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YAMAGUCHI Sayoko - Super model active in the 1970s-90s. The epitome of Japanese exotic beauty. 山口小夜子:史上最高の日本美人。

Sayoko 小夜子 (Photobook review)

by Philbert Ono

Reviewed on: 2000.1.11 Last modified: 2005-04-03

Published: 1984.9.24 Publisher: Bunka Shuppan ISBN: -- Price in Japan: ¥-- Qualities: Hard cover, color photos Size: A4, 127 pp. Language: Japanese

If you were old enough during the 1970s, it is likely that you have seen Sayoko's incredibly exotic, Japanese face gracing a cosmetics ad (namely, for Shiseido). With her trademark white-powder make-up and straight black hair, she was the epitome of the exotic Oriental beauty whom all Westerners dreamed of seeing while traveling in the Orient.

Pretty faces are a dime a dozen, and you can't usually tell them apart nor remember them. But not with Sayoko. Her face is (or was) worth a million bucks (probably much more). It's one that you remember even after a first-time glance. It's like a hit song. You listen to the melody for the first time and it lingers in your head. You remember it, unlike other songs which may sound good but have no such "hook."

Sayoko's made-up face has that compelling quality that immediately grabs your visual senses and makes your brain remember. It is captivating and certainly more exotic than any top-class geisha in Kyoto. Her face is covered with white, accented by red lips and small, Buddha-like eyes. She never smiles for the camera, and all the while she exudes a very exotic and ultra-Japanese mystique.

The way she poses, the way she looks, and her facial expressions are all part of her mystical qualities. She looks like what we would imagine to be a Japanese goddess. Of course, she's actually just an ordinary human being like the rest of us, but her ability to project herself in that way and create a striking aesthetic image is just fantastic. It's beyond just larger-than-life, it's in the realm of the divine.

She certainly puts you in awe, as a goddess would. If this were ancient Japan, a Shinto shrine would be built for her. I don't think any other fashion model, Japanese or foreign, can even come close to the aesthetic beauty she achieved and the visual impact she gave. She puts Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, etc., all to shame in comparison. She is the ultimate Japanese beauty conveying the ultimate Japanese mystique (the mystique is probably more important than the beauty). She's simply in a class all by herself.

Sayoko was born in 1952 and grew up in Yokohama. After high school, she attended a dress-making school and aspired to become a fashion designer. At the school, she was required to serve as a dressmaking model. At first, becoming a professional model was far from her mind which was preoccupied with meeting deadlines for many homework assignments.

Eventually, she was inspired to turn professional while admiring two super models (one black, and one Japanese who shaved her head bald) of the day. She wanted to show Japanese beauty to the world, but had no confidence at first. She once even seriously considered quitting modeling because she knew that it was impossible to look like a foreigner (she didn't want to dye her hair blond, etc.). She had her mom cut her hair in the okappa short bob style. It was the traditional haircut for little Japanese girls. It's the hairstyle that looks like someone covered her head with a bowl and just cut the hair along the edge of bowl. Straight bangs are cut straight across the forehead, and the rest of her hair is cut straight all around her head. Then one day, designer Kansai Yamamoto held an audition for models. While wearing her short-bob hairstyle, she tried out for the audition and passed, to her amazement. She had decided that if she didn't pass the audition, she would quit modeling altogether. I guess the world has to thank Kansai Yamamoto for discovering one of the most memorable super models of all time.

She has subsequently worn this short-bob hairstyle ever since, even throughout her modeling career. It has become one of her trademarks. And it makes her look ever more Japanese. You can see it when she is not wearing a wig or wiglet. She considers her bangs a part of her face, so she never combs it back or upward.

Of course, one thing leads to another and Shiseido soon hired her on a contract basis to model their cosmetics. She also made regular appearances at the Paris and New York fashion shows from 1972, as well as in magazine layouts. People in Europe considered her to be the definition of Oriental beauty. If anybody made up a list of the 100 most-Japanese people of the 20th century, she certainly would be among the top ten.

