“We can only love ourselves through others’ eyes” according to an increasingly obsessed young woman desperately trying to “fix” her image of herself through retouching her photo. An inverted take on Woman of the Dunes, Woman of the Photographs (写真の女, Shashin no Onna) sees the world of a bug-obsessed photographer with a talent for “improving” on reality disturbed by the arrival of a mysterious dancer who falls from a tree in the forest into his previously ordered existence.
Kai (Hideki Nagai), a middle-aged man dressed in an old fashioned white suit, operates a small photo studio taking official photos for things like funerals and omiai arranged marriages. As we later find out from his only regular human contact, the funeral director from across the road (Toshiaki Inomata), Kai’s mother died in childbirth and his father opened this shop to support his son. Kai has taken over but has an intense fear of women and lives alone save for his pet praying mantis with whom he regularly eats his preferred dinner of microwave pizza.
It’s on a regular bug hunting trip that Kai is struck by the beautiful figure of Kyoko (Itsuki Otaki) tumbling out of a nearby tree and causing herself manageable if painful injuries including a nasty gash along her collarbone. Not wanting to go to a hospital, Kyoko gets Kai to take her to a pharmacy and patches herself up, later accompanying him home where he takes some photos of her to post on her Instagram, retouching them to get rid of the traces of wounds. Despite Kai’s silence, she manages to convince him to have dinner with her in a nearby restaurant and later to allow her to stay the night, after which she becomes a more permanent fixture in his life.
A former dancer now Instagram star, Kyoko originally thinks nothing of getting Kai to clean up her photos to rid them of unsightliness, but is mildly disturbed to watch him do it. In a reverse Dorian Gray effect, Kai must scar the image to repair it, scrubbing away traces of unwanted “reality” in an act which seems to contradict the true nature of photography. “A good lie can make people happy” according to the funeral director who regularly uses Kai’s services to create suitably solemn photos of the suddenly deceased, but Kyoko isn’t so sure. Ever since she asked Kai to soften her reality, her followers have begun to desert her and she’s losing her lucrative sponsorship deals. The apologetic lady from the agency points out that she’s diverging from the “image” her fans expect from her and if she wants to keep them she’ll have to be the Kyoko they want her to be.
Kyoko doesn’t quite like that, she’d like to be more authentic. Hisako (Toki Koinuma), meanwhile, an unexpected regular to the studio, is of the opposite opinion. In her view, retouching the photo allows her to be more herself, reflect her true essence through manipulating her image. Asking if she hasn’t got things the wrong way round, Kyoko wonders if the men she’s sending them to will be confused or disappointed that the photo and the reality don’t match but Hisako counters her that a man falling in love with her idealised self would only bring her closer to it. The self reflected in the eyes of others is the true self and only through others’ eyes can you find self love, according to Hisakao. Ironically, Kyoko has been looking for something similar through her Instagram success, but begins to resent the extent to which it is changing her, encouraging her to hide the parts of herself others might find ugly in order to gain acceptance.
Deciding not to retouch the photos, however, has the opposite effect. Her fans love her again, bowled over by her authenticity, but at the same time perhaps she’s engaging in a strange kind of self-exploitation. Her wounds will, after all heal. Could she be tempted into a life of continued self-harm just for likes? Kyoko begins to lose her sense of self, as if she doesn’t quite exist online or off, caught between the “real” and the “ideal”.
Kai, meanwhile, remains silent but also captivated by the conflicted Kyoko. His life has been one of isolation, afraid of female touch and contented only among his insects. Yet like Kyoko he’s learning that scars can be beautiful because wounds are a sign of life. Waking up to connection and desire, he learns a different lesson from the lifecycle of the praying mantis realising that the male’s greatest pleasure lies in surrendering its body so the female can continue in life and creation. He no longer fears being devoured, but honours the true connection of mutual exchange. Inverting the conclusions of Woman of the Dunes, Kai finds himself liberated not by a sense of simplicity in life but by its complication, accepting all the richness it has to offer in joy and pain, engaging in his own strange mating dance as a man with a camera capturing his subject in all of her essential beauty.
Original trailer (English subtitles)