A scene of three women walk behind each other through a sparse village landscape rendered in black and white. The woman walking at the front can see, the other two follow her with their left hands on her shoulder. They are 瞽女 (goze), blind women entertainers who travel villages and tell stories to anyone who takes them in or has money or food to share. They are now not to be found in Japan anymore.
In the early 1970s, photographer Shoko Hashimoto was allowed to accompany three such women entertainers on their journeys. For two years he traveled with them, and the resulting photographs are collected in the astonishing photo book “瞽女”.
The book is briefly divided into four parts: winter, spring, summer, fall. The photos don’t change much with the seasons; the landscapes do. Throughout the four seasons, Hashimoto’s photographs document the life he spent with his three subjects. He photographed them taking baths, relaxing on the floor, sleeping during the night, endlessly roaming from village to village. But, as their profession links the Goze intimately with their customers, we are also allowed glimpses into the lives of the people they visit: children huddling around the kitchen table, farmer men laughing over a drink, families lining up along the road to have their picture taken.
The distinct visual style Hashimoto employed in this book — a contrast with no greys, so houses, trees, shadows, faces are formed by black and white shapes — lends the book a painterly surreality while not abandoning clarity. In the traveling photos, the landscapes seem to swallow the women; when there are faces, the emotions are vivid. The diversity (and sheer amount) of the photographs in this book allow for a comprehensive, poignant understanding of rural life in Northern Japan in this period.
“瞽女” is certainly the definitive photo book on the topic, but more than that, it is a fascinating, lively document of a past lifestyle.
Please note: A short intro text and a travel journal written by Shoko Hashimoto in Japanese form part of this book and are not available in translation.