Mika Ninagawa’s Sugar and Spice came out in 2000 and was pretty popular: my copy is the 7th printing, from 2004, if that’s any indication. Strangely, though, the book doesn’t appear on Ninagawa’s website and despite my best efforts, I’ve been unable to find any reviews or any real discussion of it online anywhere, and only found a brief mention of it in a biography of Ninagawa at Nippon.com. Maybe this (admittedly bad) review will provide some exposure.
On second thought, maybe it’s not so strange after all: as of 2018, according to Artsy, “Ninagawa has published extensively, including nearly 100 photobooks…” and only lists 19 on her site. Anyway…
Now. Before I get to far into this, I’m not going to lie: I was rather disappointed by Sugar and Spice. The photographs are glossy and colorful and really lovely, and there’s a wonderful joy to them that I really appreciate, but it’s not at all what I expected.
I found Ninagawa after reading Jörg Colberg’s review of Yurie Nagashima’s Self-Portraits and going on a bit of a hunt for more work from the so-called “onnanoko shashinka” group/movement. There is something very punk in Nagashima’s biographic, almost diaristic work that I really appreciate, and I’ve long been Hiromix fan. The personal, on the ground, here’s-who-I-am-and-where-I’m-coming-from and I’m-telling-my-story aspect is inspiring to me and occupies a space in my photographic training and imagination similar to Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces work. If any of that exists in Sugar and Spice I don’t see it, and I’m not sure that Ninagawa fits into my narrow conception of the “onnanoko shashinka” generation.
Ninagawa gained recognition several years after Nagashima, and a couple after Hiromix, and while she (Ninagawa) may have started out in the same vein as the others, her work quickly became quite different. After winning a few awards, she began to travel, to see and experience things outside of her experience in Japan, and her photography sorta reflects this outward turn. In addition, the color copier she used for reproductions had a broken sensor or something that caused it to produce wildly saturated colors. It’s arguable which was more important, but Ninagawa’s color is famous, and her work after about 1998 is very different from Hiromix and Nagashima…
In fact, from what I understand, Ninagawa is something of a rockstar, setting attendance records at museums for a late 00s retrospective, and is far more popular and well known than Nagashima or Hiromix or any of her contemporaries. Even back in the late 1990s, Nagashima already had a commercial career, and for her third and fourth books collected some of this commercial work into Pink Rose Suite (listed on Ninagawa’s website), which shows her advertising work, and Sugar and Spice, which shows the fashion work.* From what I can tell, the advertising work shows her famous color to a greater and more obvious extent than the fashion work, though there is some fabulous color in Sugar and Spice too.
I didn’t really understand all of this when I first looked at Sugar and Spice, and I wasn’t too impressed as a result. Really, I wanted another Nagashima, another Hiromix. And Sugar and Spice, and Ninagawa in general, isn’t that at all. Maybe in her first book, but after that, not at all. In some sense, onnanoko shashinka is a 3rd wave feminist expression, and therefore might easily accommodate the Ninagawa’s glossy magazine aesthetic right alongside Hiromix’s diaristic snapshots, but then that sorta wipes out what was special about Nagashima, Hiromix, et.al. when they first appeared, and what is special about Ninagawa too.
Anyway… If I look at Sugar and Spice as a sort of retrospective-type book of fashion photography from late 1990s Japan, and in the light of what I’ve learned about Ninagawa’s career trajectory and all, it’s much better than I thought at first.
To be honest, again, in 2021, Sugar and Spice reads something like a style manual for Instagram Influencer pictures. I mean that in the best possible way. Ninagawa knew how to use her camera, and her models knew how to pose in ways that many of the Instagram stars of today could learn something from. And, to be honest, so could I, so could those who model for me.
But, really… if Ninagawa started today, in 2021, with these photographs… I’m not sure how far she’d get. Sure, the pictures are great: great color, excellent framing, near-perfect fore- and background-blur, pretty girls posing naturally and well, etc., but it’s not like such things are unusual or hard to come by now, and in 2021, with all our TikTok filters and whatnot, the pictures don’t quite have the zing that they had 20-25 years ago. I kinda like the book itself, the rounded corners, the sorta translucent title page, the glossy stock that somehow isn’t too reflective. But the rest of it just doesn’t interest me too much. Ninagawa is a great photographer, and I look forward to seeing some of her other work,** maybe watching some of her films (or her Netflix series), and I’ll probably keep Sugar and Spice on the shelves, but I doubt I’ll be pulling it out much.
Overall, Sugar and Spice rates a middling 3.33 stars in my book.
You can find copies of Sugar and Spice new and used at various sellers, and for not too much money. If you’re interested in brightly colored, late 1990s and early 00s Japanese fashion photography, you could do much worse, and if you want a printed book of Instagram Influencer girls before there was such a thing, well, here you go. But for Ninagawa’s classic work, maybe look at Liquid Dreams (goldfish) or Acid Bloom (flowers & bugs) or Everlasting Flowers (plastic flowers), all of which show the Ninagawa Color in all its glory (and only one of which I impulse-bought… so far).
* I took most all of the biographical data and publishing history from a biography at Nippon.com. Most of this sounds eerily similar to the Google Translate translation of Iizawa Kotaro’s “On’nanoko shashin” no jidai (The Era of “Girl Photography”), which I accidentally bought and immediately shoved in the take-to-Half-Price pile, until I started this review. I might end up translating the whole thing, but I hope not…
**I got on a Ninagawa kick in writing this review… I found a copy of Acid Blooms for a good price, and took this quote from a blurb at Vincent Borelli.