Letter from Tokyo #3: Back to normal?

I’m always interested in observing how Japan is represented abroad, but the last month hasn’t had anything to do with representation: it’s more like taking stock, just trying to process what’s happened. The Fukushima crisis is still unresolved, but it’s my feeling that the destruction in Tohoku is the real story. I really can’t imagine what it’s like to wake up one morning, go about your day, and by the evening have your entire town washed away. I’ve been thinking about the number of people currently displaced – it seems to be at least 250,000 – and the impact this will have on the course of not just their own lives, but the lives of people who they’ve met in their temporary locations which could become permanent.

So far most of the photographs to come out of Tohoku are, naturally, taken by photojournalists. I’m keeping track of links to earthquake-related photos, which I’ll update as new work comes through. It’s probably not yet the time for representation, though photographers with few professional obligations to “inform” their audience are also in the region. It may take longer to produce a body of work which represents, say, one effect of this massive displacement, but I’m sure that we’ll see it. The ROLLS TOHOKU project is one of the most interesting things to come out yet. A photographer gave disposable cameras to some regular people (including children) in areas badly affected by the tsunami. Someone also told me that Ishikawa Naoki, a young photographer who’s published some well-regarded books, is already shooting up there. I hope it’s not just a rumor.

As for Tokyo, on the face of it things have more or less returned to normal, though there are small clues that they aren’t quite the same: unilluminated McDonald’s signs, cordoned-off subway escalators, signs posted at stores informing you of a limit on water purchases. Not to mention the incredibly frequent aftershocks. A Japanese friend here said, “I think all we can do now is continue to live as usual.” This could be read in a negative light, but I think making an effort to “live as usual,” whatever that may mean, is one of the more optimistic things we can do here. With that in mind, I want to turn to an excellent photography book which came out a few months ago,
©Seiji Shibuya

“Dance” is published by Akaaka-sha, which has been one of the most exciting photography publishers in Japan for new work. Almost one year before “Dance,” Akaaka published Aya Fujioka’s “I Don’t Sleep,” which has already had the LPV treatment. “Dance” and “I Don’t Sleep” are similar only in that they share a quality which I call “akaakaesque,” a term loosely defined as a book that’s in color, printed with rich tones, and above all, has no concept or function other than expressing the photographer’s aesthetic point of view. 2010 was actually something of a down year for Akaaka, but “Dance” really stood out.


©Seiji Shibuya

What really draws me to “Dance” is the way that it takes the concept of lightness as a legitimate starting point for a work of photography. The Japanese photography scene has not been blighted by the self-flagellation I sometimes feel in American or European artist statements, but at the same time it’s rare to find a photographer who is willing to mount a proper defense for the place of humor in photography. In a sometimes poetical statement that accompanied the exhibit for “Dance” at Akaaka’s gallery, Shibuya writes: “There’s a difference between the world seen by the eye and the world seen by photographs. Here I feel humor, and hope… like a new bud sprouting, or seagulls flying overhead, let your cheeks be filled with smiles.” As Kool Keith once said, “people don’t always do this,” but it’s exciting to see humor taken seriously! A weighty statement could have easily ruined these photographs.


©Seiji Shibuya

“Dance” was put together from all of Shibuya’s photographs, including ones he said he’d forgotten. He told me it took roughly one year to edit, and the sequencing of the book is one of its strong points. Many of the photos in this book are very elemental, and there are a few different passages which riff on the same subject, like fire, or flowers. Himeno-san, Akaaka’s editor, used a similar technique in “I Don’t Sleep,” but in that book it was used to convey emotional tension. Here, it’s more like prolonging something pleasurable. Hedonism and photography go hand in hand, but I think this is a unique way to represent it. This short video shows a little over half of the book, including two of these passages:

Aside from this editing technique, Shibuya’s work also stands out for some individual snapshots which are really well done. At times the photos are a little bit vague, but they are balanced out by other photos with exceptionally strong composition. The photo of a woman sitting on a bench, together with cherry blossoms and an ad for chocolate particularly struck me.


©Seiji Shibuya


©Seiji Shibuya

Shibuya is not trying to say anything too obviously “important” with “Dance,” but there’s a place for that even in light of what’s happening in the rest of Japan. His work has a clear direction, and he’s brought this concept in line with his photos without forcing anything. This unburdened approach to photography strikes me as a breath of fresh air, and it’s certainly not a bad time for that now.

“Dance” is available at the Japan Exposures bookstore.


©Seiji Shibuya

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1004408904 Raik Ilves

    Great post that have good links to good Japan photography, but many links are wrongly forwarded. But it’s just a inconvenience.

    Best wishes