Deities who descend to Earth in search of lazy children. Straw-clad figures on whom villagers toss water to ensure a prosperous growing season. Gods in demon masks going door to door to protect against disaster. These are some of the characters who inhabit Yokainoshima, a mythical island of Japanese spirits that exists in the imagination of photographer Charles Fréger.
While these beings from the spirit world—known collectively as yokai—are rooted in Japanese folklore and make appearances in communities across rural Japan at certain times of the year, Fréger isn't interested in creating straight, ethnographic representations. "I am not an anthropologist," he says. His inspiration comes from the visual aspects of these traditions—such as festival masks and costumes—which he then translates into something entirely new: a choreography of gesture and attitude presented against intentionally chosen landscapes.
For the past 16 years, Fréger's portrait work has been centered around activities or customs that bind communities together. It was through a previous project about winter harvest traditions in Europe that he learned of a connection with similar customs in northern Japan. His research led him to the Akita prefecture and his first yokai: Namahage, a deity who comes into people's houses right before the new year looking to cut the red spots off the knees of children who've spent too much time lazing about in front of the fire—and is then appeased by a glass of sake.
His visual appetite whetted, Fréger and his assistant researched further, uncovering more and more traditions to explore. In many instances, these customs are kept alive by families or clubs who gather to make the costumes each year. Many of them center around temples, Fréger says, where the costumes are carefully stored in elaborate boxes. It was here he made the majority of his first contacts with the performers.
The one challenge he faced was groups being restrictive about where they were willing to be photographed, or being unwilling to be photographed at all. But for the most part, his interest was seen in a positive light. In areas of Japan that are becoming depopulated, bringing attention to these festivals and customs are a way of keeping them alive and perhaps also generating outside interest.
Fréger grew up in a family of farmers and studied agriculture himself before going to art school. As such, he has a great appreciation for the universal themes acted out in these interactions between the human and spirit, or natural, worlds—successful harvest, fertility, life, and fear of death. What interests him most, however, is not what we all have in common but how each culture has its own unique way of dealing with these truths and being open to the sheer appreciation of what we may not understand. "It would be much too easy to say we are all the same."
Charles Fréger's book, Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters, will be released in June 2016. See more of Freger's work on his website.
Alexa Keefe is a senior photo editor for National Geographic.