Monday, March 22, 2010

Masayuki Yoshinaga: Goth Lolita Guru

Masayuki Yoshinaga and I have a couple of things in common.

We were both born in the same year, we relocated our lives to Tokyo, and the two of us like to indulge in a spot of photography.

But Osaka-born Yoshinaga has had a tiny bit more success behind the viewfinder than I’ve stumbled across here in Japan – he’s had solo exhibitions at the Parco Galleries in Tokyo and Nagoya and was part of a group exhibition at the Yokohama Museum of Art.

Above and beyond the impressive local inroads, however, his images were also exhibited at the Dazed & Confused Gallery in London as part of the JAM: Tokyo-London Exhibition at the Tokyo Opera City Gallery in 2001, at the Barbican Gallery in London in 2002, and at M Wakasa Presents and the International Center of Photography in New York in 2008.

“I selected the option ‘taking photographs as a job’ when I started out,” quipped Yoshinaga when I asked him how he landed so well with his tripod, working in a competitive industry.

Another probable reason for this photographer’s success has been his penchant, over the past decade, to specialize in a peculiar niche form of what he calls “documentary” happy snaps of marginalized fragments of Japanese society trying to express their individuality in the oppressive mainstream – hence images of the noisy, nocturnal bozozuku (teenage biker gangs) swathed in nationalist paraphernalia, as well as non-Japanese East Asian and Middle Eastern faces; Yoshinaga cites the gritty work of Daido Moriyama and Miyako Ishiuchi as his favorite photography.

While the man's range is diverse he remains best known outside Japan for a range of images and famous snapshots - showcased at overseas exhibitions as well as in books and magazines that explore sub cultural Japan - that have been more glam than gritty.

These are Yoshinaga’s photos of gosu-rori, or “Goth-Loli” – the hydra like subculture that derives its name from a fusion of gothic romanticism with Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita.

Think a quirky combination of regular gothic apparel (all black, with occult and punk overtones) and the vaguely prepubescent chic of girls who wear doll-like Victorian dresses with frills, ribbons and jaunty bonnets – though it’s dubious whether Nabokov would actually recognize his own creation here.

Several off-shoot styles have emerged, such as ama-loli (Sweet Lolita) and Classic Lolita, along with guro-rori – also known as Grotesque Lolita or Injured Lolita, this latter take features some ‘essential’ accessories like fake blood, eye patches, and bandages which are flaunted above and beyond the frilly lace, to give the appearance of Crash-like injuries David Cronenberg would also find appealing.

In its various incarnations Goth-Loli’s influence is evident in manga and anime, with standouts being Nana, Paradise Kiss, Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, xxxHolic, Death Note, Chobits, Le Chevalier D'Eon and Rozen Maiden.

It’s also seeped into Japanese movies –most noticeably in 2004’s Kamikaze Girls (下妻物語, Shimotsuma Monogatari ), directed by Tetsuya Nakashima, as well as Kentaro Otani’s two live-action Nana off-shoots – and blame Goth-Loli for coining the flamboyant wardrobes of visual kei bands like Dir en gray and Malice Mizer.

Yoshinaga himself – who tells us he was initially attracted to the subculture “Because it’s a world I don’t understand” – did close-ups of around 500 Goth-Loli youths in the streets of Tokyo throughout 2006, placing them at underground clubs, next to shrines, and in private abodes.

The resultant images showcase both the singularity and diversity of a remarkably pacific counterculture, and they underscore the sense that here, too, is a uniform for these kids to wear with pride albeit one that’s offbeat and oddly cute and (mostly) nowhere near a sailor suit.

The photographer ended up releasing much of this work in his book (called Gothic & Lolita, suitably enough) for publishing company Phaidon.

Indeed, Yoshinaga believes his photography acts as a key to understanding better the people he shoots. “With a camera as a medium, or as a mediation device, I can get to know people, worlds and cultures that I otherwise wouldn’t comprehend,” he remarks.

During the decade that Yoshinaga has worked to thus establish himself, photography has been in flux, with traditional ISO photographic film stock being gradually superseded by digital technology.

This particular shutterbug, however, is keen to hedge his bets and embrace both mediums.

“I can’t say which is best,” Yoshinaga muses without any noticeable drift toward a single preference. “It depends on the subject and theme.”

Most people would be excused for thinking that Tokyo, a city of 12 million people that gave birth to Goth-Loli and often destroys itself in its Godzilla movies, has its quirks – and there’s no doubt in my mind that Yoshinaga has witnessed plenty of these during his lengthy photographic apprenticeship.

He even cites the city’s “congestion and density” as two of the major inspirations on his photography here.

Yet his vote for Tokyo’s Most Offbeat facet is in itself curiously odd: “I feel strange that subways don’t run 24 hours in Tokyo,” he mulls.

Photos © Masayuki Yoshinaga