Kawaii

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Cute, adorable, pretty…Kawaii.

In Japanese culture, kawaii is not just for kids; it’s everywhere. In the country that normalized the idea of comics and cartoons for adults, it’s no surprise that kawaii is part of the aesthetic. It’s in the clothes that adorn the ever-popular kawaii miniature pet dogs. It’s in the cute mascots created by all kinds of organizations, from municipalities to the armed forces. It’s on billboards, safety notices and other signage. It’s in fashion and industrial and graphic design. It’s in advertising and music and art. And of course, it’s in manga and anime, where it likely all began.

Tokyo fashion

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Tokyo has for decades now been considered a driver of global fashion trends. Designers and shoppers alike are inspired by its street culture and styles. Considering the city’s various cultures and subcultures and the increasing globalization of youth culture these days, when it comes to fashion, practically anything goes.

But Tokyo has a unique fashion history and Google’s Arts and Culture site has an interesting bit of cultural anthropology presenting fashion trends in a fairly detailed timeline from 1980 to 2017, looking at both imported western trends and home-grown looks and how these have evolved through the decades.

One

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A few facts:
Edo, a small fishing village, grew to become the center of power in Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate in the early 1600s.
Edo was renamed Tokyo after the Emperor Meiji was relocated to the city in 1869.
Today, the greater Tokyo metropolitan area is the richest on earth; it’s also the most crowded.
Tokyo city houses more than eight million people, Tokyo prefecture more than 13 million, greater Tokyo more than 38 million – or close to a third of Japan’s population.
Metropolitan Tokyo covers some 845 square miles, greater Tokyo sprawls across 5240 square miles.
On average, around 16,000 people are crowded into each of these square miles.
Despite this, nearly half of the households in metropolitan Tokyo comprise just one person; in the central city regions more people live alone than not, and by 2030 it’s estimated that the number of single-person households will surpass 18 million.
Regardless of the demographic, social and economic reasons, these seem to me to be tragic numbers.

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A Tokyo Romance

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The visual density of Tokyo was overwhelming. In the first few weeks I just walked around in a daze, a lone foreigner bobbing along in neatly dressed crowds of dark-haired people, taking everything in with my eyes, before I learned how to speak properly or read. I just walked and walked, often losing my way in the maze of streets in Shinjuku or Shibuya. Much of the advertising was in the same intense hues as the azure skies of early autumn. I realized now that the colors in old Japanese woodcuts were not stylized at all, but an accurate depiction of Japanese light. Plastic chrysanthemums in burnt orange and gold were strung along the narrow shopping streets to mark the season. The visual barrage of neon lights, crimson lanterns, and movie posters was matched by the cacophony of mechanical noise: from Japanese pop tunes, advertising jingles, record stores, cabarets, theaters, and PA systems in train stations, and blaring forth from TV sets left on all day and night in coffee shops and restaurants.

Ian Buruma’s observation about his first time in Tokyo in 1975 was one of many that resonated with me when I read A Tokyo Romance. It could just as easily have been my own description of the city two decades later when I first wandered around Tokyo’s streets alone in a kind of hallucinatory daze, uncomprehending yet stimulated by the seemingly endless stream of sights, sounds and movement around me. Buruma’s book unlocked a nostalgia in me for those sensations, ones that cannot be relived; I’ve become all too familiar with the city—and it is not the same city that I, or Buruma, first encountered. It’s still a beguiling place, but with its prevalent foreign-language signage, tourist information booths and money exchanges; its proliferation of international tourists and workers; its imported and home-grown global brand stores and ubiquitous Starbucks and McDonalds outlets, it has in this more globally connected era at least a veneer of familiarity, even for the first time visitor.

But there was something theatrical, even hallucinatory about the cityscape itself, where nothing was understated; representations of products, places, entertainment, restaurants, fashion, and so on were everywhere screaming for attention.
Chinese characters, which I had studied so painstakingly at Leyden University, loomed high in plastic or neon over freeways or outside the main railway stations, on banners hanging down from tall office buildings, on painted signs outside movie theaters and night clubs known as ”cabarets,” promising all manner of diversions that would have been hidden from sight in many Western cities. In Tokyo, it seemed, very little was out of sight. 

