This is it. The image that forever did me in, the one that turned me into a Japanese photography addict.
To tell you what you are looking at is one thing, and flatly stated it’s rather simple: this is a photograph of the late author Yukio Mishima, standing on a marble zodiac in front of his home, wrapped in a garden hose—the end of which is stuffed into his mouth, held there (in a gesture of pulling it from within himself) with his left hand. In his right hand, he holds a wooden hammer, raising it above his head. He is looking up. The photograph was shot from above, taken while standing on a ladder. Mishima’s gaze is direct, intent and provocative.
To explain what this photograph is, however, and what it means, is something else entirely. And the answer will vary depending on who you ask.
In the preface to the book, Mishima wrote that what he came to understand in the course of the making of Barakei was that all photographs were either “..a record or a testimony.” What he’s referring to is very similar to John Szarkowski’s assertion that a photograph either becomes a mirror or a window, and this modernist dichotomy is fittingly evoked by Mishima, given that he was a figure that was deeply divided between his fascination and love for classic western culture as well as fanatically devoted to describing and elevating the culture of a pre-WWII era Japan.
When the photographer, Eikoh Hosoe , is given room to speak, he recounts the following:
Mishima’s father happened to be watering the garden, so I grabbed the hose, and wrapped Mishima in it. I completely wrapped his body in the hose and kept him standing in the center of the zodiac where he was planning to erect a statue of Apollo. I asked him to look up and concentrate on the camera which I was holding on a ladder above. I asked him to lie on the zodiac and I photographed him from a low angle on the ground. Then I asked him to walk slowly, with the hose still wrapped around him, and to lie down in the narrow space between the wall of his home and his neighbor’s house. I continued shooting for about an hour.
“I have never been photographed like this,” he said. “Why did you do it this way?”
“This is the destruction of a myth,” I replied.
To me, it is an image that seems to recount a myth, one that is particularly Promethean in character. In the above photo, Mishima looks as if he has had that hose in his mouth for all time, and as if he will be holding that hammer up in the air for about as long. Prometheus is best known for giving humans knowledge of the gift of fire, which had previously been the sole dominion of the gods. In punishment for his overreaching, Prometheus was bound to a rock and made to have his liver picked out by an eagle every day, only for the wound to heal and the liver to regenerate overnight, so that he could be punished anew each day. Mishima’s life itself was caught between battling impulses and competing aesthetics, which for the author became a literal matter of life and death. Obsessed with Greek mythology and the martyrdom stories and iconography of Christian saints, Mishima was also radically political, adhering to a bushido creed and, at the end of his life, attempting a coup d’etat to restore the power of the emperor. He was among the best known contemporary writers of modern Japan, was enormously prolific in his (too) short life, writing over 30 novels, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature three times.
What was remarkable about this photograph (and the entirety of the Barakei series, but especially this image) is that it exemplifies what it is to have an encounter with someone whose will and creative fortitude is equal to that of your own. An encounter is not adversarial, but collaborative. Each player is open and loose, but still entirely contained within themselves and within their own power. Both experts at trained spontaneity. They improvise with one another, allowing themselves to be used as material by the other, and in turn still exercise their own creative will throughout.
Hosoe was a young photographer coming to the home of a well known and revered author. What he did that day on Mishima’s lawn was an example of zen audacity: Eikoh Hosoe walks into the world of Yukio Mishima with the end goal of making photographs of the man. Leaving himself open to Mishima’s environment and what it might reveal about him, he entered the scene with no preconceptions. He sees the garden hose and audaciously wants to wrap him up in it, stand on a ladder to photograph him from above, with Mishima placed in the center of his own zodiac. The act of wrapping Mishima in a hose is one that says, effectively, “I can’t work with you if I have to worship you.” And in the act of binding the author, Hosoe liberated himself from him. Mishima, in turn, accepted the initiative and humbled himself, finding it both profound and amusing.
In the West, a portrait is often the negotiation between the photographer and the subject, a mediation between the desire on the part of the sitter for a good image, and that of the photographer to make an image he deems worthy of himself (or, as I’ve suggested previously, all portraits are a form of self-portraiture on the part of the photographer). That is not what happens in this photograph. Mishima surrenders entirely here. There is no negotiation. He surrenders with trust, knowing that whatever happens photographically, Mishima will still be Mishima. He is opening himself to the experience of self-transformation under Hosoe’s direction, essentially trusting Hosoe in an act akin to a kind of photographic psychoanalysis. Hosoe, in turn, knows how to trust his own responses in the midst of an intense encounter with an intense personality. This would become the hallmark of all of his subsequent work. Hosoe knows how to get intensity out of a worthy subject; he knows how to have an Encounter. This image is not a record of something about the author Yukio Mishima. Neither is this photograph a testimony of Hosoe’s fantasy idea of Mishima. This photograph is a meeting of the two.