As of the mid-1990s, she was involved in various activities such as dance performances and designing kimono, handkerchiefs, bags, and eyeglasses. I remember seeing on her on TV once in a dance performance with singer Kenji Sawada. It gave me goose bumps (or chicken skin). At the end of the performance, she and Sawada appeared to be kissing (hidden behind a handheld paper fan on which the shadows of their faces were projected). Today, she is approaching 50, but she still looks beautiful and fashionable. In Dec. 1999, she appeared on Tetsuko Kuroyanagi's TV interview program, and she still looked astonishingly young. She talked about how one time she was about to be physically attacked by a hotel staff in her Paris hotel room, but she knew karate and threw him out the door. This incident became famous and her model friends called her "The Karate Girl." Even the Vogue magazine photographer wanted her to strike a karate pose.

About this photo book, in a word, it's mind-blowing. The photographs are absolutely works of art. The incredible costumes and kimono she wears, the make-up (courtesy of Shiseido of course), and the overall theme and visual elements are so profound. No doubt it was a high-budget shoot with the elaborate wardrobe and background sets. I think when (or maybe before or after) this book came out, the photographer had a photo exhibition in Ginza of Sayoko and I was fortunate enough to see the actual photographs. Just terrific.

Most of the photos were shot in the photo studio. Later on, you see her in an ornate Japanese-style room (probably Meguro Gajoen, a private art museum) with hand-painted walls, tatami mats, and other trimmings (usually gold or black). She also poses with a sidekick woman and a man (singer Ryudo Uzaki). She is usually in beautiful kimono, and shows some thigh and a bare shoulder a few times. So there is a touch of eroticism for good measure. The lighting, poses, and settings are just so exquisite. It's hard to tell whether she posed freely or whether the photographer posed her. It's likely that they both worked together. It was obviously a major collaboration.

The photographs are divided into five sections, each having its own theme. Each section has a title, but my Japanese is not good enough to understand what they mean. All I know is that they have something to do with things Japanese and nature. In the first photo in the first section, she is coming out of a giant egg. She is wearing this white, wrinkled paper kimono and covered with a spider web-like material. It looks like she's coming out of a cocoon. Later she's posed with black rocks. One photo in the third section shows her in the same wrinkled, white paper kimono with red threads spilled all over her as she sits next to a black rock. It looks like a lava eruption. A volcano goddess (like Pele in Hawaii) perhaps? Later you see her hoisted on a giant kite with colorful Japanese designs. The visual impact is powerful, and when it isn't powerful, it's beautiful.

At the end of the book, there is a long postscript written by her (in Japanese only). It gives interesting insights into her nature. She talks about her childhood influences, how she became a model, and a bit of her own philosophy. It's interesting. It proves that she really is human, and not a goddess who came from the world of the divine.

She says that she was an only child who was very shy and quiet. She liked Shinto festivals and especially Shnto sacred dances. She also loved dolls (including Barbie) and played with them by herself until junior high. She dressed and talked to them like a mother. As a child, she greatly admired items of fashion, and at times tried to mimick the models she idolized in magazines or movies. She often failed to achieve the effect she wanted. All these little things had an influence on her destiny as an ultra-Japanese, super model.

She also describes the fascinating routine of modeling for the Paris collection. Rehearsals are held in Japan, but not in Paris, she says. In fashion modeling, the three most important things are "feeling" (kimochi), "style" (katachi), and "movement" (ugoki). All these elements have to come together during the 2 min. and 30 sec. it takes for the round-trip catwalk on the fashion show runway.

She has been photographed as both a fashion model and a model for artistic expression. It's definitely the latter when she shines through better. I truly envy the photographers who had the opportunity to photograph her. She must have been a wondrous subject to capture. (Reviewed by Philbert Ono)

  • Sayoko died of acute pneumonia on Aug. 14, 2007. She was 57.
  • Sayoko Yamaguchi exhibition was held at MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART TOKYO in 2015.

About the photographer: YOKOSUKA Noriaki 横須賀 功光 was born in 1937 in Yokohama, Kanagawa Pref. Graduated Nihon Univ. in 1960 majoring in photography. Turned freelance photographer upon graduation. Did work for Shiseido Co. His Shiseido ads won him awards. Also photographed celebrities for Shukan Josei magazine for women.