Review by Peter Evans for Japan Exposures.
Z aisyo means something like the country or one’s country. The photographer is Mitsuru Fujita, and this is his second photobook. The book tells us that he was born in 1934, became a freelance photographer in 1961, set up a company called Fujitaman in 1966 (man is an alternative reading of the character for Mitsuru), won various advertising awards, taught photography part time at a technical school and a university for 26 years, closed Fujitaman in 2007 to concentrate on the photographs he wanted to take, and has had a number of photo exhibitions.
Zaisyo, published by Tosei-sha in May of this year, presents about 140 monochrome photographs, reproduced 24×17.5 cm, of scenes that are almost all in the Japanese countryside, much of which (I add for readers who haven’t been there) is as densely populated as suburbia elsewhere in the world. Most were taken between 2000 and 2009, although some date back to 1995. Almost always it’s the built-up countryside, and often much of the frame is taken up by buildings less than ten meters away. (There are few distant vistas here.) No people are directly visible, even – so far as I notice – in the background. The complete absence of people might warn that the project is dogmatic and sterile, but this isn’t so: Fujita does sometimes photograph a building head on, but he works to no template: he prefers diagonals and indeed he points his camera in whichever direction he wishes.
Fujita seems to like old-fashioned buildings: those covered with wooden slats, and traditional earthern warehouse kura. But he also clearly likes corrugated iron. What with the rust, dark clouds, puddles and little pick-up trucks, this book is no tourist souvenir. Yet there’s no insistence on age, wear, the vernacular or even the rural: on p.53 is a glass-fronted building in Saga City. (Right next to the building is the entrance to a temple, however.) And there’s also no insistence on architectural quality, oddity, authenticity or a conventionally pleasing ensemble: on p.69 for example is charmless nowheresville, a view redeemed by a dark sky. Yet anonymity is outweighed by quiddity: the one view (p.71) of Tokyo shows what appears to be a suburban fortress, incongruously supporting a prefabricated house of modest size with an imitation exposed timber frame.
“The complete absence of people might warn that the project is dogmatic and sterile, but Fujita works to no template — indeed he points his camera in whichever direction he wishes.”
I lack the expertise to say whether the printing (by Toppan) is duotone, tritone, quad-tone or something else, but it’s excellent and it’s easily good enough for the non-fetishist. The grey isn’t grey, exactly; instead, it has an hint of gold for an appealingly warm tone to the whole. (Only a hint – there’s no “sepia” for canned nostalgia.) And the resolution is so fine that you’d be able to see any grain visible on prints of the same size.
Yet there seems to be no grain. Depopulated townscapes are of course the province of view cameras, and indeed there’s sign of lens shifting for perspective correction. The angle of view seems to be wide, sometimes very wide, and I started to wonder what gadgetry had produced it. This isn’t mentioned in the short preface by Fujita, or, it seems, in either of the substantial afterwords by the photographer Osamu Kanemura and a Mr. Hayashi. (Indeed, Kanemura seems not to mention the work or its creator, though he does have a paragraph on Gregor Samsa.) However, googling brought blog commentary that said Fujita had used an 11×14 camera. Fujita’s first book, Ki‑ryo 羈旅 (2000), does show and describe the equipment he used. Sure enough, 11×14: film size 355×280 mm, image size 345×265 mm. For that earlier book he used a 165 mm and a 210 mm lens (divide by ten for the rough equivalent at 36×24mm). The camera weighed 11.8 kg and five film holders added 11.6 kg. If this is what he used for Zaisyo too, then the reproductions in it are about half the size of mere contact prints. With today’s emulsions, it’s not obvious why 5×7, let alone 8×10, isn’t enough for anything other than bragging rights; but anyway this man deserves a floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography to exhibit thundering great silver gelatines of what we see miniaturized in the book.
Aside from the information it gives us, the earlier book merits a look. Ki‑ryo is B4 format, so the reproductions are bigger than in Zaisyo. But Zaisyo has almost three times as many of them, and is less than half the price. (And the reproductions in Ki‑ryo lack the hint of gold that subtly helps Zaisyo.) Best of all, the work itself in Zaisyo is on average more interesting than that in Ki‑ryo. For Ki‑ryo, Fujita mixed material similar to that in Zaisyo with head-on portrayals of Famous Buildings (and Ancient Trees) that – with apologies to Eiji Ina (Emperor of Japan) – I already get quite enough of in old postcards. So even aside from value for money, Zaisyo is the first choice.
And so back to Zaisyo. It provides at least five Y-junctions (pp. 13, 31, 72, 75, 92) for your inner Yokoo. As well as the timber, corrugated iron and asphalt, you get individual private houses, riverfronts, and even the occasional viaduct (p.39) and station platform (p.57). The mood often tends to the melancholy, but it’s rarely if ever bleak: the sun does shine in numerous pages. There’s plenty of detail to draw you back. Every photograph is inconspicuously but clearly captioned on the page, so you don’t have to keep flipping to and from the back; yet in the back there’s also a list of photographs so you can quickly see what’s on offer from, say, Okayama prefecture. Though the book is covered in cardboard rather than cloth, it’s well bound in sewn signatures. As the colophon is in English as well as Japanese it’s odd that nothing else – captions, preface, afterwords – is in anything other than Japanese. If you can put up with this absence and you appreciate black and white views of the stuff of man-made Japan, this book is for you.
Please also see our extended gallery of images from Zaisyo. Signed copies of the book itself are available in the Japan Exposures Bookstore.
Peter Evans lives in Tokyo, among piles of photobooks.