YY: Tokyo in the late 1990s saw the rise of「女の子写真」[Onnanoko shashin], the 'Girly Photo' movement, which was characterized by images reflecting the personal and the everyday taken by young women photographers, and you were brought into the limelight as one of its stars. What was that like?
MN: Because I wanted to quickly become a person who expressed something, it was a very lucky movement for me. But at the same time, I was in a very dangerous situation of being easily consumed. I was conscious of that from the onset. But I also thought that if I were to be consumed by this then it was just that, so I consciously decided to ride the flow. It was a trend, but it was also a chance for my work to be seen.
YY: Did you identify yourself with this movement and with your contemporaries Yurie Nagashima and Hiromix? Did you feel then that you were part of a shared female experience?
MN: I don't know about the other two, but I think that each of us harbored complicated feelings. And I imagine it was quite difficult to swim without being swallowed by that current as I don't think most of the legions of 'girly' photographers who were there at the time are still working today.
YY: How did 'Girly Photo' begin?
MN: I think it was the same for everyone…they started not because it was a fad, but there was this atmosphere at the time, and many young women incidentally started to photograph. Taking a photograph was somehow seen as something 'sparkly'.
YY: How do you see this experience today, 20 years later?
MN: The experience of being in that whirlpool of craze was a good one. All that I felt at the time — the fear of being consumed, people's desires, the intense envy of the boys, the fact of being a woman — greatly influenced my photographs that followed, as well as the movies I make.
YY: In 2001, you became a recipient of the 26th Kimura Ihei Award together with Yurie Nagashima and Hiromix. It was the first and the only time that the award was given to three photographers — to three young women photographers. How was that experience? You were only 29 at the time?
MN: I thought, 'Why am I not alone?' I felt very dissatisfied. But I wanted to use this experience as a springboard for becoming an unrivaled existence.
YY: Did you see an immediate impact?
MN: My photobook sold well. [Laughs] It also increased name recognition.
earthly flowers, heavenly colors
YY: This is your first installation that has been conceived and executed as a stand-alone work, outside of an exhibition context. What drew you to create this installation?
MN: When I'm focused on shooting, I sometimes feel that I am becoming more and more absorbed into the scenery seen from the viewfinder. For instance, if I'm photographing cherry blossoms, it's as if I'm inside the cherry blossom or I've become the cherry blossom, existing at the boundary between this world and the other world. This feeling of my own contours melting...that nothing else exists in this world besides myself and what is photographed is unique to this process. I started this installation in order to experience this feeling and to share it.
YY: Your installation is called earthly flowers, heavenly colors. What is the meaning behind your title?
MN: The title refers to that boundary between the two worlds where I sometimes find myself when shooting. Heaven and earth are closer than we imagine. Heavenly views can be found in the everyday as long as you can spot them.
YY: In the featured work, you have layered different images, colors, forms, perspective and materials. How did you arrive at the concept of layering in your installations?
MN: When we experience something, a lot of information comes in at the same time and it all becomes one experience. I sometimes show a single photograph but it's more common for me to show a number of images together.
YY: The 'earthly flower' represented in this work is sakura [cherry blossom]. When I read your father Yukio Ninagawa's obituary in The Guardian, it mentioned that his first theatre production in the UK was Macbeth at the 1985 Edinburgh festival, which caused a sensation with its cherry blossom-filled visual imagery. Do you recall when you first saw this production?
MN: My father's Macbeth premiered in 1980, so I was eight years old at the time. In the opening scene, the threatening yet beautiful sakura seems almost alive as it sways in the wind and its petals fall…a frighteningly beautiful image of sakura.
YY: It's clear that you vividly remember the sublime imagery of sakura. Did it somehow inform your own gravitation to sakura in your image-making?
MN: That imagery is likely one of the reasons why I continue to relentlessly photograph sakura.YY: In Japanese history, culture and art, sakura is richly symbolic.
MN: There is a legend in Japan that corpses are buried under the sakura trees. It comes from the opening line of the short story 'Under the Cherry Trees' by the modernist Motojirō Kajii. Sakura is a flower with mysterious appeal and one is convinced that there should be a reason why they can bloom such frighteningly beautiful flowers.
YY: What meaning does it hold for you?
MN: I photograph sakura every year, and each year, what I capture is surprisingly different, which is one of its distinctive features. For me, photographing sakura is akin to the act of digging out my insides. By photographing the same motif over and over again, I feel that I'm getting closer to my inner self. When spring comes, I have to bear the suspense of wondering when sakura will bloom. During the sakura season, I run around photographing it.
YY: How is this year's sakura?
MN: I’ve just come back from photographing it. Sakura in Japan is in full bloom right now and I'm shooting it from early morning until evening. I can only imagine that I'm possessed by something. [Laughs] During this time, it feels as if I'm photographing until I collapse. I'm struggling to express in words the sense of unity or the enjoyable sensation of 'I feel good' that can only be experienced when photographing sakura.