Issei Suda in Kamagasaki

Issei Suda and Mark Pearson

Collector of Japanese and Asian photographs and books, the owner of Zen Foto Gallery and founder of shashasha, Mark Pearson asked Photographer Issei Suda to take photographs of Kamagasaki, the doyagai district (day-labourer slum) in Osaka. Moving to Tokyo in the 1980’s, Mark witnessed the drastic transformation of Tokyo under the influence of rapid economic growth. Old buildings were being scrapped and rebuilt. He explored Tokyo with a desire to see what we might call the old Tokyo, and learned of Sanya, one of the largest doyagai districts in Japan. These districts, including Kamagasaki in Osaka, Sanya in Tokyo, and Kotobuki-cho of Yokohama have been attracting photographers and writers for many years as a fascinating subject. Mark states that photobooks including Seiryu Inoue’s debut photobook Kamagasaki and Shunji Dodo’s Shinsekai as well as _San’ya Blues _by Edward Fowler helped him to understand and appreciate these areas.

‘I only know Suda-san’s works taken in the Kanto region, so I have wanted to see how his eyes might capture a traditional neighbourhood such as a doyagai in another region,’ he says. Issei Suda undertook the project, and on the 15th of June, shashasha was able to not only interview Suda himself, but also to accompany his shoot.

Issei Suda is truly a treasure of Japanese photography. The style of his photography—ethnographic subjects captured through his unique viewpoint—has continued to influence the world of Japanese photography since his monumental debut in the late 20th century, even up to this day. However, such a definition does not quite shed a light on the genuine intention of his photography. There is no single expression that can effectively describe his photography, as it constitutes of a multitude of styles, that can be described with words such as odd, erotic, dramatic, or nostalgic, which would perhaps confound attempts to comprehend his photography. Despite impressions that his works give us—such as robust, deep, or solid—his style of photographing is free, instantaneous, and street-snap-like. Issei Suda himself also said ‘I don’t want my photography to be encompassed by theory and criticism,’ in a recent interview.

Although he emerged as a photographer in the 60s-70s, when Japanese photography was revolving around Provoke and Kompora, he never took part in these movements, or political activities that others at the time became passionately involved in, and through which Japanese documentary photography itself developed. When we asked him if he feels any emotional connection or sympathy towards these activities, he laughed and said, ‘Absolutely not’, mentioning that his photography always only concerns his own interests.

Escaping the View

‘Gorgeous!’ As Suda presses the shutter of his camera, voices of doyagai residents respond from a distance. Their attention was directed to the team, consisting of eight people including Suda himself, Mark, a model, and Mrs. Yoshiko Suda. Issei Suda slips through the gazes and the traffic, spots a place to shoot, asks the model to pose, and presses the shutter. We at first assumed that shooting a model was the main concept unique to this trip, as it was unusual to see Suda taking photographs of a model—in past works such as Osorezan and his works in downtown Tokyo, he usually photographed the local residents. We, however, soon heard that this was nothing but a device to avoid trouble in advance, which may arise due to the sensitive nature of the area we were in.

Issei Suda during photoshoot

In front of a panel advertising a workers demonstration.

A vacant space in the shopping street. Suda Issei shooting the model, with her back against an exposed wall.

Surrounded by antique dolls, hats, belts…

At the corner of Sankaku Park, the center of thedoyagai, where hollyhocks bloom.

‘Don’t take pictures.’ We hear voices of some men who come to alert us. They say that among the residents, there are some that come for an escape, some are ‘scarred’. There also may be illegal gambling happening around any corner. When the residents here find that someone is taking pictures of the neighborhood, they become nervous and the atmosphere of the city suddenly changes and becomes strained. Suda started to photograph the day before without a model and heard plenty of such alarming warnings. Having a model is thus a device to ‘shift’ their views, by letting people understand that they are not the subjects of his photographs.

