looking at the gothic shojo

excerpt from “Girls in Lace Dresses: the Intersections of Gothic in Japanese Youth Fiction and Fashion” by Emerald L King, Lucy Fraser in New Directions in Children’s Gothic (2017)

The well-established aesthetic of the Gothic of an imagined Europe is reiterated especially clearly in Sakuraba Kazuki’s GOSICK young adult novel series. The title itself is a typically free appropriation of foreign text and tradition, playing on the Japanese loanword from the English ‘gothic’, goshikku, which is then rendered in the Roman alphabet as the invented word ‘gosick’. GOSICK is a ‘light novel’ series, a recent format that generally describes a short, easy-to-read novel with illustrations, targeted at teens (Steinburg 2012: 244). In fact, the Sakuraba herself describes this series as her deliberate move to gain popularity through entertaining and digestible work: ‘In entertainment novels for children,’ she says, ‘you can’t write complicated feelings or dark content’ (‘GOSICK Interview’ 2013). Sakuraba notes that she ‘saved up’ darker ideas and themes that did not fit here – these found success in works for adults such as A Lollypop or a Bullet, which brought her recognition in the realm of mainstream fiction (see Fraser 2012).

The success of the series encouraged its development into a mix of media in several languages, so that written and visual aspects all form part of the collective text. The series includes 13 novels published by the Fujimi Shobō mystery label between December 2003 and July 2011, with cover and other illustrations by manga artist Takeda Hinata. The first two

novels were translated into English by Tokyopop in 2008 and 2010 (also available in French and German).x The novel series was adapted to a 24-episode television series of the same title, animated by Bones and aired by TV Tokyo January–July 2011, and officially licensed for simulcast online with English subtitles by Crunchyroll. A manga adaptation with art by Amano Sakuya was also serialised in Monthly Dragon Age from January 2008 to May 2012. GOSICK is set in 1924, in a literally ‘imagined’ Europe: Sauville, an invented small French-speaking country hidden somewhere in the Alps between Switzerland, France, and Italy. Japanese encounters with this imagined West are foregrounded through the character of a Japanese exchange student: the only Asian student at his exclusive school, St Marguerite Academy, Kujō Kazuya is the 15-year-old youngest son of a military family, invited to study in Sauville as part of the country’s post-World War I program of accepting foreign students. The earnest Kazuya plays Watson to an eccentric girl detective, Victorique de Blois. Victorique spends her time in the conservatory of a high tower of a magnificent library building within the school, a bored genius occupying herself with the endless books at her disposal. Her half-brother, the police inspector Grévil de Blois, visits Victorique for her insight into the mysteries that confound him, and Kazuya also gets caught up in the action.

The 1920s is rapidly becoming an appealing time setting for young adult Gothic fiction. In the Japanese imagination, the Roaring 20s, a result of the Taisho period (1910-1926), is something of an odd blip between the rapid modernisation of the Imperial Meiji period, and the nation building, martial years of the early Shōwa period (1926-1989). Governed by an inept Emperor (Yenne 2014: 38), it is a period of rapid social upheaval, political unrest, and natural disasters; all set to a soundtrack of American and Japanese jazz. The period also saw a boom in popular and youth culture, and speculative fiction; it is no coincidence that many of the ‘big names’ of Japanese Gothic were alive during this period. For GOSICK, this means that the series is set in a liminal, imagined European country during an interim time period.

Despite this violence and darkness, the GOSICK novels are streaked with comic and light-hearted moments, and entertaining caricatures. As such the claim of links to Gothic genres might be tenuous if it were not for Sakuraba’s invocation of Japanese imaginings of a mysterious Europe, and through the figure of Victorique. One Gothic element of the novel that Sakuraba herself has highlighted is Victorique in her role of a woman confined to a tower (‘GOSICK Interview’ 2013).[i] An illegitimate child of a noble family, born to a dancer mother who went mad, Victorique was raised in isolation and is now confined to the school library; in Volume 1 she jokingly describes herself as an ‘imprisoned princess’ (292).

