BY Eri Kawade in Reviews | 09 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 30

Shutter and Love: Girls are Dancin' on in Tokyo

BY Eri Kawade in Reviews | 09 SEP 96

Rainbow-coloured jelly beans and condoms; a smiling Mickey Mouse emerging from between the splayed legs of a squatting girl; a worn-out toy bunny thrown down onto the floor of a messy room: these are some of the images to be encountered in this compilation of works by 16 young Japanese female photographers. As the title suggests, the book is about girls' vision of their own queendom, built upon the fragile, ephemeral peak of their own fantasies or boringly normal everyday routines. Girls are arrested in moments of intimacy - lying naked in bed with another girl, or taking a bath in a tiny 'unit bathroom' that symbolises the life of young singles living alone in Tokyo. The publication is timely considering two fashions that have emerged in Tokyo in the 90s - diaristic, snapshot photography and girly culture. Araki emerged as artist of the moment with his 'private novel' works, and arty Tokyoites - who haven't even heard of Jeff Koons - are comfortably familiar with the names of Nan Goldin, Jack Pierson and Wolfgang Tillmans. Now that Yurie Nagashima, harbinger of the 20-something generation, has published two books following her sensational 1993 debut, and the ex-Araki-model-now-cult-idol/photographer Hiromix's photos of herself and her friends have featured in the 1995-96 J-Wave FM campaign posters, young girls are flooding out onto the streets with every conceivable type of camera from 'professional' SLRs to compacts and disposables.

Two questions arise: why have so many girls started to take pictures of themselves, their world, their (mainly female) friends and objects so stereotypically attributed to female adolescence? And why has their work obtained the amount of media coverage that it currently receives?

It is only since the late 80s that the media have used images of 'unseemly' Japanese girls rather than TV idols, foreign models or exceptionally un-Japanese-looking Japanese models. Previously, the appearance of ordinary Japanese girls had been largely limited to more private realms - family photo albums or subculture magazines. Even after this recent phenomenon, girls were mainly the objects of photography, rather than its subjects. But now that female photographers are openly welcomed as artists or commercial photographers (can a line still be drawn clearly between the two?), perhaps they can finally switch their assumed role and leave their long-reserved seats in front of the viewfinder.

Girlishness is a quality that has been applauded in Japanese culture, high and low alike, at least since the age of Meiji-Taisho Modernism of the 1910s and 20s. Yet, in its recent reappraisal, girlishness no longer dwells in its old, secret space, but has gradually emerged into a sunnier, public sphere. Banana Yoshimoto, for example, sold millions of copies of her 1988 debut novel Kitchen (a story about a girl who gets over her grandmother's death through the experience of communal life with her flatmate and his transsexual mother), while girls' comic writers, such as Kyoko Okazaki, have received appreciation from a far wider audience than they originally envisaged. In retrospect, it was no mere coincidence that the rise to prominence of girly culture corresponded with the feminisation of boys, or more precisely, the rise of a Japanese version of Loser Culture. The gorgeous tough guy is out; the laid-back sissy is in.

This shift of mentality can't really be grasped without considering the social environment of Tokyo during the 80s, which Kohtaro Iizawa, the compiler of Shutter and Love, describes thus: 'Suddenly a corner block disappeared as if it had been uprooted, construction work began and shiny new buildings rose high. [...] The scenery of a familiar town would become completely alien in just a few months. [...] As neighbourhoods cloned themselves, individual blocks became standardised and indistinguishable. Thus, one's innate sense of space - of knowing where one is - becomes weakened. Volumes of information zip to and fro, products are everywhere. In such an environment, the tangibility of a city and one's sense of place is gradually lost'. Now this orgy of superficiality, which dominated everything until the bubble economy finally burst at the turn of the decade, has evaporated like a mirage - even mainstream Japanese patriarchal values have become exhausted.

These pictures testify to the fact that female photographers of this generation (nearly all born in the 70s) have not remained detached from these social circumstances. Having spent their childhood immersed in a flood of visual information and incessant trend shifts, disseminated through TV, magazines and advertisements, they know very well the vocabulary and strength of the photographic medium. You just have to press the shutter quickly - anywhere, anytime - to capture the sheer velocity of a fleeting reality before it melts into a hazy daydream. The images themselves may be equally fleeting, escaping from memory in a second, but isn't this a similar sort of transient charm to that which has long been treasured as a quality of girlishness? And if the girls are now dreaming of freeze-drying their evanescent world, that dream seems to contain a subtle but insatiable lust. In so many of the images gathered here, the photographers come so close to their subjects that both sides almost lose sight of each other in a blurry resonance, as if anticipating being fused together. Moments of amorous captivation are recorded looming up in an internalised relationship, which is spurred on, as Nagashima suggests, by 'a desire to become the girl, the one I'm holding my camera for [...] a desire to know her, to possess her, to "monopolise" her'. Is this love or narcissism seeping out from behind the camera? Perhaps girls are always aware of being looked at, even when they are the ones doing the looking.