As a child growing up in the Japanese countryside during the early years of what would become the Second World War, Toshihiro Hosoe heard the tales of the yōkai—the strange beings and supernatural creatures who haunt Japanese folklore. What child wouldn’t be enthralled—and, perhaps, a bit frightened—by stories about yuki-onna, the snow woman or the mischievous kitsune, the fox, or the tengu (which later came to fascinate Masahisa Fukase)? There is something in almost every child that responds to legends of mystical, magical beings whose motivations are not only radically different from those of humans, but essentially incomprehensible.
Among the yōkai of Hosoe’s youth were creatures called kamaitachi. They were sharp-clawed creatures thought to resemble weasels, though they moved so quickly they’ve never been clearly seen. These clever and arbitrarily vicious creatures traveled on the wind in packs of three. Humans unlucky enough to encounter kamaitachi were buffeted by the first one, the second one then clawed the victim’s flesh, after which the third magically healed the wounds so they didn’t bleed, leaving the poor person to suffer agony without any apparent injury.
Inexplicable suffering. Wounds inflicted by beings whose motives are beyond comprehension. The human and the supernatural encountering each other, unpredictably but inevitably. These notions, it seems, would come to inform and shape much of Hosoe’s photography.
Hosoe’s father was a Buddhist priest and in 1940, when Hosoe was seven years old, he was given duties at the Shirahige Shrine in Tokyo. The family moved to the city, where they remained until 1944, when the city became the target of the Allied firebombing campaign. The family was evacuated. In September of 1945, a month after the nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered, Hosoe and his family returned to what was left of Tokyo (over 50% of the city was destroyed, between 130,000 and 300,000 people were killed, and more than a million were left homeless). The city was already under military occupation and would remain so for the next six years.
Four years later, Hosoe was in high school, where he was an active member of the school’s English language club and the photographic society. His most common subject matter—the American children who lived in U.S. military housing in a neighborhood built on the ashes of old Tokyo and was called Grant Heights. At the suggestion of a cousin, Hosoe abandoned his name Toshihiro and adopted “one more suited to the new era”: Eikoh (perhaps in reference to Dwight ‘Ike’ Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the U.S. military).
As a high school student Hosoe won a prize in a Fuji photo contest for a portrait series on a boy named Paddy Jawoski. Deciding on a career in photography, he enrolled in the Tokyo College of Photography. He joined the ‘Demokrato’ artists’ group and had his first exhibition: An American Girl in Tokyo. After graduation from college, Hosoe began working as a freelance photographer shooting largely for women’s magazines.
During this period it appears his fascination for American culture waned and he began turning his camera on Japanese subjects. By the late 1950s, Hosoe began “thinking deeply about the meaning of being Japanese.”
His 1960 exhibition, Otoko to Onna (Man and Woman), was something of a defining moment for Hosoe—for several reasons. The black-and-white nude photographs were considered to have a more distinctly Japanese sensibility. Many of the photos featured his friend Tatsumi Hijikata, the originator of the Butoh dance movement—a sort of conceptual ‘anti-Western’ form of dance that often revolves around topics of death, decay, ghosts and taboo modes of sexuality. Hijikata’s first major butoh work was based on Kinjiki, a novel by Yukio Mishima—the popular and controversial writer.
That next year, 1961, when it came time for Mishima to have his portrait taken for the jacket of a book of essays, he asked for Hosoe. When they were introduced, Mishima said, “I loved your photographs of Tatsumi Hijikata. I want you to photograph me like that.” What was originally intended as a simple portrait turned into a project—ten photo sessions of a period of six months, which eventually became first a gallery exhibition and later a book.
“In the beginning my ideas were vague,” Hosoe has said, “but gradually I came to have a concrete concept…. The theme that flows through the entire body of work was ultimately “Life and Death” through Yukio Mishima, borrowing his flesh and using a rose as a visible symbol of beauty and thorns.” The final images were dark, sensual, dreamlike; Mishima loved them. The exhibition and subsequent book were entitled Barakei, which according to Hosoe, is literally translated as “punishment of roses.” Barakei not only solidified Mishima’s reputation as a controversial figure of the arts (“God is dead,” he wrote of Hosoe’s photographs, “and naked human beings face the world shameless and without pride”), it also established Hosoe as one of Japan’s leading contemporary photographers.
A decade later an English version of Barakei was scheduled for publication. Hosoe intended to translate the title as Killed by Roses. At Mishima’s insistence, however, the title was changed to Ordeal by Roses. A few weeks later, Mishima and some of his followers seized control of the office of the commandant of Japan’s Self Defense Forces in what appeared to have been an irrational and pointless attempt to convince the government to restore the powers of the Emperor (who had renounced them as a condition of surrender at the end of WWII). After making a speech, Mishima committed seppuku, ritualized suicide. Following his death, there was massive public demand for the book Barakei and out-take photographs of Mishima. Hosoe, in response, delayed publication of the English version for a year. He was concerned that the images…so dark and dreamlike…would be associated only with Mishima’s death, not with his life—and while Mishima himself seemed fascinated by death and suffering, Hosoe was attracted by the passionate vitality of Mishima’s life.
In the wake of the initial success of Barakei Hosoe began a project based on the folktales of his youth, specifically the kamaitachi. Using his friend Hijikata, the butoh dancer, as the subject, he created a series of dark, disturbing but beautiful series of images depicting the illusive mythical creature as it moves through the countryside, stalking and threatening farmers and their children.
The kamaitachi series ties together so many of Hosoe’s childhood memories. Not just the Japanese countryside and the native folklore—these images also reflect the fatalistic awareness that things you can neither see nor understand can, without warning, blow into your life on the wind and leave you unaccountably writhing helplessly in pain.
Who knows where art comes from? Surely, it must be influenced—if not actually shaped—by the artist’s life experience. In Japan, there is a generation of artists born before the war, who grew up during the war, and who began to make art after the war. It’s difficult to grasp the extent to which that war shaped modern Japanese culture. The complete and utter defeat of their military, the near-total devastation of nation’s major cities through firebombing, the detonation of two nuclear bombs, the abject surrender to a foreign power, the abdication of the Emperor, the subsequent occupation of the nation by the enemy’s military, the new laws imposed on the populace by that military—all of these circumstances combined to shatter what had been an insulated, tradition-bound, and largely homogeneous society. It wasn’t just Japan’s infrastructure that was destroyed during the war; it wasn’t just their cities and their economy; there sense of who they were as a nation and as a culture was also destroyed.
“The camera is generally assumed to be unable to depict that which is not visible to the eye,” Hosoe has written. “And yet the photographer who wields it well can depict what lies unseen in his memory.” Fifteen years after the end of the war, Hosoe began trying to understand what it meant to be Japanese. It took that long for him to even frame the question. His attempt to find an answer has been played out, in part, through his photography.