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Deconstructed

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Everywhere, cranes pierce the skyline, shroud-covered buildings appear or disappear as if in a time-lapse, new utilitarian concrete and glass cubes replace old timber and tile back-street dwellings, blank fenced-off voids disrupt the visual rhythm of city blocks. In Shibuya, entire neighborhoods have been razed and are being rebuilt. Wherever I look it seems the city is being pulled apart and put back together anew. Tokyo has never been a sentimental city — redevelopment is nothing new to a city defined by its dynamism — but this current chapter of construction leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics feels like the adrenalin-fueled, last gasp of a gambler throwing in all his chips on his lucky number.

Risshun

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While I can appreciate the romantic notions of winter, I barely tolerate its harsh reality. And so with the initial stirrings of spring, things start to look a whole lot better.

Risshun (立春)—according to Japan’s traditional calendar, the one that famously comprises 72 micro-seasons that poetically label natural transitions throughout the year—is the marker that announces the start of spring in early February. Right on cue, the sun has upped its intensity a notch and temperatures have risen slightly, while the plum trees have already started to blossom and the days are noticeably a little longer. Although it’s too early to pack away winter coats, it feels good to know there are some increasingly pleasant days ahead. These photos of jizō statues and ume blossoms at a local temple were taken during risshun.

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Taxi, taxi

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Japan’s taxis are an iconic part of the visual landscape of its cities. Nissan Cedrics and Toyota Crowns like the one above have shuttled passengers to their destinations since the 1990s. They were subsequently joined by Toyota’s Prius and some other makes and models, but Crowns still make up the bulk of Japan’s cabs, their boxy bodies gleaming red, yellow, aqua, green, grey, blue or black on the city streets.

A couple of years ago a successor to these classic cabs was introduced. The Toyota JPN Taxi is a squat, high-roofed, hybrid fueled hatchback that looks like a sleek, compact and thoroughly modern reincarnation of London’s traditional black cab. With its distinctive silhouette it’s set to become a future transportation icon, but I’m going to miss those colorful sedans.

Pillow shots

The best artists are auteurs, their work easily recognizable. And so, budding image makers are often advised to develop an individual style. I’m not convinced true style is something that can be manufactured; I believe it comes with practice and experimentation and time.

To this end, it’s rewarding to study the works of visual artists who have mastered their craft and have a distinctive style, whether it’s Salgado, Leiter or Addario; Caravaggio, Hopper or Banksy; Tarantino, Kubrick or Ozu.

For instance, Yasujiro Ozu’s unique intimate films show a remarkably coherent and disciplined visual and narrative style. Recurring themes, elliptical story structures, formally framed shots, limited focal lengths, minimal camera movement, particular editing transitions and pacing, deliberate compositions and use of specific colors—red is a favorite, and what are known as the “pillow shots” that punctuate his narratives: contemplative frames or sequences of objects, empty rooms, views through windows, architecture, natural elements, and so on that are placed throughout the narratives to convey subtext or emphasise emotions or themes within the films.

In photography, such meditative still-life shots can add similar texture and depth to photo essays and books. With all this in mind, I went out to take some photos. Of course, without a narrative for context, the photos can’t serve as pillow shots, but as a practice, the task becomes an interesting exercise in creating from another point of view, in this case an effort to see through the eyes of Ozu.

Presets

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I’ve seen this view of Shinjuku countless times, but the afternoon light on this occasion gave the scene nice depth, so I snapped a single frame with my iPhone.

I enjoy editing photos on my phone: I like the simplicity, the immediacy, and the tactility of the process. When editing I rarely use presets unless I’m doing monochrome conversions. They often lack subtlety and look artificial. There are exceptions. RNI Films is one. Their adjustment presets resemble analog films from Agfa, Fujifilm, Ilford, Kodak, Polaroid and Rollei. I couldn’t say how accurate these film emulations are; in fact, I don’t think fidelity to analog rendering is important, but I like their subtlety and how an image can be further tweaked by various editing sliders, including one to reduce a preset’s strength and one to add grain.

The above image was enhanced with an RNI Films Agfa Vista 100 negative film preset. The images below show Fuji Astia 100F, Ilford Delta 100, Fuji Instax, and Kodachrome 50’s presets. All images have had additional minor adjustments made in the RNI Films app.

Out to lunch

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Late last year I began looking for a compact camera that I can carry around with me when out and about: dining at a restaurant, wandering in and out of shops, or running errands. Times when a bigger camera can be an annoyance.

