The imagery looks plucked directly from East L.A. in 1995: lowriders cruising slowly down narrow streets or parked in long lines on the side of the road, flanked by tattooed men in white shirts and caps emblazoned with the insignia of the Los Angeles Dodgers. But this isn’t Los Angeles, and the men aren’t speaking either English or Spanish: they’re speaking Japanese.
These men and the devoted subculture they’ve created in parts of Tokyo and Osaka are the subject of a new documentary, Chicano, directed by the British filmmakers Louis Ellison and Jacob Hodgkinson. The film highlights a group of Japanese people’s intense obsession with the Chicano culture of East Los Angeles, particularly those elements of it associated with cholo/a (or gang) style. The Japanese devotees have all the aesthetic trappings: low shorts, high socks, tons of gear repping L.A., and tattoos covering their torsos.
“What was most interesting and exciting to me was the attention to detail,” says Ellison, one of the directors. “Like any subculture in Japan, they’ve dedicated themselves completely and they spend a lot of time and a lot of money to make sure they’ve got everything exactly right.”
This is even more impressive when you consider the social cost of tattoos in Japan, says Ellison. People he filmed told him they are assumed to be criminals because of their aesthetic choices, and it limits the places they feel comfortable going. “It’s a real commitment for them to do this,” Ellison says.
Cholo/Chicano culture began making its way into Japan in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, mainly via media like Lowrider Magazine, according to Shin Miyata, one of the film’s subjects and the owner of Chicano/Japanese record label Barrio Gold. Miyata himself traveled to L.A. in the ‘80s and became fascinated with lowrider culture and the Chicanos who were a part of it. When he came back, he explains in the film, he tried to replicate what he’d seen and teach other people, too.
That replication appears to be based mainly in aesthetics and some cultural practices like making lowriders. But several of the men in the film also speak about feeling a deeper connection across cultures, rooting their Chicano cultural practices in things they feel exist in Japan, too.
“In Japan, people have strong family values and have a strong social identity. They keep where they are from or where they grew up deeply in their minds. In this same way, [some] Chicanos come from Mexico to Los Angeles as immigrants without working documents,” says an unnamed man near the end of the film. “We feel sympathy toward them and connect in the way they express their opinions, love their crews, family, and work hard on the things that they love. In my opinion this is what brings the Chicano and Japanese cultures together.”
You can stream the film and see all of Hodgkinson’s photos on Dazed.