Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential: How Teenage Girls Made a Nation Cool, by Brian Ashcraft and Shoko Ueda, looks at how this archetype has become such a distinctive international symbol.
"The book is divided in to chapters that cover the impact of schoolgirls on everything from fashion to fine art and from movies to manga," writes Ashcraft. "It features interviews with AKB48, the most popular girl group in Japan at the moment, Chiaki Kuriyama, who played Gogo in Kill Bill, Morning Musume, famed editor and photographer Yasumasa Yonehara, illustrator Noizi Ito, Yasuomi Umetsu of Kite fame, artist Makoto Aida, photographer Tomoko Sawada and manga artist Miwa Ueda, among many, many more. It touches on things like kogal culture, the rise of gal magazines, 1970s schoolgirl exploitation flicks and, yes, Sailor Moon."
Following is an excerpt from the book, about the artwork of Makoto Aida. — Rob
From Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential
by Brian Ashcraft and Shoko Ueda
Makoto Aida was one of Japan's enfant terribles, along with Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, that took the international art scene by storm in the 1990s. These artists had grown up after the war, while the process of rebuilding Japan was in full swing. They experienced the rapid ascent of the Japanese economy during the heady 1980s, and came of age surrounded by pop culture. They drew inspiration from this--using the language of manga and anime to convey their message.
Aida is iconoclastic and uncompromising, his work varied and provocative. His themes include sexuality, war, and national identity. And he strives the make the viewer uncomfortable: Whether it be videoing himself masturbating in front of a large banner that reads "beautiful little girl," dressing up as Osama bin Laden for a Saturday Night Live-esque video project, or painting the firebombing of New York by Japanese airplanes.
Girls, however, are a reoccurring motif. "At the age of fourteen, I became obsessed with the magical quality young girls have," he says. "As I get older, the age difference gets wider, and yet the almost magnetic attraction to these girls gets stronger and stronger." But, the artist emphasizes, it's not a romantic interest. Rather, it is a reminder of his youth and his aging. "A major reason why it's not romantic is how desperately impossible it is," he says.
During the late nineties, as gal culture was running rampant, Aida became intrigued. "I think those kogals in the 1990s were originals," he says. "Historically and even globally, they were unique, and I sought a way to portray them." Inspiration came from a group of high school girls squatting on the ground in Shibuya. "The scene reminded me of besieged warriors who have decided to commit mass suicide." Out of this, Aida created Harakiri School Girls, originally as a poster to advertise his first solo exhibit in 1999, and later as a painting for the Singapore Biennale 2006.
Laced with dark humor, the work shows a group of uniform-clad schoolgirls plunging samurai swords into their stomachs, disemboweling themselves, and slicing off their own heads. The flash of a blade creates a rainbow in the blood spurting from a girl's neck. A stream of blood flows past a curious kitten, karaoke flyers, and discarded tissues, into a drain. The work is gruesomely cute. "Harakiri School Girls is an allegory for the distorted mentality of Japanese youth at the time and the atmosphere of Japanese society," Aida explains. "After the Bubble Economy collapsed, I felt that an air of pessimism was spreading through Japan like a virus." Everything might have looked cute and happy, but underneath that veneer seethed dejection and darkness. During the nineties, the number of suicides increased year by year, and according to Aida, Japanese patriotism withered away. These schoolgirls, in their loose socks and school uniforms, symbolize the entire country, killing itself.
In Harakiri School Girls Aida did not want to simply fetishize uniform-wearing girls or create a modern version of traditional bijinga (pictures of beautiful women). Instead he created an homage to the brutal works of ukiyo-e artist Yoshitoshi (1839-1892) and the painter Ekin (1812-1876), both known for their ghastly and grotesque work showing decapitations, stabbings and dramatic scenes of death. "In order to escape the eroticism of the nude, or more explicitly the genitals," says Aida, "I depicted blood and internal organs." And girls in school uniforms. Killing themselves. Smiling.
Aida, who has also included schoolgirls in his paintings Azemichi and Picture of Waterfall, believes the uniform fundamentally suits the Japanese. Not because they provide conformity, but because they provide a sense of belonging to a group--something that is extremely important in Japanese society. The concept of being "in" or "out" is so culturally ingrained that when parents want to punish small children, they will threaten to lock them outside the houses, thereby making them outside the family group. Uniforms, however, offer a sense of being part of something. Yet, over the past two hundred years, Japan has become Westernized by cultures that value individuality. "The foundation for Japanese people isn't Western individualism, and our Asian-style group thinking lingers," says Aida. This creates a paradox, and as the artist says, in Japan today "everything is really warped."
"There isn't a great display of originality in Japan" says Aida. "By copying too much from the West, we've slipped into being importers of ideas. And if you always worry about making a mistake, you'll wither away." However, he continues, Japanese people do show originality in low and pop culture. "In the past, for example, there was ukiyo-e, while now there is manga and anime. Traditionally, Japan didn't think about exporting its own original sub-culture, but kept it inside the country, where it could grow and evolve. Kogals are a perfect example of that phenomena" Kogals are a Japanese original.
Images courtesy of Mizuma Art Gallery
Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at Kotaku.com