On the 5th of May LARME magazine released a short promotional video for their 10th anniversary fashion show. In the video, four models, wearing ethereal pastel tulle and brandishing sparkling pistols and parasols, strut down a pink catwalk. The video features a voice over with girls speaking with disdain about sexual assault, harassment and online bulling. These images are juxtaposed to a tiny Sylvanian Family (aka Calico Critters) dollhouse, set ablaze in the densely overpopulated streetscapes of Kabukichō, a red light district in Tokyo. Two Sylvanian Family fuzzy rabbit toys look at each other as they are burnt alive. The orange glow of the flames is reflected in the models faces’ as they give the camera a knowing smile.
This provocative video, speaking to serious issues of violence that women in Japan face, has provoked much public commentary in the past 48 hours. But what is surprising is that rather than speak to the social issues of the video — harassment and assault — folks are more put off by the fuzzy critter arson. Fans became enraged to see their beloved childhood toys and LARME’s previous soft and gentle image literally on fire. After severe backlash, LARME took the video down. Outlets like J-Cast and Yahoo Japan have since reported on the situation.
As a researcher who has worked with kawaii fashion communities in Tokyo for 10 years, my observation is that provocative and subversive media is not particularly new to the scene. But in reading both the Japanese and English commentary expressing confusion about this new artistic direction, I wanted to take this opportunity to provide more context as to why a video like this may have been made and the audience it was intended for.
What is LARME?
LARME is a fashion magazine that started in 2012, featuring a soft and girly aesthetic. It is best known for popularizing “crying” or “sickly” makeup, where blush is placed under the wearers eyes. Garments made of soft twinkling tulle, embellished with satin ribbons and ruffles feature on LARME’s pages, as models look wistfully at the viewer. “Larme” (trans. tear) was chosen as a name for this publication to express this tearful, sad and resilient kawaii aesthetic.
Over the years LARME has featured a range of styles that appeal to young women aged 18 to 25, balancing motte (trans. attractive, appealing) kawaii fashion like retro pin-up with styles that are considered to be more “a-sexual”, like lolita fashion. Up until recently, this magazine has been known for curating a very soft, dreamy and gentle aesthetic. Girls float in a world of flowers, ruffles, lace, twinkly stars and hearts and teddy bears.
In spite of its sweet appearance, listening to the perspectives of LARME’s champion, Haruna Nakagori (Founder, Editor-in-Chief 2012-2016, 2020 to present), reveals that there is more to this kawaii world than meets the eye. Nakagori has always been interested in darkness, and the harsh reality young women face. Part of her inspiration comes from her previous work as an editor for Koakuma Ageha (2005-2014). Ageha was an iconic magazine for hostesses and gyaru alike, and was known at the time for pushing the envelope of acceptable discourse in women’s magazines. Topics covered were often “yami” (trans. sickly) in nature, exploring issues of trauma, abuse and addiction. For many young women it was one of the only places they could be “real” with others like them.
In her interview with TV-Asahi for the 10th anniversary event and fashion show, Nakagori describes herself as “more of a dystopian than utopian person.” Setting the show in Kabukichō was ideal, as to her it is a site where chaotic cultures are born. For Nakagori, the world she created through LARME has always been shadowed by feelings of sadness and trauma. In its pages, she specifically wanted to create a place free of men. She explains that the plush toys used in many of the pages of LARME were in fact stand ins for men as more desirable companions.
In my experience, many outsiders see cute toys on the pages of LARME and mistake them for infantilism or regression, imposing their own readings onto these practitioners. In truth things like teddies often offer practitioners soft surfaces, playful alternatives to the aggression, heartbreak and looming threat of violence they sometimes find in men. This is of course, a heteronormative take on what is in essence a homosocial and queer hyper-femme world, but this is how we can understand it when looking through Nakagori’s eyes. Toys become tools of disruption and resistance, referencing both a pursuit of softness and the precarity that the world brings.
