Jesse’s Book Review – Tokyo East Waves By Mitsugu Ohnishi

The credence, nothing last forever, certainly rings true here. For Japan, a country who has wrestled with the idea of its own identity since the Meji Restoration, this book comes at the end of another era two periods later at the end of the Showa era…and more specifically its coinciding and concluding point, the bubble economy.

Throughout this time that saw rapid industrialization, imperialism, and an economic miracle the dichotomy remained between Japanese-ness and the westernization. Similarly Russia always carried this two being in the unique position of are we Europeans or Asians that in their great literary pursuits was always a background theme as with Japan. Shot in the 1980s we have Mitsugu Ohnishi’s “Tokyo East Waves” capturing the twilight of the bubble economy and the resulting artificial landscapes its riches brought about.

As the title suggests, focusing on East Tokyo was crucial to this period and the artificial motif Ohnishi shoots it with. Perhaps most known to come out of this development was Odaiba, the artifical island in Tokyo Bay that going into the 90s was left for sometime unfinished due to the economic collapse. This whole area that incorporates Disney (both land and sea) was once pre- and immediate post-war fishing shacks and minor industries.

A lot of New Wave era Japanese films centered their stories in these areas most notably to mind, Oshima Nagisa’s Cruel Story of Our Youth that has a classic scene along a now long gone lumber area in the bay. Since the bubble it has become one of the few locations in Tokyo that actual observes tradition perpendicular grid streets (as it was actual planned) complete with condominium developments and a general predilection for glass structures. It is this transition that Ohnishi heightens, capturing the actual people caught up in both of these extremes.

Heightening the artificiality, he shoots medium format with a Makina 670 on slide film. It is quite remarkable that he could rather consciously comprehend the changes going on in Japan as he shot most of these photos. His choose of camera and film was also perhaps a conscious an offshoot of the New Color style coming from America as he shot mostly black and white throughout his life. The work here could have only been shot in color…

I keep harping on the artificiality but also the playful humor he exhibits while doing it. Because of the sprawl of East Tokyo, this isn’t a traditional up close street photography book made up of characters in passing. Instead it is of people in their leisure in context of the changes around them, i.e. gaudy American themed pachinko parlors, McDonald’s events, festivals, and events are captured.

The book although atmospherically cohesive is made up of three photographic sets. Shot in 1985 the first is mostly along the Arakawa river in East tokyo a little north from the bay. The other two were shot in the bay area right after the bubble in 1992 and 1995 respectively. Originally released as exhibitions, when put together that do cover the end of era and its lingering languid atmosphere.

Appropriately the book features three concluding essays. One draws an allusion to the yet to be translated Doppo Kunikida novel “Musashino” for which if familiar with Tokyo is the exact opposite end of the city. However, the essay is wrapped up nicely in its sentiment of artificiality. The second and perhaps more appropriate is by fellow photographer (previously reviewed) Hiromi Tsuchida. Among the same decades, his work is made up of Japanese crowds throughout Tokyo that really captured the same period.

The third essay appropriately is by the photographer himself where of all things he harps on the fact that he had no initial pretension shooting these images other than the fact that he lived there and it was a relatively flat area that was not only easy for walking but that he could capture distances. This in effect lends itself to the juxtaposing that characterizes the book often with traditional spaces in the foreground and looming condominium s in the background or vice versa. It serves to heighten the absurdity of it all through compositional juxtaposition.

The book is relatively new published through Fugensha. Already sold out through most major retailers, the publisher has exactly 3 copies left for retail, here.

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-JF