The Hello Kitty character isn’t a cat. It’s an apple pie loving British third-grade school girl called Kitty White, her parents are George and Mary White, and she lives just outside London. Did you know that? She does in fact have a pet cat, called Charmmy Kitty, and if you look close enough you’ll see that particular kitty on the curtains belonging to the pornographic actress Mayura in a photograph from IPG Project’s latest photobook Sumimasen.
As it could only be, this hardback book published with Éditions du LIC comes in the traditional Hello Kitty or Kawaii style candy pink. The inlay colour is a darker hue, and the first picture presented to the reader is Mayura herself, dressed in her strawberries-and-cream Kawaii outfit complete with Hello Kitty mask. She stands between two vertical curtains, which match perfectly the rose red of the book inlay paper. There’s something wrong here. This suggestive ‘vaginal’ exposé -cutesy-Kitty introduction subverts our conscious expectations and encourages a degree of trepidation for what is about to follow. In true Japanese style, it is a complicated mix of confused personal and private sexual desires staged in a world of utter banality where social formality hides a latent fetishized informality. According to the text at the back of Sumimasen, formal public behaviour in Japan is termed ‘tatemae’ while the more informal, or private true feelings are termed ‘honne’, while jumping between the two is called putting on and off ‘the mask’. As with Hello Kitty, there is a double-life relating to the perceived public face and private life.
One of the things that makes Yoshi and Tamara Kametani’s (IPG Project) photographic projects a pleasure to view, is that they take these unusual subjects that by their very nature speak of deep-rooted human needs (and as such involve complex emotional and social backgrounds) and present them in an almost effortless way that seems light and unimposing. As with their previous book, In Search of the Crying Lady, the photographers strip away all the drama to leave the viewer with the unflinching core.
Sumimasen, a word that can mean both apology and gratitude alludes to this aspect of Japanese culture that insists on a formal post-feudal societal structure (the public face), while simultaneously revels in an informal fetishized sub-culture (the private face). Both elements have a dark side of course, with the one in this case being the sexual gratification of those who pay Mayura to watch her shower, dress, eat and perform in her home. She lives in a technologically connected box, only leaving for essentials, while strangers pay to spy on her using the four cameras located about her apartment that continuously stream her movements online. She says she doesn’t mind being watched because hers is natural behaviour, but that only begs the question: if it is so natural or normal why would anyone want to pay to see it?
The book is a compendium of snaps, that is to say photographs taken with what appears to be a disposable compact camera. They seem off-the-cuff, with odd angles, rough close-ups of everyday objects and activities, lots of polka dot and Lolita pattern, the flash glaringly reflecting off metallic surfaces and exposing Mayura’s soft white skin when standing naked but for her ever-worn expressionless Hello Kitty mask. While she is watched online by her subscribers, she is physically followed and photographed by the photographers. On this occasion however, all her boundaries are dissolved as the photographers (and us, the viewers) have complete access to her private life within her home and her daily activities outside in the public realm.
There is a claustrophobic air of dismay and indeed pathos in the images. The view from the apartment window is mind-numbingly boring, yet the image that immediately follows on the next page is a mind-bending interaction of dildo-and-tit next to Kitty-and-Kawaii pinks. The small table is bizarre enough in all this infantilized accoutrement and technology, but the continuing images of serious black hardware, cables and cameras draw one’s attention back to hard cash and hard penises.
Which brings us to the pages in the book that express just what it is that Mayura does; the full-bleed, double spread colourful close-ups of the computer screen displaying her sexual performances. There are small digital love-hearts covering her nipples in one spread, in another she’s obscuring her face with her phone as she takes a selfie while bending over to show her thonged derriére to the subscribers. In some spreads we see her legs spread apart and in others we get so close to the screen it is pure abstraction of pixelated colour. These pages mimic the screen and are finished with a wipe-clean laminate gloss. If you didn’t feel voyeuristically involved before, you certainly feel physically involved now.
There are some genuinely alluring and equally disturbing images in Sumimasen that work all the better for the blur and poor light. The contradiction between the film camera of low-tech quality with the hi-tech online streaming necessary for the subject to exist, coupled with a sense of voyeuristic immediacy takes on a unique quality all of its own. Also it is worth pointing out while at times the imagery in Sumimasen is dark and even gets eerily gruesome, when we include the Lolita patterns and lace, the night sky, the bloody tissue, soft white naked flesh and long black silky hair there is good cause to consider this a book of contemporary Japanese Gothic. In fact, this could actually be the first J-Goth photobook to have been published (please correct me if I’m wrong).
This project is a collaboration with Mayura, from the night-time shopping and restaurant visitations to walking along the street the photographers are granted access to her daily life. So too are they granted the same access as her subscribers, following her into the bathroom and shower. Though her true identity is never revealed, one is left disconcerted by such access, and this suggests a further layer of final meaning: who is watching our behaviour while we are in the streets, shopping or online?
All images ©IPG Project.
You can purchase a copy of Sumimasen here