One of the main reasons we went to Japan was to take engagement and wedding photos with Saori's family. It was something that she really wanted to do, it meant a lot to her family, and I was just sad that we couldn't get her grandmother involved because of her health.
Saori and her mom had to make reservations at the photo studio about a month before, and we cleared our schedules in Japan around the event. The night before, Saori and her mom went through cubbords pulling out carefully wrapped family kimonos to pick the kimono for the engagement photos. It was really interesting to see the beautiful and ornate patterns, which are actually very unusual and uncommon.
The next day, the entire family trooped in, minus Saori's sister Ayumi. Her dad Shigeru-san, her mom Yoshiko-san, and her brother Kazuma. Only her brother came in already dressed, looking really good in a very nice suit. It also helps that Kazuma has a scarecrow physique- a hair taller than me with long thin arms and legs.
The staff at the studio seated us in the waiting lobby which was full of kimonos, hibiyas (men's traditional formal dress), poofy princessy dresses for little girls, and a bunch of different styles of suits. They handed Shigeru-san and I a slim catalog like a menu and asked us how we would like to be dressed. I picked out the most austere and traditional hibiya for the wedding photo, and the most conservative traditional european suit for the engagement photos.
They pulled Saori and her mom out almost immediately to the dressing rooms to start getting them ready since they take the longest. This is not Olan Mills- they had very specific staff for each part. In addition to the photographer, there were assistants who dress you, who do your hair, and who put on your makeup (although none for me, and I just dragged a comb across my head).
The men hung out in the waiting room, watching a big group of little girls prance around in thier dresses, chatted a bit, and looked at the other kimonos and hibiyas. It was a lot of just hanging around. Finally I was called to the to back and they started the process of dressing me in a hibiya.
On my own I put on a special undergarment like a loose pair of long underwear, except with a giant scoop front, and I figured out how to put on the tabi booties that you wear with the geta sandals. My dresser came in and got to work padding me up. Traditional Japanese clothing is a lot like origami, or giftwrapping: it's not about what the gift is or how it looks as much as giving it a special packaging to highlight it's value. The material is very stiff, with lots of folds and layers, and apparently, it's better to have a big build especially in the chest. So they gave me a padded vest and shoulder pads, and then wrapped me around the midsection tightly with something like an ace bandage to hold everything in place, and tighten the stomach.
Yoshiko-san was being prepped in the dressing room beside mine, and she occationally yelled through the curtains the translation of whatever the dressing assistant was asking me to do. I didn't recognize her at first, actually, the tranformation was so surprising since I rarely have seen Saori's mom in a lot of makeup or that kind of formal attire.
Then came a robe kind of shirt thing, and then I stepped into a very wide pair of pants which was almost more like an apron or a skirt, and then they tied another belt over the inside belt, before helping me put on the black over jacket-outer robe thing. This one, like the others in the studio, had a seal of two crossed feathers on it, which was, I guess a pretty generic "family crest" which is what is traditionally supposed to be there. (Dew was wearing the same thing I was, except his was from Yoshimi's family because it had her crest on it). The jacket was connected with a white cord and a big white poof like a bunny tail. They handed me a closed fan, and then I stepped into the sandals, and I was ready to rock and roll. Or just roll since I felt really constrained wearing the garment. I robot shuffled back to the waiting area where Shigeru-san was already waiting wearing his. He looked really good in a hibiya.
I felt really self-conscious in mine. Looking in the mirror, I had impish and perverse thoughts about asking for a set of swords to stick in the belt, or a traditional samurai hairpeice. It was a serious thing we came to do and I wanted to look appropriate and dignified, which is a challenge when you are not accustomed to the attire. It's a bit like the difference between the mindset of wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat to a western theme college party as an ironic costume and wearing them seriously to a country wedding, rodeo, or funeral.
Anyway, we were finally all called together and I finally saw Saori fully dressed and coifed. She looked exquisite. She was wearing a really elaborate all white kimono, much more elaborate and more layered then what I was wearing. The fabric and peices on her kimono were so structural and thickly folded that it seemed almost like she was wearing a really elegant space suit.
They ushred us into one of the two studios, a fairly large room, where we spent probably the better part of an hour taking various photos in different postures, with the family, without, with different backdrops and lighting, leaves dangled in front of the camera, etc.
The photographer positioned us like manaquins, with our hands at particular places and doing particular things. I mostly just gripped the fan I had been given. A fist clutching a fan is apparently the way to do it. We looked at him, we looked at each other, the family looked at us, I looked at a particular spot on the wall. The photographer spoke some english and he told us to lean one way, to lean the other, to tilt my head down so the glasses didn't catch the glare. We stood, we sat, we kneeled, we even bowed. We started each series with serious faces, or very quiet smiles, and then he asked us to smile more, more, more, laugh! As he clicked away.
After the first round, we went to change for the second round. Shigeru-san and Yoshiko-san had to stay dressed, although Yoshiko-san sat down for awhile. She didn't say anything (in English at least) about how tight or uncomfortable her kimono was, but I noticed she said much less.
For the second series of photos, I was changed out of the hibiya (breath of air!) I put on a black suit which came with a vest, and a short black tie as wide as a hand span. Shiny black shoes which were too big. The first pants I tried on were too tight (seriously grabbing my big thighs), so to stay more formal, I swapped them for a larger pair. Looking in the mirror, I was reminded of a meji-era banker, althouh the suit felt more "natural" than the hibiya.
Saori wore a blue and orange kimono which was the most beautiful one I have ever seen. Even for a gringo, the quality and beauty of that dress was apparent, and made all the other kimonos hanging up on the racks in the wating area look like cheap rental crap. Saori's grandmother, the one whom we had wanted to see, gave that kimono to her daughter, Saori's mother to wear when she was 20, and she wore it again for her engagement photos. So it was wonderful that Saori could wear it as well.
In the second studio, we shot a new series of photos with different backgrounds, in different arragnements and poses, some cheesier than others. One of the last ones we did, we used a bunch of paper cut out props, which were a bit much but were actually kind of funny at the end. The photographer went really quick although he did ask us if we wanted partiucular poses and I suggested a few things, too.
The studio offered a series of pacakges, but the one we ultimately went with was the "deluge" option- We get all the photos they shot, unedited, uncropped, on a USB drive. It was very expensive, but Saori's parents surprised us with an incredibly generous gift to help. The photos meant a lot to them as well.
At the end, I am really glad we did it. Going through grandma Case's old photos, especially the really old photos stretching three or four generations back, I could not help but notice that many of them were studio portraits, carefully printed on quality card stock. They are the images they wanted to be kept, the visions of themselves they wanted to present to the future.