The Thousand Word Picture: Tsujikago on Hamilton Island

Filed in Cult Of Pop 2.0

Hamilton Island is one of my favorite Morning Musume photobooks, and this portrait of Tsuji and Kago is one of the images that has fascinated me from early on in my otaku-ness up to now. I’ve had it as the wallpaper for my PDA for… well, since I got it. I’ll sometimes change to other images when the mood suits me, but always return to this one.

What is it about this picture that makes it compelling? A bunch of things…

Welcome to Paradise. It’s the lanai of a hotel room, the sky washed out in white, in turn paling the rails and concrete wall. There is something distinctly tropical about this lighting, the girls are clearly on vacation in some sun-drenched paradise and are having a moment to themselves on the balcony. The best shots of Hamilton Island – there’s at least one other image from this book that I’ll be doing a thousand words on – are intensely voyeuristic but leavened by the casual languor of the subjects. One gets a sense of being privy to intimate moments – but that if you’re noticed by the subjects, they could care less if you’re watching. This is both thrilling and humbling, not a gaze of empowerment for the audience but the dread of possible dismissal by the idols we worship.

Before the mayhem. Tsuji and Kago were always Tsujikago, always the terrible twins, but the cartoon wackiness of their image hadn’t been codified when this photobook was made – the youthfulness of gen four is positively bracing, and a reminder even now of how much they’ve transformed in such a short amount of time. At the very height of their popularity with Minimoni and Momusu, Tsujikago the duo were expected to always be outlandish, crazy, silly – their moments of serious thoughtfulness became pointed exceptions to that rule. At this point in their career, though, there is still an ordinary girls-next-door vibe to these twelve-year-olds that is compelling for its rawness, for its sense of naivete and innocence – not just sexually, but also in how they present themselves as idols. (Though that’s two sides of the same coin, really.) They’re not gaming the idol business just yet, they still seem like two girls suddenly caught in the public eye and not quite aware of its implications yet.

Beyond that, the girls look so young and so different. The connection between the Kago and Tsuji of this picture and the young women of today seems tentative, one can easily imagine the girls in this picture growing up to look quite different. I think of Kago’s eyes at this age and how different they appear now (like most other fans, I’ve heard the rumors of surgery and don’t believe them)… As for Tsuji, she became a stunning beauty and it’s something we take for granted now, but to see the start of the transformation – to isolate this girl at this age, who is plain at best and a bit ugly at worst – makes one pause.

Symmetrical beauty, unspoken oppositions. Always playing off their role as de facto twins, consider how the two play off as mirror images of one another in their clothes. Notice the dark sleeve of Kago’s shirt sleeve against the dark shorts Tsuji is wearing, then the pink of Tsuji’s top and the deeper pink of Kago’s skirt. They aren’t just twins, then, there is a complementary aspect as well, a reflection of their personalities.

While Kago’s the more desirable of the girls, Tsuji’s attire is more suggestive: a tank top with her midriff peeking out, short shorts… and a belt that’s a vivid reminder we’re looking at a child, and that she’s wearing children’s clothes. If girls that looked like Kago and Tsuji here were to walk by me on the streets of Waikiki – and believe me, that happens often enough – would I pay attention? Perhaps to Kago, especially since she’s already developing her figure based on her posture. But Tsuji I’d likely ignore – except in this photo, in this situation, with this particular idol.

And that’s the magic of the business.

Judgments in camera. The camera is the center of the picture in many ways, not the girls. Or rather, the camera subtly but powerfully focuses and re-interprets how we see the girls, how we understand their relationship to each other – as well as their relationship to their audience.

First, consider the shape and implicit heft of the camera: there is something mildly outdated about a camera like that, recalling older technology because of the handle at the bottom. Nowadays we think of digital handicams which more easily fit in the palm of one’s hand, but Kago’s grip indicates something weightier – more sensual, as well as sexual, given the phallic nature of the handle. The thought of 8 mm’s shot in a hotel room lends itself to potentially seedy narratives as well, depending on the kind of associations you draw with home video. What seems like childish horseplay also has the makings of preteen seductive self-discovery, shot on film and reeling through the imagination of many a horny male out there.

Next, consider how the girls handle the camera. It isn’t just Kago trying to get a fix on Tsuji, it’s Tsuji holding the camera. Is she trying to wrest control so that she can turn the tables on Kago? Or is she just trying to assure the camera is focused on her and not anyone else? Notice that Tsuji is grinning while Kago seems too intent on staring through the viewfinder to quite smile: there is a responsibility behind the lens, and her hold on the camera seems assured despite Tsuji’s handling of it.

The struggle for camera control also clarifies a butch-femme complex to the girls. For a long time, it seemed to me that Kago had the best parts of both roles: she had the more traditionally beauty of a femme but also seemed to dominate their relationship in an aggressively butch manner; Tsuji was homelier but also seemed more compliant, though never subservient by any means. Kago was always the favored child of fourth gen, Tsuji the neglected one, the afterthought included for the favored child’s happiness. Kago is even taller than Tsuji, noticeably so in this portrait, her posture stiffer while Tsuji bends backward a little. And yet, this dynamic doesn’t seem completely conscious to them – even in this image, one gets the impression that they are so dependent on each other that the question of who’s in charge is something they let happen, not something they worry about and haggle over and manipulate. In that way, I think it’s a kind of true love.

Of course, the symbolism of the camera as a conduit for the idol relationship – between idol and worshiper, between fabricated teen dream and hopelessly devoted wota – plays a role as well. The camera is a means to transmit information, to objectify, to mediate between the flesh-and-blood reality and the ideal image peddled to fans. Kago taking this shot of Tsuji indicates a playfulness and complicity in the process: they enjoy becoming idols, they revel in the camera eye directed their way… but they aren’t just objects, they have their own subjectivity, their own control of the situation. They dictate how we the audience see them as much as we the audience dictate what we want to see about them.

So much is encapsulated in this image, and yet it’s ultimately just two girls playing with a camera while on vacation. An ordinary enough moment, but given a beautiful hard bite – no, make that a soft nuzzling – of ostranenie by the choice of subjects. I still find myself sometimes checking my PDA and pausing for several seconds over this image – it’s still impossible to resist daydreaming over.


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One Response to “The Thousand Word Picture: Tsujikago on Hamilton Island”
  1. Shay says:

    Yeah, you got me :P…with that super-8 camera. We all know what those are (in)famous for 😉 😉