Chatter on the web tapped out in six letters plus
asterisk, a phrase tapped out over social networks like a song hook or
a sequence of Morse code, repeated repeating, the message saying….
In a time of strife when Chinese patrol ships are
entering Japanese waters, and (more importantly) Aya Ueto went and married some
gorilla from EXILE, “Yun*chi” has become a top search on yahoo.jp.
It’s on the radar now, a developing cloud of stardust on the edge of the galaxy
that begs a question here in Earth Defense Headquarters, “Just who or what is Yun*chi?”
The short version: Yun*chi is a model turned
singer, signed to ASOBISYSTEM, the same agency that Kyary Pamyu Pamyu calls
home. Still in her teens, Yun*chi’s first mini-album is due to arrive this November 14th,
and the hype machine is now spinning in earnest well before any of the music itself has seen official release. So file under "almost famous".
In the last few days alone, Yun*chi has been
profiled by numerous outlets in Japan, including the Hochi Shimbun and musicman-net,
the latter piece including a ringing endorsement from agency mate Kyary who
took the time out of her busy schedule furthering the illuminati agenda to say,
“Yun*chi has a wonderfully odd view of the world, and I'm rooting for her with
all my might."
Who else is rooting for Yun*chi? Well, here’s
where it gets interesting… A preliminary analysis of her DNA shows a genealogy
that is all over the place – from otaku cheesecake, to “Shibuhara” club kid, to
potential idol of millions – and the machinations of plans within plans.
I first became aware of Yun*chi about a year ago
when she appeared as a model in a series of photographs by Julie Watai, who
once did time in Akihabara as a gravure
idol named “Amano Ai”. After hanging up her pink bikini top, Julie became
instrumental in helping to forge a new kind of post-Akiba nerd culture based
not only in referencing 8-bit videogames like holy texts, but also
participating in events that played up the “cute + tech” angle (I will
now shamelessly name drop and tell you that I hung out with Julie long enough
to insist that she buy a copy of Gibson’s “Neruomancer” right after lunch).
Posed or not, Julie’s fetishistic vision of female otakudom was an act that could work in both AKB and in
more rarified parts of town and the gang became the Hardware Girls: a loose knit group of artists,
DJs, VJs, and singers – Yun*chi among them – that Julie could brand for “Hardware
Girls Night” at talk shows and club gigs. Yun*chi’s roots in otaku culture are forever preserved in Julie’s pictures, baring skin and steaming up the showcases at Nakano Broadway....
next thing you know, Yun*chi is backed by up-and-coming jimsho ASOBISYSTEM, who
are mostly a model agency with a lot of Zipper and KERA magazine faces on their
roster. They also have increasing pull in the Shibuya club scene for putting on
regular nosebleed electro events like Yasutaka Nakata’s FLASH!!! and
TAKENOKO!!! parties (he of Perfume infamy). ASOBISYSTEM’s collusion of magazine-ready fashion plus club
music reaches its apex when Kyary Pamyu Pamyu strikes global YouTube gold with
PONPONPON and her subsequent Nakata-penned songs and videos. Finally, here was a single act that could put a
human face on the all “TOKYO KAWAII HARAJUKU GIRLS POP” marketing buzzwords
being tossed around. Others had certainly tried before.
Consider how long a heavy hitter like model-turned-singer Tsubasa tried to
make good with her Milky Bunny persona and yet has failed to
get much traction…
More shameless name dropping: I worked with
ASOBISYSTEM briefly in getting Kyary to appear on my Otaku-Verse Zero web show
in that split second just before she went supernova. Whereas most show biz
agencies you’re likely to encounter tend to be old, demanding, and inhibiting,
ASOBISYSTEM came off as young, accommodating, and permissive, although who knows how much
has changed in the wake of Kyary’s subsequent ubiquity…It should now be noted
that Yun*chi is only the second female act on the ASOBISYSTEM roster of musical
acts, so there’s got to be some kind of play book now. And even though I don’t
really want to see Yun*chi holding a giant KFC cup anytime soon, the joy of tie-up has already begun…
Whereas Kyary’s initial style and image came
from colorful, eyepopping Harajuku shops like 6%DOKIDOKI and SPINNS, Yun*chi’s
first fashion collaboration is with the monochromatic bad boys of VANQUISH: a brand that
started off as a hilariously oversexed oniikei and host clothier from the MEN’S
EGG school before settling down in recent years into something far more ordinary and kinda yankii. While Kyary music now functions as jingles for g.u. TV commercials
(which is where people shop when UNIQLO is too expensive)
Yun*chi’s mini-lp debut will be rolled out in tandem with a new line of VANQUISH VENUS
items for the ladies and, lookie, there’s already a promo video for the line starring the new IT girl herself...
While it would be too early to say that Yun*chi will be angled like a sword point at Shibuya the same way that Kyary was to Harajuku, I’m willing to bet that she’s is likely to be plastered all over the 109-2 building as soon as her mini-lp drops. There's something about the amount of skin Yun*chi tends to show that fits the profile.
