Review by Dan Abbe for Japan Exposures.
Earlier this year, a friend mentioned to me that he’d recently seen an award-winning show at the Konica Minolta gallery. It had apparently made a real impression on him, so when I next found myself in Shinjuku I decided to stop by. As it turned out, the show was “Asadake” by Masashi Asada, who won the 31st career-making Kimura Ihei Award. (Hiromix and Rinko Kawauchi are two recent winners whose names may be familiar to readers.)
Having only recalled a bit of my friend’s description — something about family — I didn’t really know what to expect. Walking in to the room I saw about 15 or 20 large color prints, with no clear visual order. I remember thinking to myself: “what am I looking at?” Even looking at the first print, I couldn’t process the image properly. Why was it so big? Who were those people? Why were they in a ramen shop? Who takes a large format camera to a ramen shop anyway? And why was the woman in the corner giving the camera such a strange, knowing smile?
“I couldn’t process the image properly. Who were those people? Why were they in a ramen shop? Who takes a large format camera to a ramen shop anyway?”
Soon I remembered the concept behind the show: Asada takes portraits of his family (in Japanese, the “Asadake”) in highly staged situations, often engaged in activities that would have some resonance for a Japanese audience: working at a ramen shop, gathering at a school assembly, campaigning for votes in a white van, and so on. (It’s worth noting that others are less specifically Japanese, like playing in a rock band, reporting a news story on TV, or fixing up a car.)
It seems to me that the intent of using these activities is not to comment on contemporary Japanese culture, as they’re never scrutinized in any serious way. Rather, they are a medium through which Asada can heighten the feeling of his portraits. Using these artificial situations brings out the personalities of the members of his family, and also creates a relationship between the work and its audience.
To create these portraits, Asada had to put his family into some fairly strange situations. For example, how often do you pretend to be on the set of a fashion shoot with your family? The obvious relish with which Asada’s parents (an older couple) tear into their roles in this image is what makes it work. As a model being photographed, the mother wears a glamorous all black outfit, and two gaudy purses more likely to be found on a woman at least half her age. She affects an almost contemptous look, while the father, an art director, sports a bowler hat, a ludicrous shawl of some sort, and a posture that suggests, “I’m thinking very deeply about what’s going on here.” Throughout the work, the audience finds the family wearing silly outfits, or pretending to be something they’re obviously not. This reveals the person to the audience—the mother’s come-hither pose communicates something tangible about her ability to take herself seriously. Depending on the situation, there can be genuine feelings of humor, warmth, or seriousness in the way that the subject approaches their role. This feeling breaks through the artificial conceit of the scene.
Asada’s work makes it easy for the audience to establish a relationship with his family. Although the scenes are obviously staged—and there can only be an initial, fleeting doubt about this—they play a small but useful trick on the audience. In an uncanny way, it’s as if the audience already knows them from the beginning: here are the farmers you see when you visit your grandma in the countryside, here are the drunk office workers you see around midnight, here is the staff at your local ramen shop. Taking an American audience, for example, scenes at a drive-through fast food restaurant, a high school football game, or the parking lot of a big box retailer could produce the same effect. Even if you don’t love those things, they would be immediately recognizable in the way that a white political campaign van will be recognizable to anyone who lives in Japan. Asada effectively removes a barrier to identification with his subjects by placing them in these situations.
The charm of “Asadake” is that it seems as though everyone could be about to break into laughter. This is actually the case in the ramen shop photo, where the mother gives the camera a sly grin, but it’s even more pronounced in the political campaign van photo, where everyone is cracking up. Each person shows the role they are playing, but they show themselves as well. It’s not a surprise that this image got quite a lot of attention at the gallery, where people would come up to it and share in the absurdly joyous moment.
The audience at the Konica Minolta exhibition was certainly in tune with the humor running through Asadake. Almost without fail, people walking into the gallery would stop for a few seconds, figure out what was going on, and then laugh all the way through the series. The feeling of walking through an exhibition where most people were laughing, gesturing at a photo, or calling a friend over to see something outrageous was certainly much different than most photography exhibits I’ve seen. In such an atmosphere, it was hard to not feel close to the subjects of the work. I haven’t ever heard of such a thing, but the exhibit felt like a getting-to-know-you party for the Asadas.
You can purchase a copy of Asadake (The Asadas) in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.
Dan Abbe lives in Tokyo and writes a blog about photography called Street Level Japan.