Archive for the ‘Rinko Kawauchi’ tag
Watching the BBC News in the aftermath of the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami on the east coast of Japan, I vividly remember the foreign correspondent reporting from a town with an unusual name: Rikuzentakata. Little did I know then that Rikuzentakata would come to symbolise the unimaginable destruction of the earthquake and tsunami. In months to come, reporters, journalists and photographers would descend on this town and try to capture the sense of loss and grief caused by the disaster. A documentary called Japan’s Tsunami: Caught on Camera harrowingly dissected the video footage produced by the few survivors who were there that day in March 2011. I would begin to associate Rikuzentakata with an image of destruction.
I only realised later that Rikuzentakata is also the hometown of the photographer Naoya Hatakayema. By mere chance, Hatakeyama embarked on a longterm project in 2002, capturing the town’s close spiritual association with the sea. In one image taken before the tsunami, Hatakeyama photographed a tree with gohei, or wooden wands with paper streamers used in Shinto rituals, which were meant to purify the tree from the spirits. On his return to Rikuzentakata, the massive tree withstood the forces of the tsunami while the destruction of the town is clearly visible in the background to the photograph. Hatakeyama’s personal connection to this place thus resulted in an eerie set of images that capture the town before and after the disaster. His photographs ultimately depict the landscape as a complex set of binary opposites: the past and the present, a once safe place now destroyed.
In his book Umimachi, or literally ‘Ocean Town’ or ‘Sea Town’, the photographer Koji Onaka photographed the Sanriku district, which was badly affected by the tsunami, between 1991 and 1993 (Onaka now sells these photographs to raise funds for children orphaned by the disaster). In the first instance, the photographs depict a sense of romance and nostalgia often associated with sea side towns in Japan. Similar to Shohei Imamura’s film Warm Water Under the Red Bridge, Onaka’s photographs depict a place essentially at peace with itself and its natural surroundings. To emphasise this sense of peacefulness, the photographs are also purposefully banal: boys playing baseball, girls waiting for the school bus, a bunch of fishermen cleaning their tools near the harbour. In the context of the 2011 tsunami, the images are haunting reminders that the tsunami flattened a strip of land photographers once recognised as beacon of peace and harmony. Here, the primary role of photography is as a medium of memory, allowing those who look at photographs to remember a place that does not longer exist.
At the time the earthquake struck, the photographer Lieko Shiga participated in an artists’ residency in a town called Kitagama, roughly 50 miles away from Fukushima. As one of Japan’s most promising young photographers, Shiga is best known for her surreal and magical representation of fantastical scenes of the imaginary. Shiga was personally affected by the disaster as the house she was staying at, her studio and a year’s worth of photographic work was destroyed. Rather than succumbing to the loss of her photographic work, Shiga participated in the clean up of the town, specifically employing her knowledge on photography to save other people’s lost photographs and family albums. Her resulting project is a vast archive of personal photographs that were selflessly collected, cleaned, categorized and archived. Shiga’s approach to the disaster resulted in a community-based project that functioned as a way to contemplate the tragic losses of the disaster via found family photographs. In spite of losing her own photographic work, Shiga traversed Kitagama to help others to locate photographs of loved ones. The curator of Japanese art Lisa Sutcliffe comments on this work: ‘This public service may yet yield some new way of seeing the catastrophe, and will serve as a testament to the lives that were lost or changed irreparably.’ By collecting and representing found photographs Shiga comments on the human and the emotional dimension caused by the trauma of losing friends and family. Photography is not employed to represent the disaster, but rather, it represents an opportunity to confront the trauma it effected.
The photographer Rinko Kawauchi also travelled to the effected regions on the east coast of Japan. Her previous photographic works are characterized by astute and subtle observations of the every day. Rather than solely training her camera on the destruction caused by the tsunami, Kawauchi noticed a pair of domesticated pigeons who always returned to the same place in one coastal town. Guided by the navigational instincts, the pigeons habitually returned to the place that they new best yet that no longer existed. In as much the Tōhoku represents destruction on an unimaginable scale, Kawauchi’s photographs also signify a sense of renewal.
