The second week in January will forever be linked with the somber news that one year ago, legendary rocker and fashion icon, David Bowie, passed away at 69 following an 18-month battle with cancer.
A rare mix of substance and flash, hundreds of fans gathered in his birthplace of Brixton, South London, to pay tribute to the singer, laying flowers and candles at his mural and taking part in an impromptu singalong of hits like “Let’s Dance,” “Changes,” “Space Oddity,” “Starman,” “Modern Love,” “Heroes,” “Under Pressure,” “Rebel Rebel” and “Life on Mars” – while others remained silent and chose to honor the legend with visual homages of his colorful alter-ego, Ziggy Stardust.
While each passing year will surely dull grief’s ache, the anniversary also allows us to remember his unique spirit.
Specifically, David Bowie will forever be linked to Japanese culture and four specific luminaries who helped him achieve international acclaim through dress and music.
In January 1972, Bowie embarked on an 18-month tour to support his fifth and sixth studio albums, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane.
As Ziggy Stardust, Bowie had already started the conversation about gender conformity, queer influences, and the absence of machismo in an over-sexualized genre after being introduced to the work of Lindsay Kemp, a British performance and mime artist, who was heavily influenced by the traditional kabuki style and “onnagata” actors; men playing female roles.
“We were creating the 21st century in 1971,” Bowie told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross in 2002.
Japanese designer, Kansai Yamamoto, is widely credited with helping Bowie achieve his legendary aesthetics by introducing him to “hikinuki,” the method of changing costumes quickly in kabuki theater where one layer revealed another like a snake shedding its skin.
“I actually had no idea who David Bowie was until I saw him wearing my clothes onstage at Radio City Music Hall in New York City,” Yamamoto said. “Yasuko Hayashi, my stylist, was doing work for David Bowie and gave him some of my clothes. This was the first time I had ever met an artist who was wearing my designs. Before then, I didn’t know how immensely talented he was.”
As a youth, Yamamoto studied civil engineering and English at Nippon University and ultimately graduated from Bunka College of Fashion in 1967 – the same insinuation past and present who called the likes of Jun Takahashi, Yohji Yamamoto, NIGO and Junya Watanabe as esteemed alumni.
The most iconic Ziggy Stardust designs from Yamamoto include Space Samurai, a black, red and blue outfit adapting hakama aesthetics – a type of baggy and unstructured trouser that samurais wore – a knitted bodysuit referencing the yakuza, and a white cloak with red and black kaniji characters on it that spelled out “David Bowie” phonetically and loosely translated to, “One who spits out words in a fiery manner.”
“Some sort of chemical reaction took place: My clothes became part of David, his songs and his music,” Yamamoto said. “They became part of the message he delivered to the world.”
Although Bowie worked with other prominent designers who helped him achieve similar themes like Michael Fish, Freddie Burette and Natasha Korniloff, it was Yamamoto’s design that will be best remembered.
“He was someone who knew how to express himself both with music and with fashion,” Yamamoto told the BBC. “Someone like that may not be so rare these days, but he was one of the pioneers to do both.”
Bowie’s affinity for Kansai Yamamoto’s designs also introduced him to another prominent Japanese artist, Masayoshi Sukita, who would serve as his unofficial photographer for four decades and whose achievements included producing the rocker’s 1977 album cover for Heroes.
Sukita was born in 1938 in a small coal-mining town in the north region of Kyushu, Japan. His father was killed on the front line in China during World War II. As a boy, he became fascinated with Western culture after trips to the cinema where he was exposed to the theatrics of actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean.
Soon after, he received a Rolleiflex camera as a gift from his mother – birthing his legendary career – and picked up stylistic influences from legendary American photographer, Irving Penn.
Two years prior to Bowie’s transformation into Ziggy Stardust, Sukita was beginning a transformation of his own – segueing from advertorial print work to more passion projects involving the documentation of culture in both London and New York.
While in London to shoot T-Rex’s Marc Bolan, Sukita saw an image of Bowie for the first time and immediately knew he needed get him in front of his camera.
