What’s in a monkey’s gaze?
In its 1,000-year history, the Japanese art of sarumawashi, or monkey dancing, has evolved from an ancient ritual designed to protect the horses of warriors into a form of entertainment performed by trained macaques at Japanese theaters, temples, imperial courts, and on the street. In more recent years, sarumawashi monkeys have performed at Central Park, Harvard University, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, and a sold-out Lincoln Center. In a serendipitous incidence of art imitating life (or is it the other way around?), the monkeys have also performed within the Senate chamber at the United States Capitol.
Sapporo-born photographer Hiroshi Watanabe, who lived in Japan in the ’ 50s and ’ 60s before moving to the United States, recalls watching the macaques when he was a child. “While I grew up in Japan,” Watanabe told Pasatiempo, “I commonly saw sarumawashi monkeys perform on town and village streets. They appeared during holidays and festivals, but they also arrived unexpectedly when there were no apparent reasons to celebrate. Like any child would be, I was enchanted by the monkeys, who were dressed up like miniature people, dancing and doing tricks. I would watch them until my parents pulled me away by the hands.”
In Watanabe’s most recent collection of photographs from his ongoing FACES series — which also includes portraits of patients from San Lázaro Psychiatric Hospital in Quito, Ecuador; Japanese bunraku (puppet theater) characters; Noh masks of the Naito clan; and Kabuki performers— the photographer continues his exploration of emotive articulation through facial expression. Shifting his focus to the macaques as subjects, Watanabe said, was his way of understanding the animals as not just performers— which was his frame of reference as a child— but also as beings with deep underlying feelings and individual personas.
An exhibit of Watanabe’s new work, titled Suo Sarumawashi: Formal Portraits of Japanese Monkey Performers, opens at Photoeye Gallery on Friday, Dec. 4, along with a launch ofWatanabe’s new Suo Sarumawashi publication (a portfolio of boxed prints) from Photo-eye Editions, in conjunction with Photo-eye’s 30th-anniversary celebration.
“Several years ago, during a trip to the Bronx Zoo in New York, I studied gorillas’ facial expressions,” Watanabe said. “They showed a lot of affection for each other, and I was amazed by the range of emotions they could express. After that experience, I believed these animals might have the same intricate feelings and emotions as we
people do. I wondered, ‘ Are the monkeys from my childhood like the gorillas I saw? Do they really have feelings like us?’”
In 2008, Watanabe’s son was born in Japan. As the photographer contemplated the boy’s future, he began to think about his own childhood, and decided to pursue sarumawashi performers as photographic subjects. Seeking permission to photograph the monkeys, he wrote to the Suo Sarumawashi Association, an official organization founded in Hikari in 1977 to preserve the art of sarumawashi performance. Due to a surge in vehicle traffic on Japan’s city streets and increased urbanization, the art form almost disappeared in the late ’ 70s, and the association began assembling trainers, performers, and donors in an effort to revive it. “As I grew older,” Watanabe said, “I forgot about the monkeys ... and it seems they were indeed quickly becoming a thing of the past.”
In recent years, Watanabe noted, sarumawashi has mainly been relegated to theaters as family entertainment rather than appearing in outdoor public performances. “There are individual monkey trainers who continue to perform on the streets and in the parks with their animals,” he said, “but they are difficult to find nowadays. The Suo Sarumawashi Association runs two theaters, one at the foot of Mount Fuji and the other at the base of Mount Aso— an active volcano in southern Japan.” The association’s performers and trainers also tour frequently throughout the country.
After getting permission from the association, Watanabe visited both schools and photographed the monkeys. For his 2008 photo collection, Ideology in Paradise, Watanabe traveled to North Korea to capture everyday life in the capital city of Pyongyang. While there, two guides and a driver, who stood behind him while he worked, accompanied him everywhere.
Watanabe explained that, after that, it was a relief to work in Japan, in an environment without so many restrictions and so much government paranoia— even though his newest subjects wouldn’t always cooperate. “The people with Suo Sarumawashi were very nice and cooperative,” he said. “I could do anything that I wanted. The only constraints came from the monkeys themselves— they had limited attention spans and wandered off when they became bored. And naturally, they wouldn’t do something if they just didn’t want to do it.”
Watanabe was not interested in photographing the macaques while they performed. He set up a simple backdrop and asked the trainers to bring the monkeys to him one-by-one. The process of capturing their personalities using natural light took some time. Watanabe estimates that, for each of his subjects, 50 exposures were created, and all of them were taken using a handheld camera.
Patience was key to unlocking the underlying personality traits of his furry subjects, and the results astonished him. “I am interested in human emotions, and how those emotions are conveyed on human faces,” he said. “I capture people as formal, individual portraits. I approached the sarumawashi monkeys the same way. I could not force or convince the monkeys to do things. I just waited. In front of the camera, the monkeys stood up straight and, at first, struck poses from their acts over and over. Then, after a while, they started to fall back to their own inner selves, revealing their true monkey personalities.”
For their performances, which include slapstick comedy, physical stunts like jumping, flipping, and balancing, and playing characters from well-known stories in Japanese culture (including Kabuki characters), “the monkeys are trained to mimic human expressions and movements onstage, and that is what interested me,” Watanabe said. “Underneath that layer of imitation, though, I believe I discovered that they actually have similar, if not deeper and more subtle, feelings than we do.”
Sarumawashi monkey performer Right, Hiroshi Watanabe: toned silver gelatin print Below, Japanese netsuke (miniature sculpture) depicting sarumawashi, late 18th century, carved whale ivory
Big With Monkey Doll,
toned silver gelatin print
Kanpei Counting Fingers, toned silver gelatin print