Yet, even apart from these problems, shooting Kamagasaki is a ‘challenge’ for Issei Suda. ‘Despite the image people might have of me—which may be a photographer who just arrives at a place, gets exposed to the surroundings and presses the shutter effortlessly—I am by nature an introvert. For me it’s very difficult to take pictures of a new area without having got used to the place, as I cannot help cowering in a new environment. I have been photographing the downtown area of Tokyo, but visited there often and know the place well,’ he says. ‘I am sorry for setting such a difficult task...,’ Mark says and hangs his head hearing his words, and everybody laughs at this.

Sorrow of the Place

After finishing shooting in Kamagasaki, we rode through an akasen area named Tobita, an array of Ryotei-like two-story buildings. We see the chon-no-ma style entrances, illuminating the street with their reddish and pinkish decorations, where two women sit; the younger posing at the centre exposing her skin, and the older on the side. Photographing in these areas is even more restricted than in Kamagasaki. A woman found us taking pictures, knocked on the window of the car and did not leave before confirming that the data was deleted.

‘I am deeply interested in red light districts such as Gobancho and Chushojima in Kyoto, for its cinematic, theatrical appearance,’ Suda tells us. ‘It somehow possesses a sense of poesy, or even sorrow. This is not about the people, but it’s in the architecture. It’s the bitterness that the place or house possesses, or perhaps the pain that the area itself bears. I realized once that the faces of local people reflect such nuances and since then have been taking pictures of these areas, focusing on the link between the faces of downtown residents and the landscape of the matsuri festivals, as the background of the former.’

After resigning from his role as official photographer for Tenjo-Sajiki (a Japanese independent theatrical troupe led by Shuji Terayama) in order to pursue his aim to establish himself as an independent photographer, Suda produced bodies of photography such as Fushi Kaden and The Journey to Osorezan. For the former he visited local matsuri festivals, and for the latter he went to the sacred mountain Osorezan, at the northernmost tip of the main island. Looking at these photographs from earlier in his career, one might recall Suda’s background working in a theatrical group, since theatrical elements and composition, such as symbolic places, people in traditional clothing, as well as their relation with the landscape of the place are evident in these photographs. Since these images are featured as his masterpieces, Suda’s photography would commonly be associated with the ‘theatrical’. Yet by examining his lesser-known works such as Journey to the Tobacco shop on the Corner—where the subjects of the images were things and events familiar to him—one might notice that the distinctive style of Suda’s photography exists in images of banality that he captures in his neighborhood. This feature of the banal is thus present and inhabits his ‘theatrical’ and ‘extraordinary’ works of ‘everyday life’. His style is therefore not restricted to that of the theatrical, but one can see that this element has greatly influenced his work, which captures aspects of everyday life of his subjects.

Gathering and Arranging Images

‘I am recently watching again old movies that I saw as an adolescent. The images are not smooth, but I feel at home watching them. They give me tender feelings, feelings from past Japan prior to the sudden transformation. I often become confused, mixing up the scenes in the movies and what I have seen in reality. That might be the reason why I am attracted to old-fashioned areas that still exist today. Walking around these areas, my memory of novels that I read and films I watched in the past is invoked and overlaps with the scenery that I perceive. I am now thinking if I could walk around my neighborhood, collecting these images of the past that arise in my mind and, rather than simply arranging them like a script, I can fabricate something by joining them together,’ he says. Through this act of re-watching films from his youth it is possible to acquire a greater understanding of the underlying meaning of his photography that freely traverses from ordinary to extraordinary.

Reality and Virtual Reality

The act of ‘observing the image’ has always strongly affected Suda’s photography. Before pursuing a career in photography, he often visited a local photographic studio in his neighborhood Kanda, where he became engrossed in photobooks. These included some that remain his favorites, such as published works of Irving Penn and William Klein. Since then, his interest has shifted from still images to moving images. He sees this shift deriving from his growing interest in the concept of ‘the story’ behind an image. ‘In the past I wanted to take photographs with a single theme and a certain mindset, that I considered appropriate to the place. But now I want my photography to express the images in my mind, originating from the past, through the juxtaposition of images and its concatenation.’ Suda tells us that he views virtual images from the past or in films to belong to the present. ‘For him reality and virtual reality are no longer discernible. Everyday life is an image in the memory and vice versa,’ Yoshiko follows. ‘Being 47 years old, oops, not 47, but 74 (everybody laughs), my gait is faltering, and I forget things, but that might be a chance for me, as these factors might lead me to realise the truth that I seek,’ he says.

