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November 18th, 2009
Wed, Nov. 18th, 2009 12:00 am

How does the hierarchy of deceptions go? Lies, damned lies, statistics, things we tell those we badly want to fuck, outright barefaced deceptions, the babbling of blithering lunatics, and, finally -- the most rabidly delusional of all -- assertions about individuality and free will in Western documentaries about Japanese youth culture. Just watch the first thirty seconds of this 2000-broadcast BBC documentary on Japanese fashion, for instance:



"Japanese schoolgirls," begins the script (read by Japanese voice actor Naoko Mori, but written by director Marcus Boyle) "-- studious, reserved, obedient. Across the country these sailor uniforms can be seen in thousands of classrooms. It's the ultimate symbol of Japanese conformity and self-control. But one group of girls have decided to rebel. Prim and proper is a thing of the past. The kogyaru or "black-faced girls"..."

This tried and tired journalistic formula structures itself around trusty, fusty orthodoxies about women and Japan and free will, a few flimsy binaries (then / now, conformist / rebellious, group / individual), and the projection of Western values onto Eastern people. Apparently impervious to the inherent irony of the situation, a Western male puts words into the mouth of an Asian female (the voice-over actress) about her own nation, and about female "empowerment". A small group of schoolgirls have, in this reading, "decided" to bust out of a set of strait-laced clichés better suited, in fact, to Britain's Victorian past than Japan's present. We look at them, now and see... us, then.



Here's a maxim we can try on for size: Every Western documentary that purports to be about Japanese style is in fact a documentary about the Western concept of free will. No matter how much information the visuals in these documentaries give us about the actual business of designing, making, selling and wearing clothes (and they actually give us surprisingly little), this is the theme the script typically returns to with almost obsessive insistence. That was then, this is now. Women were this, now they're that. We live like this, they live like that. School forces one behavior, the free market permits another.

In addition to market cheerleading, there is, of course, a huge amount of hidden racism here, because the "that" supposedly always just on the brink of being displaced by a new "this" contains vastly more of the cultural DNA of the society being examined than the newly-arrived, dubiously-construed "this" does. To dismiss it is therefore to dismiss the bulk of the culture. Just beneath the feelgood messages of consumerism-as-empowerment-through-individualism and the banal sub-Spice-Girls pseudo-feminism lies a deep -- if unintentional -- ethnocentricity.



Made In J-Pop is a french documentary directed by Laurent Bouit in 2007 and adapted for the Discovery Channel. It's much better than the BBC doc, with a lot more direct interviews with the Japanese protagonists. Again we have an Asian female reading a script written by a Westerner, though, producing a confusion: are we being guided around Japan by a Japanese person with specifically Japanese explanations for the things we see, or being given a series of Western projections voiced in a deceptively Japanese-sounding way? What's the difference between a journalist and an actress?

Here too we start in a "conformist" classroom where "everyone has to wear the uniform", as opposed to the low-cut jeans (for the girls) and baggy pants (for the boys) they want to wear. Ah, free will! Its absence sees you dressing like a 19th century British sailor, its presence a 20th century American cowboy! What a wonderful thing free will is, when applied to fashion! What a difference it makes! How clear it all is!

But wait -- now a Japanese person is allowed to talk directly to camera, and she's telling us with obvious pride and affection about her school uniform, pointing out the places where the school emblem is sewn! Could it be that conformity, in some circumstances, is a positive joy? And that individualism -- the state of not-belonging -- is a bit sad, something for outcasts and losers?

These documentaries have a bit of a problem in their treatment of the paradox of a so-called "individualism" which is actually expressed in "tribes". What the script-writers very much want to treat as evidence of individual will -- of "breaking out" of various social straitjackets -- is, itself, shown to be happening on a group level, the level of conformity, too. What to do about that, when your whole film is structured around the idea of rejecting groupthink?



What Western Japdocs never do explicitly in the script is talk about the rebel splinter groups depicted (kogyaru, Gothic Lolitas, Visual-kei fans) as conformists, even when the visuals show them all dressed exactly the same as each other, performing group choreography (scroll forward to 4mins 30 in the clip above). Even when conformity is being presented as an obvious joy and pleasure -- as an ecstatic choreography, in fact -- the script cannot admit this. It must present joy and pleasure as "rebellion". In groups.



