Photographer chronicles an alternate Japanese history


It’s early Friday evening in a central Tokyo bubble-era building, the spacious foyer is crowded and a man in the back can be observed, smiling warmly and chatting cordially. He has graying hair, wears a dark-blue suit and a pair of the sort of dour, heavy-framed eyeglasses popularized by the late former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. While he looks a lot like a typical Japanese senior management type, in reality he is arguably the most revolutionary photographer in this country’s history.

Eikoh Hosoe’s surprising appearance notwithstanding, at the opening last week for his retrospective “Spiritual Dualism of Photography” at the Tokyo Museum of Photography in Ebisu, I felt honored to meet an artist and visual storyteller whose groundbreaking explorations of sexuality, nationalism and the avant-garde have earned him a respect from his peers that far exceeds the attention afforded him by the media or the market.

The current exhibition, which is showing till Jan. 28, includes a section of saturated color photographs of contemporary butoh performance and, also in color, a series on tile mosaics done in the 1970s and ’80s in Barcelona. There are photographs from some of Hosoe’s children’s books that have never before been presented, and (unfortunately screening on a small monitor) two short video presentations — “Navel and A-Bomb,” which Hosoe made in 1960 in collaboration with his ad hoc avant-garde group, Jazz Film Library, and a documentary on Hosoe himself.

But it is Hosoe’s earlier thematic work which comprises the main part of this exhibition, beginning with selections from the 1960s series “Man and Woman,” in which the pictures are presented in the classic monochrome 20×25-cm format. Here, Hosoe uses light and shadow and basic manipulations, such as pushing film speed for heightened grain and contrast, to full effect to frame an engaging and often humorous commentary on the age-old battle of the sexes.

The next series, “Ordeal by Roses,” reflects Hosoe’s intimate study of the driven Japanese writer and nationalist Yukio Mishima. There can be no question that Mishima was exceptionally keen to pose for Hosoe, and did so with all manner of elaborate costumes and props, and in a wide variety of unusual settings. The question of Mishima’s homosexuality, which remains a “question” for many if not most Japanese, is raised here by a tight-white-trousered subject who would not have looked out of place on the set of Rainer Fassbinder’s carnal movie “Querelle.”

Also represented is Hosoe’s interest in butoh, particularly his 46-year study of Kazuo Ono and work with the father of the genre, Tatsumi Hijikata, who celebrates unbridled creative expression with country folk in the delightful series “Kamaitachi.”

There is also a series of close-cropped nudes of black- and white-skinned models, posed sculpturally and printed in rich, gold-toned silver gelatin; and a few “hair nude” photos that predate the controversial foray into works with genital nudity made by the self-aggrandizing Nobuyoshi Araki years later.

One reason Hosoe trails Araki in recognition factor, and Hiroshi Sugimoto in auction prices, might be that unlike these other elders of Japanese photography, Hosoe has focused on themes that Japan would rather not deal with. Mishima is a controversial figure to be sure, a hero to many rightwingers but, with his tragicomic attempt to rally the Japanese armed forces in a coup to restore the Emperor’s power, and subsequent ritual suicide in their Tokyo headquarters, something of an embarrassment to the general public. Similarly “difficult” is Hosoe’s exploration of Mishima’s sexuality.

Hosoe’s use of mixed-race couples and the roughly equal roles given to male and female subjects in these photographs also advanced an eroticization of the male that ran against the norm back then, and continues to even some 40 years later.

Finally, although Hosoe regarded butoh dance as a breakthrough medium in the performing arts, to this day its dark expressive qualities find it marginalized here — many of the leading Japanese butoh troupes play to bigger houses and more appreciative audiences in Paris or New York than they do in Tokyo.

And so this show stands defiantly and confidently apart, testifying to Hosoe’s uncompromising vision and tracing, if you will, a parallel history of modern Japan — a wholly subjective reality that revels in alternative lifestyles and creative sensibilities.