One of the most surreal yet also touching photographic works to have been produced in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami is Yasusuke Ota’s project The Abandoned Animals of Fukushima. A day after the tsunami damaged a nuclear reactor at Fukushima, those living within 20km of the power plant were forcibly evacuated by the government. In fear of nuclear contamination, inhabitants had to leave their personal belongings, as well as pets and farm animals behind. Two weeks after the evacuation took place, Ota volunteered to enter the ‘no go’ area to provide these animals with food and water. What Ota found were amazingly surreal scenes that could have featured in post-apocalyptic films such as I am Legend: an ostrich that escaped from a nearby farm roaming the streets of Okuma Machi, a bunch of cows apparently lost and confused on a parking lot in Tomioka Machi, and, perhaps most bizarrely, pigs trying to cool their bodies in a puddle on the streets of Namie Machi. Ota’s photographic project adds another dimension to our perception of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami as the roaming animals create a surreal contrast to a place in which life, it appears in the photographs, has otherwise stood still.
In sum, the works I have discussed above point to a number of different strategies and methodologies Japanese photographers have employed to ‘capture’ the disaster. The role of photography in all these works is crucial: rather than depicting loss or destruction directly, these photographers produced deeply personal works that illuminate one particular aspect of the disaster. Faced with destruction on an unimaginable scale, their photographs help us visually and metaphorically contemplate the sense of trauma and loss, while, at the same time, amidst the rubble pockets of life begin to emerge. The photographs also refer to new opportunities and challenges that many photographers have overcome in order to represent fractured communities that are slowly but steadily rebuilding themselves.
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As part of the exhibition 10×10 Japanese Photobooks, on show from the 28th to the 30th of September in New York, I have been invited to select ten Japanese photobooks which will be featured in an online space in the run-up to the exhibition. This list was selected in relation to my PhD research on Japanese photography of the 1990s. The so called post-bubble era witnessed the emergence of a number of iconoclastic female photographers whose work has had a major cultural impact in Japan at the time.
Pushing against cultural taboos and strict censorship laws in Japan, Yurie Nagashima’s provocative photo book heralded the emergence of Japanese female photographers in the mid-1990s. As Nagashima photographs herself in various sexually suggestive roles, the book functions as powerful allegory on the relationship between performance and gender identity.
After her sensational debut at Canon’s New Cosmos of Photography award in 1995, Hiromix’s first book Girl’s Blue became a national bestseller when it was published in 1996. Vaguely referencing ‘snapshot’ style photography such as by Nan Goldin and Araki, the book encapsulates the optimism and youthfulness of a new generation of photographers at the forefront of social and cultural change in Japan.
In this book, intriguingly titled ‘What’s happening before your eyes’ in translation, Ohashi seeks to represent the trauma of his father’s failed suicide attempt. The images of the father being carried away by paramedics and later recovering in the fluorescent lit hospital room are nothing other than haunting. Yet Ohashi also sees beauty in his father’s recovery who is depicted looking through a pair of binoculars, metaphorically looking into the future. The book is a gripping and surreal homage to the fragility yet also the beauty of life.
Naoki Honjo photographs with a tilt-shift mechanism which makes the world beneath look like a miniature version of reality. A thin plane of focus, precisely trained on tiny people and objects below, creates a fantastical and surreal depiction of the urban environment.
Seeing Birds is a collection of Rika Noguchi’s eclectic and evocative photography projects. Her work differs from her contemporaries as it is usually driven by a very precise and seemingly predetermined aesthetic as well as conceptual photographic methodology. Divers photographed underwater, climbers on Mount Fuji – with this book Noguchi explores essentially liminal spaces.
The book consists of a series of photographs that depict the ancient pilgrimage trail to Kumano – a place that exemplifies the Buddhist and Shinto influences in Japan. If perhaps inadvertently nationalistic, the book appears to search for a cultural and religious ‘origin’.
Published along two other titles, Hanabi and Hanako, Utatane explores Rinko Kawauchi’s recognisable photographic style of a narrowly defined focal plane and close up shots in square format. Photographing anything from a half-eaten watermelon to a spoonful of salmon roe, Kawauchi’s distinct style lends everyday subjects a sense of beauty and belonging.\
Sakiko Nomura’s Ai No Jikan, or ‘Time for Love’, is a collection of grainy and dark photographs of her friends, both male and female, in the nude. The work deconstructs assumptions about sexuality, nakedness and representations of the nude.
Masafumi Sanai’s Wakaranai, ‘I don’t know’ in translation, is a slightly surreal even humorous take on seemingly banal objects. Sanai’s apparent obsession with cars, cloud formations, discarded objects and the streets would become a reoccurring theme in his later works.
