You may not know the name, but there is a good chance you know the face. As Clara Bow, Greta Garbo and Twiggy were iconic of their times, Sayoko Yamaguchi was everywhere in the 1970s. Even if you weren’t a dedicated follower of fashion, it would have been difficult to avoid her cool gaze, which appeared in magazines, TV and film, on album covers and as a shop-front mannequin all over the world. It is not an overstatement to say that for years Yamaguchi’s face and style were almost synonymous with contemporary Japanese womanhood and femininity outside of Japan.
A career as a model, however illustrious and notable, would not necessarily merit someone being the focus of an exhibition at a museum of contemporary art, but Yamaguchi went on to do and be many other things.
“Sayoko Yamaguchi: The Wearist, Clothed in the Future” is reminiscent of the premise of “Citizen Kane” in its exploration of Yamaguchi as an enigma. It presents personal ephemera such as old vinyl 45s, books, toys and dolls, before taking us along a meandering path that depicts a life full of creative experimentation. The abrupt end of that life in 2007, when Yamaguchi died of pneumonia at the age of 57, was met with sadness and reminiscences from all the different worlds in which she moved: fashion, of course; but also the theater, butoh, photography, cosmetics and design.
Yes, the tone of the exhibition is hagiographic, with “Sayako” being described as a “genre,” not just a person. The idea of her being a breakthrough model because she was “100 percent Japanese” and not a “half” (i.e. model of mixed ethnic background) is also proudly put forward as a key point in the list of her accomplishments. Like Naomi Sims and Grace Jones, Yamaguchi was indeed significant in helping to broaden perceptions of beauty, in the sense that to see a non-Caucasian face in internationally available mass media and advertising in the ’70s was extremely rare.
However, it’s not that simple. In their 2003 essay “Adopting a Caucasian ‘Look’: Reorganizing the Minority Face,” Masako Isa and Eric Mark Kramer suggest that Yamaguchi represented an idealized Japaneseness that was just another form of Orientalism, noting that advertising images of her emphasized the narrowness of her eyes, and used a lack of expression as a signifier of otherness and mystery.
Let’s say Yamaguchi was both of these things. Speaking as someone from a relatively small demographic of east Asians who grew up in the home counties of the U.K. in the ’70s, for me, any challenge to the hegemony of U.S. popular culture and the ubiquity of Farrah Fawcett’s retina-scorching grin was something to be positive about. At the same time, however, the predictable marketing and reception of Yamaguchi as standing in for “the Orient” and “the personification of Japanese beauty” was pretty tedious.
Having said that, one of the main points of interest in the exhibition is being able to follow Yamaguchi’s transition from being a model to becoming a creative agent who was freer to determine how she appeared in the public eye — and whether it was her body or her body of work that defined her legacy.
The first part of the show is taken up with her being constructed as an image — in magazine photo shoots, ad campaigns, runway videos — and then goes on to offer a look at her work in butoh with Ushio Amagatsu, as well as her appearances in theater, film and television. In the later sections, puppets that she designed for the Yokiza Puppet Company are an interesting counterpoint to dolls from her personal collection and the mannequins that appear earlier in the exhibition.
The mannequins make a spectacular return in the last major room of the show. All dressed in white with Yamaguchi’s characteristic okappa bob cut, several of them face off against some of her lush and elaborate theater costume designs. Sound, light and shadow are used to dramatically recreate the effect of seeing these creations as part of a performance.
Debates on race and gender roles aside, from a nuts-and-bolts point of view the exhibition as whole is outstanding. Yamaguchi, moving from one field of creativity to another, worked with top professionals in their field, and this exhibition shows that off to great effect.
Contact sheets from photo shoots, design sketches and a mock-up of Yamaguchi’s studio provide absorbing and informative insight into different practices and the way that styles and visions develop. A display revealing how a final image emerges from a photo shoot in the days of film will be a revelation to the camera phone generation.
What the exhibition does not do, intentionally I think, is give its audience greater knowledge of Yamaguchi as a human being, with all the complications that might entail. Could it be any other way?
“Sayoko Yamaguchi: The Wearist, Clothed in the Future” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo runs till June 28; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.mot-art-museum.jp