At the turn of the millennium, Japanese artist Ai Yazawa introduced the original goth girlfriend: 21-year-old punk Nana Osaki graced the pages of serialized shōjo and josei manga magazines (young female-aimed publications) as the protagonist of Nana. Each new issue following Osaki’s starry-eyed fantasy of rising to musical stardom in early-2000s Tokyo, a colorful metropolis of rejected demo Cds and bleached ganguro girls. Amongst her surroundings, Osaki was a beautiful anomaly with her unkempt black bob, smudgy eyeshadow, and wine-hued lipstick that would put Met Gala Grimes to shame, while her wardrobe epitomized stylish intrigue a la Vivienne Westwood or late-90s riot grrrl. And though her artistic dreams were seemingly too ambitious, by the end of Yazawa’s manga-turned-anime series iconic wars, Osaki’s inimitable image eventually captivated all of Japan. Indeed, the small-town girl with a provocative aesthetic and too much emotional baggage rose to nationwide fame as the frontwoman of Japan’s biggest rock band.
But on a more intimate and nostalgic level, Osaki portrayed the kind of misfit chick that would scare assimilating yet inspired real-life teenagers – those fanatical about balancing their outward self-expression with social acceptance – into an envious and observant silence. Born and raised in the banal suburbs, I was one of those many young, confused baby millennials stuck in a place where uniformity equated to social acceptance. Contrary to what 80s teen flicks starring Molly Ringwald illustrated, there wasn’t always an eternally present clique distinct from the normie culture that my past self or surroundings represented. And with the absence of creative-looking peers serving as firsthand fashion inspiration, many of us harboring the desire to present uniquely had to depend on artful media to fuel our own creative minds. For millennials, that content was film and television programs packaged into VHS tapes and uploaded to bootleg video websites. More specifically, it was anime like Nana that gifted an aspirational Generation Y with something stylishly inspirational whenever reality disappointed our mind and closets.
Yet, despite Nana being the most obvious instance of a fashion-centric subculture being embodied in popular anime, the most eminent works of Yazawa (like Nana and Paradise Kiss) are merely two femme-targeting instances of Japanese animation’s overt commitment to expressive personal style in its character creations. A keen eyeing of then-new anime from the heyday of millennial youth — circa the late 80s to about a half-decade ago — reveals even the most famous mainstream films and programs to be either trendsetting or trend-adopting. 30 years after its theatrical release, the dystopian classic Akira usually has a presence in conversations on cyberpunk fashion, while ruby-red leather biker ensembles are now tantamount to the disobedient, heated persona of protagonist and young biker-gang leader Shōtarō Kaneda. And perhaps most uniquely, the ever-booming Sailor Moon franchise incorporated both couture and everyday fashion in its distinct, changing designs by creator Naoko Takeuchi. Pulling directly from designers like Thierry Mugler, Chanel, and Dior, the wildly successful series — beloved by all genders — embodied high fashion, despite tween audiences likely being uninterested in the specific inspirations behind the glamorous hand-drawn looks. In contrast, the casual wardrobes of Sailor Moon characters vividly mirrored the trendy, preppy pieces that 80s and 90s teens lusted after at their local malls: colored high-rise denim paired with teeny cropped cardigans, or color-blocked varsity jackets and warm, knitted turtlenecks.