In this series, ‘Rooms and Underwear’ in translation, Maki Miyashita has photographed different women from all walks of life at home in their underwear. The photographs are a reflection of the growing genre of so-called ‘private photography’ emerging in Japan during the 1990s. Ironically, it is often the objects in the room that tell us more about the person being photographed.
Here is the full list of contributors for the 10×10 Japanese Photobooks online space:
Ken Iseki / My New Notebook
Lilian Froger / 748= photobooks
Kohei Oyama / Parapera
Nicolas Codron / A Japanese Book
Victor Sira and Shiori Kawasaki / Book Dummy Press
Laurence Vecten / One year of books
Marco Bohr / Visual Culture Blog
Rémi Coignet + Nina Poppe / Des Livres et des photos
Marc Feustel / Eyecurious
If you are interested in Japanese photography from the 1960s, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.
The history of Japanese cinema and photography is, as in most cultural contexts, deeply interconnected and related. In the post-war period a number of important films make direct or indirect reference to photographic movements. For instance, the existential meditation on sand and desire in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s classic Woman in the Dunes (Suna no onna, 1964) is strongly reminiscent of the surrealist photographs taken in the Tottori sand dunes by Shoji Ueda in the 1950s; Woman in the Dunes would be filmed in the Tottori sand dunes, not far from Ueda’s childhood home, as the location was the perfect backdrop for Teshigahara’s study of man’s confrontation with the elements.
Similarly, the fast camera movements and improvised cinematography in Toshio Matsumoto’s avant-garde Funeral Parade of Roses (Bara no sôretsu, 1969) appear to be linked to the photographic style ‘are, bure, boke’ (rough, blurry, out-of-focus) that was popular among photographers such as Daido Moriyama in the late 1960s. Moriyama himself worked as a stills photographer on the set for Funeral Parade of Roses and a number of his subsequent photographs reference Matsumoto’s eclectic cinematic style (I have written about this elsewhere). From the many occasions throughout modern Japanese history in which a relationship between cinema and photography can be established, this essay will focus on more recent films which, like Woman in the Dunes and Funeral Parade of Roses before them, make distinct references to photographic trends.
Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai, 2004) depicts the lives of four children abandoned by their mother in a Tokyo apartment, with Kore-eda’s employing dreamlike cinematography to underline the highly-subjective experience of childhood trauma. Long segments are shot at close-up range, with a macro lens and wide open aperture, creating a narrow depth of field. The result of this technique is that the camera focuses only on a small part within the frame while the rest falls out of focus. The effect is comparable to the visual experience of focusing on an object closely held in front of the eyes. Similar to the tatami perspective employed by Yasujiro Ozu, Nobody Knows is consistently filmed from a low vantage point mirroring the height of the abandoned child coping with alienation. Kore-eda’s highly subjective cinematography functions as a visual allegory for the plot itself: the world is represented from the perspective of a child focusing on small details which, in sum, creates a rich variety of visual layering and textures throughout the film.
The cinematic technique of tight framing and selective focusing appears to be borrowed from the photographer Rinko Kawauchi, who also worked on the set of Nobody Knows as stills photographer. Born in 1972 and initially operating as a commercial photographer, Kawauchi’s emergence as art photographer began in 2001 when she published, in parallel, three celebrated photography books, Utatane, Hanabi and Hanako . In all these works, Kawauchi employs a highly imaginative viewpoint to scenes of the everyday. Photographing in square format, Kawauchi’s vision turns seemingly insignificant details into visually appealing and abstract observations: a dead wasp lies on a windowsill, a half-eaten watermelon rests on a plate, and a spoonful of salmon roe is photographed from a low vantage point. Part of the attraction of Kawauchi’s work is that she photographs subjects that might otherwise be overlooked.
It is precisely this focus on mostly ignored details that has also been employed in Nobody Knows: the camera focuses in tightly on the children playing on a miniature piano, painting their nails with varnish, or nurturing plants that are growing on the balcony of the apartment. The visual similarities of selective focus and tight framing in Kawauchi’s photography and Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows fulfil the function of fragmenting the environment into neatly divided narratives. In both cases, an emphasis is placed on experiences of the everyday: while Kawauchi focuses on representations of the natural world, Kore-eda focuses on the children growing older in the course of the movie. Photography and film act as technological devices to arrest an unstoppable process dictated by nature. Although it might appear that Kawauchi and Kore-eda work in the tradition of documentary practices, it can be argued that their representations of the everyday are more closely situated within a desire to create visual abstractions of an easily overlooked and subjective experience. The optical characteristics of the camera are consciously utilized to further underline a narrative that thrives on subtleties and quiet observation.
