Even if you are allergic to cats, you will still enjoy this book by Masahisa Fukase (1934–2012). Why? Because it shows two essential things: the emotional, even mystical, bond between a photographer and his subject—namely two cats, Sasuke and Momoe. You will appreciate the kittens’s extraordinary inventiveness and prowess, their leaps, dizzying stretches, endless naps, not to mention their ability to blend in with their surroundings, including cemeteries, and, naturally, to overcome any obstacle.
Sasuke, published by Atelier EXB, is not just for cat lovers. In between the feline antics, something less monolithic and more personal is revealed: something intimate, akin to a metamorphosis, if we are to believe Fukase’s word as he delights in this animal mirror: “I spent so much time on my stomach to get to the cat’s level that I became a cat. What a pleasure it was, day after day, to take pictures of the frolicks of these two dear creatures. I was captivated by the graceful charm of the cats. I could see my reflection in their eyes. I wanted to photograph the love I saw in them. In a way, these are more self-portraits than images of Sasuke and Momo.”
Much has been written about Masahisa Fukase and his way of photographing on the fly, whether it’s cats, as here, or crows, which earned him his reputation with a cult book, The Solitude of Ravens, shot on his native island, Hokkaido, and published in 1986 by Sokyusha. Another example is his wife Yoko (divorced in 1976), photographed almost continuously, almost as if she existed only through her husband’s lens.
It is this excessive continuity that gives the Japanese photographer his rightful place. Fukase is never coy with his camera; on the contrary, he throws himself into the experiment just like Etienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) had once thrown his cat into the air.
Fukase gives proof of this experimental frenzy tracking a series of Sasuke’s yawns. “But since he yawns only after a nap, I had to put him to bed, set up my camera while he was asleep, then wake him up, ready to release the shutter. Sasuke really didn’t like that. After about a month of this focused work, I had a prodigious number of yawns.” This yawning in turn transforms the cat into a whiskered vampire, with pointy fangs and the tongue hanging out, as if echoing the premonitory series, Berobero, in which Fukase touched the tongues of over seventy people he encountered in a bar in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Drawing this comparison, Tomo Kosuga, director of the Masahisa Fukase archive, astutely commented in his afterword: “The sense of touch in photography. … The expression of a yawning cat is curiously similar to the expressions of the people whose tongues Fukase touched in Berobero. It is impossible to know to what extent Sasuke’s yawns inspired his work on the haptic potential of photography.”
Photography as a possible study of touch, spot on!
By Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she contributed to the photography column. She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
Ryuichi Kaneko and Ivan Vartanian, Les livres de photographes japonais, 1960–1980, Seuil, 2009. (The story of the cleverest cat in Japan.)
Natsume Sôseki, I Am a Cat, trans. Aiko Ito and Graeme Wilson, Tuttle, 2011.