Every year around September, mud-covered figures run amok in the streets of the Shimajiri District in Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture, smearing dirt on anyone they encounter. Children are typically terrified, but most adults enjoy the strange scene, which is part of a centuries-old exorcism ritual. Known as the Paantu festival, the tradition is meant to rid the town and its residents of evil, with the fully disguised individuals representing the eponymous deities.
Paantu is just one of the many seasonal rituals that occur across Japan’s many islands that call for locals to dress up, head-to-toe, in fantastical or animal masks and elaborate costumes. Between 2013 and 2015, the French photographer Charles Fréger travelled across the nation to document these vivid outfits, which are now collected in his latest photo book, Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters, published in August by Thames & Hudson. Its title is his own invented word, drawn from the Japanese term yōkai, which refers to mystical creatures associated with Japanese folklore.
Like Fréger’s previous publication on ritual costumes found throughout Europe, Yokainoshima is an extensive visual survey, with 180 photographs of Japanese performers filling its pages. Three essays offer some context to Fréger’s crisp captures; the art historian Toshiharu Ito writes that these performances are a way for people to call up spirits and fully embody the gods who have the power to deliver goodness — like a bountiful harvest — or misfortune — like natural disasters — to their communities.
“Offering prayers and expressing gratitude during the same season every year gave people piece of mind,” Ito writes. “Gradually the form and content of festivals were altered to reflect changing times and environmental conditions.”
Shot as head-to-toe portraits, Fréger’s photographs set individuals or small groups of performers against stark backgrounds, from snow-covered plains to muted shorelines. As if shooting for a fashion spread, he has meticulously documented the costumes to show every detail. One subject dressed as an auspicious heron for the Sagi dance has his or her arms open to display a broad fan of white flaps like giant window blinds; some performers appear in multiple photos taken from different angles to give us views of colorful patterns or props that may otherwise be hidden.
While Fréger’s attention to these complex disguises allows us to examine the diversity of materials used and appreciate the handiwork involved, his isolated setups uproot the rituals from their contexts. The static scenes are removed from what are largely spirited, music-filled occasions — hinted at by the presence of hand-held drums, gongs, or other instruments — with the performers appearing in deliberate poses. A foursome of men resembling skinny haystacks have their feet firmly planted in the snow; dressed for the ancient Kasedori Festival, they usually perform a rhythmic dance that involves plenty of hopping and twirling as onlookers toss water on them to guarantee a future free of devastating fires. Hiroshi Sugimoto brought museum dioramas to life, but Fréger’s strawmen resemble figurines positioned in a surreal, sterile setting for us to examine superficially rather than fully understand. There are rare moments when we do receive hints of the moods of these occasions: a printed cape of a Mejishi lion character billows in the wind, for instance, as if the individual inside was caught while moving through his joyous dance; kimono-wrapped performers representing the Saotome, or rice-planting women, seem to shuffle quietly through falling snow, dipping their pink floral headpieces to shield their faces.
Thankfully, the Yokainoshima is not simply visual candy; these performers are not entirely displaced from their individual narratives. Editor Akihiro Hatanaka provides descriptions of each festival and the corresponding characters on which Fréger has trained his lens. Though brief, they lend necessary insight into Japan’s diverse, enduring rituals, which both astound and bewilder with their sheer extravagance.