Culture

Tokyo’s Club Kids: The Avant-Garde of Gender-Bending Fashion and Drag

An interview with Sisen Murasaki aka DJ Sisen.

By 7 min read

Since the 1990s, Tokyo has cultivated an eclectic, colorful, futuristic and occasionally raunchy image. Buoyed by the dot-com bubble, Japan became recognized not only as a world leader in technology, such as fancy cell phones and magnetic trains, but also for its pop culture and fashion. Namely: anime, manga and the wild styles of Tokyo’s subcultures.

The Harajuku fashion scene

Harajuku girls.

One of the key figures to arise was fashion icon, event organizer and musician Sisen Murasaki. Easily recognizable by his outlandish costumes and colorful hair and contacts, DJ Sisen rode the Harajuku craze of the Myspace era and helped popularize Tokyo’s underground scene.

Against the straight-laced and conservative daytime world of Japan, Sisen makes a bold statement. “You can live within a subculture and an underground scene and satisfy your desire to transform,” he says. “You can have the confidence to say, ‘I’m glad to be myself.’”

Heavily influenced by New York’s “Club Kids”—a group of campy and avant-garde artists and dance club personalities of the 1980s and 1990s—Sisen created his own troupe of Tokyo club kids, including entertainers such as Diva Selia, Preta Porco and French-born Adrien le Danois.

Gender, sexuality and the club kids

DJ Sisen from 2011 (left) to 2014 (right): Gender-bending fashion and body art.

Like the New York club kids more than a decade before, Tokyo’s alternative club fashion focused not only on being outlandish but also on being gender-subversive. For Sisen, the world of club culture has always been an expression of his evolving queer identity.

Speaking of his childhood, Sisen says: “As I became conscious of myself, I had the feeling, ‘Oh? Maybe I should have been born a girl.’ Even as a child, I prepared for the fact I couldn’t walk a respectable life.

“I couldn’t come out to my parents, but they always bought me Licca-chan dolls and girls’ comics if I wanted them. I’m grateful to my parents for raising me freely that way.”

Moving to Tokyo after high school and making his debut at the clubs, Sisen met the city’s drag queen community, who greatly influenced his fashion.

I find it more fun to establish my own style that’s neither man nor woman.

“I thought drag was the most ideal, most perfect profession and was attracted by it,” he says. “For a while, I did something like my own imitation of drag. Nowadays, I find it more fun to establish my own style that’s neither man nor woman. Usually, my image is ‘a boy with an androgynous charm.’ There are many wonderful people in the drag queen circuit right now, so I leave it to them!”

Indeed, over the decade or so that I’ve followed Sisen, I’ve seen his style move fluidly from the femme—almost drag—to the sexless and back again. As Sisen says, fashion can give you the power to transform and recreate yourself, which fulfilled the need he’d felt from childhood.

“I don’t deny those who want to transition, but I no longer feel it’s necessary for me since joining this underground community,” he says. “I am proud of this way of life and have a strong desire to support people like me.”

Tokyo’s club scene and drag

Julia YMIT. A fabulous SFX makeup look for a night out in Nichome.

Sisen credits drag as one of his early inspirations when he came to Tokyo. Indeed, drag and club kid culture are known for influencing each other in equal measure.

Often in mainstream drag shows, such as RuPaul’s Drag Race, club kids are treated as a sub-genre of drag, with weirder avant-garde performers like Vivacious, Milk, Sasha Velour and Raja embracing the label. Club kid drag usually involves bright colors, grotesque or fanciful facial features and an androgynous—as opposed to traditionally feminine—shape and silhouette.

Two of the most influential drag performers in Tokyo both hail from the club and visual kei (Japan’s version of glam rock) scenes and are old friends of Sisen’s. Julia and Yukiro are two regulars in the drag circuit of Shinjuku Nichome—Tokyo’s LGBTQ hub—and are known for their quirky, flamboyant costumes and live singing.

Julia Your-Makeup-Is-Terrible, a self-described “bioqueen” (cisgender woman performing as a drag queen), is an American expat who has lived in Japan for the past fifteen years. She began crafting costumes and elaborate makeup looks from the age of 13 when she began to cosplay as manga characters. She was later one of DJ Sisen’s first club kids when she arrived in Tokyo.

