Charles Fréger: Namahage
Ashizawa, Oga, Akita Prefecture
Yokainoshima, the island of monsters, is part invention and part illumination of these spirits that continue to influence and impact Japanese culture, appearing in elaborate costumes at festivals and rituals to mark the changing of the seasons. Harbingers of fortune, abundance and fertility, their apparition in dance and regalia beguiles onlooking revellers and strikes fear into the hearts of youngsters.
Charles’ series of photographs, shot on digital medium format over the course of two years whole voyaging through the archipelago, captures these cultural traditions as they live and breathe today. Part artistic preoccupation, part creative ethnography, his series of carefully composed portraits channels the essence of what makes makes these spirits such an enduring and transcendental cultural phenomenon.
A man of immense enthusiasm and commitment to his craft, we were lucky enough to catch Charles between flights and projects for a fascinating chat about his photo series and the Yokai spirits exquisitely ensnared within.
Where did the idea for the Yokainoshima project originate; how did you come to find this subject to study?
When I finished Wilder Mann in 2011, my photographic series of European spirits and folkloric traditions, I started to look for different directions to pursue this project. I heard that there was one tradition very similar in the north of Japan. This was the tradition of the Namahage in Akita, a kind of Yokai I later learned through research; the Namahage are the first characters of the book.
From then I fixated on the idea. I managed to get there during the festival in 2013 and on my way Reiko Tetsuda who is the curator at Le Forum in Tokyo, asked if I was ready to go further and to do the project across the whole country.
It’s really that Yokainoshima was supposed to be a second chapter, another aspect of this type of tradition in the world. But what I found was very different in a way. There’s a completely different world there.
How did you decide the locations for the shoots?
The backgrounds are always the backgrounds surrounding the villages where I photograph. Although I am really free to go wherever I want, and then I can drive around and find the space that I feel connects with the type of costume or the type of character.
I am also limited or exposed to certain rules of the groups, which are for example that the characters can’t get out of certain spaces or locations – like the characters or spirits can’t get out of the temple. They live in there. All the appointments were I had to meet the groups at the temples, they were the headquarters of the groups representing the spirits.
Your use of background in your photographs is often very distinctive, what motivates these choices? Were they necessarily connected to the ideas behind the spirits here?
The insular aspect of Japan is very much central to these images: with the sea as a background, or sometimes with the characters really standing in the water. I really liked working with the seaside and the ocean, all the islands where I have been. Like the one on the cover of the book for example.
So the choice is not so connected to where the world takes place, I could bring a deer in the sea as well as a lion. And that’s what I did. The logical place for such tradition is maybe the square of the temples, or a street through the village, or sometimes in the theatre.
How much of your work is a question of documentary, and how much is it a question of capturing an artistically imaginative image?
The documentary aspect is secondary. The main point for me is that these photos is that I capture the image I have in mind, which involves these silhouettes.
I am really interested and fascinated by such silhouettes so I really carefully select what I photograph. I am not like an ethnographer who has a certain plan or a certain logical plan connected to their science. I photograph what I want and where I want. I am very selective. I don’t pick everything. I choose something which I feel connected with.
Would you say there is a sense of anthropology in your work, in the way you catalogue traditions?
For sure, there is enough information here to please someone who wants to know about the traditions, or for someone who wants to have an overview. Because in fact there is no ethnographer or anthropologist who is so objective. Everyone has a subjectivity where you make a choice, and you go somewhere because you have a desire. And that’s the way I work.
So most of the photographs in that book connect to my personality as well. It’s really the choice or desire to picture certain characters, for instance I like certain types of Japanese festival, folklore, costume and certain kinds of Yokai and monsters.
What can you tell me about your understanding of Toshigami?
Toshigami are gods for the New Year, that’s basically what it means.
My Yokainoshima characters are only partly Toshigami, the winter characters who come for the New Year. Of course, New Year you have to realise was originally the Chinese New Year because the calendar in Japan changed so they now make it early January. But the Toshigami are like the Namahage of Akita I first encounted. Then there’s the Suneka of Iwate prefecture, and Toshidon in Kagoshima in the South of Japan, and so on.
They’re clearly an enduring tradition. What can you tell me about your understanding of what the Toshigami mean to Japanese people today, and their rich history?
Basically they are the gods coming from the mountain to the population, so most of the time they are a bit scary and are supposed to scare the kids.
There is a wide variety of Toshigami. Some are like monsters, what you may really call Yokai. Some are like lions, or tigers, or straw men.
