Jesse’s book review, Yohko by Masahisa Fukase
Jesse brings us another thoughtful book review, this time covering the work of Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase. Please note that some of the images in this article may be considered not safe for work by some.
There was always a prevailing nihilism with Japanese artists born before the war that can be seen in their post war works. The sentiments of this sort of lost generation (if you will) can be experienced in the literature of Dazai Osamu for example or the films of Imamura Shohei.
For photography I feel Masahisa Fukase to be in the same vein. His two previous works before this were of a pig slaughter house and an oil refinery. Both works are said to have been lost or destroyed, with just a few surviving prints from the slaughterhouse. It is in these few prints that you get the sense of nihilism, if not it comes back full force in the succeeding work to the book here with The Solitude of the Ravens. The Solitude of the Ravens is seriously my favorite photo book of all time that I still have not been able to purchase and subsequently write about.
The book came about after his wife left him and it was a train ride home to Hokkaido that left him looking out the window where he noticed flocks of ravens and crows at the empty train stations. He photographed them and not for the sake of the birds, but the mood and feeling of loneliness they evoked. Yohko then becomes so pivotal as it really is the only bright work he has done, and going back to literature it would be what Sound of the Waves was to Yukio Mishima’s novels the one bright spot.
So it is Yohko, a photo book that chronicles their 13 years of marriage. In it we get so much in that some of the photos are playful, some are tongue in cheek, some make up a series, and most even say a lot more. And it really does tell a story, the first photos are before their marriage and you can see the nihilism as they are made of foreshadowing images of a crows and a surviving print of his pig slaughter house series before launching into wedding snaps. From the beginning of the photos you can see her range and charisma which also drives the book. This is juxtaposed against random snaps that convey her mood as well. In the first chapter there is a page of her smiling holding two cats and on the adjacent page three dogs sniffing each other rears in sequential order. In the background is their apartment complex that you see in the next photo is built amongst desolation from the war. Already form this description you get a multiplicity of moods evoked by his wife, he selection of editing, and reality of the environment that was post war Japan.
A cool little series he has in the book features high millimeter shots of his wife from above as she goes to and from the house. With each traditional or modern outfit we get an interesting natural expression. Their trips are made whimsical as well from a combination of her and Fukase’s own intuition. An example would be the trip to New York that one gathers was for an exhibition he had there. I particularly enjoyed the wine and cheese crowd of NY at his show and his wife in full kimono kneeling against a wall with an odd expression clearly out of place. This is then juxtaposed against a shot on the adjacent page that features a table full of vice with American money, alcohol, cigars and jewelry that subtlety suggests to us that both he and his wife had weariness toward. I also like the witty plays on the medium of photography itself. One features a photo OF a photo of her. Her hand is in the foreground in the photo of the photo of herself. Another is a traditional family portrait that features only her naked with the adjacent photo having everyone’s back turned. Witty really.
Going back to the story side, there are chapters in this book that each begin with a shot of a raven. A chapter may signify a trip they took together or a photo series he did with her, although it is hard to say since the explanation is in Japanese. What you do get is the nihilistic foreboding not only with the shot of a raven before each chapter but Yohko’s general mood in the photos and context they are shot in. She seems to become unhappier as the chapters of their marriage progresses. As Fukase started to gain in fame and his career took off, Yohko seemed to grow more and more distant. You see this subtlety in the photos as she after thirteen years just ups and leaves him. Continuing his real life story, his melancholy from losing his wife never left him even after the success of The Solitude of the Ravens. Years later he would fall down a flight of steps after a drinking bout at a local bar that would leave him comatose for twenty years before he died just last year. Yohko remarried after she had left him, but would made bi-weekly visits to her ex-husband while he was in his coma.
The book here originally sold for 1800 yen as marked on the back of the book. Today you would be lucky to even find it, if you so it will be for somewhere closer to a grand US which can be pretty much said for all of his books. Museum and university libraries would be your best bet to see his work and by all means please do so. There are however, reprints of The Solitude of the Ravens that can be found for around 500 dollars on Amazon.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
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This is a seriously lovely book. So much so that I felt compelled to search for a copy. Phew, not cheap. I also found an unused copy of a Solitude of Ravens. Suffice to say I will not be needing that kidney, I have one spare.