Never was a single street so contrived to entice. The pavement of Takeshita Street in Harajuku was lined with flashing gadgetry and colourful signs; every shop along the road sparkled invitingly with lace and neon and floral attire. Hello Kitty ran rife, pouting ambivalently from shop windows, mobile phones and notebooks. But the main spectacles of the street- the spectacle of our modern era, perhaps, their image recycled from cartoons to catwalks- were the celebrated Harajuku cosplayers. It is impossible to ignore a cosplaying Harajuku girl as she treads her domain, chatters to her friends, or flicks her perfectly coiffed hair despondently. Attired in the blue wigs and the glittering eyelashes, the lipsticks and the sequined capes, the petticoats and the plastics of her favourite anime character, the Harajuku girl will strut around her eponymous district, a fragile and captivating peacock. I sweat in the heavy Harajuku sun for several hours, marvelling at the performance, while they tighten their corsets and giggle, impervious to the sweltering conditions. The medley of high-pitched pop and cheerful shop announcements serenades their walk down Takeshita Street, that curious avenue of candy-floss and kitsch trinkets. They babble rapidly, an incoherent torrent of words and laughter and half-tuneful lyrics. Their lives, it appears, are a wonderment of fiction, their existence a diet of sequins and make-believe.
Yet, on this particularly humid Sunday in Harajuku, its mythical inhabitants would soon seem more human. Watching them tower above the rest on their plastic platforms, I found my unabashed gaze to be met with hostility. One girl, curiously ageless to look at, although doubtless about seventeen, was bedecked in the polished pigtails and nautical blue of the popular manga character, Sailor Moon. Yet the injury welling in her eyes bore no resemblance to the two-dimensional cartoon; here was a sensitive teenager who resented the attention her appearance drew. She hurled at me a volley of unintelligible sentences. Her lyrical high-pitch belied the anger of her words, which she clearly conveyed by covering her face with her hands, and grimacing pointedly. Acutely embarrassed, I apologised in stumbling Japanese; she looked so nice, I mimed, I could not help but notice her. She turned her face away, in cold composure. She had not, it seemed, completely rejected her cultural inheritance, for this expressionless rejection bore the characteristic cast of the Noh theatre tradition. Her face- momentarily a flashing furnace of angst and upset- was now the mask of the super-hero she mimicked. She walked deliberately away, and her chattering bevy of colourful super-hero friends followed. I watched with a wince when, in the distance, she turned with fury on an American family sporting cameras.
Beneath the bravado of her glossy exterior, then, was the insecurity of any seventeen year old. I had been too distracted by the bold plastics and neon colourings of the Harajuku girls’ appearances to consider the vulnerability these masks concealed. It was a valuable encounter, puncturing the super-hero self-confidence of the Harajuku image. The girl I had seen was a walking paradox, donning the most alluring outfit on the planet- all sparkles, synthetics, and eccentricity- but resenting the attention she received. I found the world-famous conception of the exhibitionism of these cosplayers to be a myth; rather, as I learned that Sunday, the Harajuku girl’s decoration had been a deeply personal expression of self.