I appreciate the ease with which I can use my iPhone for spontaneous photography: its size, connectivity and choice of built-in editing apps are wonderful, but no phone yet beats a large camera sensor in image quality. So I researched and searched for a small camera with an APS-C sensor. As a fan of Fujifilm cameras, I had my heart set on an X80 with a 24 MP sensor, but that camera never materialized. (I think it—or an X100 mini—should). I then thought about a used X70, but the local prices are now similar to what it cost two years ago when new. A Ricoh GR II was also a consideration. As were the GR III and Fujifilm XF10, but I felt both were disappointing when announced.

In the end, I picked up a cheap, used copy of Fujifilm’s old X-M1 in excellent condition. With an XF27mm pancake lens it’s not much bigger than an X70 and has a narrower focal length, which I prefer for an all-purpose lens, and it features a similar X-Trans CMOS sensor that is capable of delivering beautiful images. It lacks a viewfinder but has a useful articulating screen. It comes in handy when I’m out and about and unexpectedly see a photo I want to take, such as these two, captured recently while I was out to lunch. It’s a wonderful little instrument and I think I’m going to enjoy using it a lot.

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Coming of age

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In recent years, traditional kimono are rarely seen on the streets of Japan. Typically, they’re refined uniforms for bar and restaurant hostesses, ceremonial wear for weddings, funerals and the like, and the dress of choice for certain aficionados. But each year things are quite different on the second Monday in January. Seijin no Hi. Coming of age day, when all the twenty year olds in Japan are officially celebrated as adults; when the men don smart suits or the occasional haori and hakama ensemble and the women, their hair elegantly coiffed, join them at the local city halls and after-parties in their gorgeous furisode, parading on the city streets like exotic birds of paradise. The day is a holiday throughout the country, and it’s a perfect day to be out strolling.

Empire

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Since 645, Japan’s history has been marked by the various eras which signify the reigns of its emperors and empresses. This year, on April 30, Emperor Akihito, who has reigned since 1989 in what is known as the Heisei era, will abdicate the Chrysanthemum Throne, and a new era will begin with the ensuing enthronement of his son and heir.

The striking lobby gallery of the Tokyo International Forum is currently the site of a small but evocative exhibition that showcases the imperial enthronement ceremony of Emperor Taisho in 1909. It also features artefacts, dioramas and traditional aristocratic ceremonial dress from past Japanese eras.

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A. D. 2019

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Blade Runner and Akira, two sci-fi classics of the 1980s, are both set in 2019. Despite the way things seem to be heading, our 2019 is fortunately nowhere near as grim as the worlds of those movies.

These pictures, showing imagery from Akira, which is set in Tokyo, were taken in Shibuya at the site of the old Parco building. I thought it would be thematically fitting to give them a sci-fi treatment, and made some minor color adjustments, then added some light flare and fog filter effects.

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Hope

Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.
Robert Frank

Hope and despair. Politics these days. I bought myself Frank’s The Americans this year as a Christmas gift. A gesture of hope. Don’t know why I didn’t buy it any sooner. It’s arguably a masterpiece of visual storytelling. At the very least it’s an insprational resource.

New year in Japan, and it seems like everyone is at a shrine or temple. Hatsumode. A gesture of hope. Inspired, I took some black and white photos at Harajuku’s Togo Shrine.

Hello

A blog post. This is somewhat surprisingly a new thing for me.

This website exists as my portfolio, a place to display private photographic projects, galleries, writings and other works. It was never intended as a blog; hence comments and ‘like’ buttons have been disabled. Over the years, other social media platforms have complemented this portfolio, allowing me to post spontaneous works: snapshots, quotes, musings.

The best of these platforms was Instagram. I used to really enjoy Instagram. It was frictionless, immediate and fun. Lately, not so much. The last year or so I’ve been tolerating it, but now that my tokyo.grams project is completed, I no longer need to. So I’ve been looking for a replacement. But there isn’t one. Not for me. And so, with the dawn of a new year, I’ve added this blog to my site as a place for more spontaneous publishing: a place for phone snapshots and photos that don’t fit into more considered long-term projects, for photographic items of interest and interesting quotes, for unformed ideas and brief musings.

And in the spirit of social media I’m going to add ‘like’ buttons and comments to the posts in the hope that some interesting, civil discussions can unfold in the posts to come.

Happy New Year.