On paper, Harajuku Girls is an intriguing prospect. Francis Turnly’s play promises to examine the social and economic pressures on young Japanese women through the journey of two friends from innocent cosplay to less-than-innocent image clubs in twenty-first century Tokyo. The marketing blurb’s emphasis on image and fantasy, when I first read it, strikes me as having lots of mileage: it poses implicit questions about who is looking, whose desires are really being indulged, who is in control. Plus, it’s directed by Jude Christian, whose assured and striking production of I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of My Sleep Than Some Other Arsehole at the Gate last year immediately grabbed my attention.
Which makes it all the more disappointing when it struggles to land. Expectations can be dangerous things and unfair markers against which to judge a production, but Harajuku Girls is muddled by any measure. To its credit, it is trying to do a lot – too much, perhaps, causing it to wobble under the weight of its own ambitions. Through the story of best friends Mari and Keiko, Turnly casts his gaze on various of Tokyo’s less savoury aspects, from panty shops to love hotels, while at the same time attempting to tackle big questions around agency, tradition, family, freedom, sexual politics, consumerism … the list goes on and on.
At the centre of this web of ideas is Haruka Abe’s naive but determined Mari, a would-be actress who is quickly persuaded to put her talent for role-play to profitable use when her parents refuse to support her through drama school. Her rebellious trajectory might be familiar, but her particular brand of teenage defiance opens up underexplored avenues. Spurred on by Keiko, Mari joins her friend in working at an image club, where the two one-time cosplayers once again don outfits, this time to act out the sexual fantasies of a constant parade of men. They claim to be calling the shots, but bit by bit their grasp on events slips away from them. As a counterpoint to this murky underworld, meanwhile, we see odd glimpses of Mari’s strict, concerned parents and her childhood friend Yumi, whose dead-end job offers little argument for pursuing more legitimate employment.
For all the themes knocking around, though, it’s sometimes hard to locate the critique – by no means obligatory in a piece of theatre, but it feels strangely lacking in a play that’s so clearly aiming its fire on something. Is it the exploitative, unseen owners of the image clubs who are to blame? The pressures from family and culture that send Mari and Keiko to one of these establishments? The entire industry of illicit sex? The continuing vein of misogyny and discrimination that runs through the society of both play and audience? All of the above? By the end, I’m still not sure. Acknowledging complexity is one thing, but Harajuku Girls seems, like its protagonists, to progressively lose its way, not helped by a production that is just as unsure.
After so vividly capturing the bright, plastic, grubby allure and repulsion of modern capitalism in Goya, Christian’s depiction of Tokyo’s seedy underside is oddly diluted. What should be garish, flashing neon is instead muted watercolour. It all just feels a bit lacklustre, from the tentative performances to Cécile Trémolières’ ungainly, laborious set design. As the actors shift around bits of furniture between scenes, their attempts to keep up momentum with bursts of “aren’t we all having such fun?” laughter and dancing are increasingly strained – apt, maybe, but awkward to watch. If this absence of colour and animation is the point – as well it could be given the subject matter – then the production lacks the confidence to fully make it, instead leaving that promising premise mired in a tangle of question marks.