Drop-dead gorgeous

by David Mcneill

Eiko Koike is a leggy, lushly upholstered Japanese celebrity, famous for her doe eyes and D-cup breasts.

Normally paid millions of yen a day to squeeze her pneumatic form into designer clothes, sports cars or anything else that needs the kind of sales boost she gives, Koike can now also be found in a pose with a distinct difference. In a glossy coffee-table book now in the nation’s bookstores, she’s a corpse in a Tokyo pachinko parlor.

Made up to perfection and wearing a skimpy Versace evening dress that barely covers the Chest That Sold a Thousand Products, Koike stares lifelessly up at the ceiling, alone and surrounded by scattered pachinko balls.

She looks odd enough, but that’s before you come to actress Mari Natsuki lying broken and discarded in a truck of overripe tomatoes. In a Luisa Beccaria dress.

“Saigo ni Mita Fukei (The Last View),” as the book that’s selling particularly well among teens and twentysomethings is titled, was put together by fashion photographer Kaoru Izima, who has been taking photos of beautiful corpses since 1993.

Now 50, the Tokyo native has mellowed; in his previous three books the almost exclusively female subjects were depicted stabbed, shot and strangled. In “Landscapes with a Corpse,” gorgeous women are strewn in snowy fields, on beaches and in bamboo forests all over Japan, the apparent victims of a serial killer.

“When I started, I placed a lot of emphasis on making the models look realistically dead,” he says in his studio in Tokyo’s Meguro district. “Now I’m not that concerned. I don’t want to frighten the viewers.”

The obvious question prompted by his work is: Does he hate women?

“Not at all,” he answers, laughing. “Quite the opposite. I love women.

“I’m asked this question far more in Europe than Asia: ‘Why do you use women and show them in these poses?’ My answer is that I’m not forcing the women to do this against their will. They do it because they want to.

“Some people think that I’m making money from selling sex or something, though that’s not my purpose at all. But I realize that I can explain this all I want and some people will never understand.”

So why does he shoot mostly female models?

“I’m a photographer for women’s magazines, so that’s what I’m used to. But more importantly, when you ask women about how they’d like to die, their answers are always much more interesting and imaginative.

“Men are too serious and scared of death, and their answers are usually boring. They always say things like: ‘I’d like to die surrounded by naked women.’ “

The project grew, he says, out of his frustration with fashion work.

“I got tired of the blandness of shooting fashion gigs. There is much more to life than looking cool in a Mercedes and eating and drinking. I began to wonder why fashion magazines exclude the rest of life, and especially death.

“People die in road accidents and murders all the time. Today we’re alive, but tomorrow we may not be. Dying is a huge part of the human experience, so why not show this too?”

So began what he calls his “obsession,” as he started to ask initially reluctant actresses and models to pose.

“I talked to editors and they said, ‘That doesn’t sound like a good idea.’ So I made my own quarterly magazine. The first woman I managed to persuade was actress Kyoko Koizumi. She said it sounded really interesting, and because she was an actress she wasn’t especially scared of the idea of playing dead. After she agreed, it wasn’t hard to get others because they said, ‘Oh, if someone that famous has done it . . . ‘ And so it took off.”

To date, 43 top models and actresses have lain prone as if posthumous before Izima’s lens, including Hong Kong screen star Michelle Reis — who was “murdered” in a Chinese restaurant — and Belgian actress Helena Noguerra, who lies sprawled wide-eyed and semi-naked, one silk stocking undone, on the floor of her apartment, apparently the victim of a lovers’ quarrel.

According to Izima, another 30 or 40 are waiting, dying for their moment of morbid glory even though he does not pay and the shoots can be long and arduous; look closely at the outdoor shots and you can see that many of his subjects have broken out in goose pimples.

“I no longer have to ask the models, they ask me,” he says.

Asked why it is he thinks that they do this for free, he replies, “I don’t know. I suppose actresses are highly motivated to act, whether they get paid or not, and this project interests them.

