The Brush Off: A Look at Gyaru, Ganguro, and Manba -The Toast

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Now that we’ve all finished constructing our memorial altars for The Toast (mine is made out of light rye, maple butter, and tears), it’s time to look at a few more makeup trends through the ages. Normally these pieces focus on a large period of time and what was happening worldwide(-ish; I only have so much space to write about things before Nikki sends me a cease-and-desist), but this column is going to zoom-focus on Japan’s brief stint as the home of ganguro (hiragana: がんぐろkatakana: ガングロ) and manba makeup and fashion.

The history and stories around this look (and its variations) are cloudy, rife with issues, and absolutely caked with fake tanner and white greasepaint. If you tended to hang around various corners of the internet back in the day (by which I mean the early-to-mid-2000s, a simpler time when bloggers meant “people who wrote about their crushes on Livejournal” and you’d rush home from school to go chat on MSN with the same people you just spent eight hours with), then you might have stumbled across photographs women in ganguro or manba makeup and dress, as it was an “extreme” subculture that lent itself easily to gawking and poorly formatted blog posts.  

Goths have dark lipstick, cholas have lip liner, preppies (mid-2000s teens represent! Yeah, more like ABERCROMBIE AND BITCH, oh man, I’m going to have the best Deadjournal name ever) have their shiny light blue eyeshadows, and ganguro girls have…kind of everything, really, including a convoluted history and massive streaks of bronzer. Before we get into what constitutes a ganguro look, we first need to take a step waaaay back to the 1990s, a time when many North American fashionistas decided that everything needed to be some shade of brown (SIDE NOTE: A great example of this is 60-70% of Elaine’s wardrobe on Seinfeld. Seriously, there is so much brown). Ganguro is a smaller subsection of the wider gyaru (ギャル) subculture, which is the umbrella group for a number of similar styles and variations, along with being a style as well. Gyaru style first came to prominence in the early 1990s in the Shibuya district of Tokyo: high school-aged girls would dye their hair, wear short skirts, tan their skin, and haul around luxury bags like some sort of early Lindsay Lohan. Gals/gyaru were seen as easygoing party girls (with high school practitioners of the style referred to as kogyaru, or “little gals”), and there is a great breakdown of the early evolution of gyaru style, the moral panic surrounding it, and other cultural factors here. For now I’m going to wave my hands in a glittery circle to make time jump forward so we can get to ganguro and the extreme ends of gyaru.

To put it (painfully) basically, gyaru trends started as a teenage rebellion in the face of traditional ideals of beauty, popping up around Shibuya (the area around Shibuya station is a hotspot for fashion and shopping, with the main space for gyaru fashion being the Shibuya 109 building), which quickly launched a moralistic freakout, thanks to the more immodest style of dress, a lot of sensationalism, and – interestingly — the changing view of school uniforms (from boring to fashionable to – again, multi-dicked Darwinian monstrosity – sexualized). As with any subculture that attracts a majority of teenagers, gyaru styles resulted in a lot of pearl-clutching and “Oh my god, where did we go wrong? Also, how did you get 11 tanning salon membership cards? How does that even work?”

Variations include yamanba/manba (or yamauba, 山姥), which is the darker, slightly more turned up version of ganguro (with the two looks being presented as kind of interchangeable on the internet most of the time). Fun fact: The name yamanba comes from a type of yōkai (mountain hag or witch) that appears as an evil old woman with long, matted, golden-white hair hiding a second mouth and possibly bobby pins. It’s perfect for the person in your life who is into both hanging out at the beach and devouring helpless travellers.

The original gyaru style made way for the more extreme versions of the original tanned schoolgirl, eventually becoming the early internet-friendly ganguro and manba fashions. The basic ganguro (and especially yamanba/manba) look is: dark, tanned skin; white concealer or pan stick around the eyes, paired with black eyeliner and eye shadow; fake lashes, face stickers, and/or circle lenses; and light-coloured lipstick. Tanned skin was a must for this look. Whether from tanning beds or fake tanner or dark foundation, the goal was to achieve a deep, ultra-tanned look that ignored the idea of bihaku (a term created by marketers that means “beautifully white”). While the early gyaru girls tended to have more natural tans, the ganguro tans were darkened considerably, with manba/yamanba being darker than ganguro and some women going so dark that they were referred to as gonguro

Like any subculture that involves shucking off society’s standards and going, “Screw you, Mom, I’m going to pierce my face using an apple and a sewing needle and there’s NOTHING YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT,” ganguro girls (and related groups) were viewed as a type of “bad girl” — seen as being “rough” or “easy” – and during the transition from early gyaru to ganguro and other similar trends, a definite class divide showed up within the subculture itself. I spoke briefly to Nicole of The Beauty Maniac in Tokyo, a Japanese beauty blogger living in Tokyo, about ganguro, and she noted: “Even when Ganguro was on trend, people judged those girls as poorly educated young girls who have no common sense. […] Ganguro and Yamanba are not just [about] makeup or how they dress, it’s about their attitude as well.”

