So Pretty / Very Rotten

Title: So Pretty / Very Rotten: Comics and Essays on Lolita Fashion and Cute Culture
Authors: Jane Mai and An Nguyen
Publisher: Koyama Press
Publication Year: 2017
Pages: 304

This guest review is by Kyra Wiseman.

With their poofy petticoats and delicate dresses, aficionados of Lolita fashion stand out as an elegant oasis among a sea of jeans and t-shirts. It is hard to imagine how such a feminine style of dress could have a dark underbelly, but Jane Mai and An Nguyen explore this in their collection of essays and comics, So Pretty / Very Rotten.

Lolita fashion is a Japanese street fashion based off of Victorian children’s clothing. It emphasizes modesty, femininity and elegance. A basic Lolita outfit (co-ordinate, or co-ord for short) consists of a blouse with puffed sleeves and a round Peter Pan collar, a knee-length dress or skirt, over-the-knee socks, Mary-Jane shoes, a headbow, and most importantly, a bell-shaped petticoat. It is an unashamedly feminine style in a time where femininity is undermined and women feel a pressure to dress and present in a more masculine style in order to be taken seriously. I personally have been a part of this subculture since 2010, and my love for it only grows with each passing year.

While it contains several essays that go into the historical and feminine aspects of Lolita, So Pretty / Very Rotten brings to light a more macabre side of the fashion. Mai and Nguyen discuss how there is an innate sense of materialism within the community. The urge to buy, buy, buy and collect pieces to perfect one’s Lolita wardrobe is prevalent. Often one feels as if they don’t belong unless they have a wardrobe of a certain size or pieces by specific brands. One of Jane Mai’s comics depicts a character literally exchanging body parts in order to gain a deeper understanding of Lolita and what it means to be a part of the fashion.

A less macabre theme, though no less troublesome, is that of escapism. Many view Lolita and the window to another time, as it creates a gateway to a world where life is simpler and where teatime and lovely dresses help take away the pain and stresses of real life. The authors express the idea that sometimes Lolitas can get so wrapped up in this world of beauty and luxury that they forget to take care of other aspects of their lives. They do note, however, that there is also a sense of freedom in making the choice to dress in a way that is so outlandish. When you’re surrounded by a supportive community that encourages self-expression through fashion, it feels as though you have the power and opportunity to be yourself, no matter how strange your interests are. As one character says, “Isn’t there a kind of power in announcing so plainly the things that you like?”

So Pretty / Very Rotten is fantastic for readers who are interested in alternative Japanese fashion, whether they are beginners or seasoned pros. I personally enjoyed the illustrations and the love and attention that Mai and Nguyen have brought to recreating Lolita outfits in a way that is representative of their own tastes while portraying the versatility of the fashion. I hadn’t expected the book to touch on ideas relating to Lolita as escapism or to explore the darker side of using clothes to express oneself. I felt as though this unique perspective helped me look at the fashion I love in a new light, and perhaps it has also helped me recognize my own habits in the way I approach the fashion. This collection of short essays and comics will be a welcome addition to the library of those who are Lolitas or those who love them and would appreciate a better understanding of this weird yet wonderful frilly world.

* * * * *

Kyra Wiseman is a Washington D.C. native with a passion for alternative fashion. She has been a part of the DC/MD/VA metropolitan area Lolita community for six years.

Emily

Emily

Title: Emily
Japanese Title: エミリー (Emirii)
Author: Takemoto Novala (嶽本 野ばら)
Translator: Misa Dikengil Lindberg
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2002 (Japan)
Publisher: Shueisha English Edition

There are two short stories and one novella included in Takemoto Novala’s collection Emily, which was nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize (for popular established writers) in 2003. “Readymade,” which is only a few pages long, is written in the form of a confession of a young female office worker to an older male colleague who takes her on a date to an exhibition of French Cubist art at the Ueno Royal Museum. “Corset” is told from the perspective of a male illustrator in Kyoto who plans to indulge in a short romantic relationship with an engaged woman before committing suicide in honor of a deceased friend. The novella Emily is about two high school misfits devoted to street fashion.

