February 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

The Tokyo Look Book: Stylish To Spectacular, Goth To Gyaru, Sidewalk To Catwalk by Philomena Keet and Yuri Manabe

The world of Tokyo fashion is strange and surprising. Most non-Japanese fashion junkies were introduced to the colorful, outrageous youth street looks of Tokyo’s Harajuku district by photographer/magazine editor Shoichi Aoki, whose Fruits and Freshfruits feature clear images of “gothic lolitas,” Commes des Garcons-clad punks, and eighteen-year-old “schoolgirls” accessorized with parasols and piles of pink stuffed animals. How do these different styles, images and subcultures relate to Tokyo’s history and class structure? How does the playful eroticism of these fashions connect to the increasing prevalence of Japanese schoolgirl porn and manga-inspired porn? What are the deeper issues connecting and shaping contemporary Japanese fashion, politics, lifestyles, sexuality and identity? What’s up with those creepy tween idoru, or “j-pop,” idols?  

I hoped that The Tokyo Look Book: Stylish to Spectacular, Goth to Gyaru, Sidewalk to Catwalk would get under the skin of extreme Tokyo fashion. The author, Philomina Keet, is a British anthropologist who did her doctoral thesis on Tokyo street fashion. In the introduction, she claims that “while a few other books documenting the more extreme minority fashions in Tokyo have been published, they present only a slice of the richly decorated cake of Tokyo fashion and only a few of the ingredients.” In this book, Keet and photographer Yuri Manabe “are serving you a far larger portion of the cake, choosing individuals from all walks of life” and many neighborhoods beyond Harajuku.

“I would like to take the reader beyond the outer layers of clothing and into the lives and minds of the wearers,” writes Keet, “[To make this book] Yuri snapped away while I did my anthropologist bit and probed into the identity of the wearer.”

The Tokyo Look Book helps sort out some Japanese fashion subculture terminology, and it’s a good topography of the current Tokyo fashion scene. Beyond that, it will make a cool, edgy-looking doorstop for your loft or boutique. The interviews are so doting and vapid that they make the material in British Vogue look challenging and intense. In the feature on Reiko Nakane, for example, we learn that the designer is “both beautiful and immaculately turned out,” that the look she promotes is “more sophisticated and sexy” than in the past, and that she is “certainly a woman of many faces. Like her brand, she is very feminine, but she also has a tough side, the brisk commands to her staff that punctuate the interview revealing glimpses of the business prowess and leadership skills beneath her amiable façade.” She started out as a “charisma shopgirl,” a salesgirl-cum-celebrity. Her style icon is Kate Moss. She’s interested in branching out into cosmetics and clothing for pets and children. She has an “endearing laugh,” and as Keet leaves, she realizes that “I have just experienced Nakane’s charisma-girl magic firsthand.”

Meanwhile, how old is Reiko Nakane? What kind of family does she come from? How does she view herself, her life and her contribution to the world? How does she view the apparent paradox of being highly feminine and running a large business? What are her political, religious or moral beliefs? Has she ever had cosmetic surgery? What does she think the contemporary Tokyo fashion world reveals about Japanese society? What kind of social life does she have? What sorts of people does she value most? Why does she do what she does? Her brand is about “wearing what you want, when you want, irrespective of age,” she says. Why is that important to her? What’s her view about the idealization of youth in Japanese pop culture?

There’s a small blurb about each person pictured in The Tokyo Look Book, but Keet needs to retool her “anthropologist bit.” We usually learn how much the person’s outfit costs, the name of the subculture they fit into, where they work, where they shop and, sometimes, which magazines they read for fashion inspiration. There’s no “probing into” their identities, their lives, loves or beliefs. This anthropologist has written a glossy, thinly-realized little fashion guide. Photographer Yuri Manabe’s artsy shots are fun to flip through, but not as clean, sharp or memorable as Aoki’s pictures. In fact, Keet’s interview with Aoki is one of the few mildly revealing sections of the book. “I get the feeling that people look for rebellion, violence, sexiness -- the deeper meanings that often lie behind fashion in the West,” says Aoki, “But the youngsters in these magazines are simply having fun with clothes.” I’m skeptical. But even in the unlikely case that this is true, the question of how teens experimenting with fashion could divorce that practice from their attitudes about sexuality, beauty images, gender, consumerism, war, class, culture and identity is fascinating in and of itself. Philomena Keet does not raise this question, and the Tokyo Look Book, too, is merely decorative.

The Tokyo Look Book: Stylish To Spectacular, Goth To Gyaru, Sidewalk To Catwalk by Philomena Keet and Yuri Manabe
Kodansha International
ISBN: 4770030614
224 Pages