Sometimes, outsiders tell me that they find the imagery of LARME childlike and disturbing. I tell these people that this is exactly the point; they are outsiders, and this aesthetic is not for them. LARME creates a kawaii, glittering, heartfelt universe for girls by girls, that is reinforced by repulsing and scaring away the demands of the outside world. It dreams of a softer, fantastical space. You need to be in the group and in-the-know to understand this visual code. LARME girls are not passive, infantile and docile. On the contrary, what is shown in this magazine’s imagery is a performance of solidarity and resilience for other girls, with a knowing, cheeky wink. It seems that with this video, LARME has decided to not only stave off the darkness with its glittering pink aesthetic, but also to set parts of its culture alight.
Nakagori explains that she is particularly inspired by texts like The Poem of Wind and Trees by Keiko Takemiya, one of the first BL stories that was controversial in the 1970s for the flowery and tragic tales it told of abuse, trauma and neglect. According to Professor Fusami Ogi of Chikushi Jogakuen University, Takemiya wanted to show her readership that they should confront issues of power and abuse in sex, without fear and shame at a time where women were shamed for their bodies and assaults. Nakagori is very familiar with the ways in which flowery and dark media and texts can create spaces to explore serious issues with femme audiences.
Since 2019, LARME has been introducing darker styles to its social media and print magazine, including jirai-kei (trans. landmine type), a fashion movement that is pink and black with a cute but dark edge. This is evident not only in the fashion it curates, but also the media it promotes that resonates with its readership. While jirai aesthetics don’t appear in this latest firey video, its spirit is there, and thus becomes relevant when we review the video, its themes and the backlash.
Jirai-kei is a relatively new fashion movement. While aesthetically cute, it can also be an expression of solidarity and trauma. Some practitioners are drawn to the aesthetic because it speaks their interest in cute and goth. For example, Sanrio character Kuromi is an icon to jirai girls. Many young girls in school are drawn to this style as a cute trend to enjoy wearing in Shibuya and Harajuku, because its affordable and offers a take on kawaii that is both soft and assertive.
For others jirai speaks to both shared past traumas and the vibrancy of nightlife. While now popular with younger school girls, this fashion in its origins is actually very much adult; it was worn by clientele who visit host clubs, concept cafe workers and bar staff in Kabukichō. Jirai girl lifestylers (which community members say is a less popular undertaking in the group) are rebellious, smoke, drink and are sometimes runaways. With this group, there is some public and community concern for their wellbeing as some are living with family violence, addiction or are experiencing mental health issues. In other cases the public backlash to jirai is straight up policing women as part of a whore/Madonna binaries. In thinking about the history of runaway and rebel girls in Tokyo, and the urgent need for support for this demographic, I think it’s important to stay with these young people, and listen to their stories rather than dismiss or shame them.
Some young people are drawn to this lifestyle due to its depiction through the jirai girl character Yua Takahashi in manga series by Hinao Wono, Tomorrow, I Will be Someone’s Girlfriend (Ashita, watashi wa dakera no kanojo, 明日、私は誰かのカノジョ). The manga was later adapted as a television drama in 2022, Yua played by J-pop idol Saito Nagisa from LOVE (who graduated from the group at the start of the year). Yua lives with profound trauma, and the story follows her experiences as she is swept up in the Kabukicho lifestyle. LARME has collaborated with the franchise through advertisements and merchandising.
To learn more about jirai, I recommend this wonderful video, with practitioners speak about themselves.
LARME’s 10th Anniversary Fashion show
In April, LARME held a 10th anniversary show at Tokyu Kabukichō Tower. Models walked in tulle tutus, ruffles, lace and feathers, sometimes armed with glittery pistols, fans, parasols and teddy bears. Nakagori in an interview for Fashion Snap explains that the outfits took 8 months to complete and that she spent much time and effort in crafting each look. There is both a playful cuteness and aggression to the performance overall. Powerfully cute and in control, the LARME girls strut for an audience of cheering women. As Amina, previous J-Pop idol and writer describes on Twitter, “kawaii culture is feminist and femininity for the self indulgent”. The attire here is hyper-femme, outrageous and brimming with lavish adornment.
Parts of the show are available on LARME’s TikTok, which I include here.
