When The World Ends With You came out back in 2008, the western world was only just catching up with the vibrancy and dynamism of Japanese street fashion. Now, on the heels of NEO: The World Ends With You, it’s a global phenomenon.
Japanese designers like Rei Kawakubo, Junya Watanabe, Issey Miyake, and Yohji Yamamoto had turned Tokyo into a fashion capital by the mid-’90s, and the early aughts saw a influx of Japanese fashion influences trickle their way onto the runways of major western fashion cities like New York, Paris, and Milan. Alexander McQueen’s Spring/Summer 2005 collection, “It’s Only a Game,” played with the juxtaposition of Japanese textiles and kimono construction and American fashion iconography like football protective equipment. Similar silhouettes popped up in the collections of Elie Saab, John Galliano, and several other designers.
This influence plays out in a scene in the 2005 film The Devil Wears Prada, where designer James Holt holds a preview of his collection for Runway magazine’s Miranda Priestly. He introduces the collection by saying, “I was trying to capture the intersection of East meets West. The modern woman as geisha meets rockstar, with a little Desperate Housewives thrown in.”
Also in 2005, Gwen Stefani’s appropriation of Harajuku fashion—a nebulous term to encompass the dozens of different styles and subcultures birthed in Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood—came to a head with her album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. and the Harajuku girls she paraded around.
Of course, this is all indicative of the average person’s awareness of Japanese fashion entering the visual lexicon.
Long before Gwen Stefani marketed her Harajuku Lovers fragrances and clothing line in Targets across America, anime and JRPG fans held an appreciation for Japanese alternative cultures, which only grew as the aughts progressed. If you liked Japanese media, you were likely to get into J-Rock and Japanese fashion too. Especially if you liked manga like Ai Yazawa’s NANA and Paradise Kiss, which centered on music and fashion, or watched an anime with an opening by a visual kei leaning band. Tetsuya Nomura character designs, which you may have seen in promotional art for Final Fantasy games, have always leaned on just the right side of impractical and maximalist. I think that’s why so many JRPG fans fall in love with Japanese fashion brands. h.Naoto makes you look like your favorite zippered and buckled Final Fantasy character with a punk twist.
But access to Japanese street fashion brands was difficult, and expensive. Fashion designers like Stussy and Vivienne Westwood were clued into what was going on in Tokyo, but those Japanese designers were inaccessible to the average American or European designer. It feels unimaginable now to be unable to buy a BAPE T-shirt, but in the early aughts the only place to have BAPE anything, in my experience at least, was Kinokuniya, a Japanese bookstore chain, in expensive magazine and T-shirt bundles.
In the early aughts, Japanese street fashion aficionados flocked to LiveJournal. Online communities formed to talk about new collections to come out of their favorite brands, like BABY The Star Shines Bright, h.Naoto, and Liz Lisa, and how to acquire them. Only the luckiest folks had an anime convention nearby with Japanese fashion sellers taking up shop in the dealer’s room or a bookstore selling months-old issues of fashion magazines like FRUiTs, Popteen, Egg, and Gothic Lolita Bible.
So when Square Enix, my lifelong favorite game studio, released The World Ends With You in 2008, at the height of my obsession with Japanese fashion, I could not have been more ecstatic.
The World Ends With You is an atypical JRPG about a teenager named Neku who wakes up in Shibuya to find himself thrown into the Reaper’s Game. He partners up with other Players in a parallel dimension to fight Noise, the game’s monsters, and follow the Reapers’ missions. Win the game and Players might get the chance to join reality once more. Fail and they’re erased forever.
Fashion is integral to The World Ends With You. It’s woven into the fabric of the game like it’s woven into the real-life tapestry of Shibuya, another of Tokyo’s fashion epicenters. Shibuya, and its fashion, has a distinctly unique vibe from Harajuku. Shibuya is nittier, grittier, and a little bit glitzier.
The developers chose Shibuya as the setting for The World Ends With You and stayed faithful to capturing its rhythm. They walked the streets to note the landmarks and street scenes to include in the game. A part of capturing Shibuya is not just in the physical locations but in conveying how youth subcultures influence the very energy of the neighborhood. The streets influence the fashion and the fashion influences the streets. It’s a living, breathing symbiote.
Shichi Aoki, the editor and photographer behind FRUiTS, the legendary street fashion magazine that helped broadcast Japanese street fashion to a global audience, said it best in the introduction of Phaidon’s archive of the magazine: Fashion “advertises specific community identity” and is a “reaction to the immediate reality of the street.”
