Jesse’s book review, A Criminal Investigation by Watabe Yukichi
Jesse is on a well deserved vacation at the moment. But he has been awesome enough to leave a couple of book reviews for us. I consider these reviews to be an integral part of the site and I really hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
“On January 13th 1958 a nose, two fingertips and a penis were discovered in an oil vat near Sembako Lake. The following day police discovered the body of a man on the other side of the lake who had been grotesquely disfigured. Several fingers had been cut off and the entire body had been badly burned with acid, clearly an attempt to make identification impossible…”
This is the case Watabe Yukichi got special permission to document. A selection of the resulting photos then appeared in Nippon Magazine and a compilation photo book thereafter. It wasn’t until the release of this, that the images were completely compiled in a way that tells the whole story. The photographer himself at this point was a freelance photo journalist, but was heavily connected to a magazine called Gendai that headed by the surrealist writer Abe Kobo.
The book is well presented in a notebook style that reflects the content in that it feels like a giant police journal (think McConaughey in True Detective). In all there about a 100 pages with typewriter style notations that updates the reader on the investigation. It is concluded with an epilogue as the case was to remain unsolved at the time the documentation stopped before there was a breakthrough and the suspect was found. I will let you read the book yourself for that ending.
Set in the 50s it comes off perfectly at a time when film noir films were popular. The genre itself started in postwar America and climaxed around the mid 50s, however in Japan with the advent of the Japanese New Wave at the close of the 50s that the genre saw a new life that was headed by Nikkastu. The style here is perfectly reflected in those films adding to the book’s aesthetic down to the grainy black and white night photos of smoky interiors and lamp posts on foggy nights.
The best photo to reflect this can found below. There is a light tower in the background shrouded in smoke. There are the lines of the bridge coming from the foreground up through to the mid ground that is ended by a lamppost and three figures. The two detectives are in the foreground alongside the bridge barrier with a light looking at notes. Our eye is lead to all three light sources in each the fore, mid, and background by the lines of bridge that forms a nice triangle…which even then is hardly the point since the mood is overwhelmingly powerful.
However, it is all aesthetic as the difference becomes apparent in its realism. Unlike, film noir were cops are brandishing their guns or chasing down criminals this follows the lines of a police procedural. You get the forensics, the detectives gathering evidence, sitting in meetings, walking around the neighborhoods, and interrogations as the one that is depicted that amounts to nothing. Think in comparison to an earlier review in Kurata’s Flash Up or work of Wegee, this is quite honestly sober. In fact a good third of the photos are taken even in between the investigation where we see the detectives on a smoke breaks, eating meals, and playing with neighborhood kids. These moments add to the realism and give the overall presentation a more humanistic feel.
A more artistically shot below represents these off moments. In the foreground there is a wooden wheel that contours perfectly one of the detectives in the mid ground who is looking right. The other detective is clear of any lines and merely stands there as there is an intricate play of lines above. The rest of the photos are more plays on light and shadow while focusing on the faces of the people in them.
Unlike my recent reviews this book can be had for about 50 dollars from most sites including Amazon, however support your local book shops and order from So Books. While it might not have the excitement of Wegee or really violence porn, it is soberly honest and well shot. And like we always want it gives us the “whodunit” that you will have to read to find out.
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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A love a good detective story, especially the old ones, when they had to really put in the leg work. This is great. Now I am hooked and I shall need to find out who did it. Thanks Jesse.
There is also a Japanese version called “Stakeout Diary” where they borrowed the negatives from the son of Yukichi Watabe and made prints especially for this edition. Both are highly recommended and compliment each other nicely.
A very good book and beautifully made but quite expensive, here in the UK, it is however on my shopping list.