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Book of the Week: Selected by Robert Dunn

Book Review Red Flower Photographs by Mao Ishikawa Reviewed by Robert Dunn "Mao Ishikawa’s Red Flower is a photobook that I’ve found myself reading as a novel, turning pages from the front, getting to know the characters, their singular world, the range of their experiences and emotions..."

Red Flower by Mao Ishikawa.
Red Flower
Photographs by Mao Ishikawa

Session Press, New York, USA, 2022. 112 pp., 80 black-and-white illustrations, 9x13".

Mao Ishikawa’s Red Flower is a photobook that I’ve found myself reading as a novel, turning pages from the front, getting to know the characters, their singular world, the range of their experiences and emotions. It looks like the tightest of girl clubs, intimate black-and-white shots of young Japanese women hugging each other, putting their hair into huge plastic rollers, doing each others’ lipstick, showing off their bare breasts, gazing off toothless and bemused, then firing off a smile of glee and delight. They’re pictures of exceptional humanity. That joy? Unbounded. That despair — and, oh, there’s profound despair, in lost, haunted, perhaps drugged-out eyes — is without bottom or end.

Then a new set of characters appears. The first, a tall, pork-pie-hatted Black man with his arms around a stubby Japanese woman. Next photo: We’re on the street, a Black man to the left with a big smile, in the shadows to the right a couple, another Black man with a Japanese woman in bell bottoms.

A slow dawning. The women are consorts, the men African-American servicemen on leave. Their world? The bars and bordellos of Okinawa right after the official end of U.S. occupation in 1972; a place to this day a center for U.S. military bases in Asia and, apart from fewer bell bottoms and Afros (many of the ’fros on Japanese women), it’s most likely a similar scene there today.

Miwa Susuda’s Session Press published Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa in 2017, and is now rereleasing it in 2022 to commemorate fifty years of independence from U.S. occupation. This is another of those current 50-ish anniversaries that seem as relevant today: think back to the beginning of the environmental movement in 1970; also this moment's Black Lives Matter movement that harmonizes so well with the early ’70s Black Power movement that is so visible in Red Flower.

The photos in the book capture universal tales of love, ardor, lack of inhibition, profound personal freedom, and a beautiful commingling of souls. And yet they’re also a product of a unique moment in history. As Mao herself recollects, “Black soldiers and white soldiers wore the same uniforms and worked together, but once they changed into their civilian clothes and went out into town, there was trouble and endless fights. I have heard that that is why the entertainment districts for U.S. troops were segregated into white and Black districts. However, I don't really know if that is true.”

True or not, the young women who journeyed to Okinawa to be part of the scene and make a living (and a life!) with the soldiers had to choose. Many, like Mao herself, went to where the Black soldiers were. There the newcomers found other women “from mainland Japan who liked Black music from when they were little, found a lover at a club that Black soldiers frequented, followed them to Okinawa when they were deployed and lived there.”

As a novel, Red Flower is a truly tight-focused tale. We follow lots of ups and downs, and finally reach a sweet ending: The bar girls marry the soldiers, and loving, playful families follow.

As a photobook, Red Flower is full of brilliant, telling pictures of a singular demimonde, like Larry Clarke’s Tulsa and Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, in which the photographer is also a participant. That’s where Mao was, living her life with the soldiers as she kept snapping away.

Yet what makes Red Flower essential is not just the fascination of its hidden world, or its unique, engrossing tale; it’s truly the quality of the photos. There’s deep expression and feeling in every powerful, timeless photograph. Together in a book? A classic.

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Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. He has published widely, including work in The New Yorker and many novels. He’s an Associate Professor at The New School University, where he teaches the course Writing the Photobook. Recent photobooks include Woodstock 2020 and Searching for Infinity. Many of his books are in the permanent collections of MoMA and ICP.