The towering shopping mecca Shibuya 109, dubbed Shibuya 104 in the game, is still a looming presence, and Hachiko’s statue is a meeting place. Milk-tea-blonde gyaru dot the streets, texting their trendy friends asking where they’re at and wondering if they’re going to run into a member of their favorite idol group. Not only did the game’s developers channel the look and feel of Shibuya down to landmarks like Shibuya 109, they also managed to gamify how fashion trends and brand loyalty worked in Shibuya at the time of development.
Flip through an old issue of FRUiTS and you’ll see young professionals head to toe in all of their favorite brands. Some are wearing all Milk, some are wearing all Takuya Angel, some are wearing all W<. It’s loyalty transformed into a community. People who devote themselves to a brand find devotees and worship together. The same thing is reflected in The World Ends With You.
Establishing trends and feeling out which brands are fashionable where is important for gameplay. Wear Wild Boar 104 in an area of Shibuya where it’s more popular and you’ll see a significant stat buff when fighting Noise. Sometimes Neku isn’t cool enough yet to wear something from Tigre Punks. However, the Pins that Neku and the rest of the Players use to harness the power of Psych abilities and fight the Noise are associated with these clothing brands. It’s like having an enamel pin from Champion that gave you telekinesis, and by wearing one of their sweatshirts you became super strong too.
The more Neku wears certain brands and uses their corresponding Pins in battle, the more the visual language of the neighborhood youths shifts. More of the NPCs will wear the brand that Neku’s wearing, and he’ll find himself a trendsetter. This lends itself to the common definition of street fashion: certain trends and styles dictated not by advertisers but rather by the communities that wear them.
The developers originally planned to use all of Tokyo to create the scenery and backdrop for the Reaper’s Game, but ultimately went with just Shibuya. However, fashions from all over Tokyo are represented. Each in-game brand services different sects of Tokyo’s youth culture. Everyone from the gyaru to the young professionals to the punks can find something to wear in the Reaper’s Game.
In Shibuya 104, Wild Boar’s hip-hop-inspired camo pants and graphic tees mimic BAPE’s style. D+B 104 satin camisoles and girl-who’s-a-little-bit-bad styles are like Egoist and rienda. In the game area Cat Street, likely a play on Harajuku’s Takeshita-dori, Sheep Heavenly leans into the technicolor maximalism of decora and DIY brands like 6% Doki Doki and Spank!. KuraKura also falls in line with the decora style too. The Molco area has Tigre Punks, which is all tartan and biker jackets like SEX POT ReVeNGE, and has Neku looking like he could join the latest up-and-coming visual kei band. The various Mus Rattuses sprinkled all over Shibuya are like if Team Message and WEGO had a love child.
Neku starts off as cold, aloof, and a loner when he first wakes up in the Game. His journey—realizing that it doesn’t have to be him against the world, that he can open up and care for other people, and that he can work with others toward a common goal—works with the philosophy of alternative fashions.
Japanese street fashion, the alternative fashions so far away from bland fast fashion sameness, allows for individual expression. Sometimes it’s not about just liking a brand, it’s about how one can take a garment and transform it into something completely unique. It’s about setting yourself apart from the pack but still finding community in people who express themselves using fashion the way you do.
There will always be those with brand loyalty. Those brands, like Alba Rosa and Shibuya’s Senta guys and ganguros, became intertwined with the identity of a specific subculture. You can lose yourself within a collective, but these fashion brands are still alternative and stray from the norm. Community doesn’t have to mean collective sameness.
Neku and the rest of the Players blend into the crowd of Shibuya because they’re living in a parallel dimension and reality can’t see them. But through fashion and by influencing the streets around them, they have an impact and are seen. They’re still pushing up against societal expectations and pressures through their found, fashionable families.
As The World Ends With You experiences a franchise rebirth with the launch of the currently ongoing anime and the sequel NEO: The World Ends With You, slated for release this week, Japanese street fashion is no longer a niche interest but rather a global phenomenon. New brand collaborations are announced practically every month. Japan’s government even nominates international cultural ambassadors who embody the spirit of kawaii fashion.
So it’ll be exciting to see if NEO approaches fashion the same way the original did or if it’ll take into account the rise of fast fashion and the shuttering of independent brands chased out by corporate powerhouses. Regardless, I can’t wait to take down Noise in my Wild Boar best.
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