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photo-eye Book Reviews: Kamaitachi

Kamaitachi, Photographs by Eikoh Hosoe. 
Published by Aperture, 2009.

Reviewed by Sara Terry
Eikoh Hosoe Kamaitachi
Photographs by Eikoh Hosoe.
Aperture, New York, 2009. 112 pp., 48 tritone illustrations, 9-1/2x12-3/4".

Here's the short version of this review: Buy this book. But if you need to know more, keep reading:

This is the first time Eikoh Hosoe's masterwork Kamaitachi has been priced for the average consumer. The first limited edition of 1,000 copies was published in Japan in 1969 and now sells for thousands of dollars a copy, if you can find it. In 2005, Aperture worked with Hosoe to re-issue the book in another gorgeous limited edition of 500 copies, which now sells for hundreds of dollars.

At last comes this trade edition from Aperture, priced at $60. Beautifully made and reworked by the book's original designer, Ikko Tanaka, shortly before his death, this edition also includes eight previously unpublished pieces from the Kamaitachi series.

The original body of work was made by Hosoe in collaboration with Tatsumi Hijikata, the legendary choreographer and dancer who created the Ankoku Butoh ("dance of darkness") art form. The collaboration between the two men in 1965 yielded an extraordinary record that is documentary in sensibility and dream-like in tone.

Kamaitachi, by Eikoh Hosoe. Published by Aperture, 2009.
 Hosoe and Hijikata used a small village in the Tohoku countryside as the stage for their work, recruiting villagers as their cohorts for a series of images that are both a meditation on Hosoe's longing to capture the land and a fading way of life, and a jarring comment on post-World War II Japan. The title of the book refers to a Japanese mythical beast - a weasel-like creature that slashes its victims with whirlwind ferocity - and Hijikata embodies that writhing, brooding, suggestive presence in each of these frames.

Kamaitachi, by Eikoh Hosoe. Published by Aperture, 2009.
 Hosoe and Hijikata's collaboration with the at times unwitting villagers is by turns playful and ominous, capturing the tension of Hosoe's remembered Japan with the post-war forces that were driving it into a less idyllic time. In one image, at first glance, we see an innocent enough scene of daily life - two women, seated, consulting with a man over some matter, another behind them turned away, a young boy riding by on a tricycle in the foreground, his front wheel just pushing out of the frame. But there in the background is the kimono-clad Hijikata, hands held next to his head, forefingers pointing up, left foot tensed, ready to charge the child in what could be a playful moment. Except Hijikata's face is too sinister, his body too wired, to suggest playfulness; it's an ominous photo.

Kamaitachi, by Eikoh Hosoe. Published by Aperture, 2009.
 The conflicting emotions are captured again and again throughout the book, whether in impromptu moments (Hijikata leaping off a roof, kimono flying above his head, about to land almost on top of a group of children, watching him with quiet alarm) to staged photos of Hijikata with villagers against white backdrops). Among the strongest images are Hijikata in flight across the rural landscape - particularly the last photo in the book, a grainy image of the performer, face upturned to a dark sky, tearing headlong through a plowed field, kimono furling about him, right arm flung back with his hand curling like a claw, his left arm clutching a crying child. The Kamaitachi unleashed, slashing across the rural landscape, the future in its arms.

Kamaitachi, by Eikoh Hosoe. Published by Aperture, 2009.

Essays by Shuzo Takiguchi and Donald Greene, as well as an afterword by Hosoe himself, add depth and context to the work.

I kept the 2005 edition of this Kamaitachi bookmarked on my computer for over a year - hoping that I'd be able to come up with the $500 to buy a copy. I never did. And while I'm still eyeing that edition (which costs even more now), in the meantime, I've got this excellent trade edition to savor.—Sara Terry
Sara Terry A former staff correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and magazine freelance writer, Sara Terry made a mid-career transition into documentary photography in the late 1990s. Her long-term project about the aftermath of war in Bosnia -- “Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace” -- was published in September 2005 by Channel Photographics, and was named as one of the best photo books of the year by Photo District News. Her work has been widely exhibited, at such venues as the United Nations, the Museum of Photography in Antwerp, and the Moving Walls exhibition at the Open Society Institute. She is the founder of The Aftermath Project (, a non-profit grant program which helps photographers cover the aftermath of conflict. She is currently directing and producing "Fambul Tok," a documentary about a post-conflict forgiveness and reconciliation program in Sierra Leone, which recently won a grant from the Sundance Documentary Institute.