“Of course, nobody wants to die and most people are too terrified to imagine what it would really be like, but I think the models in ‘The Last View’ thought, ‘Well, if I’m going to die, this way might be nice: a way I have chosen myself.’ “

Izima’s pursuit of his macabre hobby coincides with what many are calling a suicide epidemic in Japan. Last year, an average of 94 people were officially classified as having taken their own lives every day, setting a record of 34,427 that broke the previous high of 33,048, set in 1999.

Since the Asian economic crash of 1997-98, suicides in Japan have claimed three times more lives than traffic accidents, and the proliferation of Web sites that promote it — sometimes in groups with strangers — as well as books such as Wataru Tsurumi’s million-plus-selling 1993 “The Complete Suicide Manual,” has generated concern that the media may be fueling the phenomenon.

However, Izima denies that his images glamorize death. “I’m not trying to show that death is beautiful, just that it’s something people need not be afraid of. And I think the models know this too.”

As for suicide, he doesn’t allow images of people who have taken their own life.

“I’m against it, even though that does come up in discussions with my subjects. For example, in ‘The Last View,’ two of my models, Ai Kato and Mika Nakashima, who are friends, said they wanted to die together in a suicide pact, but I refused. [The pictures show the two lying on a bed together, dressed in Vivienne Westwood French maid outfits]. Granted, you can’t tell this from looking at the picture, but that’s my rule. Suicide is by choice, but I depict death that is not by choice — that is what is beautiful to me.”

The head of Japan’s largest telephone helpline, Inochi no Denwa, Yukio Saito speaks from experience when he says that books like “The Suicide Manual” and “The Last View” are not desirable. But he doubts their impact on Japan’s soaring suicides.

“There wasn’t any notable spike in rates after the publication of these books,” Saito observed, “and some people may actually find them comforting, and many find solace and help on the Web, too. So it would be difficult to support more government controls. The authors don’t induce death, they just suggest it. The reaction depends on the people who read them.”

Saito also disagrees that there is anything particularly Japanese about books on the subject of death, noting that “they had a suicide manual in France and in America there is the Hemlock Society, which also gives instructions on suicide.”

In “The Last View,” which was published last September, Izima says he has tried to represent the spirit leaving the body through his photography.

“I asked my models a series of questions: How would you prepare for death? Where would you like to die? On the shoot I tell them to imagine their final breath, their final moments on this earth. I try to capture this look in their eyes, the beautiful last moment of life.

“The photos show the body from four different scenes, including a close-up and a long-shot as the soul travels upwards.”

Izima’s questions were rewarded with some startling answers. Mari Natsuki, for example, chose death at the hands of a murderous truck driver. “As for the tomatoes,” Izima explains, “she had a very poor childhood and imagined herself dead and surrounded by food. We started with apples, but tomatoes are better because they get squashed and are more visually striking.”

And Eiko Koike? “She grew up over a pachinko shop and she wanted to die while playing. She had just hit the jackpot and keeled over from shock.”

Does Izima himself ever go into shock when he sees all these beautiful women up close?

“No. They never look as good in person as they do in pictures,” he answers with a knowing laugh.

Mari Natsuki

Why did you agree to pose for Kaoru Izima?

I’ve been following Izima’s work for years, and I really love him as a photographer. When I saw “Landscape with a Corpse,” I thought I’d like to collaborate with him sometime.

Was it difficult or cold?

Actors are manual workers who must always confront difficulties. From that perspective, this was a fun shoot for me. I don’t think Izima’s pictures are sexist or misogynistic. For every 10 people there are 10 different ways of thinking — so how can we decide what is sexist?

Koike Eiko

Why did you pose for “The Last View”?

I knew Izima’s wife, who is a stylist, so I pleaded with him to photograph me. I was honored because I’ve wanted to appear in his photos for so long. The quality of his work is very high, and I’m a big fan.

Why did you choose your pose?

I’m the daughter of a pachinko-parlor owner, and I love pachinko, so it wasn’t hard for me at all. I was doing something I love. The only thing I was worried about was what my parents would think.

Do you think this work will influence people?

Of course I can’t condone taking your own life, but people who want to end their own lives should be free to do so. I don’t think his work is sexist or exploitative of women at all.