After a month of exploring the shadowy eaves of Tokyo’s ‘goth’ scene, one omnipresent icon of the dark and otherwordly came forward. It was…the butterfly?! Apparently, the insect is relegated to the realm of the macabre in Japan, and to my surprise, is commonplace in the lyrics and imagery of various goth-influenced bands and pictured on all kinds of dark clothing and accessories. I am, as ever, dead serious.
The first sign came during a trip to the gothic lolita shops in Harajuku. Labels like H. Naoto, Alice Auaa, Black Peace Now and Atelier Boz, whose designers collaborate with current visual kei and hard rock bands such as PHANTASMAGORIA, BLOOD, DIR EN GREY, D’ESPAIRSRAY, and THE GAZETTE, all feature the symbol. The H. Naoto store was particularly intense: like stigmata, they seemed to spring up without warning – butterflies bled from black clothing around the room.
Initially it was funny. The butterfly to me was still something drunk teenage girls get tattooed on their lower backs during spring break. But as the weeks wore on, I started to get it (and love it). When I attended the longest running goth night in Tokyo, Walpurgis, they stamped my hand with a big black butterfly mark. How perfect, I thought, as I headed toward what sounded like MOI DIX MOIS playing within.
MANA, guitarist/composer for Moi Dix Mois, founder of the now defunct MALICE MIZER, self-proclaimed vizier of gothic lolita style, and designer for Moi Meme Moitie, also propagates the butterfly-goth connection. On MDM’s 2007 release, Dixanadu, Mana is pictured, in all his elegant aristocratic glory, surrounded by ghostly black and blue butterflies. They hover around him ominously as he stares straight ahead, with tongue as far away from cheek as possible. Goth is no game to this man, and thus the massive, translucent butterfly wings that protrude from his back as he stands in the middle of his butterfly brethren actually manage to look believably evil.
Soon, I began to associate new sounds with butterflies as well. The chipper, Disney-esque soundtrack to the creature’s flight was replaced in my head with the orchestral grandeur of Moi Dix Mois’ classical-infuenced black metal, where hints of “Dies Irae” plainchant and baroque-style harpsichord mingle with the cold metallic chords of EMPEROR.
Gossamer wings also flit their way into other styles of music. Pop -punk star ANNA TSUCHIYA’s recent hit, “Lovin’ You,” features the refrain “A little black butterfly, how can I be beautiful?” within a dark ballad framework. Although not fully goth in any sense of the word, her image and music always have a spooky twist. Tsuchiya is most famous in the States for her role in the film Kamikaze Girls, which is based on the novel Shimotsuma Monogatari, written by gothic lolita spokesman and designer NOVALA TAKEMOTO. (Many of his goth collaborations with Hello Kitty also feature dark butterflies as well).
After weeks of encountering the insect in goth subcultures around Tokyo, I found that it also has similar meanings in Japanese folklore, appearing in “The Dream of Akinosuke” as a symbol of the soul, and other fables recounted by LAFCADIO HEARN in his classic re-telling of Japanese folktales, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. So it was fitting, in chilling fairy tale fashion, that my experience with this ubiquitous creature came to a head my last few days in Tokyo. As I walked through the residential Shinjuku neighborhood of Hatsudai near my apartment, a brilliant black butterfly flew into my face from a grove of nearby bushes. I screamed in surprise as the wings brushed my cheek and its pitch body crossed my line of sight. And in an instant, it all made sense.