Your latest collection is called Nude by Kishin, but you’re also releasing this series now called No Nude, which is also filled with naked women. What led you to choose that title?
As we were editing the retrospective volume, and looking through nudes I had shot since I was still a student, over the last fifty years, we realized that the only thing holding this set together was the nudity of the subject matter. That was the only common point. In terms of expression some are artistic, others are pornographic, some are digital, others are film, and covering fifty years, it’s a huge mix in the lineup. So as a set, this surpasses the meanings of each individual piece, and I felt an explosive power, it’s a real sprint through my work. It’s a strange book, there’s something in it that has been out of reach for nude photography as a genre. So I ended up feeling that “Nude” was an insufficient title for it by the end, that it wasn’t about „nudes“ at all, and rather was almost the opposite of that, a book about “no nudes.” But we had already settled on the title, so about six months ago, we started a companion series called No Nude, and we’re putting together the third installment of this series now. These images are nudes, but somehow not at the same time.
It sounds like your thinking about nudes is different than the old distinction in English between “naked” and “nude”, based on embarrassment or shame.
Right, I’m not very concerned with that difference. This is more about the strangeness of human beings being alive. In Japanese you could say, shinra-banshoˉ (all the things in the universe), it’s about the uncanniness of human beings living among all this stuff around us. That’s the scope of the new book. This companion series, however, is completely different. “20XX Tokyo”, the first one, puts nudes into the urban space, which is impossible in everyday life. These impossibilities, they take a dull, plain landscape and make it fresh and new. That’s why I’ve been positioning nudes in the city for a long time now. And in this next issue, “No Nude 2: Akarui Kirara”, the subject is in some ways a very typical twenty year-old Tokyo girl, but she’s also an actress in porn films. Most of the time she just has a normal life, but about once a month she says, “I’m off to do a porno!” as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Something about her attitude seems very contemporary to me.
In the sense that this is not an identity for her, just a side-job she does when she’s getting low on cash?
Exactly, it’s not a big deal to her. She’s just alive with energy. And the third issue is not quite complete yet, but these were taken 38 years ago. The model is now in her 50s, but at the time she was 18. She was under exclusive contracts with Shiseido and Teijin, a big advertising firm then, so there was no way she could do a nude photo shoot. But we arranged it privately and decided now that we’ve waited this long it should be fine to release them.
These were also shot in Tokyo?
Yes, almost all my work is done in Tokyo. I was born and raised here, so shooting Tokyo is fascinating for me. A lot of foreigners come to Tokyo and find it really interesting, but having grown up here, I’m used to it, so nothing really surprises me. But whenever I travel abroad or into the countryside and then return to Tokyo, then it strikes me as a strange city, I’m more conscious of it. It does change at an amazing speed. They’re always knocking things down to rebuild, then they knock those down, that’s the norm, here. Not in other countries, I think.
When I lived in a 30 year-old apartment near Waseda University people would often ask me if I was worried about the building being so old. Everyone seems to want to live in a brand new place.
That’s why Tokyo changes so fast. But if you take a step back and watch it happen, that sort of process is fascinating as a photographer.
Speaking of the newness of cityscapes, do you feel more that you’re selecting landscapes or creating them? Do you think of this as “taking” photographs or “making” them?
It is a construction, certainly, especially in the case of nudes. There are no naked girls walking around the city like this. The positioning of a nude in the city emphasizes the strangeness of the city itself. If you just shoot things just as they are, it’s harder to get that sort of strangeness to emerge. Here’s an example. This bridge was interesting. Usually the streetlights are placed above and shine down on the road, but here they’ve put the lights right down on the ground along the entire length of the bridge. It’s a new way to illuminate the city streets. So with a nude here on the ground positioned like this, the lighting is emphasized. If this were lit from above the shot would look completely different. It becomes new by placing something strange, like a nude, in the image.
And it seems that the landscape ends up seeming naked somehow and the nude herself starts transforming into landscape, or sculpture.
Right. The newness and strangeness hidden within the landscape is revealed as that landscape becomes nude.
Could we look through some of your earliest work, some of the collections from the late 1960s and early ’70s?
Sure, this is the first collection I published, in 1968.
Was this one, the woman with a watch in her mouth, used in an advertisement?
No, it wasn’t. I’m not sure if it was quite a parody of advertising, maybe more of a study in new forms of advertising photography. Just an experiment. We never used it. The watch maker would have been furious!
These days I think they’d love it!
Probably so, but not at the time. In those days, I was working for an advertising firm called Light Publicity, which employed a number of commercial photographers, probably five or six, all of them top quality. That’s really where I learned how to take photos. But with advertising, you’re working for a client who wants to sell something, so there isn’t much of a sense of freedom to shoot the way you really want to, of course. So as I was shooting for ads, I kept thinking about how much I wanted to do my own thing. I ended up doing a series of advertising-style photos called Ad Balloon for Camera Mainichi magazine that lasted a year, and which led to an award from the Photography Critics Association of Japan in 1966. I suppose I was doing critique of advertising as I shot advertisements. I worked for that company for about six and a half years, but got bored with it. I’m more interested in studio work. And in the late ’60s, and even into the ’70s and ’80s, Japan’s economy was expanding rapidly, before the bubble burst, so independent work was feasible.
Those same years saw the Japanese New Wave in film, with young directors like Yoshida Kiju, Oshima Nagisa, and Shinoda Masahiro breaking away from the studios and forming independent production companies. Was the same sort of thing happening in the world of photography?
Sure. There was the Provoke Group, for example, with those blurred and grainy images. That movement sought to show that reality could be found in that sort of image. Moriama Daido, Taki Koji, Nakahira Takuma and others were in that group. They were certainly innovative, but the movement didn’t last very long. The style has lasted, though.
