Making Zaido: An Interview with Yukari Chikura

  • Post category:Art / Books

The photobook Zaido by Yukari Chikura was published last year and has been featured in nearly every “top ten” list. The book is now listed as “out of print” by Steidl, the publisher, although stock remains at booksellers.

You can see my review of Zaido here.

I chatted with the photographer via e-mail–this interview has been slightly edited for clarity.

Darin Boville: You were a composer and arranger before becoming a photographer. What sort of music did you compose?

Yukari Chikura: I taught myself to compose music, but I studied classical piano at university. My first work as a composer and arranger was for television commercials, for companies such as Panasonic, Canon, Suzuki, and Hitachi. After that, I started to write songs for artists. The genres were varied.

DB: What did you find more attractive about photography than music?

YC: I started playing music before I could remember. So it was already a part of my life.

I had never thought of a life outside of music, but then one day I thought that I would end up knowing nothing but music for the rest of my life. I was very scared. So I decided to take up photography, a visual art form as opposed to an aural art form. 

We live in an age where anyone can take a picture with the click of a shutter. I wanted to find my own way of expressing myself in this age.

DB: Zaido is your first book but not your first photography project. Can you tell me about those earlier projects?

YC: Let me introduce you to two of the several projects of mine.

“Living at Killing Fields”

Under the Pol Pot regime, a large number of people were massacred in Cambodia and fierce fighting was carried out until the second half of the 1990s during the civil war. Furthermore, since then, hundreds of victims have been injured or killed by the large number of excess landmines and ordnance, buried and forgotten. Even now, the spirit of war still plagues the people of Cambodia. This work captures the people who still live in what was known as the Killing Fields.

“fluorite fantasia (Looking for my Father…)”

This is actually another piece that originally came out of the same project as Zaido.

It has a completely different style and is a fantasy. After the sudden death of my father, I wander through a strange landscape looking for my father, guided by a fluorite stone, a memento of my father.

DB: Are there other photographers or visual artists who you feel have influenced your work? How did they influence your work?

YC: I think I’ve always preferred to look at pictures rather than photographs, even as a child.

My favorite artists are Paul Klee, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Marc Chagall, Pablo Picasso, and Wassily Kandinsky. The artist I admire the most is Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci as a painter is, of course, wonderful, but I admire his talent, which covers not only painting but also sculpture, music, mathematics, anatomy, civil engineering, physics, astronomy, botany, fluid mechanics, and so on.

DB: You attended many photography workshops and portfolio reviews. Did you show earlier versions of Zaido? How did the book evolve based on the feedback from these workshops and portfolio reviews?

YC: I took part in a book-making workshop where I made fluorite fantasia. What I learned there helped me to create Zaido. I didn’t show the first version to many people.

Creating Zaido, it was a trial-and-error process in InDesign, so there are very few versions printed as dummy books. Outside of what is possible in the computer, I definitely wanted to add a “paper fortune”. I also wanted the overall structure of the book to be made like a symphony, gradually fading in at the beginning and out at the end. The bindings on the original book dummies were in “Japanese binding”.

DB: Much of the magic of Zaido is book-centric—if you put the same photographs on a wall the effect would be greatly changed. That is to say, the book is its own unique experience and it doesn’t seem like it could be replicated outside of a book.

YC: I think you’re right. Books are similar to listening to music and I think experiencing the book as you turn each page has something in common with the flow of time that music takes.

It’s a medium that lends itself very well to visual “storytelling.”

DB: Let’s talk about the physical book itself. The slipcover of the book features a logo—very unusual for a photobook.

YC: This is the logo used on Zaido costumes and shrines, but it has been in Japan since ancient times. The fan is a good omen because when it opens, it spreads out. There are several types of fan crests.

DB: I was struck when I first took the book out of its soft gray slipcase by the intensity of the cover’s blue and the energy it gave to the cover photo.

YC: The fabric I have chosen for this cover has captured my attention from the first time I saw it. It’s a two-colored fabric with a striking peacock feather effect. As for the slipcase, this was actually not planned. I didn’t know that the book had a slipcase until I received it. I had originally wanted to tuck or glue the maps and booklets into the book, but instead, I put them in lovely glassine envelopes—I decided I wanted them to be a three-dimensional, material element—so maybe Steidl added a slipcase to keep them from falling out. I think the slipcase gave it a more luxurious feel. I think it also helps to give the book a sense of mystery, as you can’t see what’s inside.

DB: I especially loved the snowflakes glowing on the page: This is a magical effect.

YC: This is another way of giving the reader a three-dimensional experience of the world of the book.

DB: Is there something special about the black ink in the night photos? It struck me it looked like enamel and the edges of the night photos were wonderfully indistinct on them.

YC: We used many times more ink than usual to draw a rich black.

DB: In the first half of the book the images have a dream-like quality. Then you quite intentionally show tire tracks in the snow and parked cars and portable heaters.

YC: The book consists of images that move between the present and the past, and between real and unreal worlds.

DB: Each book, in addition to having a picture of tied paper fortunes, includes a real fortune, attached to the page. I didn’t open mine—should I?

YC: It is up to you to choose your own destiny.

DB: I know you want to keep many of the hidden things in Zaido a secret—but can you tell us one for two that I missed?

Zaido is filled with all sorts of metaphors and secrets. Please think also more about the tire tracks. I think this book can be read in many different ways. I hope you will spend a long time slowly unraveling it.

Here are some hints that are not given in the book, although they are not the answers themselves.

About the picture of the crow:

The many ravens are arranged like musical notes on a staff. The mythical Yatagarasu, the three-legged crow, is said to have three legs and is worshiped as a God of Guidance or Incarnation of the Sun. The three legs of Yatagarasu are said to represent heaven, Earth, and man. It is also said that he is a divine messenger sent by Amaterasu-Omikami. Also, the shrine where Zaido is performed is dedicated to Amaterasu-Omikami. I felt a strange connection to this scene.

The Legend of Amanoiwato:

During the Age of the Gods there lived a fearsome god by the name of Susano, who destroyed rice fields and peeled the skin off live horses. Angry at the violent deeds of her younger brother Susano, the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu, hid in Amanoiwato Cave. With the Goddess of the Sun hiding in the cave, the world became cloaked in darkness and evil was rife. 

The many Gods were greatly distressed by this and called a meeting at Amanoyasukawara to discuss how to lure the Sun Goddess out of the cave and restore sunlight.

Since it was known that the roosters crow in the morning to invite the sun to rise, it was decided to place a rooster outside the cave to entice the Sun Goddess out.

The attempt failed, however, so the Gods, trying a new tactic, performed a lively festival outside the cave, featuring a dance by Amenouzume. Curious as to what was happening outside, 

Amaterasu opened the door of the cave a little and peeked out. Meanwhile, the strongest of the Gods, Tajikarao, removed the door completely, releasing the Goddess of Sun. The world became bright and peace reigned once again.

DB: Most of the photographs in Zaido were made between 2012 and 2015. Have you started new photography projects?

YC: Not that it’s new, but my fluorite fantasia (Looking for my Father…) was actually “the one” that won the Steidl Book Award Asia in 2017. I love this work so much and I hope it will be published soon.