Tokyo Digest – March 2012

© Kenya Sugai


I think enough has been written about the one year anniversary of the March 2011 earthquake, so I want to leave it alone for this month at least. It won’t be going away anytime soon over here.

The photos this month come from Kenya Sugai’s series “Bird.” To put it very simply, this is the best work on the mythical Tokyo salaryman that I’ve seen. Michael Wolf’s “Tokyo Compression” is an interesting entry in the field, examining the life of a salaryman under the cold, existential light of Tokyo trains. Sugai’s photographs show the small, and sometimes absurd dramas of the salaryman. He shows a sometimes dark sense of humor about these people. I like to think that, instead of mocking these people, he’s studying them as some other species.


The photo above represents the series well. It’s really an unspectacular image—it really just shows a guy holding a piece of bread in a bakery. But so many of the details are off: why does it look like he’s just standing there looking at other customers? Why is he just holding this loaf of bread instead of placing it on a tray? (Every Japanese bakery has trays that you use before paying.) Is he lost in thought, or just catching a quick nap? It looks like he’s waiting for something to happen, but what? The flat, possibly digital nature of the image adds to this overwhelmingly boring effect.

I really recommend Sugai’s “Telepathy” series as well.

Photographer Links Matched to Some Songs (no particular connection)

Emi Fukuyama x Lucio Battisti – “Una”

Hiroshi Takizawa Novos Baianos – “Samba da Minha Terra”

Mika Kitamura x  Amanaz – “Khala My Friend”

Naohiro Utagawa x Pachanga Boys – “Time”

Links bouncing around the Japan blogosphere

Yasuhiro Ishimoto (1921-2012): The “Visual Bilinguist” in Japanese and American Postwar Photography: Early last month, photographer Yasuhiro Ishimoto passed away at the age of 90. He’s left behind a large body of work which should really interest just about anyone. I recommend reading Caille Millner’s response to understand the impact of his photos, while Russet Lederman’s longer piece linked here provides a good historical overview of his work. (Readers passing through Japan between April and June can see an exhibit of his work at a museum just outside of Tokyo.)

“Despite his crucial role as both an advisor to and photographer in numerous exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Art Institute of Chicago, Ishimoto’s death was largely ignored in the American press and sadly unnoticed by most in the western photographic community. This is a shame because Ishimoto was a remarkably talented photographer whose work merged a western formalist approach, learned under Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the Chicago Institute of Design, with a Japanese attention to subtle beauty.”

ippiedom: Microcord takes a look at a strange, strange photobook from the 1970s, “Ipy Girl Ipy.” Think Easy Rider, in Japan, in photobook form, complete with a companion LP which now sells for $400.

I’d never heard of the book, its photographer or its model, but it was going cheap and the sample page spreads looked interesting so I sprang for it. It arrived a couple of days later…

Dizzy Noon: An Exchange of Culture and Awkwardness as Guests Entertain Hosts: John Sypal reviews a photobook by Takao Niikura which documents a day in 1965 when the Atsugi Naval Base was opened up to the general public. Strange interactions and rich color photos abound.

Page after page we see Japanese visitors with hands together, an expression of reservation? No one ever really looks comfortable, not when trying to order fifteen cent hamburgers at a window in English, and certainly not when partaking in a square dance with Americans in their Roy Rodgers Western Dress shirts. Younger Japanese women group together in threes and twos as they look apprehensively at the photographer. Indeed, the only young Japanese woman we find smiling is one arm in arm with her sailor boyfriend.

A Colorful Vision of Japan’s Past, Present and Future: I interviewed photographer Kazuyoshi Usui about his new book “Showa88,” which made a strong impression on me. Usui is not just working directly with Japanese history, he’s playing around with it. It’s pretty rare to find someone so engaged like this, and he was a fun interview–I hope it comes through.

“I respect Tarantino a lot; he can take old and new culture to create something new. I’ve been interested for a long time in doing something like this. There are lots of famous Japanese photographers from the 1960s—Hosoe, Moriyama, Araki—and I don’t want to copy them. The challenge is how to take that sense, or essence, and make it fit in the world of 2012. There’s a lot to work with there!”