Alice in the Underworld: The Dark Märchen Show!! (2009)

Alice in the Underworld: The Dark Märchen Show!! first published by Senses of Cinema

In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) – children’s novels written by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pen name Lewis Carroll – young Alice goes on a wide-eyed odyssey through the psychic flotsam and jetsam of nineteenth-century England. This – as well as suspicions that Dodgson may have had a more than merely aesthetic interest in photographing young girls (like Alice Liddell, the inspiration for his fictions) – makes Alice the the perfect focal point for Japan’s archaising Lolita (or Loli) subculture, preoccupied as it is with both Victoriana and a fragile girlish innocence, and also for Mari Terashima’s film Alice in the Underworld: The Dark Märchen Show!!, made in collaboration with Lolita-loving performance artists Rose de Reficul et Guiggles.

Momoko (Kyoko Fukada) from Tetsuya Nakashima’s Kamikaze Girls (2004)

If you know Tetsuya Nakashima’s Kamikaze Girls (Shimotsuma monogatari, 2004) and its flamboyantly dressed protagonist Momoko (Kyoko Fukada), then you know the look. Drawing from the frills and laces of the Victorian era (with a Rococo twist), and conjuring “a world in which the childhood fantasy of Alice in Wonderland seems to collide full force with the Addams Family” (Dabrali Jimenez, “A New Generation of Lolitas Makes a Fashion Statement”, The New York Times, 26 September 2008), Lolita fashion first emerged in Japan in the Seventies, but hit its stride in the Nineties as it became a highly visible phenomenon on the streets of Shibuya, popularised by clothing boutiques like Angelic Pretty, Innocent World and Baby, The Stars Shine Bright, and now a staple of manga, anime and music’s Visual Kei movement.

Enter Rose de Reficul et Guiggles, an outfit (named after its two key members) which formed at the beginning of 2002 in Osaka, and which falls somewhere between Visual Kei project and avant-garde theatre troupe. They have released a few songs, but are best known for their elaborate Victoriana-obsessed “butoh-emo” live events, with dancers, musicians, circus elements and a fashion aesthetic informed by, and performative of, Loli subculture. They have created a theatricalised parallel universe in which the Lolita fantasy can be staged, explored and indulged. 

This rarefied, hermetic world is realised on film (or at least on DV) in Alice in the Underworld. Terashima is a good match for their sensibility: right from her debut short The First Love (Hatsukoi, 1989) – all girls, dolls, masks, tarots and intimations of abuse – Terashima has been a regular at international festivals, screening her experimental videos with their dark gothic themes. Alice in the Underworld may take its secondary title from the name of Rose de Reficul et Guiggles’ long-running performance pieces (The Dark Märchen Show!!), but this is no mere point-and-shoot concert film, but an eccentric outing that comes steeped in the language of cinema. 

Much as its characters are adorned with mannered couture from a time long past, Terashima’s film dresses itself in self-consciously archaic cinematic forms. There is the framing of most scenes as tableaux vivants, as a menagerie of characters adopts poses in changeable imitation of the pages of a children’s book. There is the reduction of all dialogue – save a single spoken line at the end – to ornately decorated (and occasionally mobile) intertitles. There are the ‘foggy’ images, as though shot old-style through gauze, and the pastel colourings, as though hand-tinted in post. There is Kotaro Watahiki’s musicbox score, redolent of old-world melodrama. Even interstitial scenes of animation (by Haruna Watanabe, Miho Ando and Maho Kubota) employ an outmoded cutout technique to show the darker side of Victoriana – including, in allusion to the original, Nabakovian association of the word ‘Lolita’, scenes of child exploitation and abuse. In other words, while Terashima’s film foregrounds its own filmic qualities, those qualities come conspicuously from another era: cinema’s Victorian beginnings in the age of the silent.

The darker side of Lolita culture.

Likewise its characters are stuck in the past. Princess Rose (Rose de Reficul) and Prince Guiggles (Guiggles) live “deep below the ground” in “an unknown kingdom, covered in sheer darkness [though to all appearances a sunny garden], where the ticking of the clock stops at three o’clock in the afternoon.” Time has indeed stopped for these characters: Guiggles, who keeps an eye on events above ground, reports the Coronation of Victoria (in 1838) and the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park (in 1851) to Rose as though they took place simultaneously. Wishing to see these curious wonders for herself, Rose peers into Guiggles’ magical globe, and then makes the mistake of looking at what the future will be like: an archival montage of beheadings, war scenes and other horrors. Rose’s instant, Oedipal response is to stab out her own eyes.

Princess Rose (Rose de Reficul) reflects Alice’s own sense of monstrous marginalisation.

All this serves as a reflex of the Lolita community whose refined, retro clothing and accessories are shared by the Princess and her freakish coterie (an anthropoid Rabbit, a General, a Matthew Barney-esque Pierrot and a bandage-wrapped girl mummy), who feed on the purest human dreams. For the Lolita community also prefers to dwell apart in a reverie of the past, embracing its own otherness while refusing to countenance incursions of any suspect modernity. Even a glimpse of worldly realities was almost enough to burst Rose’s precious froufrou bubble – so the arrival of Alice (Mame Yamada), stumbling into their world while in pursuit of the rabbit, is regarded as a threat to this literally underground culture. 

Alice is first seen from behind in her familiar blue dress, and then a doll’s visage is substituted for her own – but when we finally see her real face, she is revealed to be not a young girl, but a wizened, wrinkled crone (in fact played by a man). “I am already an old woman, yet physically I remain a child,” explains little orphan Alice, “Children around me have all grown up, yet I am left alone.” In other words, she is as much a marginalised misfit as her Lolita hosts, and her arrested development marks her as similarly stuck in time. At last she has found both a place where she fits and a person – once Alice has magically restored Rose’s eyesight – prepared to accept and love her for who she is, and for all her ambiguity of age and sex. Such acceptance is, of course, the whole appeal of belonging to a subculture.  

Still, the idyll must come to an end. As Alice invites her hosts into the human world, their delicate fantasy evaporates before the ravages of reality, and is revealed as mere child’s play. It is this very fragility, attached to these peculiar characters and their mirror world, which lends Alice in the Underworld: The Dark Märchen Show!! its sense of fin-de-siècle melancholy. Even if Alice is incapable of growing up or finding a proper home in our world of human affairs, she must in the end let go of her dreams – without which she expressly cannot live – and, however temporarily, put aside childish things.     

© Anton Bitel