Antagonist Fashion - Style Representation of Yakuza in Films
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Suppose most have heard of the phrase "Yakuza". In brief, it is the general term used when referring to criminal organizations in Japan. The Yakuza, much like otaku, punk, and other subcultures, despite being considered despicable by the general public, their lifestyles usually do make up for successful and popular entertainment content due to the stark contrast between their lifestyle and that of a regular citizen. So to speak, while the unlawful behavior of the Yakuza is considered despicable in real life, they are looked upon as cool and charismatic figures on the big screen. Today, we look at the depiction of the Yakuza in films through the lens of style, and break down how outfits make up for the fascination of these Yakuza characters.
"Style is a way to say who you are without having to speak," a famous quote from American stylist Rachel Zoe in regards to the wearer-clothing relationship. Indeed, in this article we go deeper than simply observing outfits that match the setting of a film, but to analyze and deconstruct the cultural meaning behind a style.
Firstly, we look at Takeshi Kitano in Brother. The black suit is a staple in a Yakuza’s closet. Suits have an almost natural connection with masculinity; suits are made for expression and are instinctively perceived as authority, significance, and status. Different suit colors convey different meanings; for example, navy conveys trustworthiness, gray conveys efficiency, and black conveys sophistication and power.
An element that sets Takeshi Kitano’s black suit in Brother apart from regular suits is its exaggerated shoulders, boxy silhouette, and overall oversized fit. The suit was designed by Yohji Yamamoto, a household designer in Japan famous for having a distinctive style and a cult following. The general impression of Yohji’s design is black, flowy, relaxed clothing for both men and women. However, what the public might not be aware of is that, under the surface, the style preference of Yohji is far deeper than simply a stylistic approach.
Raised by a single mother, Yohji dedicates his designs as a platform to empower women, quoting his own words, "I grew up after the Second World War, the only son of a war widow... This pushed me to see society through my mother's eyes. I believe that seeing the world through a woman's eyes was my destiny and enabled me to do what I do... I had to protect my mother. " Designing, for Yohji Yamamoto, meant demanding gender equality; covering up the skin that shows in an exotic western dress with loosely fitting fabrics; and deconstructing the rigid edges and structures of a traditional suit and replacing them with fluid fabrics and unconfined silhouettes.
The styling in the film can be understood as a reverse logic to Yohji’s understanding of men’s clothing and the expression of masculinity within the film. In other words, as much as Yohji is knowledgeable and capable of making fashionable wear for strong females and relatively tender males, given the task, he is able to put together an outfit for the opposite, which in this case, is the macho, combative, aggressive character. So to speak, instead of employing fabrics that deliberately cover up the masculine essence of the male body, the designer attempted to exaggerate the more tacky side of a traditional suit.
Next we move on to the colorful Yakuza outfits, the Hawaiian shirts. Cuban necklines, bright colors, elbow-length sleeves, the aloha shirt first came about in the 1930s as not much more than a commercially oriented souvenir of Hawaii. It was not until 1953 that the design became a wider known silhouette, and that happened with the release of the blockbuster film in 1953, From Here to Eternity, which featured the aloha shirt as the main costume and starred an impressive roster of American superstars, ranging from Frank Sinatra to Burt Lancaster.The shirt was mostly known for the death scene of Montgomery Clift, and was therefore given the name "the death shirt", associating violence and masculinity with the design. This can be identified as the first profound cinematic significance the Hawaiian shirt has received since its creation, and what’s more is that this "death shirt" will later be referenced in one of the greatest youth culture films in Japanese cinematic history, Crazed Fruit, within 3 years of its creation.
Crazed Fruit is a Taiyo Zoku film, which means that it portrays violent episodes of financially privileged post-war teenagers. The violence prone characters of the teens and their lack of awareness of consequences made the Taiyo Zoku notorious figures on the big screen. In fact, at a certain point, the films were so detested by the public to the extent that actor Ishihara Yujiro was almost forced to go through a change of image in his later years by quitting the Taiyo Zoku roles. Overtime, the Taiyo Zoku films gave the Hawaiian shirt a bad name of youth associated nihilism and violence among the Japanese public.
In Sonatine, one of the most representative Yakuza films in history, we’re able to see some prominent appearances of the Hawaiian shirt. In the most famous scene in the film, the young Yakuza members are seen wearing the bright colored aloha shirts while engaging in a dangerous and almost anti-logical game of shooting cans off of each other's heads with a pistol before moving on to a roulette. Take it as either a mockery of the representation of nihilism in costume or a paid tribute to the youth and violence relationship, this scene was able to carry on the characteristics previously built into the fashion and solidify the Hawaiian shirt’s presence in the Yakuza world.
Last but not least, we look at the alternative Yakuza, the playful, out-of-the-world but nevertheless brutal and bloodthirsty beings, the Yakuza from Ichi the Killer, styled by Michiko Kitamura. The Yakuza in Ichi the Killer doesn’t follow the dress code of the regular Yakuza. Employing not only uncommon color palates but also exquisite fabrics such as velvet, glitter, and embroidery, the Yakuza in the film, compared to the Takeshi Kitano Yakuza, dresses in an almost feminine fashion.
Michiko Kitamura is one of -if not- the most outstanding Japanese stylists of her generation. Her signature style is highly exaggerated garments with an experimental mix-and-match of clothes, and her styling for Ichi the Killer was no exception. Red checkered suit with matching pants and white boots, velvet long coat paired with silky purple shirt and floral embroidery trousers, the Yakuza in the film looks nothing less glam than models on the red carpet.
Nonetheless, as much as Michiko Kitamura’s styling strays away from the general image of the Yakuza, it never fails to capture the essence of the characters in Ichi the Killer. Indeed, the clothing-wearer relationship could be established as long as the two elements are in line, no matter if it is masculinity, violence, or, in Ichi the Killer’s case, weirdness. Fashion, much like Michiko Kitamura herself, knows no bounds, and the rules of style are meant to be broken and reinvented with each generation and passing of time.
Throughout the article, we went over some of the most iconic fashion implementations of Yakuza in films, and witnessed the fascination outfits are able to bring to the audience. Although each approach to the film-fashion relationship appears to be utterly different, I believe that it is in fact the complexity and possibility lying within the relationship of style and characteristic that the joy of fashion in films stems from.
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