Jesse’s book review, Nippon Nendai 1970 by Kitai Kazuo
Jesse returns with another great review of a Japanese photo book. Kitai sans books shows a side of Japan that has almost disappeared now, a beautiful look at Japan it what was actually the boom time. Enjoy.
“Always do the opposite to what people expect.” In the Golden Age of Japanese street photography, Kitai Kazuo went left…north…and south…or really anywhere that wasn’t Tokyo. This is significant for two reasons one of which more related to photography and the other more cultural. 1970s Japanese photography essentially was Tokyo, and culturally the perception of Japan was entirely industrial. So for photography he did the exact opposite of what everyone was doing and culturally it was really the last documentation of a part of Japan that has all but ceased to exist. So the crossover value is evident because it is not only an art photo book but also a study of the last of a culture.
Although there is a lot of text in the book, only the afterward is in offered in English. In it he stated he just walked along rural unpaved roads using telephone poles as his only guide to find people and homes. He recalled the sketch by Miyazawa Kenji of the man in the form of a telephone pole as his symbolic guide in taking these photos in the 1970s. There are 237 photos in a collection that first saw its release in 1976, where it was then titled “To Villages” and was re-edited into the form you see today titled “1970 Nendai Nippon.”
While no one photo stands out anymore than the next they work together in what they set out to do. The quietness of the photos matched perfectly the temperament of rural Japan itself. With a few instances of accidental framing the photos are pretty straightforward, really going against what made the other photographers in Japan at the time special. The only other project I can say to be similar is Hiromi Tsuchida’s “Zokushin” shot between 1968 and 1975 focusing on forgotten rural customs. The difference in the two aside from the subject and time period… is in the humor. Looking back Tsuchida injected it into his work that stands out when in context with Kitai’s series. I think this aspect could be either welcomed or found unnecessary contradicting the goal of capturing rural customs that some could perceive as condescending. And this goes back to the temperament. I think in depicting a dying yet culturally important facet of Japanese culture, any possibility for condescension should be avoided. And Kitai does this perfectly with his quiet temperamental photos.
My favorite set of photos from the book is in the photo above with the cover photo on the left and a medium distance landscape of the trees on the right. With the exception of Rinko Kawauchi’s “Utatane”, this is one of my favorite photo books in terms of editing. Turning a page from right to left (although isn’t very Japanese) the flow of the train and trees are perfectly conveyed, not only through the very action of turning the page, but following the flow of the eye. The sense of motion in the photos is felt from what are two contradictory subjects, a train and trees. One is the early symbol of industrialization and the other an early symbol…of life if you will, yet both flow together seamlessly. But the photo I want to focus on is taken in a bath house, photo no. 61 in the book. In it there are three older women and two men. There is nothing provocative about it as it is simply a moment of time. The light seeps from the cracks in the building’s façade that come down in rays that shine down on the bathers. The bit of light shed on the nakedness of their body is symbolic of what Kitai has done with this project stripping away everything and just shedding bits of light through the cracked façade of the past on something so purely naked that is now covered up by industrialization.
I was able to pick this up at the Jr. High School’s library I teach at. Never having really held a conversation with the librarian she informed this was her favorite photo book (though Araki she said was her favorite photographer) and even had purchased a print from the book (the exact one I examine above). The recent feature exhibition of these photos at the Tokyo Photography Museum cements their place in Japanese photo history and really should be in any collection of Japanese photo books, including mine (lol). Though for my own taste I will opt for his “Journey into 1920s German Expressionism” he did as my first Kitai book, since I have sat with this one for some time already. “Nippon Nendai 1970” should be easily had, though the retail is 5,000, I’d expect to pay a little more. Fingers crossed I find it at Book-Off….
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
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Thanks for another great review Jesse. This is a lovely look at a Japan that has now disppeared. You can see glimpses of it out in the country, but for the most part it has gone.