Tokyo provided me with a place to rebel, to be myself.

Julia says of the mid-2000s: “Back in the day, I went to Tokyo Dark Castle and Tokyo Decadance. This was back when people who dressed up were still rebelling against society. People like us were seen as freaks, though Japan was much more tolerant than Louisiana, where I was born…Tokyo provided me with a place to rebel, to be myself, to express my wants and needs.”

Clubbing, she continues, provided her a foundation for her performance style, whether in drag, music or other arts. In the Tokyo club kid scene, she has seen people pushing art to its limits.

Swedish-born drag queen Die Schwarze Frau (also known as Yukiro Dravarious) is another performer with long roots in club culture. A cosplayer like Julia, Yukiro moved to Tokyo in 2007 and quickly became involved in the same goth and visual kei club circuits, finding new ways to express her “exhibitionistic side” through club culture and drag.

Die Schwarze Frau (Yukiro)’s alien costume for Witch Garden: Witches From Space. Makeup by her drag daughter, Stefani St. Slut.

“Imagine Halloween night but several times a month! What fond memories I have of those times,” Yukiro says, speaking of the mid-2000s. “I feel like in most countries the scene is very exclusive and doesn’t welcome new people easily, while here it is the opposite. Also, overseas there are a lot of drugs handed out like candy on Halloween, but here there are barely any!”

This is a sentiment Sisen agrees with, noting, “In Tokyo, the club scene is very wholesome and only has alcohol.”

Sisen has worked with Julia and Yukiro for over a decade, finding that all three had similar backgrounds following visual kei and goth bands like Malice Mizer

“I consider them both promising people, who stir up excitement with their unique and interesting performances,” he says.

The future of the club queens

Witch Garden, a drag and goth party organized by Sisen and Die Schwarze Frau featuring Kosmic Sans, Die Schwarze Frau, Julia YMIT, Belgium Solanas, Emi Eleonola, Diva Selia and Inga Persephone (center).

These days—when not under a COVID-19 lockdown or restrictions—the three are often involved in organizing and hosting events where the drag, club and goth scenes can mingle.

The all-night party and live show Witch Garden is Sisen and Yukiro’s brainchild.

In 2017, Sisen had just moved back to Japan after over five years in Berlin. Yukiro welcomed him with a proposal for a witch, drag and goth-themed event.

“I’d hosted an event with a similar concept in the early 2000s called Majo no Hanazono, the Witch Garden,” Sisen recalls. “So we decided to revive it. To hold this event again with a fresh coat of paint was beyond my expectations, and I’m delighted it’s back. We must have been witches in a previous life, so holding Witch Garden is our revenge!”

At Witch Garden, which Julia co-MCs with drag queen Inga Persephone, the two scenes blend seamlessly. The old guard, consisting of original Tokyo club kids, fashion designers and rock musicians, dance and party alongside newer faces. Ask around, and everyone seems to link up to Sisen in the end.

“DJ Sisen is responsible for bringing so many people together. He will talk to you without any hesitation or judgment and treats everyone with kindness,” Julia says. “He also is always seeking out new and exciting things to share.”

Help people break from the mold and awaken their individuality.

Post-coronavirus, the three hope the alternative culture of Tokyo will come back: both the clubs and the drag. Everyone is eager for the chance to get out on the floor and dance the loneliness away. While things have changed a great deal since the early days that brought the three together, Sisen says, Kabukicho is continuing to flourish with new subcultures and underground bars appearing.

Sisen works as a bartender at a new Kabukicho club, Decabar Super, and invites everyone to visit once the coronavirus situation has passed. Meanwhile, subculture fans can find him on his new YouTube channel, 危機裸裸 (“Kikirara” or “Naked Crisis”), where he covers local underground stories.

So long as Tokyo still has pockets of the weird and stylish, Sisen will be drawn to them.

“There are many things going on these days,” Sisen notes, “but if I can help people break from the mold and awaken their individuality and desire for freedom, I think I can be a force for good. Let’s make fun anarchy in this peace!”

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