But oh yeah, music…I almost forgot about that. Up until about
a week ago, Yun*chi was hosting what sounded like demos on her blog, which were
taken down as the PR storm broke. It sounded like serviceable J-pop, and she
has a nice voice for this sort of thing (she picked up singing from her mom), but yeah… I hope her upcoming disc remembers to contain some of the electro madness as found here in Yun*chi's old 2011 cover of a song from the Kare Kano anime...
Oh, and a great music video -- you know, something more than just a cover photo of Hardware Girl Ushijima Iiniku rotating in the background -- would be essential too to make this thing click with a few people beyond those prone to loitering around on Basketball Street. Or maybe, that's not even the point anymore.
In tossing around notes for this piece with W.
David Marx, he said of spokesmodels and singers in a tone I would associate
with the architect of the Matrix, “The way I see it, there is no actual
audience for it, but there are advertisers/brands (that) need it.” Indeed,
it’s practically a matter of principal and honor that any jimsho will pursue
business opportunities over furthering a musical phenomenon, but so far
practically everything ASOBISYSTEM has carried (Kyary'd?) a strong dose of the authentic about it.
At the edge of the center now stands
Yun*chi herself, a cool beauty, unsmiling and still something of a cipher. It's
like she's keeping a secret; about how her her bid for stardom is now a map of a fragmented, yet connected, youth culture in Japan…and also
how easy it is for partners to make alliances now in points along the
Yun*chi wound up taking over the VANQUISH store at the Ikebukuro PARCO, a bit further up the Yamanote line than I initially predicted...
Also, I did not / do not want people to compare Yun*chi to Kyary. It's more like a new superhero has arrived in town from the pages of the same comics company. So if Kyary is a bright red and blue Superman, then Yun*chi can be...Batman?
Also, the promo video for "Reverb", the first of the new mini-lp songs, was released last week. You can read my impressions on it here and watch it below...
Shibuya-kei boy clothiers VICE FAIRY recently made some parka tie-up items with One Piece. I guess they need to make a new movie soon or something since these here parkas are now "more than half off" at fifty-two percent (i.e. 4,250 yen) at the rather amazing site known as craze.jp. The rhetorical question: who doesn't need the words VICE FAIRY boldly emblazoned on their chest in flamin' letters?
Since opening its Oniikei ("Big Brother Style") men’s floors in 2006, the Shibuya 109-2 building in Shibuya (duh) had become ground zero for those loveable big-haired roustabouts known as Gyaruo (“Male Gals”) and Center Guys and other purveyors of some of the most extreme fashions to be found anywhere on earth.
The logic behind the lifestyle was pure Evolutionary Psychology: some young Japanese men were willing to dress really silly because – like nature’s peacock or another such bird of paradise – resembling one’s own object of desire is sometimes the best way to attract a mate. In short, in order to fuck a Gyaru (the sort slurped down crepes and shopped at Shibuya 109 proper), it often helped to look like a Gyaru. So basically, no. They weren't gay, despite the jokes everyone made about them. Exhibit A below...
Since no was marketing men's clothes for such a highly specialized purpose, early-adopted Gyaruo were said to wear their girlfriend’s – or latest conquest’s – clothes in a pinch. And so, reacting with typical speed to a burgeoning market, the Japanese fashion industry gave these bold men a Kingdom of Their Own.
Originally, the 109-2 building existed merely an afterthought to the main 109-shopping complex just down the street. In addition to housing a Hello Kitty store, it mainly dealt in mega cheap girl’s accessories. The typical customers were female middle school students. But in the wake of the new Gyaruo boom and the instant success of the 109-2 men’s floors, a new empire was forged by foot soldiers who looked like this...
National demand for Vanquish Sex is Heaven jumbo towels and Buffalo Bobs Coffee and Donut underwear became so high that Mini-men’s floors began popping up at other 109 stores across Japan, including Machida, Shizuoka, and Ichikawa. Competing retailer Marui even got into the act by transforming one of the floors inside their 0101Men building (oringinally set up to compete with high fashion retailer Isetan Mens) into a “Gorgeous” and tacky shopping arena populated by the same brands that had become synonymous with 109-2, such as...
Of course, I also got caught up in the madness and mania surrounding the 109-2. After I’d written my book Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno: Tokyo Teen Fashion Subculture Handbook, I’d become invested and curious about where the energy in trashy low-rent youth culture was headed next. And so, trips to the 109-2 store soon became mandatory for me in order to follow the trail to the new frontier, although the reception to my presence at 109-2 – indeed, to any gaijin who dared to venture inside – was chilly at best. The quizzical and mildly offended expressions from the staff and customers gave off a none-too-subliminal message: THIS IS OUR SCENE, YOU DON’T BELONG, GET OUT AND GO HOME. After a lifetime of not belonging and outsider status, the last thing I was going to do was take this personally. They had a point, so how could I complain? Although I was guilty of dipping my toes into a few pairs of jeans and indulging in a couple of accessories, the last thing I wanted to do was look, or act, like this stupid guy...
