I watched some dancing, and it reminded me of Japanese calligraphy. When you write a character, some strokes need to flow into a wisp, and others be finished punctually, to contrast the ink and paper. The dancer's arms and legs flowed in arcs – but these movements sometimes came to abrupt and precise stops. She would lock, for just a moment, and then curve again in another direction.
In this, as well as the music, there was a combination of absolute control and improvisatory playfulness. Everything was meticulous: when she walked, her white socked feet (the big toe separate from the other toes, like a cloven hoof) slid across the surface of the stage, and on each step, she twitched her toes upwards ever so slightly – but again, precisely and decisively – as if they had come into contact with something sharp.
An old woman eats onigiri, a ubiquitous Japanese rice ball wrapped in seaweed. She holds it in both hands and bites downwards, her body centred on it. It is probably lunchtime in a park in Tokyo, and she has been working all morning. A curtain billows. A child holding his mother’s hand glances backwards at the camera. These fragments of everyday life are captured in Issei Suda’s black and white photographs taken from the early sixties to the present day, which are currently on display in Tokyo’s Metropolitan Museum of Photography.
The exhibition title, nagi no hira (‘Fragments of Calm’), is the name of Suda’s most recent collection, but applies in theme to all the images on show – be they street scenes, portraits, or nocturnal shots of carp in a pond. Curator Harumi Niwa likens the atmosphere of Suda’s images to the feeling in the air when a breeze momentarily stills and exposes us to a fragment of calm, before resuming its movement.
Combining diverse ethnological and subjective viewpoints, Suda’s work does not cater for Western stereotypes of Japan with stereotypical imageries of eroticism or Zen, and escapes any one school or style. Contemporaneous with Suda’s early career, a group of known as the Provoke Movement were producing photographs characterised by their grainy, blurred and out of focus quality, known as are bure boke. They photographed in pursuit of atmosphere and energy, their style at variance with that of a second group, known as Kompora. A composite created from ‘contemporary’ and ‘photography,’ Kompora aimed to produce a new, coolly objective and precise form to document everyday life.
Though belonging to neither, in intentions and aesthetics, Suda sits between Provoke and Kompora. Subtle distortions such as over-exposure combine with precise focus in his work. Windows simultaneously provide aperture framing and slide reflections into ambiguous space. A sense of intrigue underlies everyday scenes. In the photograph taken at night with a flash, the swimming carp appears like a zeppelin, and the pond around it, a starry night sky. Elsewhere, Suda photographs the tangled halo of a stranger as if capturing a solar eclipse. One of the most surprising photographs in the exhibition is of a little owl. It beams up at the camera, framed in a grid of light produced by a garden fence. The grid is like a photographic test strip; the owl and fence, examples of unforeseen moments in the everyday; and the overall image, a précis for Suda’s practice, working in the still of the breeze.
'However long I lived there, the city would always define me as a stranger, I could have found in no way home in it.
If, here and there, you find, in a bare, matted room or the plain arc of a common dish in a hardware store, a relic or memory of the severe beauty of the past, these things already, to some degree, have lost their tranquillity. When the beautiful willow-trees in the streets die, they are replaced by trees made of plastic that will never droop in the poisoned air.
Time remains in perpetual suspension. The actual moment, ‘now,’ exerts absolute dominance. Yet this external now implies a magnificent stasis for it denies either past or future have functions which shape life. All is as it always has been and always will be, the architecture was designed to cheat the gods of the earthquake and no catastrophe has yet been absolute.
I close my eyes and the city vanishes. I open them and there it is again, clicking and whizzing and flashing away like a kinetic sculpture. The city suffers from an acute lack of continuity.
The city is already dissolving, memory and imagination fuse; I am no longer certain with what nostalgic colours I have not tinted this magic and inconsolable city, which is most real to me when I remember it'.