Clothing the GOSICK heroine

Victorique’s appearance and dress make important contributions to the Gothic nature of the novels and their related products. Her anachronistic gowns may be seen as an oversight or the result of a lack of familiarity with European dress, but, like the designers of Gothic Lolita street fashion designers whose garments Victorique’s so closely resemble, ‘Japanese designers have strategically referenced certain aspects of historical European dress, producing something new’ (Monden 2013: 170). After all, as Takahara points out, the Gothic aesthetic is ‘essentially a variation on the heritage of the past. However, this is a fabulous past which has never actually existed’ (2004: 1; trans. cited Mackie 2009).

The manga and anime adaptations build on Takeda’s original drawings published as part of the Gosick light novels. A key part of the look of the manga, Victorique’s elaborate dresses and gowns spill over the borders of the comic panels she appears in. Although set in the early 1920s, many characters seem to be clad in anachronistic costumes. The blouses and long skirts worn by the staff and female students of St Marguerite Academy seem to refer back to the shirtwaist blouses and long skirts of the early 1900s Gibson Girl rather than the tubular silhouette that the 20s is better known for. This does make some sense, as uniforms, for both staff and students of any institution, tend to be conservative and slow to change (Brunsma 2004: 3). Kujō too, is most often seen in his school uniform, which consists of dark, narrow fitting trousers, a black blazer with an epaulette-like design on the shoulders, a black tie, grey vest, and a white shirt with small wing-tip collars. When not in his uniform, Kujō is shown wearing an informal green jacket with wide black colours and cuffs, teamed with a pair of trousers (possibly even lederhosen given the distinctive chest strap on the suspenders he wears and the location of the school somewhere in the Alps), calf length brown boots and a somewhat battered looking fedora hat.[ii] Kujō’s school uniform, lederhosen, and fedora are timeless garments that could be worn any time from the late 1800s onwards. Victorique’s garments, however, make little sense for a young woman in the rapidly modernising world of the 1920s, referring as they do to Victorian styles that would have been popular decades earlier. In A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction,Robert Mighall claims that ‘defining feature of Gothic is its concern with the “vestigial”’ (cited Spooner 2004: 15). If we consider this in terms of fashion, then Gothic clothing is, more than black velvet and lace, vinyl and leather, ‘the vestigial remains’ of fashions past, particularly if they ‘fill us with horror’ (Spooner 2014: 16). Reading them in this manner then, Victorique’s gowns are Gothic, not only because of the links with Victorian Gothic, but because of their vestigial nature in the novel’s setting of the early 1920s.

The GOSICK media mix is not limited solely to print media. The series boasts a 2011 collaboration with Gothic and Lolita brand, Innocent World, which comprised of a two coloured ‘one piece’ dress (OP) trimmed with rows of ribbons and lace and featuring bell-shaped ‘princess sleeves,’ a longer ‘tiered’ OP, optional lace sleeves, a pair of knee length socks striped with roses and abstract fleur de lis, pointed boots with bow details, a bonnet, a flat head dress and lace gloves (Lolibrary n.d.). All of these items were produced in three colour ways – Beige, Brown x Beige, and Wine/Bordeux. Innocent World describe the pieces as ‘delicately arranged lace’ with ‘bold colours’ that make for a ‘classical style dress’.

2011 also saw a collaboration between GOSICK with high-end doll-maker Volks under their Super Dollfie line. Dolls, Takahara writes, are becoming ideal material for the expression of a gothic consciousness (Takahara 2004: 172). Takahara notes that he refers to dolls as objet, such as creations by Hans Bellmer or, in Japan, Yotsuya Shimōn/Simone: these dolls have a sense of the artistic, or the erotic, without being sex toys; as ball-jointed, moveable items they are marked as dolls rather than statues of human figures that they resemble; and ‘their ability to be detached or reassembled makes them represent a human body in an unreal condition’ (172-173). There is a clear link between GOSICK and the doll, beyond it being just another product tie-in. In the light novels, Victorique is frequently depicted, as in the title to Chapter 3, as a ‘blonde fairy’, a ‘broken doll’ (285), and the first line of the manga is simply ‘doll’ (ningyō). The three panel page shows Kujō walking through an airy, plant-filled room. He looks up to see a seated figure holding a pipe and wearing a black ruffled dress (1). The coloured frontispiece of the second volume of the manga shows Victorique, in white Victorian underwear embracing a life-size doll doppelganger that is dressed in complementary black, acknowledging the doll as an uncanny mirror or reverse image. Volks offers Victorique in her iconic black and grey dress – that features on both the Volume 1 covers of the light novels, and the manga – and Kujō in his school uniform. The creation of dolls conveys a sense of innocence, yet the uncanny darkness invites an erotic gaze that complicates this. Through these two collaborations, fans of GOSICK can choose to express their ‘admiration for innocence’ (Takahara 2007: 9), an act that Takahara claims is part of the ‘Gothic spirit’, through either taking care of the Volks dolls – each doll is each issued with either a ‘birth certificate’ or an ‘owners’ certificate – or by taking on the guise of the doll by wearing the Innocent World collection.