The two short stories are wonderfully atmospheric and can be read as treatises on Lolita aesthetics. Both stories follow the pattern of an older and self-assured man aggressively offering instruction to a naïve younger woman characterized as a tabula rasa, and they’re less about suspense and development than they are about establishing a colorful and stylized worldview.

To give an example from “Corset”:

“Wouldn’t it have been great if you and I had been born in the nineteenth century?”

“Yes. Sometimes I really think so. But I also think that if you and I had been born in the nineteenth century, maybe we’d still be complaining, saying, ‘Wouldn’t it have been great if we’d been born in the eighteenth century?’ Perhaps it’s not this era that we dislike, but the state of being in the present that doesn’t agree with us.”

“You mean no matter what era we were born in, we’d always long for the past and have nothing but despair for the present? Maybe you’re right. So there’s no way out except death.”

“Regardless of how the times change, as long as you are alive, you’ll be full of nothing but discord with the world around you.”

Such sentiments provide a fitting prelude to the novella Emily, in which the narrator truly is out of sync with the world in which she lives. This is not her personal failing, but rather a failing on the part of a society that refuses to accommodate diversity and always seeks a scapegoat. Emily‘s narrator, who enjoys visiting the Laforet shopping center in Harajuku and dressing in cute street fashions, has become a target for the other girls in her high school, who subject her to bizarrely cruel forms of bullying:

They sometimes made me stand in the middle of the court with my hands bound, as they spiked balls at me. I had to take the hits directly to my body as the seniors spiked and then ordered others to spike. There was no way I could run. If the balls had been coming from one direction, I could have escaped, but they came from all directions. Every ball hit me. It was a game to them. If a ball hit my body, they scored one point. If it hit my face, they scored five points. And if it knocked me over, they scored ten points.

The narrator isn’t subject to abuse just from her classmates and volleyball club teammates, but also from her mother, who is disappointed that she was unable to become a child television star, a path the narrator refused to follow after she suffered abuse of another kind. Instead of becoming bitter or resentful, however, the young woman finds joy in the self-expression she realizes through clothing that flies in the face of conformity and social expectations. In fact, it seems only natural to the reader that she would use street fashion to carve out a comfortable refuge for herself away from her school and family.

Through a shared interest in the Emily Temple Cute brand, the narrator becomes friends with a boy who also hangs out around Laforet. It turns out that he’s a student at her high school, and he’s also being bullied because he came out as gay to another male student. After one particularly frightening incidence of bullying that threatens the life of the narrator, her friend flies into a rage and attacks her tormentors before fleeing the school grounds. The narrator tracks him down in Shibuya, and they have a long heart-to-heart conversation that is both touching and extremely painful.

Although Emily addresses real social issues, like the two other stories in the collection, its themes are exaggerated, and the style in which it is written is clearly stylized. Readers searching for absolute mimetic realism probably won’t be impressed, but fans of young adult fiction – including young adults – will be moved and swept away by the entire collection.

Included at the end of Emily is a lengthy and illuminating interview with the author, Takemoto Novala.

Although the translation is only available as an e-book, its short length (probably fewer than 150 pages) would make it a perfect classroom text should it ever become available in a paperback edition.

So, you’re intrigued by Emily. You should be! The publisher, Shueisha English Edition, has put up a lovely website to help promote the book. But you’ve searched on Amazon, on Barnes and Noble, on Kobo, and on iBooks, and it’s nowhere to be found. What gives?

It turns out that Shueisha English Edition titles were only available through the Sony Reader digital storefront, which was shut down earlier this year (2014). When the Sony Reader store closed, an announcement was posted stating that all Sony Reader titles would be transferred to Kobo. An April 2 post on the Shueisha English Edition Facebook page reads as follows:

We’re very sorry but our move to Kobo won’t happen very soon. We’re still talking with our possible representative in the States.

