THE PICTURE OF DEATH

Koike Eiko met her stylish end in an empty pachinko parlor. Clad in a low-cut turquoise Versace dress, the buxom Japanese model lay on the floor amid clusters of pachinko balls, her immaculately lined eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling. Did she slip on the balls? Succumb to a sudden heart attack? Izima Kaoru, the man behind her mysterious demise, isn't telling.

Since 1993, the 50-year-old former fashion photographer has been shooting celebrities and models in fantastical death scenes for his controversial series "Landscapes With a Corpse." (Exhibitions of the works, currently on display at F A Projects in London, are planned in New York and Munich for this fall.) The idea came to Kaoru while he was organizing shoots at Japanese fashion magazines, and looking for fresh material. "It occurred to me that death can happen to anybody; it is a part of life and it is always there," he says. "I thought the depiction of a murder or an accident would be a very powerful, provocative setting for a fashion shoot."

In fact, it was so provocative that no magazine in Japan would run the images. Undaunted, Kaoru started his own magazine, Zyappu, and published the photos himself. The art world took notice. Over the next decade he exhibited in galleries in Europe, the United States and Japan; last fall one of his "corpse" photos was the main image used in promoting the prestigious Paris Photo festival, held annually at the Louvre (where Kaoru has sold 23 prints from the series). These days, subjects are so keen to be immortalized in scenes of designer-draped fatality that there is a two-year waiting list to pose for Kaoru.

The photographs themselves are stunning, if unsettling. The florid settings, striking compositions and sensuously dressed damsels evoke John Everett Millais's 1852 painting "Ophelia" and the films of David Lynch, bits of pulp horror mingled with high fashion. In some images the gore is subtle--a demure trickle of blood from the corner of a model's mouth--while in others it is flamboyantly gruesome. Other times there is no trace of violence at all. Each "landscape" is rendered in a sequence of four images that begins with a long shot and ends in a close-up, further suggesting a cinematic influence: the juxtaposition of eroticism and horror is reminiscent of the thrillers and slasher movies prevalent in both Japanese and Western pop culture.

Kaoru downplays the cinematic quality of his images, as well as his role as a provocateur. As the project developed over the years, he came to believe that such "fantasy deaths" are a way of confronting mortality by presenting its lighter, glossier side. "What interests me now is the way in which one looks at one's own death... the perspective of what the scenery would look like to the person who has just died," he says. "Today most people die in the hospital, and this has distanced us from death. I believe that human beings should take death back to the day-to-day experience of life."

Kaoru has found greater acceptance as an artist in the West than in Japan. Although the series has been exhibited widely in galleries in Europe and the United Kingdom, only one solo exhibition has been held in Japan, back in 1999. "There is a deep-rooted suspicion in Japanese culture that makes people nervous about speculating on death," says Nicholas Baker, director of F A Projects. "Japanese people do not really discuss anything on death," concurs Kaoru. "I don't think they have a mind-set to take death positively."

For the beauties in Kaoru's photographs, however, such apprehensions are cast aside when it comes to acting out their Dior-drenched ruins. In fact, the models themselves collaborate with the artist on the setting and manner of their death, as well as the outfit. Koike Eiko, whose parents ran a pachinko parlor when she was a child, could think of no better place to spend her final moments. But what was her cause of death? "It isn't revealed," says Baker. "Izima has been moving away from overt depictions of violence." And moving toward a subtle understanding of one of life's greatest mysteries.