The Harajuku Line: Forgotten Fashion Monsters of Japanese V-Cinema

3 Imaginary Films by Patrick Macias

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Introduction… 20 years ago, Japan was overflowing with movies: some good, some bad, many now totally forgotten in the present day. It was an era in which the direct to video market, known domestically in Japan as “V-Cinema”, supplied entertainment in the form of cassettes to countless rental shops and consumer VCRs.

Many of these direct to video productions were made outside of the traditional distribution channels of movie theaters and television, so in order to be profitable, they moved fast to capitalize on new trends and often targeted niche audiences. In addition to the established Japanese movie genres such as yakuza movies, J-horror, and period films there were also original V-Cinema titles made especially for pachinko players, mahjong players, golfers, host and hostess club workers. Even long-distance truck drivers got their own original films to enjoy!

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A selection of Yakuza V-Cinema VHS tapes, circa early to mid-1990s.

Behind the scenes, it was a tough environment. Budgets were low and production schedules were punishingly tight. But V-Cinema was a fertile ground for filmmakers who sought creative freedom or career advancement outside of the old Japanese studio system. It would be hard to imagine directors such as Takashi Miike and Kiyoshi Kurosawa bursting onto the international scene as major talents without having first paid their dues in the direct to video market. But such visionaries and mavericks were, of course, the exceptions…

Many V-Cinema films, along with most of the staff that originally made them, have since faded into obscurity. Owing to complicated rights issues, or just plain lack of interest, some direct to tape productions never made the transition to digital. They exist now in Japan only as old VHS cassettes, gathering dust in a cutout bin along with other relics of dead media like laser discs and CD singles.

The good news is that there are now entire genres of V-Cinema ripe for rediscovery. Chief among them is a handful of films known as the “Harajuku Line” (原宿線). These were a series of films set in and around Tokyo’s famed fashion district in the late ’80s to mid-’90s, just as new strands of Japanese youth culture were beginning to emerge from the underground. In addition to preserving a time and place before the area was taken over by international fast-fashion brands and real estate development, the Harajuku Line titles were especially unique in how they freely combined multiple film genres, class and generational conflicts, street fashion, and strong female point of view.

Released in 1989, Takeshita Street Proxy War is considered the first of the Harajuku Line productions and kicked off the genre with a unique twist on the yakuza movie formula. ’89 was a big year that marked both the dawn of the V-Cinema era and the opening of “Pedestrian Heaven” — when bands and dancers would gather in the car-free streets surrounding Harajuku station.

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Takeshita Street Proxy War concerns Mai (played by Popteen magazine cover girl Hiroko Hirano), a young fashion designer who makes the mistake of borrowing money from a loan company in order to achieve her dream of opening a boutique on Harajuku’s famed Takeshita Street. Unfortunately for her, Mai soon discovers that the seemingly legit loan company is actually a front company for the local yakuza. While preparing her shop for the big opening, Mai finds herself under constant harassment from goons sent by boss Takekuma (played by V-Cinema regular Hitoshi Okura). His plan is to make sure that Mai defaults on her loan and goes into debt: if she can’t open her store, she must pay back double what she’s borrowed. Overwhelmed, Mai goes to the local police who are useless and refuse to help (which will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen a few yakuza films).

Very bad things begin to happen in quick succession: the thugs smash up the store and then later try to set fire to it. Mai’s best friend and business partner can’t handle the stress and abandons her. Finally, her salaryman father is put in the hospital with critical injuries after a brutal beating.

In a wordless sequence, Mai decides enough is enough and buys a large kitchen cutting knife at a household supply shop. This leads to a bloody showdown with boss Takekuma and his henchmen filmed guerilla-style, without permission or legal permits, in the center of Takeshita Street.

The film, directed without fuss by Toei Studios veteran Kojiro Abe and written by J-pop lyricist Miyuki Toki, concludes with a chilling epilogue set months later. Mai has opened her store and is doing brisk business, but we can tell something about her is a bit off. Seconds after cheerily saying goodbye to a customer, the film ends on a sudden freeze-frame as Mai looks directly into the camera, and at us, with a cold hard stare. Our heroine has fought back against her tormentors and has won her independence, but at a terrible price: her humanity.

Although fashion was not the driving force of the next film, After School, I Always Fight the Devil (1990) was filmed on location in the Harajuku and Yoyogi neighborhoods and was funded by the LaMer department store, where many international and Japanese indie brands can be found to this day. LaMer’s deep commitment to the arts, seen in the complex’s museum space that has held massive exhibits from the likes of Paul Laffoley and Henry Darger, briefly crossed over into an anti-establishment mode, resulting in a film that explores the psychological and sociological tensions of the area.

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Yuri (played with sullen intensity by half-Japanese actress Julia Omori) is a high school student on the edge; about to drop out of fictional Jingumae High School. She’s a juvenile delinquent and apparently an ex-gang member who now prefers to drink and smoke by herself. Yuri lives with her single mom in a tiny residence on Cat Street, a relic of when the area was a haven for foreign diplomats and servicemen (Yuri’s dad was an American GI who abandoned the family soon after she was born). Yuri’s mom can’t stand her daughter’s bad attitude and downward trajectory and wants her to either get a job or move out. When those demands fail to make an impact, Mom calls on one of her old acquaintances, Murota, who is a local government official and begs him to intervene. Soon, Murota begins randomly appearing at Yuri’s home “to check in on her”. When they are alone, he becomes verbally and physically abusively, flipping back to being genial and polite as soon as her mother is around.

