“I don’t know a girl who hasn’t been groped on a train. There’s always someone trying to cop a feel. Might as well get paid for it.”
With quite a few shows closing this weekend, I opted to pay a trip to the penultimate show of Harajuku Girls at the Finborough. Francis Turnly’s play sets up an intriguing premise in the exploration of the world of Japanese cosplay and its role in modern Tokyo society and creatively, it brings the director of last year’s extraordinary I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me Of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole back to the stage in Jude Christian.
After graduating high school, Mari, Keiko and Yumi find themselves cut adrift in the harsh realities of the depressed economy of the real world. Parental and societal expectation is as high as it has ever been but jobs are increasingly hard to come by, tuition fees for further education are sky-high and so dressing up in cosplay outfits offers an escapist route. In the seedier areas of town, it also offers financial opportunity but it’s a struggle to ensure they’re the ones who exploit and are not exploited.
Elizabeth Tan’s self-confident but ultimately self-destructive Keiko leads the charge into the world of panty shops and image clubs with great élan, her determination to take men for all they’ve got equalled only by her desire to score the next line. Kunjue Li’s Yumi is the other end of the scale, meekly accepting her academic failure but finding her own sense of pride in her job as a lift operator at a department store – cosplay thus remains an innocent pleasure for her.
And somewhere between is Haruka Abe’s excellent Mari, torn between the independence she gains in following Keiko and a nagging sense of familial duty. Scenes with her parents interweave with those of the girls at work, suggesting the national malaise in Japan beyond her understanding – the sacrifices her mother has made (beautiful work by Meg Kubota), the work pressures her father must endure (Nomo Gakuji doing his best with an underwritten part).
It’s hard not to want a little more from Turnly’s writing though, to give us more of a sense of the characters beneath the costumes, or to really explore the popularity of this subculture, why so many men seek their pleasures this way. Christian’s production is complicit here too, offering the dayglo fantasy as shown in Cécile Trémolières’ set design and Helen Skiera’s J-Pop-heavy soundtrack but never probing its underbelly. Still, an interesting subject to discover for the first time.