The Burned Field: Takashi Homma and the Rise of Superflat

Text by Silas Dominey for Japan Exposures. Adapted from his dissertation The Japanese City: Representations of Tokyo After the Bubble Burst.

Takashi Homma’s extended photographic survey of Tokyo remains, to my mind, the most complete and persuasive body of work completed on the city. (With one caveat, that is: Nobuyoshi Araki’s fictive, sexualised playground, which actually says more about the photographer himself than than the real city of Tokyo.) Over a period of nearly 15 years, Homma has created a cohesive photographic study of the city and its inhabitants, taking in disaffected youth, suburban space and the plasticity of modern life. His work is, above all, always concerned with and reflective of the changing attitudes of a post-Bubble Japan.

Homma’s work is always concerned with and reflective of the changing attitudes of a post-Bubble Japan. ”

Homma’s career in the visual arts began at the Light Publicity advertising agency, where he stayed from 1985 to 1991. From there he moved to London to become involved with the fashion magazine I-D. These early, formative years are important to mention, if only to establish that Homma has a deep and complex understanding of the power of visual imagery, underpinned by extensive experience in the advertising and fashion industries. There is no ‘accidental genius’ to his photography. It is as deliberate and considered as an advertisement, and no less effective.

Homma returned to Tokyo in 1993. An early work, Baby Land, failed to make a serious impression on the Japanese art community. That didn’t happen until the publication of Homma’s ‘telephone directory sized’ book Tokyo Suburbia in 1998. The book contains sixty-four images of the newly constructed suburban areas of Tokyo, known as Kogai, or Newtown. Homma’s photographic approach, which has remained largely consistent throughtout his Tokyo survey, involves muted, neutral colour and a remarkably formal, almost architectural viewpoint.

Fireworks, Urayasu Marina East 21 2, 1995, by Takashi Homma
Fireworks, Urayasu Marina East 21 2, 1995, by Takashi Homma

In a series of images from 1995, Homma uses a long exposure to show a fireworks display hanging over Urayasu Marina East, one of the city’s Kogai developments. Viewed from a vantage point some way away from the display, the fireworks appear as a childlike white scrawl on the sky. There is nothing celebratory about the image. The barely visible, unlit tower-blocks in the foreground suggest an emptiness and gloom at odds with the notion of fireworks and festivities. If any image can confirm the suggestion that Homma’s early work is ominous and ironic, it is this one.

While remaining visually cohesive, Homma’s work has gone through a very subtle shift in tone and subject in reaction to the newfound optimism in Japan following both the end of the ‘Lost Decade’ and Takashi Murakami’s Superflat art movement, which has engendered a new-found nationalistic pride in Japanese art and culture.

To explain, Superflat is both a post-modern art movement and a visual style. It represents the ‘leveling’ of high and low culture (for example ukiyo-e and anime). It is both a celebration of the uniqueness of Japanese culture and an acceptance of the imperial influences that have shaped it. In this way it has cracked open the discourse about what it means, culturally, to be Japanese, and it is this debate that Homma engages with in his photography.

Omotesando 1, 2007, by Takashi Homma
Omotesando 1, 2007, by Takashi Homma

Somewhere around the turn of the new century, a barely perceptible shift occurs in Homma’s work. He begins to title his images with the name of the architect, if a building is present. This simple act implies ownership and pride in the base material of the city. Secondly, Homma’s visual treatment of glass and metal ‘takes on a quality of beauty, not of sanitisation’ (Ivan Vartanian, in his essay accompanying Tokyo, published by Aperture in 2008) providing a corrollary to this newfound pride implicit in Homma’s image titles. The image “Omotesando 1” could, in itself, be a metaphor for the ideals of Superflat. Layers of glass, metal, concrete, reflections, light and space are condensed into the abstract graphic surface that makes up the photograph.

Homma himself makes obscure reference to the ideals of Superflat in his essay in Vartanian’s 2006 essay collection Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers. The essay begins, ‘I am standing once again on the burned field…’ simultaneously an allusion to the scoured, levelled surface of Superflat and the WW2 bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Homma implies a parallel between the end of the war and the rise of Superflat. A new start for Japanese society, this time with the imperial ideals of America subverted and transformed into a cultural export the nation can take pride in. He further compounds this sense of hope in the following statement, which somehow manages to encompass both the failure of the bubble generation and the optimism of the ‘newly enfranchised’, post-Superflat Tokyo:

As a generation, we have missed the boat. Fine! So let’s start from here.

Silas DomineySilas Dominey recently graduated from Leeds College of Art’s BA Photography Programme and currently works as a freelance photo assistant. His work can be seen at