On June 29, the following update appeared:

Ours is an editorial team only working for Shueisha English Edition, and has no connection to Shueisha’s other operations. We’ll restart our publication soon when we reach an agreement to our next retailer. Please don’t send any inquiries about Shueisha’s other publications and rights/licensing business. We simply cannot answer to any such questions and requests. Thank you for your patience and we’re working hard on our future titles. Please wait for some more for our official announcements and new titles.

Since then, nothing.

It seems as though the publisher has disappeared, which is a shame, since it was off to a fantastic start, regularly putting out lovely digital books with excellent bonus materials and carefully crafted promotional websites (such as those for Shimizu Yoshinori’s Labyrinth and Makime Manabu’s The Great Shu Ra Ra Boom). In an interview on the SCBWI Japan Translation Group’s webpage, the Shueisha English Edition editor in chief, Yoshio Kobayashi, outlines the care and attention put into the translation, editing, and presentation of each of the publisher’s titles. Although I don’t have access to any of these other titles, Emily is a cool little book, and I imagine that it would have been able to find a sizeable audience through the appropriate distribution channels.

Although I understand that the collapse of the Sony Reader Store must have been a major blow, I can’t even begin to imagine what’s going on with Shueisha English Edition, especially since the publisher is working with such fantastic and high-profile authors and translators. I can only hope that good news is forthcoming from them soon.

Review copy provided by Shueisha English Edition.

Kamikaze Girls

kamikaze-girls

Title: Kamikaze Girls
Japanese Title: 下妻物語
Author: Takemoto Novala (嶽本野ばら)
Translator: Akemi Wegmüller
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2002 (Japan)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 219

In his afterward to Kamikaze Girls, Takemoto Novala writes that “Lolita is a fusion of the spirit of punk rock with formal beauty that honors tradition. Lolitas value independence and beauty above all else. In Kamikaze Girls, the two girls are drawn to each other’s independent natures and eventually come to respect one another.” Such a lofty statement is belied by the colorful and overwhelmingly pink cover of the novel, as well as the fact that the “two girls” in question (the protagonists of the novel) are a stereotypically representative Sweet Lolita and a stereotypically representative Yanki, or juvenile motorcycle (or, as the case may be, scooter) gang member.

The novel is narrated by Momoko, who describes herself in this way: “A red felt mini-hat accented with rose-shaped burnout lace is perched on my hair, which is styled in a princess cut with long ringlets, and I have on frilly white over-the-knee socks. So aside from my shoes, which are Vivienne Westwood’s Rocking Horse Ballerinas and Lolita must-haves (they go with any Lolita outfit), I am clad head-to-toe in my darling Baby, the Stars Shine Bright.”

In other words, Momoko is a Lolita among Lolitas, and she peppers her story with all sorts of references to and explanations of Lolita culture. In fact, Momoko begins her engagingly chatty narrative with a pseudo-historical lecture on the Rococo era in France, which supposedly inspired Lolita fashion and its ideals. Despite the silliness of the premise, Momoko’s narrative style is one of the major attractions of the novel. An unreliable narrator par excellence, Momoko relates the often sordid and depressing details of her personal and family history in witty, toungue-in-cheek monologues that reflect teenage power fantasies (at least as I remember my own) to an amazing degree.

In any case, the aggressively anti-social Momoko manages to attract the attention of Ichigo, a similarly dysfunctional seventeen year old. Unlike Momoko, Ichigo was born to a fairly bourgeois family; but, upon encountering ijime (group bullying) in middle school, she fell into despair and was rescued by a female Yanki gang. Although Ichigo respects and admires the leader of this gang for both her toughness and her nurturing personality, she is drawn to Momoko despite the Lolita’s almost constant derision. When the Yanki leader announces her intention to “graduate” from the gang (she intends to get married), Ichigo wants to present her with a kamikaze coat embroidered by the legendary Yanki figure Emma, who can supposedly be found in the fashionable Daikanyama district of Tokyo. Emma doesn’t exist, unfortunately, but Momoko is quite skilled at embroidery herself, and the pair’s adventures in Tokyo have some unexpected outcomes for both of them.

