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Maki Kawakita: The World Is Her Stage


people dancing
© Maki Kawakita


puppets
© Maki Kawakita


Asian woman
© Maki Kawakita


Asian woman
© Maki Kawakita


mannequins with parrot
© Maki Kawakita


Hillary Duff
© Maki Kawakita


Missy Elliott
© Maki Kawakita



The formality and pageantry of Japanese Kabuki theater...the streets of New York City...brightly colored pop cartoons. Each has a special place in photographer Maki Kawakita's world.

A native of Japan, Kawakita infuses her fashion and conceptual images with opulent colors and a stage presentation of the Kabuki. Her photo players dance across a film theater of imagery that's vivid and striking, accented with bold lighting, precise movements, and dramatic contrast. And just as the Kabuki actor must express feelings through dance and pose, so, too, must her models emote a client's campaign.

Kawakita calls New York City home, even though only 20 percent of her assignments are shot in a Tribeca studio. She also often shoots on location in New York City hotels, factories, and houses. She's circled the globe to complete campaigns for Levi's Red Line, Smirnoff, Coors Light, Hysteric Glamour clothing, and McGinn Knightsbridge, a popular fashion line in Korea.

With at least half her time spent on the road, she's quick to note that a cell phone with digicam and Blackberry 7100G are always close at hand; the Mamiya 645ADF II and Fujifilm Provia 100 are her photographic mainstays.

The lady prefers film. "Even though cutting-edge digital photography is becoming more popular, film still provides so much better quality, in my opinion," states Kawakita. "I create my art like a painter does using canvas. Instead of sketching out ideas and creating them on white space, I do it on the film, striving to capture as perfect an image in-camera as possible. But leaving a blemish or imperfection is O.K. Humans and life are not perfect, and that's the beauty.

"I shoot chrome, so most of the time I just spread out the images on a table instead of spending hours editing via computer," she adds. For a recent project with Gekkan, for which Kawakita produced an entire magazine's worth of images with celebrity Haruna Yabuki, she found comfort in old-fashioned editing via contact sheets. "Correcting manually permits me to spend time reviewing all the images at once, letting me develop my ideas. This demands a lot of time and space, but it helps me organize the input and better tell the story."

It's a Makirama World

When shooting, jetsetter Kawakita lets her surroundings influence each session. "I'm not good at categorizing my overall photographic style; I have my own trend—I like to feel various arts and cultures, letting them embrace me. This style is something I call MAKIRAMA."

MAKIRAMA is rooted in the Kabuki Theatre (p. 19, bottom), Japanese dance, tunes from the Koto and Shamisen, plus the precision and balance of Ikebana flower arrangement. It's influenced by Joruri, the traditional Japanese puppet drama. But, states Kawakita, MAKIRAMA is much more universal than just Asian. "My roots are definitely from a Japanese theatrical background, but growing up in a city like Tokyo, where you have no idea what and how many cultures are blending together, the influence is significant. Just living in New York has taken me to another level. MAKIRAMA is an autobiographical photographic journey. MAKIRAMA is the photographer photographing self in a fusion of cultures and styles."

Most of all, MAKIRAMA is a self-expression of everyday life through the filter of these universal cultural experiences, much like writing a diary.

Two variants of her MAKIRAMA work include MAKIRAMA-Tokyo Pop! and Futurama.

These images are time-consuming to produce and require heavy retouching, taking weeks to conceptualize, stage, shoot, and edit. While her sister, graphic artist Yuki Kawakita, creates lively, cartoonlike backdrops, Kawakita relies on Profoto lights and Fujifilm Provia to capture each component image—cleverly positioning the model with a mind for the final environment in which he/she will 'live.'

She also shoots props and elements like Bart Simpson dolls that will be dropped into a final print; sometimes Kawakita adds vibrant text. MAKIRAMA-Futurama, which has featured Western characters like Bart Simpson interacting with Eastern idols like Godzilla. Even globally recognized Starbucks storefronts have a place.

While developing her MAKIRAMA Confession series, Kawakita has worked with a group of "amazing creators" for hair, makeup, and styling. Her MAKIRAMA creative team includes Hiroyuki Nakamura, Masayo Kishi, Romero for M.A.C. Cosmetics, and Chinatsu Nobe.

Staying Spontaneous

"Be creative spontaneously" is her mantra, and it's apparent she followed her own advice when developing imagery for the Levi's Red Line campaign in Dazed and Confused magazine (2003).

Playing up an essential element of the label, Kawakita immediately put to work her denim-clad models, posing them as puppets controlled by red strings (p. 19). Her "actors" struck lively poses that embodied the energy Levi's wanted, while reinforcing the label's name.

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