It is a commonly held notion that Japan is home to an overwhelmingly monocultural society, with strong fundamental pillars that resist variation from the norm and shift very slowly. While there is considerable justification for such ideas, Japan’s myriad and highly fluid fashion-based subcultures and their associated practices represent nothing short of an outright juxtaposition. In the following seven movies, we witness several of the nation’s most popular fashion trends throughout history: from Lolita and Yankees, to high-end fashion life and “mountain wear” for girls taking it up Japan’s hills. The movies also guide us through the stories of unlikely friendships and relationships, and, of course, high school romance (in uniform, naturally). Enjoy!
1. Kamikaze Girls/下妻物語
As is largely true in any society, fashion reflects (sub)culture and vice versa, and those who choose to dress in Victorian-era dolls’ clothing won’t often find commonality with those in loose-fitting casual wear, leather jackets, bleached hair, and dark eyeliner. Nevertheless, solitary Lolita-clad Momoko and Yankee biker Ichigo manage to forge an unlikely bond across wildly divergent fashion styles and a highly regimented subculture. It goes without saying that morality tales about judging books by their covers are more than well worn, but this story of two individuals committed to distinctly uniquely Japanese fashion subcultures provides something of a fresh perspective.
The fashion trends we witness in this movie, Lolita and “Yankee,” are two completely opposite styles. The former is feminine, sweet, and follows strict fashion rules — nothing imperfect matches, while the latter is all about being imperfect — over-sized, masculine, and loosely worn.
The Lolita fashion, inspired by Rococo style, became popular in Japan in the 1990s and 2000s. It is characterized by flurry dresses, pastel colors, and print motifs that look as if they come straight from Marie Antoinette’s wardrobe. Throughout the movie, viewers learn much about the history and style of Lolita from Momoko — an avid admirer of the style, and a movie Lolita icon.
Ichigo, on the other hand wears “Yankee” clothes, a trademark style for Japanese street gangs and “bad girls and boys” that spread widely in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Yankee fashion is all about rebellion and power: it is striking and exaggerated. Yankees wear long skirts or non-matching school uniforms for girls, oversized trousers called “bontan” and “dokan,” and the trademark “tokkofuku,” a type of long jacket typically embroidered with the gang’s name or something else. A youth subculture based on rebellion and embracing of class distinctions, the yankee fashion is the opposite of Lolita, which is at large based on the assumption that women must look feminine. The way the two characters and fashion trends overlap in the movie is, in a word, spectacular.
Main Cast: Kyoko Fukada, Anna Tsuchiya Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Like Kamikaze Girls, we once again see two young women finding support and friendship across fashion and subculture. Nana (Aoi Miyazaki), an average girl following her boyfriend to the big city, and leather-jacket-wearing Nana (Mika Nakashima), an ambitious punk-rock vocalist, meet in a train en route to Tokyo. While looking for a place to live, the pair randomly meet again and eventually become roommates and, across lifestyles, fast friends. Based on the best-selling manga of the same title, Nana shows how happenstance and an open mind can forge unexpected friendships that might even have the power to mend broken hearts.
Throughout the movie we witness several fashion trends that have left a deep impression on Japanese fashion. Nana, the rock star, wears rock fashion, typical for Japanese musicians influenced by western grunge styles: black leather clothes and dark makeup, reminiscent of the “Visual kei” trend that became popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Visual-kei style is a fashion trend that goes hand-in-hand with music and relies heavily on conspicuous visuals (thereby the name) and one’s band’s theme, where common features include bold makeup and hairstyles and vivid colors, traces of which we see in Nana’s band. The second Nana, on the other hand, changes into several different styles throughout the movie — be it an “office lady fashion”, the common simple-and-clean style among Japanese company employees, to a lighter version of “maid fashion” popular in the Akihabara “otaku” district, to the stylish and feminine street fashion popular in Japan from the 2000s onward — palet colors, large ribbons on shirts, skirts, accompanied by perfect hair curls and mild makeup. All trends are still common in Japan — drop by at a maid cafe in Akihabara, visit a company office, or just walk the street of stylish Aoyama and Omotesando — you’ll find them all.
Main Cast: Aoi Miyazaki, Mika Nakashima Director: Kentaro Otani
3. Helter Skelter/ヘルタースケルター
Based on a best-selling manga, Helter Skelter (2012) is the tragic tale of a seemingly perfect supermodel Liliko. Though outwardly the picture of poise and female beauty, we see the medical secrets behind Liliko’s success and follow her journey through a progressively disturbing physical, psychological, and social meltdown. The movie shows the dark side of fashion, behind the glitz and the frenzy.
Based at the core of Japan’s high-end fashion scene, the movie displays a number of popular Japanese brands, as well as the latest western-inspired clothing trends and makeup. Starting from director Mika Ninagawa, a renowned photographer known for her use of vibrant colors, the movie collaborates with creative fashion icons and designers, including Keita Maruyama, who designed the famous red dress Lilico wears on the jacket photo of the movie (the photo was taken by Ninagawa herself). All fashion magazines and brand logos appearing in the movie are real, making it the trendiest and most interactive fashion film so far — despite the gloomy plot.