Waiting in the estate agent’s office to sign for my flat, I observe its twelve or so workers typing, making photocopies and phone calls. It is mid morning and, when the workers simultaneously stop their tasks and file past me out of the room, I assume they are taking a coffee break. But a minute later they return, each carrying a different instrument for cleaning. One has a feather duster, and flicks it most industriously at the hanging lamps, while another runs a clothes brush over the office chairs. This frenzy of cleaning continues for a few minutes and then all the workers file past me again, put away their instruments and return to their desks. Standing momentarily, they chant something short, all together — and then return to their seats, photocopies and phone calls.
Twenty-five silver gelatin prints of equal size line the walls of MEM, a small gallery above an art bookshop in Ebisu, Tokyo. Each photograph is a discreet narrative and portrayal of character, mainly focusing on children, and all taken by Japanese photographer Shigeo Gocho.
It is thirty years since Gocho died at the age of 36, after suffering from spinal problems that caused him to remain the height of a child. This physical impairment impacted his photographic style: his pictures are taken at child height, and sympathetically capture children at play and in moments of everyday life. The children are able to return Gocho’s gaze at eye level, and the images therefore display an entirely different set of power relations to those present in the work of Diane Arbus — where the camera seems to loom down on children from an elevated externality.
Some of Gocho’s photographs are in soft close-up, employing a shallow depth of focus to create an intimate space of encounter. Other pictures appear more like film stills, using a tableau format that frames children in a location, and in medias res. Two young boys stand in front of a tractor wheel, which is taller than both their point of view and our own – again resulting in a sense of intimacy and mutuality.
In one particularly cinematic shot, we see a field of tall grass and, barely a centimetre high in the centre right, two children running through it. A helicopter blanketed under tarpaulin stands in the grass, in the centre left of the image. Perhaps the children have discovered the helicopter and made it their den. Wrapped up as it is, it looks like an outsized toy. There is little in the image to indicate a precise location or date, and rather, a fictional and panoramic scene is offered us. Because of the low angle of the shot, we sense ourselves somewhere in that tall grass too.
These images were originally published in Gocho’s 1977 book, Self and Others. The final image in the book is perhaps the most poignant: it shows a misty and floodlit sports pitch, and children with their backs to us, running into the distance. On a biographical level, the photograph suggests Gocho’s situation as an outsider – he ends the book with an image that maps a growing distance between himself and his vivacious subjects. On a more general level, the image may testify to the difficulty of depicting identity. However, this implies the photograph is more melancholy than it necessarily is, when it could be seen as a celebration of the buoyancy and transience of identity, and Gocho’s delight in tracking it.
Born nearly two decades after Gocho, Tokyo photographer Takashi Homma’s work is currently on show at Taro Nasu in Bakurocho, Tokyo. Homma portrays buildings, everyday objects, people and pets with an eye for detail, a sense of empathy like Gocho’s, and an enjoyment of the everyday. His images of suburbia show families separated daily by long commutes, dogs held up to the camera for their portrait, children playing in arcades, and street after street of domestic architecture. Each dwelling, person and pet is a little different, and in looking at a series of such portraits, variations embedded in the everyday become apparent.
Unlike Gocho, Homma prints his colour photographs in different sizes, and hangs them in various combinations and at various heights so that a dense and scattered sense of space is created, reflecting the different suburban and socio-domestic configurations depicted. This approach perhaps provides an updated version of Gocho’s format, cataloguing Japan’s post-modern megalopolis in a suitably heterogeneous manner.
Gocho and Homma both provide photographic inventories for Japanese life: its buildings, people, pets and habits. Leaving the exhibitions and weaving home through the fabric of the city, each street corner feels like a photograph, and I halt here and there, to look.
It was muggy today, and the sky greyer than it has been. Near the Imperial Palace a couple of mothers walked towards me, pushing prams. As they passed, I realised that one’s pram was a dog pram, and a spaniel was reclining inside it, riding parallel to the human baby.