The question that tends to linger around ganguro like fake tanner stains on new sheets is does this look constitute some sort of blackface? Ganguro itself translates to “black face,” and the look has been accused of being caused by teen girls’ obsession with black American hip hop and R&B artists. Japan has a problematic history when it comes to the representation of black people in society and pop culture (with popular bands posing in blackface as recently as 2015 and Little Black Sambo making an appearance in children’s books in 2005), although there is a much deeper discussion that can be had about that (what does blackface represent in Japanese media vs. American media, etc.?). There are other factors at play as well: A major inspiration for the look was pulled from West Coast styles, taking the floral patterns, tans, and beachy look of California and then ramping them up to 1000. Again, the look is also a heavy backlash against the “traditional” ideal of Japanese beauty — i.e., light skin, dark hair, and a subtle look.

One troubling point is part of the supposed inspiration for this style: Adamo-chan. A character played by Japanese comedian Toshiro Shimazaki, Adamo-chan is a tanned, white-lipped, curly-wigged character described as an “aboriginal.” There are some claims that the early yanba or ganguro girls were inspired by Adamo-chan’s look, so do with that what you will. It’s a style that clearly has cloudy, sometimes uncomfortable roots (inspired by surfers and Baywatch? Sure! Inspired by a racist depiction of a Pacific Islander? [TINA BELCHER GROANING NOISE]), and it has inspired other offshoots such as b-gyaru and rasuta (Rasta) style. In short, there is a LOT of discussion to be had around the roles of racism, class, rebellion, and sexuality in this trend. For now, I’m going to focus on the look itself, but if you have any questions or thoughts, I’ll see you in the comments.

Another distinctive part of the look is the streak of white up the bridge of the nose using white makeup or concealer, sort of like one of those Instagram contouring tutorials, minus the part where they spent 28 minutes blending the ever-loving shit out of it. Depending on the height of the makeup, this would sometimes signal whether the look was yamanba (in which the stripe of white goes higher than the eyebrows) or manba (in which the stripe of white is lower than the brow line), although both looks were basically the same apart from that. With a big part of the inspiration for the look coming from surf fashions and shows like Baywatch, the white streak was sometimes seen as a sort of homage to a line of sunscreen or zinc up the bridge of the nose. White lipstick was then applied to make the lips stand out starkly against the deeply tanned skin. Along with the makeup, there’s also the hair – big, teased, long, straight (or wavy) with curled ends, and either bleached white or brightly coloured. Jam a flower in there, and you’re off to the races.

Ganguro Girls - Sunsetmediawave


For the eyes, ganguro basically has two colours: white and black. You want other colours? Buzz off. This look is all white and black, all the time. White eye shadow, greasepaint, or other cream products would be painted around the eyes, from brow bone to underneath the bottom lid, then blended out around the edges and topped with pearl powder, glitter, or setting powder to keep things from smearing. While the outfits and hair for this look may be colourful, the main eye shadow and eyeliner colour is black (with the occasional pop of colour thrown in), with eye shadow applied to the whole lid and eyes lined both top and bottom. Large, over-the-top fake lashes were also a mainstay, with them sometimes being worn on both the top and bottom lash line. To make the eyes look bigger, eyeliner would occasionally be drawn far under the eye, with lashes either drawn on underneath or fake lashes applied below the actual lower lash line. Another option was to use small stickers on gems on the face, just below the eyes, as decoration. For a quick look a some women in manba looks, you can watch this (problematic!) video that has everything from the host poking through people’s wallets and talking about their thongs to OH GIRL DON’T USE A PAINT MARKER AS EYE MAKEUP, that makes my eyes water just watching it.

Trends come and trends go, and ganguro and certain other parts of gyaru trends have waned in the last ten years. egg magazine – one of the main voices for gyaru and ganguro fashion and, I assume, excellent egg-related recipes? – shuttered in 2014. The fascination with ganguro made way for the fascination with Harajuku fashion, allowing a new generation of people to stare at young Japanese women and write articles about Gwen Stefani’s questionable actions and never-changing face (I honestly think she is Dorian Gray. Prove me wrong, Gwen). The most extreme form of ganguro/yamanba styles faded out around 2004/2005, with ganguro being replaced by the slightly (slightly) more toned-down kuro gyaru (“black skin gals,” with Black Diamond/Gal Unit being the most well-known gal group) and shiro gyaru (“white skin gals,” which is the same style but no tan), and eventually fading away almost entirely.

While a ganguro café opened in Shibuya in 2015, the style appears to have disappeared to all but the fringes. Nicole of The Beauty Maniac in Tokyo said that while “gyaru/ganguro makeup was HUGE” when she was in high school, more than 15 years ago, “nowadays it’s hard to find ganguro girls in Tokyo, even in Shibuya or Harajuku, where those girls were hanging out.” But hey, what goes around comes around, and I’m sure that the kids of 2090 will be getting weird email forwards sent directly to their eyeballs with titles like “Can you BELIEVE this girl’s tan and nano hair? OMG what a vintage look.”



Black Diamond – Tokyo Fashion

Neojapanisme – The History of Gyaru

Japan Today

The Beauty Maniac in Tokyo

Featured image via Wikipedia

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