Bodies beautiful

For Mitsuhiro Mouri, creating images of his female models at their stunning best is all in a day's work

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At 2 a.m. on a spring morning in 2002, photographer Mitsuhiro Mouri received a phone call from the most famous actress in Japan.

“I think there is more of me you should photograph,” said Keiko Matsuzaka, then 49 years of age and trailing a glittering career of film and television work stretching back 30 years.

The day before, Mouri and Matsuzaka had ostensibly wrapped up shooting for a most ambitious project: a shashinshu (book of photos) featuring the exquisitely beautiful actress in various poses, some of them nude, against backdrops of cherry blossoms, mist, ponds, lotus blooms and temples in Kyoto.

“After talking for a while,” Mouri said, recalling the late-night call, “we agreed we needed to shoot one last photograph.”

The next day the lighting staff, art assistants, stylists, makeup artists, producers and publishers — a group of about 60 people, not to mention the photographer and his actress model — reconvened at Mouri’s studio in Tokyo’s Roppongi entertainment district and made what became the last photo in the book.

“It ended up being the most confronting shot of the lot,” Mouri said.

“Sakura Densetsu” (“The Cherry Legend”), as the book was titled, caused a sensation on its release. “She was Japan’s most famous actress,” Mouri said, trying to convey the surprise that the public felt on hearing that Matsuzaka, at that age, had been photographed naked.

After it topped 400,000 sales, the book even secured a place on a list of the 10 best-selling titles of its genre — the nudo shashinshu, or “nude-photo book.” Considering that no new books had cracked that ranking in over four years, it was an extraordinary feat.

Seven years later, in March 2009, the nude-photo book rankings remain unchanged, and it seems safe to pronounce Mouri’s “Sakura Densetsu” not just a classic of the genre, but its last big-seller.

Sales of nude-photo books, which some call “soft pornography” due to their inclusion of some photos revealing their subjects’ breasts and pubic hair, are now a fraction of what they were in the heady boom years of the 1980s and ’90s.

Some attribute the decline to the onslaught of technology — the Internet offers vast options for those seeking free pornography, while digital cameras and new software have given amateurs the tools to make their own photos.

Others point to the gradual polarization of Japanese tastes — toward prudishness in the mainstream and vulgarity on the fringes.

Either way, the shift is presenting photographers who had built careers out of nude-photo books, such as 49-year-old Mouri, with a choice: reinvent yourself or face extinction.

Across the road from the Daikanyama Address development in the chic Shibuya Ward enclave of central Tokyo is a concrete-and-glass building called La Fuente. With restaurants and shops taking up the three aboveground floors, you’d never guess that its basement is home to a small piece of Paris. Fake brick walls, wrought-iron railings, a fountain, a balcony and even a small bar are just some of the fixtures in the 210-sq.-meter Daikanyama La Fuente Studio — one of Mouri’s three city-center studios.

From here he draws on all manner of props and computer-aided tricks to transport models virtually to anywhere in the world — whether for magazine covers, advertisements, portraits or, albeit infrequently these days, nude-photo books.

When I arrived the other day, Mouri was standing at the bar drinking a coffee. His bob of hair was brushed down over his forehead, giving him a slightly boyish look, and a small silver belt buckle mediated tastefully between his white shirt and black jeans. He was waiting for his subject of the day, a 23-year-old named Mai Sakura.

“She’s a young idol in the making,” he had explained by e-mail, “so she won’t mind if you’re present during the shoot.”

Not that Sakura had too much to be shy about; today’s shoot was just a “test,” for which she wouldn’t be taking off any clothes.

“If we get some nice photos then I’ll talk to some people at magazines and we’ll try to get her some work — maybe a swimsuit shoot to begin with,” Mouri said.

As we waited for Sakura I looked around the studio and asked Mouri if he had done shoots in the real Paris before.

“Paris, Mexico, Bali, California — I used to go all over the world,” he said. In fact, he estimated that he went to Hawaii four times a year during the 1990s, staying up to a month at a time.