Here in Tokyo, street maps are drawn to point in the direction you are facing, rather than north as a standard, and streets are not sign posted or named. I used the sun to walk south but the light was so diffuse I might have been walking north. Leaden crows swirled overhead, their cries echoing on the concrete and steel, and carrying across the city.
Taxi drivers lay parked along a cemetery road between Roppongi and Aoyama Itchōme. Their cars looked like Mercedes, and were all dark green or yellow, with lace doilies draped on the headrests. The drivers had wound back their seats to horizontal, and curled like foetuses under broadsheet newspapers or dampened flannels, fast asleep.
We duck under a half curtained doorway into a raucous restaurant filled with Japanese couples who sit at a low bar surrounding the chef, cooking in the middle. Further out, groups of friends fill long tables, which are messy with bamboo jugs and stacks of plates. Removing our shoes at the door, we put them into a wooden cupboard, pronouncing the threshold with our feet. We step up onto the polished wooden floor and pad across to our table.
The table is low and hovers over a foot well, into which we put our handbags and tired feet. For four thousand yen, we have unlimited jugs of sake, and rounds of plum wine, strawberry cocktails and beer. 'Sumimasen,' shout the diners, and are answered by trays of drink, steaming rice, fish and miso.
This relay of dishes delivered to our table continues for over two hours. We try tofu the texture of cream cheese, which comes drizzled with syrup. Fish is cooked at the table before us, with a flame torch and a squeeze of lemon. There are very thin slices of beef, tempura prawns, tuna pate, and finally, ice cream is served in cones, each one upside down on a plate as if a child has dropped it. The table has the atmosphere of a birthday party, and diners continue to enter, well past midnight.
The temple was swarming with Japanese tourists, and some gaijin (foreigners, or aliens. A Japanese friend subsequently told me that gaikokujin, or foreign-country-person, is a more polite term). A bright five-storey pagoda towered next to the main temple, and nearby was a small garden and lane of gift shops. Incense rose from the burner, there was a water trough for cleansing, and a ten foot sloped tray into which you could flick coins and clap your hands together to make a prayer.
Further west swung an adventure playground with miniature plastic teahouses, circling high up in the air, and small streets with tangles of electricity cables overhead. Houseplants grew up the masonry, plaster and timber facades. Advertisements, house names, and air-conditioning vents jostled for space amongst the foliage and cables.
At a small café I ate udon noodles in the salty miso soup that is served each mealtime, everywhere. It was topped with a single and very large tempura prawn. Ebi is the name for all things related to prawns – from shrimps to their lobster cousins.
Flavours here are strong like the sandy coloured miso soup, the soy sauces of various viscosities and blackness, and the incense burning at Sensō-ji that afternoon. Flavours here are delicate like silken tofu, pale and creamy, or like tea-flavoured wafers or the wet crunchy pears that leave hardly a trace in your mouth.
That night I experienced my first earthquake. It was far less shaky than I’d imagined them to be, and felt more like I was on a ship, being rocking and swayed back to sleep.
The first time I eat here, it is just like a film. In the ground floor of a tower block, there is a sliding door and beside it, a case containing plastic food. Inside, businessmen sit along a wooden bar watching the chef prepare fish, and steam rise from the rice.
We are ushered toward a raised compartment at the back of the room, and remove our shoes. Stepping up inside it, onto tatami matting that smells like wet hay or how my old cat smelt after she had been out in the rain, we fold ourselves ready to eat. There are cushions around a low table and ceramic pots for soy sauce and toothpicks.
We are served green tea tasting like earthy grass, miso soup, and large dishes into which salmon and roe have been arranged, sparkling. Underneath the fish lies pearly rice, tiny strips of omelette, and ginger and wasabi horseradish paste, spread in two daubes like paint. The bowls are made with rims around their bases that create shadow gaps for them on the low table, in the low light.
Afterwards, we slide open the door and emerge on the concrete and steel street.