Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa by Mao Ishikawa, reviewed by Robert Dunn

One of the rarest, most interesting of photobook genres: I’m a talented young photographer, I’m doing wild, socially deviant stuff, throwing myself all the way into a crazy scene, and I’m taking my camera along.

You know the classics: Danny Lyons’ Bikeriders, Larry Clarke’s Tulsa, Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. (Hunter Thompson, of course, made a career of this in letters.) In the immortal words of Muddy Waters, these photographers lived the life they loved, and loved the life they lived.

Add to their joyful, complex ranks the Okinawan photographer Mao Ishikawa, celebrating again just that well-loved life of outlawdom and thrills in her latest book, Red Flower, based on her years from 1975 to ’77 as a bar girl in Okinawa, hanging with all the other girls servicing African-American sailors, loving the men, laughing and playing with their fellow bar girls, and rising and falling through the full parade of human emotions.

Mao worked in a black district in the entertainment district, which in an intriguing interview she explains this way: “Black soldiers and white soldiers wore the same uniforms and worked together, but once they changed into their civilian clothes and went out into town, there was trouble and endless fights. I have heard that that is why the entertainment districts for U.S. troops were segregated into white and black districts. However, I don’t really know if that is true.”

True or not, in Red Flower we see a lot of young Okinawan women making the scene, cavorting, diving deep into sexual escapades, even sharing children with African-American soldiers out of uniform. Some of the women working the clubs were Okinawan, but many, Mao tells us, were “women from mainland Japan who liked black music from when they were little, found a lover at a club that black soldiers frequented, followed them to Okinawa when they were deployed and lived there. They broke up with their boyfriends but would stay in Okinawa and work at a black bar. There were many such cases.”

How deeply was Mao involved? “I too worked at a bar, and lived with a black soldier that I met there and loved him.”

She wasn’t alone. Here’s how she explains her friends’ thinking (probably disgraceful back then, now wondrously liberated): “ ‘What’s wrong with loving black people? What’s wrong with working at a bar? What’s wrong with enjoying sex?’ they asked, and lived their lives freely and openly. Those women were very cool.”

There’s also something very cool about a photobook of full immersion in a fascinating world long gone. The key phrase above: “full immersion.” Mao was there, her friends were there, the soldiers were there, and they all were living it up and carrying on: sex, drugs, pleasure, freedom. Mao’s wholly uninhibited photos capture it all.

More history. Okinawa was annexed by Japan, and by force, in 1879; Okinawans still think of the country as occupied. As Mao puts it, “The history, the relations between Okinawans and the Japanese, the history of black people and their relations with white people; I think they are very similar. I think that sympathy is a big reason I liked black people more and more.”

That “liking” is manifest in Red Flower. Women drape themselves over the soldiers, make love to them on camera, hang with them wholly naked, even look through one guy’s Afro presumably checking for nits. There’s an abundance of laughter, huge smiles, joy. Liking? More like out and out love. It’s clear these women loved their men, no matter what other arrangements (business, companionship) were in play. That love, that joy, comes through throughout the book.

Red Flower is also a vivid reminder of that simple photobook fact: Put the right person in the right world at the right time, let her snap away without inhibition, and a powerful photobook can result.

On to the book itself. The black and white photos are touching and revealing, full of secret glimpses of lives as well as brazen displays. The book is brilliantly edited by Session Press publisher Miwa Susuda, and she’s ordered the book in a very telling way. We start with all the women on their own, their daily lives, proud and cheery. (Mao admits she found the bar girls more interesting than the men.) More than one woman sports her own primo Afro. There are also a number of bare breasts, often just one squeezed out from a jersey. One woman demurely shows off the arrow-pierced-heart tattoo on her left tit. What else do we see? The scatter of their lives: packs of Kool cigarettes. Hair curlers and lipstick, and of course a Bruce Lee poster on the wall.

Then on to the sailors. Lots of hugging, squeezing, sex. Beautiful young nude bodies, black men and Asian women. A big transistor radio, you can just hear Gamble and Huff tunes pulsing through the dingy rooms.

Three quarters through Red Flower the girls go on a beach trip, all the young dudettes disporting nude in waves and on sand. And finally, far more serious, family life. More than one sailor has had a child with one of the Okinawan women, and there they are, seemingly happy families … until the sailors are called home.

It is interesting how time works on photos like this. Fortysome years later, there’s of course no current news in Red Flower, though there is the discovery (once again, since an earlier version of this book came out in 1982) that such an unprecedented world existed. But as a look at a unique time and place, never to be repeated, and so thoroughly catalogued by Mao’s touching photos, Red Flower shimmers as a distant dream—of making the best out of a form of military occupation, of a true occurrence of a startling racial harmony, and of course the presence of so many original, powerful photographs. To my eye, a lot of the shots have a Rasta vibe, like snaps from Kingston when Bob Marley was just getting going. That kind of unique world.

The book, from Session Press, is beautiful in an edgy way. The size is grand (9.5 by 13 inches), and the silk screen cover powerful. Recent Daido Moriyama books have used silk-screen covers to great effect (imitating his groundbreaking 1970s “performance,” Printing Show, where he made Another Country—New York in a Xerox store, then covered it with a silk-screen cover), and Red Flower has a similar physical presence.

But it’s the sweet forbidden world inside the book that resonates most.

Back to Muddy Waters:

                        So if you see me and think I’m wrong

                        Don’t worry ’bout me, just let me go

                        My sweet life ain’t nothing but a thrill

                        I live the life I love and I love the life I live

That’s  Mao Ishikawa’s Red Flower: A photobook of living and loving, strong pictures of daring, bold certainty, ultimate heartbreak.

A photobook that is simply essential.

Red Flower: The Women of Okinawa by Mao Ishikawa can be purchased here.

Robert Dunn is a writer, photographer, and teacher. His novels include Meet the Annas and Stations of the Cross. His photobooks OWS, Angel Parade, and Meeting Robert Frank are in the permanent collection of the International Center of Photography (more info on Dunn’s own photobooks here). In Spring 2017, Dunn will teach a course called “Writing the Photobook” at New School University in New York City.