Even though Nakashima Tetsuya’s 2004 film version of Kamikaze Girls was so ridiculous and oversaturated that it made my eyes bleed a little, I found that I honestly enjoyed Takemoto’s original novel. As I mentioned earlier, the informal, chatty, and at times almost essay-like narrative style is quite enjoyable, the dialog is quick and jazzy and well-translated, and the characterization is surprisingly deep and complex for a book with such a pink cover. I’m not quite sure what Takemoto’s novel says about gender performity, post-modern identity construction, or the historical moment in which it was written, but hey, it’s a really fun book with two awesome protagonists.

Gothic & Lolita Bible

gothic-lolita-bible

Title: Gothic & Lolita Bible
Editors: Jenna Winterburg and Michelle Nguyen
Publisher: Tokyopop
Publication Schedule: Quarterly
Pages: 128

This month has seen the publication of the fifth issue of the English edition of the famed Japanese “mook” (magazine-book) Gothic & Lolita Bible (ゴシック&ロリータバイブル). Since the theme of the Spring 2009 issue is “A Dreamy Gothic & Lolita Wedding,” and since I find the obsession with weddings somewhat troubling (blame my inner feminist), I will base this review on the Winter 2009 (fourth) issue of the Bible. The focus of this issue seems to be “badassery and cupcakes,” which provides more comfortable thematic material for me to work with.

So, what is the Gothic & Lolita Bible all about, anyway? Well, obviously, it’s about Gothic and Lolita fashion, but there is also information about visual kei singers and bands, as well as copious amounts of information concerning the Gothic Lolita lifestyle so vividly portrayed in contemporary Japanese fiction like Novala Takemoto’s novel Kamikaze Girls (下妻物語, published in translation by Viz Media). The English version of the Bible provided both translated material from the original Japanese mooks and incorporates new material of interest to Western (especially American) readers.

Because the English edition of the Bible just came into existence (the first issue was released in early 2008), the content tends to change from issue to issue, as features and formats still seem to be in a developmental stage. Each issue, however, will contain numerous fantasy-inspired photo shoots of both Japanese models and Western readers, a Fruits magazine-esque montage of Harajuku street fashion photos, and, of course, a detailed section featuring the season’s offerings from major Japanese Gothic Lolita fashion brands like Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, Angelic Pretty, Innocent World, h.NAOTO, Black Peace Now, and Atelier Boz. Also, like the Japanese version, each issue contains patterns and instructions for do-it-yourself pieces (mainly accessories). Other articles may feature interviews with American Gothic Lolita designers, information on American and Japanese artists specializing in Gothic Lolita art, and reviews of fancy cupcakes that would presumably complement a Gothic Lolita tea party.

Personally, my favorite features are the “Letters from Our Readers” section, which includes, for example, poetry and reader-submitted art of surprisingly high quality, and the occasional fiction and essays that make it into the magazine, such as Arika Takarano’s manifesto titled “Oh Maiden, Advance with a Sword and a Rose,” which encourages young ladies to follow their hearts and their dreams regardless of the social pressures they might face. Along these lines, the reader letters published by the mook tend to deal with issues of participating in the Gothic Lolita culture even though you’re too old, too fat (by Japanese sizing standards), or live in the middle of nowhere. If nothing else, the Gothic & Lolita Bible gives its readers a sense of community, regardless of whether they own a stitch of the clothing or not.

Does this sound corny? You bet it’s corny. The whole mook is corny, actually. If you’ve already made up your mind that Gothic and Lolita culture is the most silly, superficial thing you’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter, the Gothic & Lolita Bible will not convince you otherwise. If you’re even the slightest bit curious about Gothic Lolita, however, I would recommend picking up a copy of this mook. It’s a gorgeous publication and well worth the $20 price tag.