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The Tokyo Sky Tree as fait accompli

Shintaro Sato with a small part of one of his new panoramas
Shintaro Sato with a small part of one of his new panoramas
The other day I took my 8-year old son with me to Photo Gallery International in Tokyo’s Minato Ward to see Shintaro Sato’s new Tokyo Sky Tree work, Risen in the East, which is now showing until February 25.

My son and I have had fun dabbling in creating panoramas with our respective iPhones — he “inherited” my old iPhone 3 when I upgraded to the iPhone 4 a year and half ago — and the great AutoStitch iOS app, so I thought seeing some physically printed panoramas might resonate with him, as well as the likely chance to meet Sato-san.

Although I have yet to see Sato-san’s new book, I of course was familiar with some of the new work from helping put together the gallery on this site. Yet the immediate take away when I entered the second-floor gallery space where the work was being exhibited was “Whoa, what a completely different experience to see these panoramas in person.”

Now this is a common and predictable reaction to seeing any work, I admit — it’s very rare for the real thing, as it were, to underwhelm the printed collection. But it did strike me that short of printing a book as a scroll or with pages that fold out, panoramas are at a particular disadvantage when it comes to conveying their message via more modestly-sized media like the photo book or an online gallery.

There are only nine or ten pieces in the entire show, but most are large and three pieces take up an entire wall to themselves. While I’ve never really been a fan of the trend for large canvases, the sizes here felt right and especially with two different Tokyo cityscapes on view, provided an almost infinite series of details to pore over. (Sato-san told me some of these photos are composed from over 20 individual shots, stitched together using PTGui).

One of my son's panoramas from a visit to the then under construction Tokyo Sky Tree in May, 2011
One of my son's panoramas from a visit to the then under construction Tokyo Sky Tree in May, 2011
One of these details, and you’ll find it in all the photos, is the Tokyo Sky Tree satellite tower, which is the ostensible “subject” of the work. I have to admit that a couple of years ago, when I saw Sato-san’s first attempts to negotiate the subject matter of Tokyo Sky Tree, I had my doubts about whether this work was the right sort of follow-up to Tokyo Twilight Zone. At that point the tower was in its nascent stages of construction, and the photos were, well, photos of its construction. Verbalized, I could understand Sato-san’s interest in documenting this new — and ambivalently welcomed — addition to his Tokyo cityscape, but visually it was not very interesting. All the more reason why I was so blown away by what I saw at the show.

The difference between that early work and what Sato-san finally arrived at is that now there is a connection — a connection between this tower and the neighborhoods it looms over, and therefore a further connection between us as viewer and these photos. These photos really are not about the tower at all, I came to feel as I walked around the gallery, but about the cherry blossom viewing party, or Asakusa’s famed Sanja Festival, or kids playing soccer on a sandy pitch along the river on a Saturday afternoon. Whether obscured almost completely, as in the cherry blossom photo, or unmistakably centrally located as in the soccer photo, the Sky Tree isn’t the proverbial 900-pound godzilla in the room but simply a part of the landscape — a fait accompli if you will.

One of the elements of Sato-san’s previous Tokyo Twilight Zone series that I really responded to was how the photos placed themselves on that borderline between grand city landscape and intimate neighborhood portrait. In Risen in the East, Sato-san has I think gone even further in the direction of the neighborhood portrait. Here the residents no longer have to be assumed — they are here playing soccer, partying in the park, setting lanterns into the river. That Sato-san can achieve this, and still keep the 634-meter Tokyo Sky Tree in his sights, is not only a measure of his photographic achievement, but a larger statement that for better or worse, the tower is going to be with us for a long time to come.

Tokyo Sky Tree viewed from Asakusa, with the Asahi Beer headquarters in the foreground
Tokyo Sky Tree viewed from Asakusa, with the Asahi Beer headquarters in the foreground
After the exhibition, my son and I caught the subway to Asakusa to have sushi at a place we like there, and after coming out of the station there was Tokyo Sky Tree towering above us, seemingly. Although I’ve of course been seeing the tower for a couple of years now, this was the first time to see in in a few months, and the first time to see it more or less finished (it opens next month). For me it still has that out-of-character-ness to it, something I’m not quite used to. I wonder when, or if, I will come to view it as just present rather than omnipresent, but then again Tokyo isn’t my city in anything close to the way it is for Sato-san and millions of people. I’m a weekend tourist, at best, and as such can afford to keep it at bay for a bit longer. My son of course, like most kids I suspect, is enamored of it.

Shintaro Sato – from Risen in the East series

Shintaro Sato was born in 1969 in Tokyo, and graduated from Tokyo College of Photography in 1992 and Waseda University School of Letters Arts and Sciences in 1995. After working as a staff cameraman for Kyodo News for 7 years, he left there in 2001 and has been a freelance photographer since. In 2008, Sato’s Tokyo Twilight Zone was published by Seigensha to great acclaim, and the next year Sato received the 2009 Newcomer’s Award from the Photographic Society of Japan. The above photo comes from Sato’s most recent work, centering on the Tokyo Sky Tree broadcasting tower soon to be opened in Tokyo’s Sumida Ward. This work has been collected into the book Risen in the East, published this month, also by Seigensha. If you’re in the Tokyo area, Photo Gallery International will be exhibiting Sato’s new work from January 13 – February 25.

Please also see an extended gallery of photographs from this new series. In this 2009 Japan Exposures interview, Sato talks about his motivations with the Tokyo Sky Tree series.

Shintaro Sato – Risen in the East Gallery

The term Tokyo Tower is familiar to many (not least due to being featured prominently in the legendary Godzilla movies), but mentioning Sky Tree to anyone outside Japan will probably get you blank stares. The Tokyo Sky Tree, formerly known as New Tokyo Tower, is a broadcasting, restaurant and observation tower under construction in Sumida, Tokyo, Japan. It has been the tallest artificial structure in Japan since 2010. The tower reached its full height of 634.0 metres (2,080 ft) in March 2011.

Our friend Shintaro Sato, born and raised in East Tokyo where the tower is located, has followed and documented the construction of the tower over the last few years. Initially he was simply documenting the progress of construction, but later Sato changed his approach to creating panaromics, often from slightly elevated positions like in his Tokyo Twilight Zone work. This work has now been collected into the book Risen in the East, published this month.

Sato succeeds in showing us the many views in the city that now incorporate the structure in the landscape. East Tokyo, the heart of the old Edo, was often seen as slightly neglected and lagging in terms of development. The tower was seen as an opportunity to support this wide area. As the images show, you can now be in the east and Sky Tree will always be with you, like a beacon that sends out strength and self-confidence, no matter whether you are playing football, enjoy your cherry blossom viewing or boat races, as some of the photos show.

Naturally, the tower project was conceived to manifest a symbol of the power and ingenuity of Japan, especially in light of rapid developments in neighbouring China. One cannot help to notice the other side of the coin: in the same week that Tokyo Sky Tree reached its full height as the tallest tower structure in the world, the country that was so eager to show its potency to us was struck by a monumental natural disaster with many consequences, as if to say “the higher you are flying, the deeper you shall fall”. It seems at least to me, that the view towards the tower has become more meaningful since. It is now more about us, the viewers on the ground, and less about the people who planned and executed this amazing feat of creating this man-made structure. All in all, a conundrum that seems typically Japanese.