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  • Sudo Ayano’s Portrait Photography: Artificially Modified Beauties and the Uncanny
  • Nava Astrachan (bio)

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Sudo Ayano, Untitled, 2011. Inkjet print.

© Sudo Ayano. Courtesy of MEM, Tokyo.

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Sudo Ayano’s (b. Osaka, 1986) photographed portraits, which frequently feature non-organic, synthetic bodies, provoke a sense of confusion, sometimes followed by emotional uneasiness. This essay draws on psychological models of animism, such as Ernst Jentsch’s notion of the uncanny (Das Unheimliche in the German original), and what the roboticist Mori Masahiro termed “the uncanny valley effect,” in order to discuss the concept of transgressive and intensified beauty that is expressed in the extremely artificial, doll-like appearance of Sudo’s self-portraits (fig. 11.1) and explore the way in which the idea of physical perfection is constructed in the uncanny eeriness of her images. Written reviews of this emerging artist, which are as-yet limited in number, have mainly examined Sudo’s work in relation to fashion, hedonism, pop culture, and contemporary style trends of youths in Japan. Several sources have pointed to the racial and gender blending aspects of Sudo’s photographs, while still framing those topics within the realm of Japanese tradition.1 Nevertheless, an analysis limited to Japanese pop aesthetics alone is surprisingly insufficient in more fully comprehending the artist’s specific interpretation and usage of shōjo-manga imagery.2 By recontextualizing Sudo’s artistic strategy through the conceptual constellations described above, the creepy, yet captivating aspects of her photographs, as well as her social and visual perception of kawaii aesthetics as uncanny, can be brought together to better highlight the unexpected critical potential of her work.3

The term uncanny, which Sigmund Freud considered a predominantly aesthetic phenomenon, has become fundamental to elucidating the strange, unsettling impressions created by (often familiar) objects. According to Freud, the uncanny is an experience that aggravates feelings of unease, in which something can appear both familiar and unfamiliar, and the distinction between the imagined and the real is effaced. Extensive theoretical work on the subject of the uncanny has also been undertaken within the [End Page 141] context of Japanese contemporary art. Particularly worth mentioning, in respect to the argument employed in this study, is the relevance of Freud’s uncanny in relation to Sianne Ngai’s and Marilyn Ivy’s review of the kawaii motif in the art of Murakami Takashi and Nara Yoshitomo; two leading artists whose work exemplify the intimate yet unexpected bond between the “adorable” and the “intimidating.”4 This essay, however, aims to accentuate Jentsch’s, (rather than Freud’s) reading of the uncanny experience as “intellectual uncertainty,” and its distinct importance to the media of photography, especially to the photographed portrait. I argue that the concept of theatrical glamour or physical exquisiteness, as exhibited in Sudo’s photographs, is closely linked to Jentsch’s thoughts on the uncanny and to the more recent application of his theory to robots and humanoids, namely, Mori’s uncanny valley. This examination, I believe, is significant to understanding the digitally “beautified” image and to furthering new ideas in regard to digitally manipulated photography in general, and portrait photography in particular.

The initial section of this article therefore outlines the famous dispute between Jentsch and Freud on the significance of the state of “cognitive disorientation” regarding the literary figure of “the living doll” featured in The Sandman, a nineteenth-century story by E.T.A. Hoffmann.5 I then analyze the implications of this debate in relation to Sudo’s dazzling shōjo images. The second part of this essay focuses on Mori’s uncanny valley theory. Mori’s research in the field of robotics, which has attracted substantial global attention since the turn of the twenty-first century, is crucial to understanding of uncanny sensations as aroused by nuances and subtleties. The way in which viewers’ emotional responses to Sudo’s work rely upon such values like refinement, minor alterations, and hinted gestures will then be addressed.

In the third section of this article, I examine the question of artificial beauty to which Sudo’s art calls attention. This section of the essay tracks the...