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Sunday, May 13, 2012

BIG IN JAPAN

Beware not the loud girls, but the plain ones


No one who remembers the ganguro (black-face) girls of the mid to late 1990s will be shocked by Friday magazine's little article on the hadeko (loud kids) of today, but it all gives rise to a bemusing question: How did the age-old quest for beauty become transmuted into a quest for weirdness?

It's a kind of antibeauty that prevails in Shibuya-Harajuku, Tokyo's teen mecca. Hair blue, orange and/or shocking pink; spectacles stylishly unstylish, clothing multicolored, facial expressions expressive of ... something, no doubt, but it would take a rash outsider to presume to say what. Maybe simply expressive of expressiveness.

So that's loudness. The ganguro of yesteryear were more grotesque than loud. Their name suggests it — guro means black but also signifies grotesque, and no cultivator of the look would have been offended at the description. The characteristic features were a face artificially tanned to near blackness set off by bleached hair, whitened lips and false eyelashes that acknowledged no limits. It died out around 2000. There followed a period of relative restraint, but the hadeko prove the cyclical nature of fashion outbursts, and no ghost of ganguro past revisiting her old haunts need feel out of place among her successors.

"There are no specialty hadeko shops," Friday hears from a 20-something hadeko. "You just buy loud (hade) stuff and put it all together. Like these tights — I just bought two pairs, different colors, and cut them, so I can wear one on each leg."

"I dye my own hair, but I dye my wig too," explains a teenage hadeko. "It's cool in Tokyo, but where I live there are no hadeko. My family thinks I'm weird."

If they want to discourage her, that's not the word they should be using.

Weird. Who's to say what's weird and what isn't? "Dress," observed the cultural historian Jacques Barzun, "has never been rational, except in Tahiti" — where a hot climate and island seclusion made it dispensable. As for makeup, Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603), to cite just one of Barzun's examples, favored a concoction compounded of mashed apples, rose water, hog's fat and chalk. High and low, east and west, male and female, young and old, people are by nature dissatisfied with their natural appearance, and devote much of their time, money, energy and ingenuity to changing it.

Clothing and its attendant fashions set humans apart from animals and plants. At least they used to. Does the human urge to cover nakedness go overboard in embracing dogs? Again, who's to say? Naked dogs are increasingly rare in Japan, and magazine shelves abound in publications featuring dogs as fashion plates. Dogs in T-shirts, dogs in tank tops, dogs in trainers, dogs in skirts (with puffed sleeves and lace collars), dogs in hats, wigs, bonnets, accessories — they spill off the pages of such magazines as Aiken (Beloved Dog) and Chihuahua Style. Some of them are better dressed than some people in these economically pinched times.

It's refreshing, amid all this adorning and beautifying and weirdifying, to encounter a woman who turns her back on all that and flaunts her native plainness as though it were beauty by another name — which it might be, if the woman were not a convicted murderess. Her name is Kanae Kijima. Her plump unmade-up face, framed by long undressed hair, stared, or glared, at us for weeks from newspapers and tabloids, until her conviction and death sentence last month for murdering three lovers. Josei Jishin magazine, citing a letter Kijima wrote to an Asahi Shimbun journalist, offers a thumbnail sketch. The eldest of four children, she was 8 when, mentally and physically precocious, she began to sense she was different from everyone else. "From early childhood," she wrote, "I felt an uneasy evil spirit in me ... I was a holy woman, a heroine."

In a sense, she and the hadeko are saying the same thing: You can be whoever you want to be. Shukan Bunshun magazine, covering the trial, was struck by a bevy of "Kanae girls" in the audience. They were unabashed fans, admirers, disciples. How did this woman, 37 years old and not, by conventional standards, attractive either naturally or artificially, manage to draw into her web man after man — not just any men but rich men, men so enamored of her that they showered money on her? What did she have that less successful women lacked? Something, obviously. The fans came to learn, to observe, if possible to emulate — short of murder, hopefully. What they learned was that sexual uninhibitedness pays. Kijima's was total. Never mind my face, she seemed to say — take me as I am and you won't be sorry. Her victims were, of course, in the end, but the money they spent on her suggests at least short-term satisfaction.

The hadeko look as it emerges in Friday's photograph is neither sexy nor hungry. Quite the contrary. Its sexlessness is as brazen as Kijima's eros. Maybe a better word for it is innocence. Innocence in blue hair. A very striking picture indeed.



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