A couple of days after the show, LARME’s controversial video debuts. Clips from this show with cutaways to a burning dollhouse are edited to powerful voice overs about assault, harassment and resilience and uploaded to Instagram. With frustration and disdain the girls in the voice overs rail against nanpa (trans. aggressive flirting and street harassment), chikan (trans. groping and sexual assault on the train) and cyberbullying as sad and gross. They boldy declare, “without you, I can live a strong life as a woman.”
My interpretation is that the dollhouse and Sylvanian families act as another stand in for the dark reality that these women resist. The bunnies and their house represent an idealised cute and innocent performance of gender, and the social promise girls are given of a safe, domicile future as women. The lived reality of the violence, harassment and assault sends this promise up in flames.
As the dollhouse melts and cracks in the fire, a model smiles, bathed in an orange glow. Two bunnies, each dressed in prim and cute attire look at each other on the balcony. What are their final thoughts? The house continues to burn in a alleyway in Kabukichō, hidden behind rows of trash. Immediately there is a jump cut back to the fashion show, as a model adorned in pink glitter, ruffles and feathers walks carrying two pink glittering pistols. The pattern continues, each time the fashion show presenting a transcendental, angelic escape from the grim reality of the urban street scape and the violence narrated.
The video presents a kawaii dystopia, setting flames to our understanding of cuteness. The stuffiness of the domestic house burns, abusers are rightfully shamed and the models float and transcend above the smoke and grime, triumphant and resilient.
Unfortunately, the message of the video becomes lost in the mix as it travels beyond its audience. This, combined with the stigma that jirai girls face, results in backlash from the general public, Sylvanian Family fans and very early readers of LARME from the 2010s. With 1 million views, a fan shares a recording of the video, saying they’ve reported it to Sylvanian Family’s company, Epoch, and that they were unimpressed to see the models laughing as they burned.
Outrage ensues. Posters complain about jirai girls, and how much LARME has changed from its early days. Some attribute the change to a new editor, not realising Nakagori’s hand in the show. Others mention that they think its inappropriate to put the suffering of girls to aesthetic imagery. There are many complaints in particular of the videos setting in Kabukichō. Others are more concerned about the plight of the little fluffy bunny toys, wondering why Sylvanian Family needed to be used for such an advant garde film, they organise amongst themselves to inform Epoch.
LARME posts to their Instagram story an announcement, apologizing for the “inappropriate expressions” in the video and announcing they had taken the video down.
While much of the reaction in Japan appears negative, this affair has attracted some interesting commentary from practitioners and fans overseas. Below I have shared some particularly astute observations.
My observation is that while kawaii as an aesthetic can be very liberating and creative, it can also carry with it heavy expectations and impositions from outsiders. In particular there is an expectation that femmes who wear kawaii fashion maintain the Sylvanian Family-type performance of docility and submissiveness, carrying out emotional labour for others. Once this narrative is disrupted there is an inevitable backlash, in particular pushback that pathologizes women as selfish or morally incorrect for pursuing something that is centered around their own creativity, inner world and politics. While kawaii can be a charming, fun and playful aesthetic, the moment it becomes apparent to outsiders that it’s not intended for them or that the object of their admiration has an inner-world and feelings, there can be consequences.
I agree with Jacques and Becca’s posts above that it is alarming that much of the attention has been paid to the disruption this video creates, but not to the serious stories of violence and abuse in the voice-over itself. Could this video not be used as an ice-breaker, to embolden young women to continue their discourse around the harassment they experience, much like the pages of Ageha? Is it wrong for women to experiment with toys as symbols of their own girlhoods?
This “controversial” video from LARME provides an interesting look into the world of kawaii fashion, its in-group communication, and how its messaging can sometimes be lost of outside audiences. It will be interesting to see how discourse around the video progresses in weeks to come.
Transcript of LARME’s VIDEO
Transcriptions courtesy of Rei Saionji.
Further reading on LARME and Jirai-kei
- The History of: Girly Styles by Selina for the COMM
- LARME by Ash for the COMM
- LARME Kei by Japanese Fashion Wikia
- FYeah Larme kei by Mod Angel
- Jirai-kei by Japanese Fashion Wikia
- Lafary is bringing Jirai-kei and Ryousangata-kei to Shibuya 109 by the COMM
I am very happy for folks to recommend their favorite pages in the comments!