“The models would arrive in turns. We’d finish one shoot and the next model would arrive the following day for another photo book. It was a lot of fun,” he recalled.

Oddly, though, it wasn’t the jet-setting lifestyle that initially attracted him to the work. As an 18-year-old in the late 1970s, Mouri was a guitar-player taking spots in backing bands. That work took him to New York, where he fell in with a group of Japanese photographers who would insist on showing him their portfolios.

“Gradually I decided I wanted to photograph people,” he said.

So, after returning to Japan, Mouri spent a year working at Studio 77, which still exists in Tokyo’s Shinagawa district, before setting up his own Studio Mouris.

“There was lots of work — it was just before the bubble economy,” he said, explaining how he started with fashion shoots, photographing mostly for catalogs and magazine features. After a few years, though, he realized he was more interested in shooting the models themselves.

“I wanted to focus on the person — the body, the face — rather than just on the clothes,” he said.

In a way, the nude-photo book is the ultimate form of portraiture — an entire volume devoted to all aspects of a single subject. Such books, he said, also allowed Mouri “to create my own narrative, encompassing the subject, location, the weather even.” He also liked the idea that all the work would end up as a physical object — a book — and as testament to that passion he’s now made more than 30 of them.

Mouri’s telephone rang. It was Sakura, who regretted she was running late.

“The best way to capture a person’s personality on film,” he said, returning his phone to the bar, “is to let them move by themselves, freely. The really good models can move. The less experienced ones are rigid, so you have to tell them what to do. It’s hard to get good shots when that happens.”

Of course, as anyone who has ever looked at a nude-photo book will know, the books are not just about capturing personality. Half the time the girls are naked and they are always shot in deliberately coquettish and sexy poses.

So what did Mouri think set nude-photo books apart from straight pornography?

“The aim of the photo book is to draw out the models, to coax them into feeling comfortable about expressing parts of themselves that they might not normally express,” he said. “But the most important thing is to not let it become vulgar — genuine sensuality stems not from vulgarity, but elegance.”

Mouri spoke with an unfalteringly soft and sure voice, but he seemed surprised at my question.

“I want to photograph women so they look as beautiful as in dreams,” he said.

It turns out that Mouri’s fellow photo-book snappers also consider their work to be more about beauty than cheap titillation.

In this month’s edition of the art magazine Bijutsu Techo, 68-year-old Kishin Shinoyama, who is recognized as the father of the genre, explains that the reason he photographs girls in the buff is because . . . “I just want to say to people, ‘Look at her, isn’t she pretty.’ “

If it was Mouri’s “Sakura Densetsu” that drew down the curtain on nude-photo books in 2002, it was Shinoyama’s books that had brought them to center stage, back in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

It all started with his 1968 volume “Shinoyama Kishin to 28-ninno Onnatachi (Kishin Shinoyama and 28 women),” which featured well-known actresses and celebrities in various revealing poses. The genre reached a climax in 1991, when Shinoyama published “Santa Fe,” a book of photos of the actress Rie Miyazawa, who was then just 18.

Shot in and named after the city in New Mexico, the book caused a sensation for much the same reason that “Sakura Densetsu” did 11 years later: No one could believe that a successful actress had stooped to taking off her clothes in front of a camera.

The book sold a still-unmatched 1.55 million copies, and it seems many of those who bought it were won over by Shinoyama’s conviction that nudity was not necessarily pornographic. In other words, they realized that Miyazawa wasn’t stooping at all: the curves of her body, which Shinoyama deftly juxtaposed with those of New Mexico’s adobe architecture and desert landscapes, were beautiful — and there was nothing wrong with celebrating them.

Even today, online Web sites selling nude-photo books are crammed full of user comments debating the merits and demerits of the products as though they were hanging in the Tokyo National Museum.

“The form of Miyazawa’s bust from the side is particularly beautiful,” notes one connoisseur about “Santa Fe.” Another observes she’s as “fresh as a pink rose.”

