Eikoh Hosoe’s groundbreaking work Kamaitachi was originally released in 1969 as a limited-edition photobook of 1,000 copies. A collaboration with Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of ankoku butoh dance, it documents their visit to a farming village in northern Japan and an improvisational performance made with local villagers, inspired by the legend of kamaitachi, a weasel-like demon who haunts rice fields and slashes people with a sickle.
As Hosoe photographed, and partially direct, Hijikata’s spontaneous interactions with the landscape and with the people they encountered, the two artists together enacted an intense investigation of tradition and an exploration, both personal and symbolic, of contemporary convulsions in Japanese society.
Hosoe always had an interest in dance and began photographing Japanese dancers during the 50s. One night in I959, he witnessed an unprecedented performance called Kinjiki (Forbidden Colors).
Onstage was a single male dancer and a live chicken. Watching in the audience was a noted author from whose book the title of the performance was taken, and a young photographer, whose previous subjects had included modern dancers. As the piece reached its conclusion, the dancer, Tatsumi Hijikata, broke the neck of the chicken spilling blood on the stage. Yukio Mishima the author, applauded vigorously and Eikoh Hosoe rushed backstage to meet the dancer. Thus did the first and only performance of Kinjiki end—a landmark in the early history of Butoh dance and the starting point for Hosoe’s long friendship with Hijikata
Hosoe conceived this project as a recollection of his childhood memories of being evacuated from Tokyo to the countryside during World War II. “So I decided to record the Tohoku area, specifically the northeast portion, which was, as it turned out, the birthplace of both Hijikata and myself. In the mid-1960s, Japan, especially its countryside, was evolving rapidly. I was afraid that this rural region from my memories would be totally transformed, becoming nothing but flat and faceless terrain—a victim of modernization the land before it is changed irrevocably, but how?” I had decided I did not want to be a traditional documentary photographer, recording a place and its people directly. Furthermore, I was a much greedier photographer than that.” -Eikoh Hosoe.
“Hijikata was dissatisfied with the Japanese modern dance scene, feeling that it was merely a copy of the work being done in the West. He wanted to find a form of expression that was purely Japanese, and one that allowed the body to ‘speak’ for itself, thru [sic!] unconscious improvised movement. His first experiments were called Ankoku Butoh, or the Dance of Darkness. This darkness referred to the area of what was unknown to man, either within himself or in his surroundings. His butoh sought to tap the long-dormant genetic forces that lay hidden in the shrinking consciousness of modern man.” -Eikoh Hosoe.
“Almost all the shooting was done guerrilla style in a flash. This was something that could only be achieved through photography. No other medium — film, television, painting, or novel — could have been used in its place. At that moment, I was certain of the superiority of photography.”
“The camera is generally assumed to be unable to depict that which is not visible to the eye … and yet the photographer who wields it well can depict what lies unseen in his memory.” -Eikoh Hosoe
An edited excerpt from Eikoh Hosoe talks about his book Kamaitachi at Aperture Foundation.