Emi Anrakuji: A Passage Through Pain and Suffering

Pain and suffering have illuminated the path of Japanese photographer Emi Anrakuji. As the photographer states:

In my view, 90% of our life is made up of negative feeling — suffering, frustration, sadness, pain and loneliness — with the remaining 10% revealing bliss in everyday life pleasures, such as looking up at a celestial sky, embracing the light and shadows cast by the sun or moonlight, and enjoying the scent of flowers carried in the wind.
“Untitled 683,” © Emi Anrakuji, from the series 1800 Millimètre, 2014. Courtesy MIYAKO YOSHINAGA, New York.

On first reading, there is a stark rigidity to Anrakuji’s definition of pain and pleasure, but as one looks at her photographs and photobooks, and engages her further in discussion, a more nuanced and philosophical relationship between these two extremes comes into focus. Pain and pleasure blur, as do many of the inherent oppositions in Anrakuji’s work: documentary and fiction, private and public, and Eros (the impulse towards sex and life) and Thanatos (the impulse towards death). What emerges within the fluid space of her highly personal vision is a dream-like world that probes many of life’s essential tenets.

Anrakuji, now a mid-career photographer in her fifties, first gained recognition in the early 2000s with a body of work that provided her relief from a hellish decade (late-1980s through late-1990s) of illness. In her mid-twenties, shortly after graduating from Tokyo’s prestigious Musashino Art University, Anrakuji suffered a debilitating brain tumor that left her blind in one eye and with compromised vision in the other. Isolated and confined to her sickbed during her long recovery, Anrakuji turned inward. Her bed, her room and her body became the basis for her psychological and creative explorations and subsequent healing. With art as her savior, she found solace in photographing the microcosmos that surrounded her. Details that include the stain on a sheet, the lace edge of a pillow or the folds in her skin were captured in the camera lens, which became her surrogate for her compromised eyesight. As Anrakuji relates, “I ultimately began to create objects to photograph. When printed, I could not discern macro from micro spaces. These images helped me realize the existence of a universe beyond my hospital bed.”

(from l-r) “Untitled 370” and “Untitled 432,” © Emi Anrakuji, from the series 1800 Millimètre, 2014. Courtesy MIYAKO YOSHINAGA, New York.
(from l-r): “Untitled 41,” “Untitled 44” and “Untitled 73,” © Emi Anrakumi, from the book IPY, 2008. Courtesy of Nazraeli Press.

Over the course of her recovery, thousands of photographic images began to accumulate. As someone who loves paper and books, small hand-made photobooks became her next step in a process she compares to shikantaza, the zen practice of serene reflection through simply sitting still. Similar to Nobuyoshi Araki, a photographer who Anrakuji greatly admires, self-published and highly personal books became a platform for her exploration of emotive and self-reflective narratives that transcended the confines of her sickbed to draw upon universal themes of being.

HMMT? (How Many Miles To?), Anrakuji’s first major photography series, initially viewed as a handmade book, won a competition judged by photographer Daido Moriyama. As a result, the American publisher Nazraeli Press — which published Moriyama’s Witness #2, a book that included several Anrakuki images alongside Moriyama’s — became interested in her, and subsequently released three of her books: Anrakuji (2007), e hagaki [One Picture Book #40] (2007) and IPY (2008).

(from l-r) “Untitled 1” and “Untitled 48,” © Emi Anrakuji, from the series HMMT?, 2004. Courtesy MIYAKO YOSHINAGA, New York.
(from l-r) “Untitled 11,” “Untitled 21” and “Untitled 39,” © Emi Anrakuji, from the series HMMT?, 2004. Courtesy MIYAKO YOSHINAGA, New York.

Dream-like and fragmentary, the photographs that make up HMMT? (black-and-white) and Chasm-Sakeme (color), another early series, present Anrakuji as an “alchemist” of images. From her decade of isolation, she developed a sense of empowered aloneness — a literal and figurative space for creative work akin to the private space described in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929). She may have started out a lonely and isolated woman trapped within a hospital room, but her painful journey transformed her into a commanding artist alone in her creative space.

Again set in confined and often intimate spaces such a bedroom, a hotel room or a stairwell, Anrakuji’s more recent black-and-white photographs from her 1800 Millimètre (2015) and Just Love (2017) series show her nude or partially clothed body while her face is always obscured. Within somewhat disheveled scenes — a rumpled bed with a clothesline hung over it, a doorway hinting at a kitchen beyond or a window with creased sheer curtains — deep shafts of light create shadows that bisect her body. As the only actor, Anrakuji enacts purposefully ambiguous narratives whose primary directive is a barely contained psychological drama that looms just below the surface. Dichotomies abound but fall short of rigid oppositions. There is pain, sadness and aloneness, as well as pleasure, hope and calm. Props such as mirrors scissors and other reflective objects act to cut the light and shadows that add further mystery to each of her staged scenes. The open-ended quality of her narratives invites the viewer to participate in her universe. Intimacy is everywhere, but eroticism would be a misreading of Anrakuji’s complexly layered tableaux of a world beyond the margins of her photographs. Similar to Takuma Nakahira, one of the founders of Japan’s 1968–69 groundbreaking Provoke magazine, Anrakuji flaunts documentary conventions and seeks to uncover photography’s essential nature — a universe beyond the boundaries of her camera’s lens.

(from l-r) “Untitled 59,” “Untitled 77” and “Untitled 102,” © Emi Anrakuji, from the series Chasm-Sakeme, 2009. Courtesy MIYAKO YOSHINAGA, New York.
(from l-r) “Untitled 60” and “Untitled 812,” © Emi Anrakuji, from the series Just Love, 2017. Courtesy MIYAKO YOSHINAGA, New York.
“Untitled 944,” © Emi Anrakuji, from the series Just Love, 2017. Courtesy MIYAKO YOSHINAGA, New York.
“Untitled 971,” © Emi Anrakuji, from the series Just Love, 2017. Courtesy MIYAKO YOSHINAGA, New York.

In the mid-1990s there was an explosion of photography by young Japanese women who often photographed themselves nude in intimate spaces. Referred to as the Onnanoko Shashinka (girly photographers), this movement was short-lived and can be said to have done more harm than good. By aesthetically focusing on the more salacious aspects of very diverse photographs from this movement by Hiromix, Mika Ninagawa and Yurie Nagashima, critical writing and publicity about the Onnanoko Shashinka failed to fully understand the depth of vision that these women brought to a larger photographic discussion that blurred fact and fiction within conceptual self-portraits that challenged and subverted female stereotypes.

Within a superficial, gendered reading, Anrakuji, who emerged shortly after the demise of the Onnanoko Shashinka, could be seen to address similar issues of female self-representation. However, this would be a shallow perspective, and would fail to understand the philosophical depths that she probes in her highly complex photographs of life’s (and death’s) larger questions. Anrakuji travels a path punctured by pain and solitude to create dream-like spaces that are a sharp–edged perspective of the nature of photography and its ability to encompass a world beyond ordinary vision.


Russet Lederman is a writer, media artist, and photobook collector who lives in New York City. She teaches at the School of Visual Arts and is a co-founder of 10x10 Photobooks.


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