Meanwhile, in a characteristically outspoken pronouncement in the Bijutsu Techo interview, Shinoyama sums up his position, saying: “I’ve never masturbated to one of my photographs.”

The photo-artist goes on to say that he finds vulgar the term that came to be associated with his and all subsequent nude-photo books: “hair nude.”

The description emerged because Shinoyama’s books went as far as showing pubic hair, but no further. This led some to believe that the showing of hair was somehow sanctioned by the law. In truth the only legal proscription is against showing genitals; no mention is made of hair.

After about half an hour, Mai Sakura appeared from behind a large wooden door. With big bright eyes and her tall, slender figure, it was difficult to pinpoint which part of her Mouri had thought was still “in the making.”

She explained that she was the leader of a pinup girl trio called Miss Marine-chan. “We’re the promotional characters for a brand of pachinko machine,” she said — a job that a Google search reveals involves her touring the nation and appearing bikini-clad at pachinko parlors.

I asked her if her work had made her so well known that people stopped her in the street. “In suburbs where there are lots of pachinko parlors, yes,” she said.

She continued that she was pleased when she was chosen as the leader of Miss Marine-chan because, “My father loves that brand of pachinko machine, and he was really happy.”

Sakura has appeared in one photo book as a member of Miss Marine-chan, as well as by herself in a number of what are now called “digital photo books” — collections of photographs, usually packaged in PDF format, that can be purchased and downloaded online.

I asked her what it was like to be photographed for such media.

“I’m still not so good at it, so the photographer usually has to tell me what to do — how to pose,” she said.

Do they make her take strange poses?

“Yes, sometimes they’re really weird and uncomfortable poses, but when you see the photos afterward then it all makes sense,” she said.

She paused and looked slightly embarrassed when I asked how she wanted people to react to her photographs.

“Do you want people to think you’re cute?” I asked, and she agreed, with a relieved laugh.

While that day’s shooting was officially a “test” (it was the first time Mouri would photograph her), Sakura was hoping that some day they could make a book together.

“When I met Mouri the first time, he showed me some of his photo books. Each and every photograph was so beautiful. I was amazed.

“They’re basically just photos of girls, but the backgrounds, the clothes, everything is so beautiful. I’m not confident about whether he can do the same with me.”

Mouri sat quietly listening to the conversation until I asked what went through her mind when she looked at photographs of herself.

“Oh, I often think that my facial expressions are not strong enough. I can sometimes tell I’m nervous,” she said.

“All you need to do is relax like you are now,” Mouri assured her. “You look great and natural right now.”

A few minutes later one of the assistants turned on a rock music CD and the shooting began.

Sakura, wearing a short flowery dress, started tilting and swaying around a white stage as Mouri tracked her with his large-format camera, clicking the shutter-release and tripping great splashes of white light from the overhead flashguns.

It was hard for this voyeur not to get lost in all the glamour, but it was clear Sakura wasn’t finding her rhythm. She looked self-conscious and her poses soon became halfhearted. Mouri quietly began to make very specific requests.

“Face to the right. A little bit more. Hold your chin up. Look at me,” he said. His voice was so slight I had trouble catching it above the music. But then I soon realized that his instructions were entirely filling the several-second intervals between shutter releases and beeps from the flash-equipment recharger.

After a while, though, photographer and subject convened around a nearby Macintosh computer, on which each photograph had been appearing moments after it was taken.

“That one’s really beautiful,” Mouri said, pointing at a closeup of her face. The next was “a bit halfhearted.” She laughed.

“You need to really try to lose yourself in it,” Mouri continued. “Imagine you’re acting in a TV drama. That’s how you get a good expression. The really good models, they make a story in their own minds, and that’s what they give expression to in their faces.”

With each subsequent conference around the computer the poses were further refined. Finally, 40 minutes later when the shooting ended, they had settled on an angle in which Sakura’s head was tilted up to the right, and she was glancing down at the camera. It played up the gorgeous roundness of her eyes and the line of her neck.

