Eikoh Hosoe, Kamaitachi

GUP #38, "Collaboration," August 2013

Over the course of a career spanning more than fifty years, Eikoh Hosoe has developed a genuinely singular photographic vision. By using mythology, metaphor and symbolism, he has created images beyond the limits of traditional photography. His style integrates several different disciplines: theatre, dance, film and traditional Japanese art are all essential components of his work. It is at the crossroads of these various disciplines and through his collaborations with artists from these different worlds that Hosoe finds inspiration and the essence of his greatest series. Perhaps his greatest collaboration of all took place with the dancer Tatsumi Hijikata, one of the founders of the avant-garde dance movement known as Butoh.

  Kamaitachi  #6, 1965

Kamaitachi #6, 1965

Hosoe began his photographic career in the 1950s, a time when documentary realism was the norm in Japanese photographic circles. In the post-war years, the ‘objectivity’ of documentary photography provided photographers with an essential way of bearing witness to the effects of the massive destruction of the Pacific War and particularly the horrors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was a time when the identity of the Japanese nation had been thrown into question following the country’s defeat in World War II, the destruction of the myth of the emperor and the US occupation that followed. In the face of such turbulent changes, many young photographers of Hosoe’s generation felt the need to develop new photographic approaches to account for the new world in which they suddenly found themselves. But while his contemporaries sought to renew the documentary genre to present a personal and subjective reality of the real world, Hosoe chose to completely abandon the dominant documentary style to develop an approach based on a deep sense of experimentation and freedom. His photographic method was characterised not only by its blend of dreams, fantasy and reality, but also by a revolutionary baroque visual style. In a country known for its minimalist, at times austere aesthetic, Hosoe’s images shook up the Japanese photography scene. 

What set Hosoe apart from his contemporaries was his ability to draw on other art forms to create a deeply personal hybrid. Throughout his career, he has drawn inspiration from many artistic disciplines, but it is dance—and particularly Butoh—that has been at the heart of his greatest series of photographs. Thanks to the celebrated writer Yukio Mishima, Hosoe met Tatsumi Hijikata, one of the founders of Butoh dance. This revolutionary movement founded in the post-war years, incorporated elements of German Expressionism and Japanese dance in the search for a new social identity. Dazzled by Hijikata’s performance of Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours), an adaptation of the novel by Yukio Mishima, in a small Tokyo theatre, Hosoe began photographing this unique dancer, a collaboration that continued until Hijikata’s death in 1986. 

  Kamaitachi  #12, 1968

Kamaitachi #12, 1968

The two artists immediately began to work together on the series that announced Hosoe’s arrival on the Tokyo photographic scene, Man and Woman (1959). Using Butoh dancers from Hijikata’s dance company as his models, Hosoe produced a series of starkly contrasted images sequenced as a performance which was a new interpretation of the union between two bodies. The influence of Tatsumi Hijikata once again played a role in Hosoe’s next project. In 1961, the celebrated writer Yukio Mishima saw some of Hosoe’s early pictures of Hijikata and invited the photographer to work with him, a collaboration that led to Barakei (Ordeal by Roses), which was first published as a book in 1963. Inspired by the theatricality of the writer’s house and by the aesthetic of Butoh that he had discovered through Hijikata, Hosoe was given free reign by Mishima to create an extraordinary baroque, erotic and at times morbid performance for his camera. A few years later, Hosoe and Mishima decide to publish a second edition of the book, which Mishima timed to coincide with his suicide by seppuku, giving a more sinister undertone to these images. 

However it was on Hosoe’s next photographic project, Kamaitachi (1965–68) that his collaboration with Hijikata reached its peak. Hosoe describes the inspiration for the series as follows, “Kamaitachi is based on a desire to create a record of memories from the time I was evacuated to my mother's hometown, Yonezawa in Yamagata prefecture, at the age of 12. It is also a documentary series of themed photographs of the late Tatsumi Hijikata.” The series is based on a mythical demon known as the kamaitachi (“sickle-weasel”) that was said to haunt the rice fields of the rural region of Tohoku in northern Japan, to which Hosoe had been evacuated as a child during the war. In 1965 Hosoe asked Hijikata, who also grew up in Tohoku, to travel with him to the region and to perform for his camera, embodying the mythical demon that they knew from their youth.

  Kamaitachi  #17, 1965

Kamaitachi #17, 1965

Whereas most photography of dance or performance acts as a documentation or record, for Kamaitachi Hijikata and Hosoe worked together to create a performance specifically for the camera. Rather than working in a studio they chose to stage this performance in the ‘real world’, aware of the power that documentary photography could give to this project. They extended this collaboration beyond themselves by drawing local people into their performance (even going as far as to ‘borrow’ a farmer’s baby for one image) and improvising scenes based on the villages and landscapes that they travelled through.  The result is perhaps the best illustration of Hosoe’s style, combining performance and documentary with a dramatic and baroque aesthetic that embodies the principles of ankoku butoh (dance of darkness). The series was published as a large format, limited edition book in 1969 and has since been published twice in English by Aperture: in 2005 with a facsimile of the original 1969 edition and in 2011 with a more affordable trade edition.

Although Hosoe has worked with other artists on many of his photographic series, from Yukio Mishima to his most recent ‘collaboration’, a series of photographs of Auguste Rodin’s sculptures, Kamaitachi remains his most profoundly collaborative project, one which, for a few moments, was able to bring the demons of his youth to life. 

By Marc Feustel

(Photographs by Eikoh Hosoe)