All the traditions I photographed, you may call them gods but what we would say in French: divinité. Every character comes from a certain calendar, tradition or festival; each area has a different character, and its own narrative traditions, which are connected but take different forms and carry different meanings.
You have a very particular and recognisable style of portraiture, where does that originate from?
Well, I started in the 90s with these very frontal photos. Like for example, I still use the same lighting. I started with that way of photography with the same type of light, uniform light, soft, not aggressive, no shadow.
And most of the time the people I photographed were in front of backgrounds like walls, and I always worked with the real world. Like scenarios where people were practising or acting or training. It could be the army, a troupe of Majorettes or the French Navy.
What draws you to such fascinations in your series?
I did one of my first series in a British school in Norwich, and so it was always connected with uniform, and doing things with a strict background: with these outfits and the uniformity, that was really interesting and very frontal.
From that, I think step by step I started to work with certain communities where I could make it more theatrical, I could play more with the ideas behind the uniforms and what was in front of me. There was more capacity to spin it.
I started to work with the Chinese opera in 2005. In 2004, I worked with all these guards from Garde Républicaine and in the Wellington barracks in London, or the Swiss guard at the Vatican. Here, I could really start to look at the characters more like silhouettes, and I could start to rotate them, and thus photograph them from the back.
In that way I believe I was still very much into portraiture; I remain still very much into silhouettes and that’s the way I keep working now.
How does Japan’s plethora of legendary spirits and their expression in culture compare to what you’ve seen across your travels in Europe for Wilder Mann?
This is going to be a big generalisation but, in Europe the traditions are mainly about becoming a beast, most of the traditions are that someone is becoming an animal. It’s not he’s acting it: he’s becoming it.
It’s really important that you don’t see much of the body, that you don’t see much of the skin. So that the person under the costume looks really animalistic. It is that you should be able to see the hands or the arms. There is a wish to transform, to become; there is a desire for transformation.
In Japan the tradition is much more theatrical, there’s distance, there is a desire to act but not to become, to play. It’s really connected with the Noh theatre this idea of acting. And the idea of acting is probably different to the idea we have in Europe.
What can you tell me about your understanding of the craft that goes into creating these folkloric costumes?
In Europe the use of natural materials is mainly based on fur: goat fur, bear fur, any fur.
In Japan, most of the costumes are more complex with the different paperwork, and with the mask. Often, beyond delicate paperwork, they use a lot of different types of straw, and they don’t try to hide the face. Often you may find in the book that parts of their face appear, or reveal themselves: that the mask is not totally covering them.
The European mask is covering the whole body almost, Japanese masks are really just a mask on the forehead. They often appear without the mask, the guy doing it may remove the mask and put it back on in front of the audience. In Europe you can’t imagine that. There is a necessity to appear and transform yourself, and you have to really be a beast.
What keeps you coming back to the theme?
It’s not that I’m coming back, it’s that I never leave. That’s my territory, I’ve been there for a while. It’s more like I’m interested in communities, and the idea of all people living together and what they have in common. From that I am interested in the how they show themselves in a certain way, to take part in this community.
Where are you heading next?
Now I’m working on the West – I am on the West side now.
I also have a big project which I started last year, which is in the Basque area. I’m working on something very specific there, which is about meteorological representation in this area. This time I’ve been working a lot with silhouettes again – actual silhouettes this time.
How do you see yourself progressing as an artist?
The last fifteen years, the way I photograph keeps evolving. Every project, every new series is bringing a new paradigm. From that I have to find new solutions. Equally, I like the idea of being where I am and standing with my style. I like the idea that I can collate in the same exhibition, or in the same book soon, some images from 2001 with some images from 2016: I can put them double page and that looks perfectly fine.
There’s a definite through-line in your work, in that you can see how these communities seem to connect.
Can I have a portrait of a sumo wrester in front of a portrait of a Majorette? That works! Because there are similarities, because there are connections, and maybe sometimes I find that there are certain universalities between certain groups.
Charles Fréger’s series of photographs has been published in Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters by Thames & Hudson. His stunning photographic portraiture takes centre stage, complemented by essays by Toshiharu Ito and Akihito Hatanka, specialists in anthropology and Japanese folklore. An illustrated compendium of the Yokai costumes seen in the book contextualised and explained by poet Ryogo Sekiguchi, offers the reader factual insight into the mystical world and traditions evoked in Yokainoshima.