“I’ve never had my photo taken with my hair all back behind my shoulders,” said Sakura, pointing out another aspect of the image that I hadn’t noticed.

“When you meet and talk to the models, you are just looking at them normally. It’s only when you look at them through the lens that you start to notice things — angles, looks,” explained Mouri. “Through the lens, all of a sudden they become a picture.”

Of course, once the models for fashion shoots or nude-photo books are made into “pictures,” there is no limit to the ways they can be manipulated — even after the shoot is completed.

Mouri wouldn’t tell me how exactly he planned to “touch-up” Sakura’s shot on computer, but he admitted that nowadays he “played around” with all his photos before submitting them to clients.

A few days earlier he had shown me how the Photoshop software program makes the most extraordinary transformations possible in just a matter of seconds. I’d watched as he used one tool to literally grab one model’s upper eyelids and pull them up, instantly endowing her with puppy-dog eyes.

Then several wayward strands of hair were literally pushed into a more fetching position — not deleted, but pushed — by another tool. To complete the process he enlarged her breasts, lengthened her legs and added an “anime filter,” whereby the focus of everything but the model’s eyes and lips was slightly softened, making those two features appear to glisten.

Ironically, the same tools that now make Mouri’s job easier have also made it more precarious.

“With software like this, everyone thinks they can take a decent photo,” he said.

Many retailers in particular now shoot their own merchandise photographs for catalogs. Some fashion magazines even do the same thing.

“It affects the quality of the work,” said Mouri. “The objective is simply to get a shot out there as quickly as possible.”

Mouri said the same tendency can be seen in nude digital photo books and even in some of the few traditional photo books being made these days.

“I think they are losing their attention to detail and their subtlety,” he said. “They think straight bluntness is somehow more real. It’s a little closer to the American style of pornography, where you see strong, uniform lighting with the aim of showing every detail of the subject’s body,” he said.

Mouri felt that the Japanese photo books of a decade ago were characterized by more interplay between shadow and light. “You know, some of the girl’s body would be illuminated, some of it would be in darkness, or some of her in focus and some of her blurred. That is what gave them their elegant sensuality,” he said.

These days photo books all have a tendency to “look the same.”

It’s too early to know if Mai Sakura will feature in a Mitsuhiro Mouri photo book. The photographer says he will take his test snaps around to some publishers and gauge if there is any interest.

But he admitted his hopes are not high. “The publishers just don’t have much money at the moment to do proper photo-book projects,” he said.

However, he said that the digital photo book genre doesn’t appeal because “it feels cold, detached when it is just data.”

Still, Mouri thinks there is one option left open to him: going it alone.

“I’m thinking that I could work with a model, create several photographs and then package them not into a book, but as a boxed portfolio,” he said. “I could market and sell it online. It might be selfish, but if the publishing companies are not interested, then I’ll have no choice but to do it all myself.”

Such dreams are made possible in some way by Mouri’s shrewd decision in the 1990s to set up his own studios. He can now rent out his three facilities to other photographers and filmmakers for up to ¥40,000 per hour. “There aren’t so many large studios in central Tokyo, so business is good,” he said.

Meanwhile, Kishin Shinoyama, “father” of the nude photo book genre, is trying to reinvent himself by another method.

“I’m going to make my debut in the art world,” he told Bijutsu Techo. “If the publishers go under then photographers will go under too,” he said. “I’m going to become an artist.”

Next month he’s holding a large exhibition of nudes at G/P Gallery in Tokyo’s Ebisu district — showing the same photos that once filled the pages of his best-selling books.

Mouri has a similar project in the works, too. But instead of photographing professional models, he says he wants to take photos of nonmodel celebrities, such as sports stars, and see how beautiful he can make them look.

“A subject doesn’t have to be born with a naturally beautiful body. The most impressive thing about photography is that it is capable of finding beauty in anyone,” he said.