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Ryuichiro Suzuki’s Odyssey and Druk


Even though Ryuichiro Suzuki has been a photographer for close to 45 years, he has until recently remained relatively unknown and unheralded, even in Japan. However, with the publication last year of Odyssey, a retrospective monograph of Suzuki’s career, as well this year’s release of Druk – both from the Japanese publishing house Heibonsha – this will surely change. Indeed, earlier this year Suzuki was awarded an “Annual Award” from the Photographic Society of Japan in recognition of the work compiled into Odyssey.

Suzuki was born in the Kamata area of Tokyo in 1942. He attended Tokyo’s Waseda University, and it was during this time that the 19-year old student began to take photographs. The first plate of Odyssey is a 1962 photo of a young woman that Suzuki took in Sanya, a slum populated by day workers where Suzuki lived while attending Waseda. The photo’s title claims – perhaps apocryphally – that this is Suzuki’s “first negative”. Whether or not it is his first negative, it is apparently the only one that survives from this early period. The story, as told in Mariko Takeuchi’s essay about Suzuki included at the end of Odyssey, is that Suzuki was so ashamed of sneaking around taking candid shots of his Sanya neighbors that he burned all of his negatives except this one.

After graduating from Waseda (from the School of Political Science and Economics), Suzuki’s work began to be published in various magazines, namely Mainichi Camera, a magazine instrumental in launching the careers of many who would go on to dominate Japanese photography, such as Daido Moriyama. Unlike his contemporaries however, Suzuki was never able – or was reluctant – to turn these opportunities into something greater, preferring instead to work under the radar. From this period three series are included in Odyssey: “Tracer Bullets”, a look at the heated early 60s conflicts between the Left and Right, centered around the nationalist Yasukuni Shrine (1964), “Base”, photos shot at the Yokota American Air Force base (1969-70), and “Banners and Stones”, a look at student protests (1969).

Suzuki was so ashamed of sneaking around taking candid shots of his Sanya neighbors that he burned all of his negatives except this one.

These issues and themes were almost a rite of passage for Japanese photographers who came of age in the 60’s, with Moriyama, Shomei Tomatsu, and Akihide Tamura, among many others, exploring this ground, and to this author, both the “Base” and student protest series suffer by comparison. According to Takeuchi’s essay, the “Base” series was basically shot on one occasion, at a carnival at Yokota base that was open to the public, and so it is no wonder this series lacks substance and the photos feel derivative. The same could be said for the protest photos, although certain individual shots are in and of themselves powerful. Their inclusion leaves the unfortunate impression that they function in this context as more an attempt to add credibility and prescience to Suzuki’s oeuvre, rather than because they help to broaden Suzuki’s photographic odyssey.

1964 photo of war victims, by Ryuichiro SuzukiOn the other hand, the series centered on Yasukuni Shrine, the earliest work presented in the book other than that “first negative” from 1962, reveals a young Suzuki confident enough not to toe the party line. Indeed, which party line Suzuki sympathizes with, if any, is rather unclear from this series, and this unsettling ambiguity gives the photographs a sense of ominousness and foreboding. There are several very strong images here the belie the photographer’s youth. For me, the strongest one is a photograph where the foreground is taken up with the artificial leg of what is presumably a war veteran. The focus point is here, and the hinges where the knee should be seem to gleam and sparkle. In the background, out of focus but very legible, a robed man is on his knees and bowing, propping himself up by two artificial arms. The caption says the location is unknown, and these two men are on the street. We don’t know what they are doing either, but within the context of the series, it’s hard not to see them as praying to a shrine committed to honoring Japan’s disgraced military. For Suzuki, it is enough to put the contradictions out there, and leave it at that.

In 1975, Suzuki was awarded the prestigious Taiyo-sho (The Sun Prize) for his series of photographs entitled “Pilgrimage to India.” For better or worse, India has been a fertile ground for Japanese photographers – Kikai Hiroh being one prominent example – looking for “other” photographic subject matter away from the home front. Suzuki mentions in his brief intro to the India work presented in Odyssey that his 100 days in India was his first time outside of Japan. While not about confrontations like his previous work, ironically the photos see a more confrontational Suzuki. Away from home, Suzuki starts to engage his subjects in a more direct and open manner, and often they stare back.

I had pleasant dreams and nightmares, looking through a frame measuring just 6cm x 6cm.