Victorique, as a Gothic heroine, is in a unique position. In many Japanese Gothic narratives, women are relegated to the status of victim (Hughes 2000: 71). Furthermore, in Tanizaki’s work, for example, there are only two options for women: idealised figure of the mother/Madonna or the reviled, yet sexually alluring figure of the harlot (McCarthy 1982: 2-3). Victorique is a non-woman: a girl in a shōnen title; a doll; a fairy.Yet while women in Japanese Gothic are relatively powerless, their spirits ‘are capable of powerful revenge’ (Hughes 2000: 71). Victorique, as a non-woman and clad in Gothic and Lolita style fashion, is able to draw on this occult power. In her work on representation of Gothic and Lolita fashion in Japanese television series, Akiko Sugawa suggests that the dual nature of the fashion’s name ‘deftly symbolises the binary features of shōjo: Goth denoting girls’ occultist [power] and loli signifying girls’ romantic cuteness’ (Sugawa-Shimada 2013: 200).

On the one hand, Victorique’s very name points to the feminine Victorian sensibilities that define and often restrict her; from her mode of dressing, to the tower in the library to which she is confined. On the other hand, the genius detective Victorique – and her name is in fact a man’s name[iii] – is also allotted some of the powers of the Victorian period’s most famous consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. As noted above, Kujō takes on the role of her sometimes reluctant Watson, while her half-brother Grévil de Blois corresponds to a composite of Inspectors Lestrade (whose first name starts with a G)[iv] and Gregson. The most obvious link, after her detective work, is Victorique’s pipe. While Sherlock is most commonly associated with a great Calabash pipe,[v] in Conan Doyle’s texts he was depicted using clay, briar, and cherry pipes. Like Sherlock, Victorique favours a white clay pipe which she uses when thinking through a case. However, so pervasive is the Calabash that it features on the Kadokawa Bunko release of the GOSICK light novel series which saw the removal of the distinctive light novel cover. In this edition, Takeda’s original illustrations were replaced with silhouettes of Victorique in frilled dresses surrounded by various mystery and Gothic accoutrements. Volume 1 of this reissue features a calabash pipe as well as two rabbits, a pistol and a dagger. Furthermore, the monstrous dog of the prologue of the first GOSICK book, as well as the murderous ‘hunting dog’ on board the ship (which appears in the light novel, manga and anime versions), echo the enormous hound of Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902). Written during the late-Victorian era, The Hound of the Baskervilles illustrates how the ‘modern detective story emerges almost simultaneously with the late-Victorian revival of the Gothic tale’ (Clausson 2005: 63-64). The horror and mystery elements present in GOSICK, Conan Doyle’s Sherlock tales, as well as in the work of Kurahashi Yumiko, Edogawa Ranpo, and Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, operate ‘both to create mystery and then to give the illusion – but only the illusion – of solving it’ (Clausson 2005: 78).

[i]               A figure also seen, as the author herself points out, in Sakuraba’s entertaining historical-supernatural novel, Fuse: A Counterfeit Legend of Eight Dogs of the Satomi Clan (2010).

[ii]              It may even be Kujō is sporting that most Edwardian of hats – a homburg.

[iii]             In the Japanese, Vikutorika, noted by Kujō Kazuya to be a male name in Vol. 1 (29).

[iv]             This is revealed by Arthur Conan Doyle in ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’ (1892).

[v]              This pipe has been favoured by actors depicting Sherlock Holmes since William Gillette (1853-1937). Gillette is also responsible for the deerstalker hat and the phrase ‘elementary my dear Watson’ (de Castella 2015: n.p.).


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