Another photographer whose work greatly impacted cinematic conventions is Mika Ninagawa. Born in 1972, Ninagawa was at the forefront of a new generation of female photographers, which included Yurie Nagashima and Hiromix, emerging in Japan during the 1990s. For their contributions to photographic discourse, Ninagawa, Nagashima and Hiromix received the Kimura Ihee award – Japan’s most prestigious photography award in 2000. To an extent, the combined impact of the so-called ‘girl photographers’ paved the way for female photographers such as Kawauchi herself. After publishing numerous celebrated photography books (the preferred method of photographic dissemination in Japan), Ninagawa directed Sakuran (2007). Based on the manga series by Moyocco Anno, Sakuran tells the story of a young courtesan battling for supremacy in the red light district Yoshiwara. Set in the latter part of the Edo period, Sakuran enters a well established genre of Japanese period dramas and movies concerned with the frivolity and promiscuity of a bygone era. Ninagawa’s take on the Yoshiwara, however, comes with an intriguing even confusing modern twist as historical accuracy is completely sidelined for an eclectic mix of rock music, derogatory language and cultural attributes associated with the Japanese idol system. In other words, Sakuran functions as a pastiche of the Yoshiwara.
Like Ninagawa’s photographs, Sakuran is filmed in rich colours, high contrast, flowery textures and sometimes comical excess. Goldfish are a recurring motif in Sakuran signifying the courtesans’ beauty and colourful appearance while, at the same time, signifying the courtesans’ condition of being trapped in a tightly-controlled environment. Like the goldfish – as Ninagawa explores in her visually rich cinematography – the courtesans are predominantly subjects to be visually consumed. The excessive colour in Sakuran also aids to highlight the flamboyant fashion and character of the main protagonist, Kiyohada. Like Kiyohada’s voice, the colours are ‘loud’. The cinematography thus informs the main plot of the movie based on Kiyohada’s continuous subversity and (sexual) aggression. The high contrast signifies, literally, Kiyohada standing out from everyone else in the Yoshiwara.
Often seen in the context of fashion or celebrity photography, Ninagawa’s photographic work does not initially attract a conceptually dense interpretation: the viewer’s experience appears to be based on looking at a subject deemed beautiful, cute, exotic and colourful. The conceptual void left by a lack of narrative in Ninagawa’s photographs is filled in Sakuran, which, seen alongside her photographs, lifts her body of work as a whole. Rather than giving into the codes of beauty, extreme colour and high contrast become signifiers for the subversion a dominant culture. In that sense, Sakuran is far more a reflection of modern life than it is a representation of the Yoshiwara. In this context, it is important to mention that the main protagonist is played by Anna Tsuchiya, a former model renowned for her controversial behaviour and a so-called hafu – of half- Japanese and half-Caucasian descent. The protagonist’s battle for recognition in Sakuran is thus mirrored in Tsuchiya’s own experience of working as a model/singer/actress endlessly touring various TV shows. Kiyohada’s battle to become a high-class Oiran courtesan is reflected in Tsuchiya’s own experience as idol situated within a patriarchal sign economy. Ninagawa’s exaggerated colours and visually rich cinematography underlines the fact that this sign economy is driven by a curiosity for the young, the exotic, the one that stands out from all the others.
What Nobody Knows and Sakuran have in common is that they employ a very specific visual strategy that supports the narrative of the film. This visual strategy, in both cases, is derived from a strong affinity with the medium of photography. While Nobody Knows openly references Rinko Kawauchi’s photographic methodology of fragmenting the world, Mika Ninagawa uses her own approach of depicting the world in an exaggerated culmination of colour and contrast. The result of this photographic approach is that in both cases the optical characteristics of the camera support the narrative of the film as a whole. The examples also point to the fact that film and photography, as being such related mediums, are best viewed not as distinctly autonomous creative economies but, rather, that they constitute regimes of representation that continuously feed off each other and create new spaces for exploration.