Flash back to 1996. Japan gives the world fruity street fashion, pizzicato pop, bukkake porn, slimline cellphones and the 'pantie photography' movement. It's not really called that, but, for a while, it might as well be. Suddenly girls are taking snaps of themselves, their friends, and their panties. The Pantie Princess is Hiromix (real name: Hiromi Toshikawa), the original onnano ko no shashin girl. The 17 year-old is discovered by Nobuyoshi Araki, the dirty sweet grandpa of contemporary Japanese photography, whose date-stamped and diaristic compact camera snaps set the tone: offhand, casual, sexy, personal, trivial, sentimental. Flowers, cats, girls in panties, blossom, the moon.
When girls strip of their own accord, of course, it's a guilt-free glamour hit. The press want the panties as much as the girls want the fame. Even better if it looks 'punky' and defiant. Everybody's happy. Studio Voice magazine devotes thirty pages to Hiromix in March 1996, and in 1998 pantiemania hits the US when Esquire magazine names Hiromix 'Person of the Year'. By this time, by government decree, everyone young, Japanese and female is a photographer.
Yes, you can get too much of a good thing. Even panties can be a straightjacket. And, like an elastic waistband snapping a backside, the backlash begins.
Yurie Nagashima, who bursts through with naked pictures of her family, escapes the pantie-hungry Japanese media by running away to California in 1997, commenting 'I'm not really interested in the obsession Japanese male photographers have with taking pictures of teenage girls and their panties. It seems to me they don't know what's really exciting. Some of my self-portraits look similar, but they're completely different. Theirs are about sexual appetite, while mine are about delusions.' She and Satomi Shirai start releasing sexy photos of boys in panties instead.
Mika Ninagawa takes the Araki route on her long march away from panties, meandering down a super-saturated floral path of strawberries, polka dots, dwarves, fish, clouds and mushrooms.
Some stick to the pantie line, but come up with new ideology to explain it. Maki Miyashita makes a splash with 'Rooms and Underwear', a collection showing seventy Tokyo girls at home in their messy rooms wearing bras and panties. But only because 'that's what women wear when they're relaxing at home'. Her next book documents the death of her grandmother.
As if to refute the simplistic dialectic, so pleasing to the western press, of the 'submissive traditional girl' stereotype replaced by the 'punky modern girl' stereotype, Rinko Kawauchi concentrates on mysterious, elliptical poetry, the delicate beauty of the everyday. Kawauchi continues to get less coverage than the others in the western press, perhaps for this reason. Miwa Yanagi, who expresses frustration with rigid female roles in her first book 'Elevator Girls', produces 'My Grandmothers', a series that Photoshops into startling reality her young friends' ideas of what they may look like in 50 years time. Panties are given the slip entirely, replaced by kimonos.
Flash forward. A new generation of photographers is doing the sexy youth thing. The famous pantie girls are famous women photographers. Hiromix has a bit part -- as Hiromix -- in 'Lost In Translation', which opens with a classic (though by now somewhat retro) onnano ko no shashin pantie shot of Scarlett Johansson. Mika Ninagawa gives me (well, my song Journey To The Centre Of Me) a bit part in her first feature film, Cheap Trip. Rinko Kawauchi goes with Yoshitomo Nara to Afghanistan to shoot her latest book. It's called 'Against war: NO WAR'. Yurie Nagashima echoes the theme: 'Say no to war! That would be a good gift for my baby shower.'
Its seems war is the new pants. Down with it!
(This article was originally written for -- but does not appear in -- the Vice magazine Heroes issue).