Critics and theorists often introduce Issei Suda’s photography with expressions such as ‘another world’, or reflecting ‘the fissure of ordinary lives’. But it sounds somewhat incompatible with Suda’s own view of his photography, which appears to seek images with nostalgia or what may be called the image of his origins. We asked how he views this difference. ‘I don’t know. I am not consciously trying to take photographs of such ‘other worlds’. Some describe that to be my style, but that is not my intention,’ he answers. Yet, as Yoshiko also says, he received a lot of comments of this kind. Visitors to his retrospective exhibition ‘Nagi no Hira: Fragments of Calm’ (Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, 2013) posted comments describing his works in such a way on the museum’s website. On reading these, he was surprised by people’s views on his photography, and was pleased to become aware that people—not only critics and theorists—viewed his works in such a way. Perhaps for Suda this ‘other world’ is already part of his everyday life. Maybe his works evoke the viewers’ memory or senses.

Fetishism, Adoration, Still Image

‘It might seem a bit of leap to bring up this topic, but I am currently keenly interested in fetishism which is for me linked with adoration. For example, I recall a moment in my adolescence, when I peeked at some pornography that, as a kid, I was not supposed to see. This experience remains in my memory as a still image, and the shudder that ran through my body has not disappeared.’ Among Suda’s recent works, there is a photobook called Rubber, a compilation of photographs of women in rubber suits. Suda has written on the series: ‘More than the fetishists who obtain perverted gratification from rubber, I wanted the subject of the images to be my own perverted feeling as a spectator.’ Upon this, Suda tells us: ‘There was something that a model, who is actually a rubber-fetishist, said, which I strongly felt sympathy for. She told me that rubber gives her a sensation, like those she once had when her ex-boyfriend hugged her. The fact that just one action, a self-oriented one—the fetish act of being wrapped in rubber—suddenly connects one’s life to a moment of the past, tells us something significant about reality, I think. Such subtle experiences connect together in some way, and affect our lives. I want my photography to serve as such a catalyst in peoples’ lives. That would be the reason why I look for such images on the streets, eager to capture these moments. I feel that this act not only gives me chances to shoot images that I sought for, but also to change the fundamental structure of my photography. Critique and peoples’ feedback work in the same way, I think. My interest has grown in this technique of photography, almost like a form of Ninjutsu, the art of ninja. These changes are brought by external factors, and these external factors may originate from myself. The works cause feedback, making a change in the creators’ photography. Until recently I have been just pleased when people give positive comments on my work, but now I am increasingly tempted to resist such praising. That may be a sign that I am becoming able to take photographs that I have never taken before—something completely new,’ he smiles.

Perhaps even the use of a model, originally a device used to escape the constraints of the doyagai, may have made some change, we asked. He says, ‘Yes. The problems might have served as a mechanism. The introduction of a model was just an idea to deal with the situation, almost like an accident. However this perhaps may bring about the pictures that I had imagined.’

Will Issei Suda come to Kamagasaki again to shoot, like he did for his Osorezan and the Waga Tokyo 100 downtown series? ‘Yes, I want to come during the bon-odori dance festival. During the period in August people in the doyagai will join the dance festival. I heard about it yesterday and it is now part of my plans,’ he says. ‘I’m sure they would be okay to be photographed when dancing,’ Yoshiko adds.

Click here to view Issei Suda's photobooks.

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Produced by: Hiroshi Onishi
Interviewed and written by: Ayako Koide
 English text edited by: Edward Pearson