These documentaries have a friend (the international market system) and an enemy (the government, society, and the education system of Japan). They are thus predisposed to treat the conformity imposed by society, the government and the educational authorities with much less charity than the conformity imposed by the market, to the extent that one is labeled "conformity" and the other -- no matter how intensively marketed, how closely aligned with actual global power flows, how remorselessly bludgeoned into the youth with means your school could only dream of -- is labeled as "rebellion". It's unfair, but that's how it is in style documentaries about Japan.

Again and again, during these documentaries, I want to shout at the screen: "Ask the Japanese!" You'd think it would be a really obvious thing to do in a street style documentary; ask the people on the street why they're wearing what they're wearing. Instead, we get scenes like the ones that follow in the Discovery doc. We see an American photographer telling some Cosplay girls on the Harajuku Bridge that the uniforms (literally!) they're wearing come "from the imagination" (and I thought they came from the shops, like school uniform does!). We get the same man explaining to the camera that because they wear school uniform "which makes everyone look the same" for five or six days a week, the tribes in question have, "on Sunday and sometimes Saturday, the chance to be completely individual... individualistic". Again, zero examination of how conforming to the codes of the school and conforming to the codes of a Cosplay tribe on Harajuku Bridge might be an expression of the exact same thing, a thing that "individual... individualistic" just doesn't describe well.



Bubbling under the surface of the script, of course, is the notion that "individual" is something the West does well, it's an attribute of the "freedom" we like to think we embody, and that Japan is just poised on the brink of discovering the things we discovered long ago, of busting out of Japanese-style conformity into Western-style individuality. "They're all on a quest for a look," trills the voice-over actress, perhaps blushing at the implied treachery to her gender and her nationality, "or, better still, a personality." This is not only deeply dismissive of Asian culture, whose collective orientation is far older and wiser than ours, it's also deeply question-begging about the extent to which our own market-driven individualism is an expression of free will.

Are consumers expressing free will when they purchase things in any country, let alone Japan? It's the question that Japan-focused documentaries raise, but never answer. It's something even experienced Western market analysts based in Japan seem to have trouble with. I'd find it vastly preferable if someone like Marxy scripted these documentaries, but even the venerable Marxy founders when confronted with The Paradox of Free Will. Recently he commented on Kensuke Kojima's view that Abercrombie and Fitch -- launching in Japan in December -- will not be a sales success. Kojima says there's a big advance media buzz about A&F's opening, but cites a decline of interest amongst Japanese consumers in the American preppy look, and its high price at a time when Japanese prefer cheap clothes and have easy access to H&M.

"It's often dangerous to say, X will fail in Japan because Japanese people don't like X," Marxy tweets on Neojaponisme, adding: "Turns out, Japanese consumers tend to buy against their own personal preferences if the media buzz is strong enough."

Take "Japanese" out of that sentence and we get: "Turns out, consumers tend to buy against their own personal preferences if the media buzz is strong enough". This is surely a basic principle of all marketing and advertising: if you can create a strong enough buzz about something, you can change people's minds about it, and make them buy it when they otherwise wouldn't have done.

The market system proposed in documentaries about Japan as the ultimate locus of the expression of individual free will is, in fact, dependent on successive collective acts of submission to peer pressure (from alongside) and sales pressure (from above). That's what these documentaries -- whose stated enemy is the government and the education system -- call "freedom". Their model is a silly and a sorry one indeed.

If you're a documentary-maker heading out to Japan to make a film about street style, I have some advice. I'm not naive enough to think you're going to deconstruct the Western concept of Free Will every time you make a statement about skirt hems. But please, I beg you to consider three very simple pieces of advice that will make your documentaries less palpably silly:

1. Whenever possible, ask a Japanese person.

2. If your script is written by a Western male, have it voiced by a Western male in the film. If it's written by a Japanese female (and I'd strongly encourage that), by all means have it voiced by a Japanese female in the film.

3. Try not to portray fundamental traits of the culture you're filming as "errors" which are "now changing".


Let's improve our documentaries about Japanese street style! We can do that! Ganbarimasu!

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