer.

I don't hold that Japanese culture is something so distant or foreign to my own. I have the advantage of having lived there a fair while and I'm reasonably comfortable with the language. The challenge for Japanese culture is how it is translated abroad. We get a very selective view. Much of it is fairly mundane and boring and no one is really interested in Japanese horse betting systems or washing machine design, so commentators understandably focus on the things that make you go "What the fuck is that?" and not "Yawn, do me a favour!". Anyway, why am I saying this? I guess because I'm a historian by trade these days and want comments I make to be understood as not holding Japan up as some shining example of wackiness or fucked-uppery. We'rere no less devo than them, possibly more so.

A cultural history of dolls in Japan could take up the next ten years of my life, so let's try and put it succintly. As an art/craft, doll making remains a popular hobby in Japan. It has a stature in the culture. There's the Doll Festival (Hinamatsuri) and dolls are displayed on other holidays as well and are integral to many local festivals and religious/occult practices. These aren't really toys and they'rere not played with, especially at that price. Dolls such as those made by Takeda are highly collectable. Dolls aren't restricted to children. Dolls are associated with the performing arts, they'd often be in set poses from kabuki plays and were a form of merchandising for actors, playwrights, troupes and so on. Not to mention bunraku. Japanese puppet theatre is great, although everyone else seems to sleep/snore through it in my experience! Dolls can display real emotion, dolls possess emotion, dolls are alive. Well, not quite alive, but inanimate objects are not divested of spirit. We all know this when children, it's just the Japanese don't forget it . This attitude towards inanimate objects (waterfalls, rocks, Hello Kitty, Prime Minister Koizumi) is a key element in the culture. It is kind of childlike and integral to the whole kawaii (cute) phenomenon.

So when post-war Japanese artists encountered Bellmer, they saw a possibility for dolls that had always been inherent in the tradition. Dolls offered a way of exploring issues to do with sexuality, violence, eroticism, etc. They probably would have done it without Bellmer, but in the post-war era, interest in the European/American avant-garde was high. This kind of underplays the strength of any pre-war avant-garde and domestic experimentation, but that's not for now. Suffice to say, they were inspired by Bellmer through Shibusawa. Okay, now, finally for some links:

Yotsuya Simon is one of the most noted and you can see much of his stuff here. He also has a school of dollmaking in Harajuku with links to graduates and such. Doll Space Pygmalion is another school and group of dollmakers. Here's a bunch of various other dollmakers, many of whose links are buried away on these sites. They have a magazine called Dolls Forum. There's a promo for a forthcoming movie called Innocence which has the great line 犬を愛する男は好きですか or 'Do you like men who love dogs?', which is an interesting dollist stance.

You get the idea, anyway. I still can't find the name of the artist I like most (that is scares me the most!), which frustrates me. Now, there is a fair amount of variety in the dollmaking scene (not represented in these links really) from the classical to the more avant garde. At first, given the evident eroticism of these dolls, I was surprised to see that most of the makers were women. I'd presumed they'd be men. But no. It seems more that these are an outlet for women to explore issues of their own child sexuality rather than men. It does seem a bit healthier this way round to my mind. But the dolls all look kind of miserable to my eye and frequently distorted in their features. I've seen some of these up close and they are very unsettling (especially when lifesize as many of them are). I can't help but think of abuse when I see them which I suppose is intended. Anyway, this is enough about dolls and you have your own mind to use after all.

So, how to get from here to cosplay? Well, I suppose one route is through what is sometimes called EGL (Elegant Gothic Lolita) and here's a reasonable intro, this one does a lot of my work for me. Hooray.

Many of the recent doll makers seem to dress their dolls similarly and there's similar elements of fetishism, not to mention a clearly doll inspired look. Many of them carry such dolls around with them. I can remember the first time I was in a convenience store in Shibuya and suddenly found myself surrounded by about thirty school children all dressed in blinding white frilly angel outfits costumes. Unfortunately they beat me to the counter and it took a while to get the packet of fags I was heavily jonesing for. The thing I found strange about the scene is that the music was really secondary to the outfits. The music really didn't match the image of the bands, I was expecting NIN or at least The Cure or the Sisters of Mercy. They have great stylists but atrocious songs [I am willing to be converted on this point, I do like J-Pop, but find Japanese Goth lacks any of the threat or melancholy I expect in the form]. As the link above notes, this image plays with Lolita complex (lolicon) issues and is sort of threatening, but I'm not completely convinced by this argument. It would be great to see a new youth culture in Japan that really tried to rewrite the rulebook. Whether in Victorian corsets or with Jamaican tans, [eh?] it's still sticking to the same shojo (young girl) page. Mind you, it's not my culture and I'm an old fart by their standards for sure! I am not sure how this ELG trend is doing at this precise moment, it's still around for sure, but might be losing wind. Ganguro is finished. Yawn, losing strength, I'll go off for lunch now...

