I probably should just review the video: MomocloZ’s new PV
Momoiro Clover released their new single “Saraba, Itochiki Kanashimitachi yo” a few days ago. I’ve provided a link to the English-subbed video below, should you wish to check it out:
It’s standard Momoclo fare. Which is to say, visually extravagant, conceptually nonsensical, and nothing close to standard. I’m a big Momoiro Clover Z fan, and while I doubt they will ever top Ikuze! Kaitou Shoujo, they’ve never released a dud single. This video takes an eccentric trip through a Gothic Lolita influenced Wonderland, complete with big hairdos, light-up costumes, and all kinds of spooky goodness.
But it’s Halloween, so let’s talk about…cultural appropriation!
Pop culture often walks the line between imitative and offensive. Trying to get across the idea of a particular culture typically involves distilling its complexity down into a few recognizable elements. That’s why all Russians look like cossacks, all French people wear berets, and this iCarly movie exists. However, it’s obvious how quickly identifying a set of cultural stereotypes can easily become offensive, particularly when they seem to cast judgment upon those possessing them. People [from certain cultural perspectives] are frequently offended by attempts to ‘cheaply mimic’ other cultures, from sorority girls at Halloween to Korean students performing Hairspray in blackface. Certainly critics have pointed to T-ara’s Yayaya as having costumes, dance, and storyline that scrape the bottom of the barrel with false overused American Indian stereotypes, particularly portraying them as primitive and barbaric. The lack of this narrative aspect, in fact, is what makes Momoiro Clover’s own PV ‘Pinky Jones‘ more homage than racism.
Thankfully, this video is no where near as questionable in it’s presentation. What it does have, however, is a small person of Caucasian descent, who observes and eventually imitates the group’s performance. Let’s call her…Alice, because subtlety is not the strong point of J-Pop videos.
It’s a basic trope. An innocent watches a performance and becomes changed through doing so. While it becomes more sinister when children are placed in videos with over-sexualized dancing, even in this video it creates value judgements that the person watching (and by extension the audience) is expected to absorb.
Why this video stuck out to me in particular was how similar it was to Hanikami Lollipop, a B-side from SKE48′s February release. In this video, a white child (who is a non-native English speaker) requests the help of SKE48′s Jurina to restore color to the otherworldly Parisian cafe setting that has fallen into literal greyscale. Again, the child is a passive observer, and again the child is changed – this time in a much more obvious way – by the events in the video.
But is it significant that they are white?
In my experience, Westerners do not feature prominently in Japanese pop videos. In fact, excusing Coconuts Musume (and Mika and Ayaka derivatives) the only H!P video that heavily features foreigners is Berryz Koubou’s Madayade. In both of these cases, the children in the video are more set dressing than characters, there to establish a gothic fairytale mood. There’s nothing wrong with including extras, of course, but it begins to tiptoe towards a line when the race of the actors is the crucial aspect of establishing the setting. It leans toward objectifying a group of people based on some subset of their identifying features. (Though Westerners are certainly guilty of this…*cough* Gwen Stefani)
What strikes me as odd is how the producers of the video thought that the race of the children used heightened the fairytale feel of the video. Most fairytales have a universality to them such that, even if they are not well known in other countries, they can be applied within the cultural context of everyone’s experience (I’m sorry for that last sentence). Why a magical gothic landscape feels more authentic when populated by white people is a question that requiring further probing. I just don’t have an answer.
When people are background players, they almost necessarily become passive. Such is certainly the case here, with both children needing the help of the idol groups in question to effect change in themselves. However, unless I start seeing more videos with this particular set up, I’m not ready to decry it as racist. What it does do is establish a contrast between what is seen as stiff, boring white children, and a hip exciting idol culture than can transform it. It’s certainly has jinogistic undertones, but then again…Gwen Stefani. (Not to mention it’s nice to see idols given a PV storyline where they have agency…even when *given* is probably the operative word. )
Finally, to complicate things further, views on cultural appropriation are themselves derived within a particular context. Which is to say, just like everything else, there are different cultural standards for appropriating other cultures. Sure, as globalization occurs there is gravitation towards more homogeneity, but it strikes me as ironic to completely judge another culture on their lack of cultural awareness. Thus, for K-Pop, which has marketed itself more globally, the pressure is greater to appeal, without offense, to a wide variety of audiences. For J-Pop, where the market is much more internal, adhering to nationally held standards of what constitutes appropriate portrayal of other cultures is sufficient.
(By the way, there have been really engaging arguments for and against the inclusion of foreigners in K-Pop videos. While I highly suggest you read them, the way foreigners are used in K-Pop is typically different from what I’m discussing here.)
So, I probably should have just reviewed the video (I liked it, I really did), but I think the way J-Pop deals with foreign cultures is fascinating. Certainly, at least, something to remember tomorrow when you see your third geisha costume of the night.