Tag Archives: eiji ina

The Built-Up Country, in Detail — Zaisyo

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.

Mitsuru Fujita, Toujin, Saga City, January, 2007 -- from Zaisyo
Mitsuru Fujita, Toujin, Saga City, January, 2007 — from Zaisyo

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.

Mitsuru Fujita, Gojo, Nara Prefecture, January, 2003 -- from Zaisyo
Mitsuru Fujita, Gojo, Nara Prefecture, January, 2003 — from Zaisyo

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.

Mitsuru Fujita, Ogi, Niigata Prefecture, September, 2000 -- from Zaisyo
Mitsuru Fujita, Ogi, Niigata Prefecture, September, 2000 — from Zaisyo

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.

Eiji Ina — from Emperor of Japan

Eiji Ina was born in Nagoya in 1957, and graduated from the Tokyo College of Photography in 1984. Since 1981 Ina has been exhibiting and publishing his work, starting with large format cityscapes of Tokyo (In Tokyo), but since then Ina has explored such topics as the American military in Japan (Base and Zone), the omnipresence of security cameras (Watch), and environmental issues (Waste). In 1988, he won the Higashikawa New Photographer Prize, and in 1998 he was the recipient of the Leopold Godowsky, Jr. Color Photography Award.

The above photo comes from Ina’s Emperor of Japan series, which was published in book form by Nazraeli Press in 2008. The book contains images Ina shot of the misasagi (burial mounds) of 124 of Japan’s emperors, dating back to the Kofun period some 1600 years ago. As is clear from the above photograph, Ina’s photographs of these often humble, understated tombs and mausoleums are as much about the setting as they are about the tombs themselves. The tombs provide a uniform thread, an orderly, sculpted center, while the surroundings reveal that no matter how much order and sublimity one tries to instill, chaos reigns supreme.

More examples from this series, as well as Ina’s other work, can be seen at Ina’s web site.

November Magazine Roundup

Nippon and Asahi Camera Monthly Magazines (November 2008)

Visit anywhere in Japan that shows even a hint of autumnal color this Fall, and you’ll probably see as many photographers as fallen leaves. The Japanese call this kouyou (literally red leaves or yellow leaves) and along with the cherry blossoms of Spring, it is the time when the cameras — everything from Mark II DLSRs to camera cellphones — are guaranteed to come out. So, it is no surprise that Japan’s autumnal colors dominate both of the major photo monthlies this November.

Asahi Camera

For me, Asahi wins this month’s head to head competition with Nippon. (Last month I would probably give the nod to Nippon if you’re keeping score at home.)

Asahi starts off the kouyou fest by bringing out some “heavy hitters” from Japan’s photographic past, in a special series they call kouyou yuuyuu or serene autumn leaves, which features one or two photos each from Shotaro Akiyama, Ken Domon, Shinzo Maeda and others. Some of these are known as primarily landscape photographers, but others like Domon are not. Nevertheless, given the over-saturation of this type of photography in Japan, it is hard to appreciate the individual craft of any of them — they all unfortunately turn into nice scenery.

Miyako Ishiuchi's Hiroshima work

Fortunately, it is not all autumn leaves in this month’s Asahi. Miyako Ishiguchi, who has an exhibition at the Meguro Museum of Art in Tokyo from November 15 – January 11, 2009, is featured with a few works each from her Yokosuka and Hiroshima projects (the exhibition is the same). Ishiuchi grew up in Yokosuka, the site of one of the U.S. military’s bases, and her work shot there goes back to the mid to late 70s, while the Hiroshima material (released as a small book this year) is a recent project, focusing mainly on the remnants of clothing that were worn by people when the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima. The clothing is lit from behind in a way that poignantly shows the tattered, ripped apart nature of the clothing and the lives of the people who were wearing it.

Among contemporary female photographers working today in Japan, it’s hard to think of two more contrasting styles than Ishiuchi’s and that of Mika Ninagawa, whose work is presented next in the magazine. Ninagawa will have her first career retrospective exhibition starting this month at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery. The exhibition will run from November 1 to December 28 before going to various other cities in Japan for all of 2009.

Eiji Ina has a new book coming out in December from Nazraeli Press entitled Emperor of Japan and 12 images from this work are presented in this month’s issue, along with an interview with Ina. Ina has taken 8×10 photos of all 124 of the extant Imperial burial sites in Japan, and according to the photographer, was influenced by the Typologies of the Becher’s while working on this project.

Veteran photographer Shomei Tomatsu has been living and/or working in Okinawa for over 40 years, and some of his work done there is currently being shown in a “collaborative” co-exhibition with Yasuo Higa at the Canon Gallery in Tokyo (until December 16). Higa is someone I’m not familiar with but it’s clear his main focus is on documenting the unique customs and rituals of the Ryukyu Islands. Tomatsu has also done work similar to this (notably in his book Hikaru Kaze: Okinawa, 1979), but here (judging by what’s presented in the magazine) the work focuses on his “chocolate and chewing gum” work that will be familiar to those who were able to see the Skin of a Nation exhibit that traveled in the US and Europe in 2006-7. In addition to the sampling of work, there is also a short interview with Tomatsu, who is now in his late 70s and who reveals among other things that he recently upgraded his Canon Kiss Digital to a 40D, claiming that the “high amateur” camera is in keeping with his current “amateur” status.

Nippon Camera

Unfortunately, this month’s Nippon Camera is on the whole rather disappointing compared to its breathren.

Shinichiro Kobayashi, who as the photographer behind Deathtopia and many other similar books has established himself as the leading practitioner if not the founder of the ever-popular “Ruins” or “Urban Exploration” genre of photography, has recently issued a book of rather different work entitled Umihito: 1977 – 1988. The book consists of photographs taken in black and white along Japan’s beaches and coastal areas during the years in question, and a few pages worth of these are in this month’s Nippon Camera. Unfortunately for me, while the photographs are admittedly nice to look at and Kobayashi is certainly a very proficient photographer, the book comes with a healthy dose of saccharined nostalgia that ultimately is not very different from the Ruin books.

Russell Scott Peagler is an American living in Japan, and his work shot in Tibet is given a few pages. Given to blown out Tri-X that would make many a Japanese photographer proud, the work was unfortunately just okay for me. Judging from his modest Flickr stream, clearly the magazine didn’t pick the best representations of his work.

Lastly, Kazuo Kitai has a few pages for his “Out walking with my Leica” series, and this time he visits the printing company in Nagano that did the printing for his latest book of photographs shot in Germany, The Journey Into 1920s German Expressionism.

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