Yuri, of course, does not take shit from anyone, and so begins an epic battle of wits between a teenage girl and a corrupt politician. Yuri quickly discovers that Murota has managed to turn the entire community against her, but since she’s already such an outsider already, trying to ostracize her further doesn’t achieve anything. Meanwhile, Yuri trails Murota wielding not a deadly weapon, but an instant camera. She winds up capturing a typical day in his life: exchanging money with underworld figures, taking methamphetamines, and capping the night off with a visit to a high-end brothel. On election day, Murota announces his win at a public ceremony (held at Yuri’s high school no less). Yuri shows up and hands over the packet of photos she took of Murota to the media, but not before naming off his misdeeds to the entire community with a megaphone.

Chaos ensues. Murota snaps and begins choking Yuri in front of a live TV crew that is broadcasting nationwide. Yuri is hauled away by the cops for disturbing the peace. Murota himself is now ostracized by his voters and party members, and as we see him get smaller and smaller in the rear-view window of the police car, we can sense it’s only a matter of time until he will himself be behind bars.

While driving away, one of the cops asks Yuri did she do it: throwing away her life like that. She replies triumphantly, “The only reason a warrior is alive is to fight, and the only reason a warrior fights is to win” — a famous quote from Musashi Miyamoto’s “Book of Five Rings”.

With that, director and screenwriter Masa Takekuma connects this tale to the master-less samurai of old. Actress Julia Omori, who retired from show biz after this one film, is part of a long tradition of anti-heroes who cannot conform to the strict rules of Japanese society… and the audience cannot help but root for her because of that very reason.

Former TV comedian Ken Takahata gives a something of a dual performance as Murota, showing off an amiable nature as a well-liked man about town, but also a terrifying figure who pathologically cannot stand anyone who refuses to submit to his authority. The fact that both personality types might enjoy this film — which ends in mutual destruction — is an inspired act of subversion.

Floating in the Dark Mirror (1996) is something of a Harajuku film noir, full of mysteries both onscreen and off. Shot on Super 16mm, at a time when most productions had moved to video to save costs, there are no credits for the main staff aside from the name “Saito”. Casting real kids instead of professional actors, this indie film explores how personal identity is constructed through fashion and how Harajuku operates as a place where people can reinvent themselves, or disappear from, completely.

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Yuka is an ordinary girl from a small town in Niigata who wakes up to find that her more stylish and outgoing twin sister Mariko has vanished from their home without a trace. Yuka hires the town’s low rent private detective to do some sleuthing he explains that the missing girl’s trail leads to the back streets of Harajuku. Something of an introvert (and a bit of a Plain Jane), Yuka takes her first big trip outside of her comfort zone and makes for Tokyo. Once there, she is immediately mistaken for her identical twin sister by punks and goths hanging out on Harajuku’s famed Jingu Bashi bridge. Yuka soon realizes that the fastest way to get information on what happened to Mariko is to try and impersonate her sister. Over the course of a three-day weekend, Yuka does some shopping on Takeshita Street and transforms into the spitting image of her missing sibling: a Gothic Lolita.

But pretending to be someone else only leads Yuka further down the rabbit hole, and into smoky and crowded Visual Kei concerts, meet-up photo events, and awkward encounters with the opposite sex.

Eventually, all clues point to Shibuya, specifically the nightclubs of the Dogenzaka district — located only a short walk from Harajuku — but seemingly a world apart where the Harajuku kids fear to tread. After all, it is the stomping grounds of hip-hop “Teamers”, hard-partying rich kids, druggies, and even more dubious characters. In this film, the goths can only handle decadence when it is served up via props at a photoshoot or in the pages of subculture magazines, but Shibuya is shown as a stronghold of genuine darkness that Yuka has no choice but to infiltrate in order to complete her quest.

Once again, she goes shopping to disguises herself in her sister’s last known style choice and emerges from the Shibuya 109 department store clad head to toe in gyaru fashion. The final act of the film takes place over the course of one rainy night as Yuka goes from cub to club only to discover that the detective she originally hired has trailed her to Tokyo and that the true fate of her missing sister is far stranger than she could have imagined. The story concludes with Yuka essentially trapped in her sister’s identity: the charade of being someone else must now be forever maintained or else she will suffer severe consequences. It’s a dark ending, but it helps to remember that Yuka / Mariko need only play dress up again for another chance to escape. Not all fates are certain. Especially when you can buy a new one off the rack in Harajuku and points elsewhere.

Note: Sadly, the films I’ve just written about, and created the images for, only exist in my imagination. If there were Harajuku Line movies in the past and in the present, I would be their biggest fan. I’m hoping someone can step up and make some in the future.

Thanks to siomomi_kurage, RYuA, T&M

Patrick Macias is the author of TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion and Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno: Tokyo Teen Fashion Subculture Handbook. He also wrote the Original Story for the anime series URAHARA.

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Writer, Editor, Lives in Tokyo

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