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Way of the body

by Dr Christopher Chapman, 22 May 2019

Satoshi Tokuhiro at Horai Gorge, Takaruzuka, Hyogo from Young Samurai – Bodybuilders of Japan Photography by Tamotsu Yato
Satoshi Tokuhiro at Horai Gorge, Takaruzuka, Hyogo from Young Samurai – Bodybuilders of Japan Photography by Tamotsu Yato

‘Finespun and impartial, the summer sunlight poured down prodigally on all creation alike’, wrote Japanese demigod Yukio Mishima, of the merciless glare of the sun which had gazed down with impunity as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were scorched by atomic bomb blasts. ‘The war ended,’ Mishima wrote, ‘yet the deep green weeds were lit exactly as before by the merciless light of noon, a clearly perceived hallucination stirring in a slight breeze; brushing the tips of the leaves with my fingers, I was astonished that they did not vanish at my touch.’ Mishima was deeply touched by a poignant feeling. ‘That same sun,’ he wrote, ‘as the days turned to months and the months to years, had become associated with a pervasive corruption and destruction.’ Here was pathos manifest in the very atmosphere, pathos matched by the author’s powerful, but conflicted, selfhood.

In Mishima’s 1963 short novel The sailor who fell from grace with the sea, adolescent boy Noburu reveres and resents his mother’s male lover, the sailor Ryuji. Ultimately Ryuji must be emasculated for failing to live up to the boy’s masculinist ideals – ‘what is beautiful must be strong, vivid, and brimming with energy’ – and yet all along Noburu feels a kind of love for Ryuji that tips into erotic fascination. Thus the tormented soul can only destroy what it desires. Similarly, ‘The alienated feeling that comes from psychological laws being crushed by the strange and shocking movements of the body’ is how Mishima described a 1959 performance of Tatsumi Hijikata’s Forbidden Colours in the newly-emergent dance-form of butoh. What pain to feel alienated from oneself! 

Mishima, always intellectual, and as a child anything but ‘rough-and-tumble’, set about transforming himself through bodybuilding. He gladly wrote the introduction to photographer Tamotsu Yato’s ground-breaking 1966 photo-book featuring a decade of the physical practice in modern Japan, Taidō: Nihon no bodibirudā-tachi (Bodybuilders of Japan). ‘In the past I wished in vain that there were an expert photographer of bodybuilders in Japan’, Mishima laments. ‘At last,’ he sighs, relieved, ‘with the appearance of this book, this long-felt wish of mine is answered.’ In 1955, at age 30, Mishima took up weightlifting. Yato photographed Mishima in 1965 (height 164cm, weight 70 kg). In Yato’s book Mishima’s body is stripped, save for the traditional Japanese fundoshi loin-cloth, and he holds a sheathed samurai sword as a prop. Steady gaze, poised relaxed stance – Mishima’s sweat-sheened torso declares flesh-and-blood presence. The shoji paper and wood door, the tatami straw floor mats, the wall-hanging scroll depicting an Edo-era falcon at rest combine to create the mise-en-scène.

The photographer Mr Yato, Mishima continues in the book’s foreword, is a bodybuilder himself and thus ‘knows the quintessence of the muscle, is fully aware of its subtle physiology, and moreover, being a professional photographer, also knows the infinite nuances of form created by light and shadow’. Thus, aesthetic appreciation conveys knowledge. Yato doesn’t celebrate or even fetishise the muscular male bodies he photographs, nor is he restrained. Like Mishima, Yato is fascinated by the body’s physical presence. For Mishima, in the butoh dance, it was the ‘sweaty half-awake half-dreaming bodies’ that communicated the continuity of narrative across the performance. In many of his photo-portraits, Yato places his young body-builders (mostly aged in their early twenties) in natural settings – their presence is infused with the vibrating living energy of the sea, of trees, of the calm energy of aeons-old rock.

Yato, aged in his late thirties when he began his project to photograph Japanese bodybuilders, discovered a correlation between body and spirit. In the afterword to Taidō he notes he was surprised by his subjects’ ‘strength of character’. For the American publication of his book the following year, 1967, the title was changed to Young Samurai from the original Taidō (which translates to ‘way of the body’). Yato’s photographs are evidence of his sincere yearning to understand the ‘way of the body’, as exemplified in his encounter with masculinist Japanese bodybuilding. ‘Ever since I decided to make photography my life’s work,’ he confides, ‘my greatest interest has been in the human form in all its many aspects.’ Yato means the muscular bodies of his male subjects and ‘the fragrant radiance of the flesh enveloping their powerful muscles.’

Mishima detailed his own belief in the powerful spiritual benefit of physical development in the autobiographical treatise Sun & Steel: Art, Action and Ritual Death (serialised in Japan from 1965 to 1968 in the journal Criticism).

This is where Mishima ruminated on the impartial glare of the sun. It ‘gleamed so encouragingly on the wings of planes leaving on missions, on forests of bayonets, on the badges of military caps, on the embroidery of military banners’. This cruel sun ‘[held] sway over corruption, leading youth in droves to its death in tropical seas and countrysides’. It even ‘glistened on the blood flowing ceaselessly from the flesh, and on the silver bodies of flies clustering on wounds’. Later, though, his ‘persistent hostility towards the sun’ seemed to him inauthentic, a pretension of rebellion. The sun became, instead, glorious: ‘It was in 1952, on the deck of the ship on which I made my first journey abroad, that I exchanged a reconciliatory handshake with the sun’. Mishima confides, ‘from that day on, I have found myself unable to part company with it’.

Yato and Mishima’s life-paths coincided beyond their meeting as photographer and subject. Mishima was born in 1925; Yato’s birth-date is estimated as 1924–28. Each man died before they turned 50. Photographer Yato’s cardiac hypertrophy lifted him out of his life, at the time solo, after his separation from American translator and publisher Meredith Weatherby. Weatherby had been Yato’s male companion, and had introduced him to the art of photography; to the tradition of the male nude in photography; and to Yukio Mishima, whose books Weatherby had translated into English. Weatherby himself designed and published Taidō, as well as Yato’s subsequent two photo-books Hadaka Matsuri (Naked festival), 1968 and Otoko (Man): Photo-studies of the Young Japanese Male, 1972. Friends arranged a cremation ceremony for Yato (who had changed his family name from Hakada) at Hozen-ji Temple in Tokyo.

Three years earlier, Yukio Mishima, aged 45, had stunned Japan, performing a dramatic militaristic protest climaxing in his planned ritual suicide by seppuku.

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