Main Cast: Erika Sawajiri, Kiko Mizuhara, Kaori Momoi Director: Mika Ninagawa
4. Drowning Love/溺れるナイフ
In Drowning Love (2016) we find a classic tale of teenage romance, one also based on a popular manga of the same (Japanese) name. Teenage romance in Japan often means his and her high-school uniforms, worn properly here by teen model Natsume (Nana Komatsu), not so properly by the free-spirited Koichiro (Masaki Suda). “Koh” rarely fully buttons up or tucks in the ubiquitous white schoolboy’s shirt, and Natsume is generally the picture of a properly dressed teenage girl — a tidy metaphor for what ensues between the two.
Japanese school uniforms, used at most schools in the country, are perhaps the longest surviving fashion trend in the history of Japan. A uniform is “the face” of a school and is associated with a many strict regulations — from skirt length to the color of one’s socks and even the shoes one wears. It is also a key attribute to a society that heavily relies on coherency, similarity and equality (uniforms in Japan don’t end with graduation). Though there are a number of school uniform types, the most popular — including the one used in Drowning Love — is the “sailor fuku,” consisting of a blouse attached with a sailor-style collar and a pleated skirt of a navy, black or grey color. First introduced in Japan in 1920 at a girls school in Fukuoka prefecture, the uniform has survived nearly a century with minimal amendments, reaching as far as to influence modern popular culture in the form of “cosplay.” The movie shows not only the type of school uniform usually worn at junior and high schools in Japan, but also attitudes toward wearing it — the rebels wear it loosely and the diligent students wear it neat. And this is something that hasn’t changed to date.
Main Cast: Nana Komatsu, Masaki Suda Director: Ū-ki Yamato
5. WOOD JOB!/ウッジョブ
A light-hearted comedy, Wood Job is the story of a city boy who finds meaning and purpose in the seemingly menial work of rural forestry. When Yuki fails his university exams and loses his girlfriend, he decides to leave the big city and put on a forestry workers uniform — a decision embarrassingly influenced by the training brochure cover shot of an attractive, outdoorsy “yama-girl.” His whimsical decision results in no shortage of hardship, but Yuki gradually comes to appreciate the work and the community, and eventually he even meets an unexpected version of the yama-girl he so coveted.
Yama girl, literally translating into “mountain girl” refers to a popular fashion trend that was developed to meet the needs of girls who love the outdoors, and especially mountains, but aren’t keen on trading fashion for visibly unappealing comfort. The term was largely popularized in 2009 in fashion magazines and the media, reflecting on the trend, which rooted socially so well in the following years that in 2012 Japan even saw its first “Yama Girl Summit” in Kumamoto prefecture. The yama girl clothes is nothing beyond the typical outdoor fashion seen around the globe, but it expanded to give birth to a number of yama-specialized online fashion websites, magazines and models in Japan. The point is, whether up the mountains or down the street, fashion for Japanese women is always important.
Main Cast: Shota Sometani, Masami Nagasawa Director: Shinobu Yaguchi
6. Wonderful World End/ワンダフルワールドエンド
With a considerably more fashion-driven narrative, Wonderful World End (2015) revolves around Shiori, a 17-year-old gothic Lolita who runs a known interactive video blog. When Ayumi, an adoring 13-year-old fan, comes into Shiori’s life, things go from peculiar to pretty good, but eventually land on creepy. Initially, Ayumi’s awe of her well-defined fashion and presence makes Shiori a bit uncomfortable, but it also provides the devotee of a commonly known but rarely lived subculture with something of a welcome ego boost. The relationship between the two teens does not proceed down a wholly positive path, and young Ayumi’s intentions eventually go beyond fashionable adoration into uncomfortable personal territory.
We get to learn much about fashion from the movie though, specifically the Gothic Lolita style, a spinoff from the sweet and classic Lolita we saw in Kamikaze Girls. Unlike the cute Lolitas, the Gothic trend relies heavily on dark clothes, pale skin makeup, and color contact lenses, giving a bit of a vampy vibe. Though in recent years there are fewer Gothic Lolitas in Japan, you can still find them around Harajuku and Ikebukuro, two of Tokyo’s iconic fashion neighborhoods.
Main Cast: Ai Hashimoto, Jun Aonami Director: Daigo Matsui
7. Paradise Kiss/パラダイス・キス
Yet another manga adaptation, and although a work of fiction, the film delves into Japan’s real-world fashion industry. Paradise Kiss, set in Tokyo in 2010, follows protagonist Yukari’s (Keiko Kitagawa) happenstance introduction into a group of dedicated young fashion designers. Normal high school life is more than a bit of a drag for Yukari, but she finds great inspiration in the design group’s creativity and enthusiasm, and eventually she is delighted to be asked to model their new line: “Paradise Kiss.” Uniquely, this film was made with the cooperation with popular brand L’est Rose and other real-world fashion brands. We also get to see another common school uniform style, largely representing the modern days high school look. Paradise Kiss is a yet another entertaining fashion show that guides us to the behind the scenes of Japan’s fashion industry, including its highs and lows.
Main Cast: Keiko Kitagawa, Osamu Mukai Director: Takehiko Shinjo
Japanese fashion trends move quickly, vary widely, and can rapidly influence and be influenced by domestic and international culture. Take some time with the movies and witness the trends and subcultures that are often reduced to oversimplifications. Like Yukari in Paradise Kiss, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the variety and vitality of Japan’s fashion world(s)!