Obviously,there's some cosplay and kigurumi and stuff to follow. But I do have to eat.
  • Current Music
    Gyles Brandreth sings Malice Mizer

It's almost over, I assure you

Sarmoung really is receiving email from some prominently wired 'movers and shakers' these days. First Jonno over at Fleshbot and then Xeni Jardin from Boing Boing. Anonymity will be restored shortly as will moral probity and the usual lax relationship to external reality. Mount Athos would be a fine idea after this. Why don't TV companies want documentaries on the Yayoi period. Isn't it sexy enough?

...I emailed Fleshbot about kigurumi because I thought it’s a fairly uncovered subject as yet and the distinction needed to be made. There are distinctions between the two, but there’s also a sufficient blur. Evidently, one of the distinctions is gender. Men, especially unfeminine or unattractive types, can hide their true appearance far more in kigurumi. I haven’t seen any Japanese TV cosplay sites and that’s not for a lack of convincing drag queens. Cosplay, as a hobby, is a much more innocent world or shall we say less dark . Many US & Japanese cos sites make it clear that if you’re looking for porn (or what is commonly called ‘H’ in Japanese as it’s pronounced ‘etchi’ or perverse) you can go elsewhere. People might find their kicks at but I don’t think that’s what she’s put it there for.

There’s a lot of pride in costume design and it seems a fairly young hobby on the whole. People are obsessive, geeky even, which might reflect its heavy basis in manga, anime and video games. It’s not otaku as it’s very social and to do with networks, conventions, and not just MBs or whatever. I suppose there might be some otaku dressing up at home in private, but I’d bet they’d be more in for kigurumi. They can hide. Social structures are changing very fast in Japan and whilst there are many people who are comfortably managing advances both in the physical and virtual worlds, many don’t. I suspect there are more and more falling by the wayside.

I’m not sure whether you’re really after the more Fleshbot style links in this area (I’ve bookmarked Boing Boing by the way and am enjoying working my way through), but that’s kind of what you’re going to get.

As you could probably see from the J-link site, there’s a fair amount of cosplay porn around. What you will see advertised on the outside of various sex parlours in Japan as cosplay will more often than not be restricted to some very obvious archetypes such as various types of schoolgirl, shop assistant, nurse, etc. You won’t necessarily get the more far out costumes at most places. Sailor Moon might be a safe bet though. So, you (well, maybe not you personally) could visit somewhere like this and you could pay some people to do this in front of you It’s worth pointing out that, from a strictly legal point of view, parlours may not offer penetrative vaginal sex. It may well occur in some places, but it’s not legally on the menu, click the second pink button along (Gallery) and then the big pink one on the next page for a selection of outfits on offer.

Frequently these places don’t offer any substantial physical contact at all. It’s a voyeuristic thrill and the Japanese punter is there with his hand down his own trousers or someone else’s for an additional surcharge.

As I said many cosplayers aren’t too happy with their hobby being confused with the sex industry. They have standards! But there’s no denying that many of those drawn into cosplay quite possibly develop interests in other forms of fetishism that are based around clothing, roleplay, and the constant need to accessorise.

Kigurumi is a number of steps further. On the whole, the term in Japan refers to this dressing up more completely in character, say a tiger outfit at a kid’s party. It’s all innocent. As I said before, these characters are most commonly seen at amusement parks doing tableau scenes from anime or street promotions for some new product or another. I’m not sure how this became a fetish (is anybody ever?). I’m not aware of any sex parlours in Japan offering masked sexual encounters, but it’s a safe bet in Japan that somebody somewhere is. Generally, you’d think people would prefer their sex mask-free, but I actually like the idea. It’s one of the most truly perverse ideas I’ve come across. Had the company come through with the money, I may well have ended up in Japan and at this moment be sat in some pink furnished boutique hotel dressed as an excitable Pikachu. I can think of worse ways to pay the rent and it would all be in the interests of research, obviously... Here are some intriguing left-field kigurumi links

This is a great set of links of kigurumi and more. Why not meet Love Face, a long standing favourite of mine (of sorts!) and err, yes, whatever and watch this Quick Time clip if you're not jaded enough already. That’s slightly off topic as I think full body stockings are a different area altogether, but I like the idea of Zentai (All) Woman.

I realise I haven’t addressed the area of realistic love dolls. I’d rather not go there. Surely someone else can. You seem very much in touch with the Wired world, who’s that Joi Ito bloke I come across from time to time? Why not get him to look into it? Ho, ho. That’s three hours of my time you’re quite welcome to, but I have to get on with a piece on Pan-Asianism in the 1900s, much more my area really and I need to clear my head (and eyes).

Hope this is of some use, if you think Jonno over at Fleshbot might find any of the links handy, feel free to send them to him.

Best wishes


And now for a brisk walk to the video shop and hire some Tarkovsky to flush out the moral cavities...