The India work seems to have presented Suzuki with a turning point, a chance to re-assess his photography up to that point, and the work that comes after and extends up to the present day has a different feel to it – almost a melding of the distant, observant Suzuki of the 60s and the in-your-face quality of the India work, a happy medium as it were. For this writer, the most interesting series in Odyssey is one entitled “Fables”, a modest grouping of images shot in Japan using the square 6cm x 6cm format. Whether this was an actual project Suzuki was working on at the time, or merely an arbitrary bringing together of disparate work for the purposes of this book, the series helps to show how Suzuki’s odyssey changes after India. It is not just a return to Japan that sets it apart, but for the first time, domestic scenes – most likely Suzuki’s own home, his own children – become a subject. Suzuki captions this series by writing, “I had pleasant dreams and nightmares, looking through a frame measuring just 6cm x 6cm”, and indeed there is a dreamlike quality to the work here, photographs taken out of context as it were. Children appear with masks, or they are shot behind screens or from behind, and there are a couple of portraits that would not be out of place in a Diane Arbus monograph. This collection of nine images finds Suzuki embracing artifice in a way he only had hinted at in the past.

Suzuki is still traveling though, with most of the post-India work presented here taken in places outside of Japan. Suzuki has made several trips to Ireland, and there are two different series of this work in Odyssey, including his most recent work shot in Dublin in 2004 and 2005, using a panoramic format. Suzuki prefaces this last series as one finding him alone in the streets of Dublin, “looking for traces of the Ireland from the days of James Joyce’s Ulysses”. A lot of Suzuki’s travels have been to other parts of Asia, work that is collected in the series entitled Druk (Bhutanese for “dragon”), which was released as a book earlier this year. (A vastly reduced sampling of this work is presented in Odyssey.)

Druk features work Suzuki shot in Singapore, Taiwan, and Shanghai, and the book is divided along these lines into three sections. It’s hard to avoid the realization that these three places were all occupied by Japan during World War II, although there are only a few images that seem to consciously point this out. Nevertheless, by focusing on these three locales, there is a sense that they allow Suzuki to satisfy his wanderlust yet remain somehow tied to Japan.

All of the photos in Druk (about 130 in all) were taken using the square format, which helps to make the work cohesive despite the different locales and the years when the material was shot. More than that, the square frame serves the material well, imposing an artificial, formal order on the often chaotic life occurring both within and out of the frame. Although there are no portraits per se in the book, there are quite a few shots of individuals, most caught in un-posed reflection or curiosity directed at the photographer. More than a few are captured behind sunglasses, lending them a slighly raffish air.

Actually, “raffish” is probably a good word to describe a lot of the city scenes in Druk, though I’m not sure how good a thing that is. I have no doubt that there is plenty of blight to go around in the places Suzuki has taken his camera, even in a place like Singapore which tends to be perceived by the West as more “like us”. And to be sure, there is a substantial amount of photos that can be said to be capturing that crossroads of developing and developed — a theme of the book in and of itself. But there is also the inescapable feeling that Suzuki was, if not exactly looking for the “old world”, certainly attracted by this aspect of it. You wonder if Suzuki is traveling to these places not so much to capture a bit of what life is like there as to capture what life used to be like here, in Japan.

These three locations, each with complicated relationships to their former occupier, are certainly a fertile ground for Suzuki’s traveling dragon, and for the most part you feel Suzuki is aware of the contradictions even if he isn’t fully capable of harnessing them. That he isn’t may be down to a subconscious desire to find again that young girl of Sanya that opened the Odyssey collection. I for one would rather have Suzuki looking ahead and therefore, as much as much of the photos themselves in Druk are wonderful, the book as a whole doesn’t wholly satisfy.

Book recommendations

Both Odyssey and Druk are published by Heibonsha, a publisher with a long history and a strong pedigree in photo book publishing. The books are well-printed, and feel sturdy and substantial. The photo captions, as well as the essays about Suzuki and his work, are translated into English in both books. The Druk book is a bit larger, as are the photos themselves. Pricing for both is identical.

As detailed above, Odyssey is a retrospective look at Suzuki’s career up to the present. Druk, on the other hand, is a body of work that Suzuki shot in Singapore, Taiwan, and Shanghai, and is grouped as such in the book. Odyssey features approximately 150 photographs, mostly one to a page, although for the later work done with a panorama camera, sometimes a single photo is spread over two pages, or there are photos printed two to a page. Druk, on the other hand, features 132 plates, all one photo to one page. The images are all in a square 6cm x 6cm format.

If you were to limit yourself to one, then it is a bit of a toss-up as to which one to get. Odyssey is of course an obvious choice, since it is a retrospective look at Suzuki’s entire career from the early 60s up to the present decade. Those who enjoy what they find in Odyssey could then add Druk to their collection. On the other hand, it must be said that in this writer’s opinion, the sampling of the “Druk” work in Odyssey is not as strong as it could be, and it would be a shame for people who like Suzuki’s work to pass on Druk because of it. Furthermore, of the two, Druk feels the more substantial, and the more likely to reward repeated viewings, despite my misgivings noted above.