Miyako Ishiuchi is one of Japan’s most formidable photographers — a woman who has been passionately interested in women and their bodies for the whole of her 50-year career. At 68 years old, her fascination with the female physique remains intact, but over the past six years she has added two subtexts to her work: death and memory.
Ishiuchi’s interest has shifted from photographing women’s bodies to depicting their posthumous lives through personal effects. Her photo book of images showing the belongings of the victims of Hiroshima’s nuclear bombing, “Hiroshima Strings of Time,” inspired Linda Hoaglund’s 2012 documentary, “Things Left Behind.”
Now Ishiuchi’s work has become the basis for another documentary: Tadasuke Kotani’s “Frida Kahlo no Ihin” (“The Legacy of Frida Kahlo”). This film shows Ishiuchi’s working process as she inspects and photographs Frida Kahlo’s belongings, including a collection of gorgeous, elaborately embroidered dresses. Other things are poignant reminders of Kahlo’s physical condition: shoes with heels of differing height (Kahlo contracted polio in childhood, which left one leg longer than the other), or plaster corsets (at 18, a horrible bus accident shattered her pelvis and spinal column).
Kotani, a 38-year-old director who has been making films since 2002, followed Ishiuchi to Mexico after she was invited by Frida Kahlo’s estate to photograph the late Mexican artist’s things. His documentary is a love letter to two women artists — Kahlo and Ishiuchi — capturing their brief, metaphysical encounter.
“She has always been a great source of inspiration and admiration,” Kotani says of Ishiuchi.
While his love for Kahlo’s works had been “spotty,” he says his love for Ishiuchi’s has always been “consistent and genuine.”
Kotani says he has been following Ishiuchi’s work since he was a student at an Osaka arts university. But he wasn’t prepared for how moving her work would be in the flesh.
“The whole thing made me weep,” he says about an exhibition of Ishiuchi’s “Hiroshima” photographs, which he saw in Tokyo. “Not because of the nuclear bomb per se, I wept because here was a world I had never seen before. It was an exhibition about the dead and their inanimate belongings. Yet these photos moved and danced with a life of their own. The phantoms of the victims were there in front of me, and I could see how she had reduced the distance between myself and all these people who had died so horribly. I could feel their sadness, but I could also see the authenticity of their lives. They weren’t just victims but people who had lived, and her photos had the power to resurrect them.”
Ishiuchi’s photographs of Kahlo’s possessions had the same effect.
“Frida Kahlo lived life to the hilt, despite her many physical ailments and an incredible burden of pain,” Kotani says. “Ishiuchi’s photographs made me see Kahlo’s life — not just as an artist but as a human being.”
As a young man growing up in Japan, Frida Kahlo’s paintings had been an enigma to Kotani.
“Her energy, and the way she could marshal all that concentration to paint herself … it was all a bit scary for me,” he says. “I’m still overwhelmed when I look at her paintings. But in this film, I was able to look at Ishiuchi looking at Kahlo. That filter was very important and a revelation for me — it made me look at Kahlo and her work and life in an entirely different light.”
“The Legacy of Frida Kahlo” reveals Kotani’s reverence not only for Ishiuchi and Kahlo but women in general.
“They bear their scars differently from men,” he says. “They’ve always struck me as being much stronger and having a lot more resilience. They know how to change their pain into energy, whereas most men are really clueless about it.”
Kotani says he feels more comfortable around women than men (a rarity among Japanese men) and that they hold an allure that transcends physical attraction.
“This probably has something to do with my father,” he explains. “He was an alcoholic and often violent. We rarely spoke to one another. He never took an interest in what I was doing. Actually, he appeared in one of my films but he couldn’t be bothered to see it. As a son I think I’ve let him down, but on the other hand he was too preoccupied with himself to care what sort of children he had.”
Men — especially Japanese men — tended to disappoint Kotani. He felt oppressed by their machismo and relentless self-absorption.
“Women are different,” he says. “They know how to turn awful situations into something with beauty and that has relevance to other people.”
Kotani may as well have been speaking about Ishiuchi alone.
“I knew that filming her at work would make a good movie about Frida Kahlo. She’s been depicted on-screen so many times, and a million stories surround her life. I had no interest in regurgitating that, just as Ishiuchi had no interest in showing the devastation of the Hiroshima bombing,” he says. “It’s her job and mine to pick up the invisible threads of a person’s life and to try and reenact a past that links directly to the present.”
And having completed the film, did he feel closer to Kahlo?
“I’ve certainly learned how to communicate with her,” he says. “I never knew that a woman’s dress or her bathroom articles could be so moving and reveal more about that woman than her paintings. For the first time, I could feel the soft, gentle part of Frida Kahlo’s nature. From a man’s point of view, that’s like being given a gift.”