“I went to London to take photos of T-Rex and back then I didn’t know who David Bowie was,” Sukita remembered. “Then I saw a poster on the street and I became interested in the visual. I didn’t know that much about London back in ’72 when I met Bowie, or that he was a pretty iconic person already. I saw his concert in London. There was a double bill with Lou Reed and that was an amazing show. I was excited to see him on stage and instantly thought, ‘I want to shoot him.'”
Although Sukita would shoot thousands of photographs of Bowie, the Heroes album cover remained his favorite.
“Back in ’72 or ’73 when he was still the star of glam-rock in London he was wearing the makeup with the costumes, like really edgy costumes, but then when he took the Heroes photo, he wore a simple leather jacket and he wasn’t into fashion that much,” he said. “That’s another thing I love about him. He’s not specific about his fashion or anything; he can be natural. He started off in the glam-rock scene with some future space fantasy image but if everybody is into it he’s like, ‘Okay. Move onto the next.'”
In October 2015, Bowie described Sukita in a statement, saying, “This is a committed artist, a brilliant artist, I would call him a master.”
Tamasaburo Bando was born in 1950 as Sinichi Nirehara. After a bout of polio that left him sickly, thin and unable to walk until he was three years old, ultimately, he overcame the illness and found he had an affinity for dance; perhaps therapy of sorts after being so immobile in his formative years.
“All I wanted was to dance and be on stage,” he said. “I never thought about choosing; I just was.”
Bando was enamored with kabuki theater whose own gender-bending traditions stemmed from the banning of female participants in 1629 and the resulting formation of the aforementioned onnagata traditions in which male actors took on female roles.
One of the great 17th-Century masters, Ayame Yoshizawa, wrote of the transformation: “An onnagata should act like an onnagata even in the dressing room. . . . An actor who fails to live even his daily life like a woman will probably never be judged a successful onnagata.”
Bando taught David Bowie how to apply traditional kabuki makeup – with a stark, white base layer and bold accents over it. Many people believe this lay the groundwork for Bowie’s lighting bolt for the cover of Aladdin Sane.
Celia Philo, the graphic designer who worked with Bowie to conceptualize the cover, said of Bando, “It was like being in the room with an exotic animal.”
David Bowie was an avid reader, stating “when I’m relaxed what I do is read” and described a good week as one in which he pored through “three or four books.”
Amongst his favorite authors were Allan Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Stephen King, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd and Julian Barnes. He also mentioned later in life that it was reading Jack Kerouac’s On The Road at 15 that prompted him to want to leave his hometown.
When listing his 100 favorite books, Bowie mentioned the work of Japanese author, Yukio Mishima, who notably released The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea in 1963 and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature three times.
Mishima was a polarizing figure and served in stark contrast to traditional Japanese values.
In 1970, he spearheaded a coup on a Japanese military base and instructed the remaining soldiers to listen to a speech about their need to join him. By all accounts, the soldiers dismissed his words as the ramblings of a mad man. Ultimately, Mishima committed ritual suicide – using a dagger to disembowel himself and then ordering his followers to decapitate him – something referred to as “seppuku” in samurai culture.
“Rightwing politicians distanced themselves from Mishima after his suicide by saying it was the act of a madman, but in certain nationalist circles he is held up as a god,” said Henry Scott-Stokes, the author of a biography of Mishima. “He showed sincerity in a way that cannot be denied. He stuck a knife into the heart of today’s Japan.”
Like other British rockers of his generation, Bowie had gone to art school, where he took up painting.
In 1977, he created a portrait of Yukio Mishima which hung from the walls of his Berlin apartment. While he never went on record as to why he painted the portrait, one can only assume that his rebellious streak and unwillingness to conform to cultural norms was something that resonated with Bowie.
In 2013, Bowie referenced Mishima by name on the song “Heat” from The Next Day – citing the ominous image of a dead dog from the writer’s novel, Spring Snow.
- Featured/Main Image: Masayoshi Sukita