Yukari Chikura – Zaido

Zaido is a book that is best sat with and read multiple times over a few days. I write “read” because Chikura’s book seems to engage with storytelling and myth methodologically as much as it does with its images themselves.

The first thing a reader will see upon opening Zaido is a short pamphlet detailing the legend upon which Chikura’s story has been built. The pamphlet has small painted illustrations, and large type just like a children’s book. There is also a map, which, even to a native Japanese speaker would likely be challenging to read due to the small size of the cursive text. Zaido’s image sequence opens with multiple translucent pages showing the same landscape illustration. Growing more defined with each page turn, the synthetic vellum slightly fogs the details behind these iterative, increasingly detailed layers.

With a 1300-year history, Zaido (祭堂) is a ceremony dedicated to Japan’s gods, performed to bring their favor and, accordingly, a fortuitous year ahead. Participants carry out a stringent and extended purifying period before performing a sacred dance. Chikura visited the four remote villages in which the festival is carried out, and where her father once lived, some months after his sudden passing.

On a first view, it’s difficult to grasp what exactly one is seeing in Zaido; we see frozen movements, ritual processions held in place; it’s understandable that what is taking place is deliberate, a tradition in action, but there is little to explain the particulars. The legend in the pamphlet becomes something of a point of reference as to why a man is washing in the ice, or what these ornate masks represent; however it also invites further speculation. Before these ceremonial shots, there are many landscape scenes which help provide a sense of place before the event itself.

The texts that actually explain what is happening – what these practices are, why they are done, and how they relate to the tale – are all located at the book’s end. There, a small selection from the edit is captioned after Chikura’s own story is told. 

As a result,  Zaido’s image sequence is “bracketed” by information that supplements the images: first, the mythic; second, the contemporary. Initially, the viewer can only guess, try to tie it to the pamphlet’s myth. Then, they read about it, and can review Zaido with a new awareness. There is a limited amount of information about the ritual itself; even with this  new knowledge, one can’t really grasp the cultural mores of the book’s sequence, the sum of the hows and whys to it all, easily demarcate a timeline of events.

Chikura recognises that the tales and oral traditions are what drives Zaido’s story forward, what preserves it in personal and cultural memory, while also recognising the value of photography’s ability to provide a more immediate form of documentation. This is a heartfelt documentation: Chikura’s editing is heavy with vignette, intensified blues and reds, and the addition of  a kind of “soft contrast” that might seem overly affected in another context. Furthermore, Chikura’s use of a long exposure punctuated by a flash makes certain figures seem half-present; the remainder of the exposure’s duration rendered in fuzzy trails surrounding the flash-lit, ghostly subjects.

Zaido gives the sense that this is a “picture book” that exists in that broader visual tradition more than existing as a “photobook”, which is a comparatively restricted one.

But really, Zaido is about storytelling in the most literal sense of the word. It isn’t about representation or strict documentation; it’s more a case of using photography and design to evoke a sense of being there, of seeing a story, albeit in instants rather than in duration. Here, the editing arguably adds a more explicit awareness of the picture rather than the photographic window, giving the sense that this is a “picture book” that exists in a broader visual tradition more than a “photobook”, which exists in a comparatively restricted one. The snow pattern which falls on the left page of each spread cascades down through each scene we step into on the right page, moving through the night. 

The photographs do in a sense provide only a visual gloss to such traditions. However, given how exclusive these practices are, the photographs also open a window onto a ceremony whose both history and practice are characterised by endurance and struggle. The ritual beset on all sides by fires and natural disasters, Zaido can be regarded as an allegory for both Chikura’s personal struggles as detailed in her afterword, and for a nation so afflicted by natural disaster that its art traditions centred around the impermanence of life have been said to have roots in such events.

Zaido stands out for the way it engages with this cultural history. Many projects and narratives about Japan’s traditional cultures are romanticised in both Japan and the West. Conversely Japan has, in spite of its historical isolationism, changed dramatically over its recent history, making radical adjustments to its language and cultures as it joined the international table. For example, a huge portion of the Japanese language’s vocabulary now constitutes a mix of loanwords from Old Chinese and European languages.

Chikura identifies in her afterword that the many adjustments and slight deviations from the original tradition that have been made to the Zaido ceremony have been a significant reason for its survival. In this, as with many aspects of Japan’s cultures, it was the tradition’s continuation rather than its absolute purity that counted. Chikura is not romantic, nor does she obscure those adaptations in her narrative. Her engagement is observant and personal, presenting aspects of the ritual rather than documenting it with cold, academic rigor. Rather, it feels more like a testimony, a personal record that adds to the conversation, a story to tell a dear friend.

Yukari Chikura
Steidl, 2020

All Rights Reserved: Text © Callum Beaney; Images © Yukari Chikura/Steidl; book spreads © Callum Beaney