And yet, looking at your work from that time, it doesn’t seem to fit with the documentary-like trend of the times.
Right. The mainstream at the time was work like Eugene Smith’s images of Minamata Disease. That side of things valued the documentary aspects of photography. So you show the suffering of these people in Minamata to a wider public. The same went for A-bomb victims in Hiroshima. And for a while being a “good” photographer meant taking on these subjects. But moving into the 1970s a number of new kinds of expression emerged, and that reportage-style of photography moved away from the mainstream.
With a 1960s figure like Terayama Shuji, I feel he had a great concern for reality and history, but sensed that approaching it directly was less effective than using fiction in order to better see, or even manipulate, reality.
My work is also in that mode. If you lie about a lie you end up with truth, just as multiplying a negative number by another negative number gives you a positive result. Look at these images, they lie to you. These are impossible situations happening in impossible places. But somehow the reality of Tokyo emerges from them.
This image, from Birth with the woman’s head hovering over bodies on the beach, looks like photomontage.
No, it’s not, just a single image. I don’t really use those sorts of techniques. Not even with digital cameras. What I was trying to do with Birth was to work through the strangeness of humans being born into the world. The mere existence of humans is strange to me. So we went to a southern island and I tried to capture some of the strangeness of being alive. I suppose it is a surrealist technique I’m using here, and I’ve continued to use it since then, too.
Were you friends with Takiguchi Shuzo [the leading surrealist poet] at this point?
Yes. They were all still alive back then. Takiguchi, Mishima, Shibusawa Tatsuhiko.
What about the Sogetsu Art Center, were you connected with that group?
I was a little young for them. I have done some collaborative work with Teshigahara Hiroshi, and I’ve shot a number of their ikebana pieces, but the generation that hung out there with Ono Yoko, they were slightly older than me.
Mishima wrote the interpretive essay for your first collection, right?
Yeah, but it wasn’t very good. He wrote it before he even saw most of the pieces in that collection, so he told me after it came out that he wished he had seen them all before he wrote it!
This photo of the group jumping into the air, is this a theatre troupe?
No, it was just a group of friends. There’s Uno Akira in the front, there’s Koshino Junko, the designer. These were the people making new forms of culture in the 1960s, a sort of subculture, we just got them all together for this shot.
Did your crowd think of itself as part of counterculture?
Not really. It was more an atmosphere in the late ’60s where a lot of people were suddenly liberated to do all kinds of new work. So we were all mixing together, collaborating, breaking up, it was just very active. Looking back now it was an extraordinary time, but living it we didn’t have that sense ... you’d walk into a bar and Terayama might be sitting there, and then Mishima in the back, it just seemed normal.
What about this collection from 1970?
It was published in 1970, but we did the shoot in 1969, so it was right when the lunar landing was happening. So we got a black woman, a white woman, and a Japanese woman together and took them to Death Valley to get a landscape that looked something like the moon.
I’m curious about the déformé technique you used in the Twin series, such as this image with the two on top of each other elongated like this.
This wasn’t the first time I used déformé, I was using it earlier as well, but it’s just a wide-angle lens. When I was younger, the simple act of looking at a nude was very strange for me. So I’d push the image with these techniques, make it a little surrealistic, maybe too much, but I did a lot of work in this mode at the time. A wide-angle lens with pan-focus, that was my style at the time.
Can we talk a bit about Mishima? You did a book called “Mishima Yukio’s House” (1995), with monochromatic images of Mishima alive in the 1960s juxtaposed with full color images of his house.
The color images in that book are from long after Mishima died. His wife had preserved everything exactly as it had been when he was alive. So this was less an artistic decision than just a matter of when I took the photos. And the collection includes some shots of photographs I had taken of Mishima that he had framed for the house. There was no way I could have done the shots of his private study without his wife. She knew exactly where he used to place his reading glasses and all these items on his desk. But just as this book was going to press, before it was actually published, Mishima’s wife passed away.
Speaking of Mishima, there are still several photos that haven’t been published. Right up until he died, we had been working on a project called Men’s Ways of Dying. The idea was that there are a number of ways for men to die, so even within the category of seppuku, you might have Prince Otomo in pure white robes cutting open his belly in front of crowd, but you could also have a fishmonger down at the market that just gets sick of it all and does it with his fillet knife! Or you might just get in a car wreck. So the project was to recreate these scenes and photograph them. I was taking these photos with Mishima until ten days before his death. We were just figuring out how many to do for the collection but I had no idea he was really thinking about dying. A lot of people claimed to have seen it coming, that they knew he was at risk, but I was the closest to him, working specifically on the topic of death, and there was no sense at all that he would kill himself. It was such a stupid thing for him to do. What’s the point? I thought the photo project was weird, but after his death, the meaning of those images shifted so dramatically, as though he had been documenting his path toward death. We couldn’t publish those photos, they would have been too shocking for his relatives. But Mishima did those photos planning to publish them, and they certainly would have been published had he lived. There still is a set of them that have never been released. Now that this much time has passed, it may be time to finally get them out.
Mishima’s film “Patriotism” (Yukoku) was impossible to see in Japan for several decades, but recently came out on DVD, so maybe the time is right. So is your sense, then, that Mishima’s suicide was a theatrical act, that it was itself a kind of performance?
Exactly! It was extremely theatrical.
Steve Ridgely is assistant professor of Japanese at the University of Wisconsin Madison where he teaches modern Japanese literature, film, and popular culture. He just completed a book on Terayama Shuji and Japanese Counterculture due to be published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2010.
The interview took place in Tokyo on March 16, 2009.