Fast forward to Fall 2010…the classic Gyaruo has become an endangered species. You simply don’t the see guys looking like men’s egg models bumming around on the streets of Shibuya anymore. It is as if they’ve already followed the mythic Gonguro and Manba into the dusty pages of history. Clearly, some of the original kids graduated or leveled up to the more complete host clubs look and lifestyle…a trip to Shinjuku, Kabukicho on any given night will turn up hundreds of big haired dudes in cheap suits desperately trying to make a buck. But something deep and fundamental has changed at the base of operations. And all is not quite right at the Shibuya 109-2...
Wednesday night, around 6pm, scene of the crime: the 5th floor of 109-2…The second I stepped into the Jackrose store, a sales clerk literally begins chasing me around the show floor with a sales catalog in his hand until I broke down and let him give me the hard sell. He lead me to a stack of JACKROSE / ROLLING STONES / AC/DC collaboration shirts – a product line that about as fresh and exciting as Mick Jagger (age 67) and Angus Young (age 55) are themselves.
I passed by the remains of the CASVA store, which once sold “gorgeous” purple zebra jackets and imitation snakeskin trousers, suitable for a ‘70s Times Square pimp or a duke of Dogenzaka street. Now, all that once glittered was gone, replaced by boring and drab American Casual gear. But the main shock came from the simple and plainly apparent lack of customers inside the 109-2. Clerks sat behind registers playing with cell phones or reading from books (!!!), barely trying to look busy anymore. The VANQUISH store, formerly the best-selling brand at 109-2, looked like a Neutron Bomb had gone off inside. A sad black & gold Adidas tracksuit under a fake crystal chandelier surveyed the scene like the Ghost of Christmas Past.
I had to get out. I made for the escalator down and had nearly passed the threshold of safety when someone grabbed my arm and began to pull. It was the clerk from the S.I2.C. store. “Okyakusan! Okyakusan!” (“Customer! Customer!”) he screeched, like one of those man-starved hillbilly women in an old Popeye cartoon – or a post-war street hooker. In America, this is where you reach for the pepper spray, but in Japan, all you can do is meekly say “Sumimasen, sumimasen” and try and get the fuck out. And thus did the 109-2 rid itself of me…
After spilling out on the street, I struggled to find some answers for what had happened. How had 109-2 gone on the skids so fast? Why did everyone inside suddenly want to be my best friend when before they were laughing behind my back? An insider, who chooses to remain anonymous speculates: “It’s sad. No one can afford to wear and enjoy stupid clothes anymore. I think most of those guys are just shopping at (low-budget and largely suburban bad taste retailer) Shimamura now.” Hey, at least it’s not H&M or Forever 21, but still…
Other possible factors at work:
1. The Marxy theory (initially said as a joke, but I’m willing to consider it because crazier things have happened): Since most guys dressed like Gyaru in order to attract Gyaru, maybe the gambit worked all too well. Everyone (even this guy) got a girlfriend or got laid and just didn’t need to invest in Vanquish SEX IS HEAVEN rubber bands anymore.
2. The economic theory: 109 proper remains a busy bustling shopping center that now attracts female customers from around the world. Low priced items are the main draw. The “gorgeous” men’s goods at 109-2 never really reached the same level of affordability, and made a stupid move by beginning to focus on “limited edition” high profile tie-up goods with licensed properties like One Piece, Snoopy, even James Bond at prohibitive prices.
3. The big chill: A fashion movement based on cataclysmic levels of bad taste simply could not be expected to sustain itself for very long. Some of the basic Oniikei style DNA will survive in the form of host fashion and in the pages of Host Knuckle and Men’s Spider magazine but whatever larger trend there was has clearly cooled.
4. The world is not yours: Unlike the Gyaru look typified by Shibuya 109, which offers fare both extreme enough for the really wild girls *and* is diverse enough in terms of style to attract business interest from foreigners, guys dressing up like that was truly Some Next Level Shit that was never acceptable even at the best of times in Japan, let alone something that could attract anything beyond gasps of horror and laughter abroad.
5. Zen. Shinto.
Although the writing is on the wall, I doubt that 109-2 will go down quietly. The store staff inside have clearly been yelled at and probably slapped around until they bled from the nose to turn up the charm and go after anyone who ventures within, even a weird-looking Mexican American approaching middle age like myself.
But style is a weird and unpredictable thing. You can’t really make anyone wear any of this garbage, especially if they already bought a few items, got the joke, and feel like moving on now. You *can* spend a billion dollars on a marketing campaign, but there are no safe bets on whom, if anyone, will come through the door after total control over the customer base has ceased. And yet, still, it should never be forgotten, even in the heart of darkness that not all sales are final...
I was on my way out the 109-2 building, perhaps for good (although I'll continue to survey the scene from afar via this blog), just as another customer made his arrival. He was surrounded by a group of three or four girls who took his picture as he happily grinned, reveling in the sheer joy of JUST BEING THERE in Shibuya...at the *actual* 109-2, loving the "all new, all different" shopping experience as much as I held contempt for it. The clothes he was wearing were nothing special, but that could be changed easily so long he paid by cash, credit, or debit. I tried to pick up on what he was saying to his adoring flock of females, but I couldn't figure out a word of it.