Jesse’s Book Review – Japan through a Leica by Ihee Kimura
This time around Jesse tackles a book that a few people have mentioned to me lately. A really special book for the Leica buffs out there.
Japan Through a Leica is really first and foremost a collector’s book. The first edition was released in 1938 composed of would have been the first shots with a Leica camera, i.e. first shots taken freed from a tripod that was able to keep up with movement that characterizes the everyday. This aspect was something the photographer was aware of from the strange English preface written by the artist himself (complete with blatant spelling mistakes). Looking to exploit this aspect, the images in this book are taken from 1933 till publication.
In all the book is made of 100 images. There is a complete English data table in the back of the book with lens information, aperture, filter, film, exposure times, development remarks…useful for anyone who still uses the first Leica IIIs and would want this information, although I am reviewing the rare first edition so not sure what is included in the subsequent reprints. One thing the images do emphasis is a rare look into the rhythms of Japanese life of those hard years leading up to World War II.
The book fittingly starts off the way any society does with…its youth. Aspects of school life from elementary to university are detailed that surprisingly reveal what little has actually changed. Calligraphy class still uses the same materials, kids still have recess in their uniforms, kendo practice is still done in the same manner and boys hang out after school loosening their stiff uniforms as they do now.
From there and in natural progression, the different artisan jobs are explored that would also appeal on an anthropologic level, as a lot of these jobs, practices, and locations no longer exist. It begins with more industrial jobs and ends with the rural. From there the traditional arts are explored through tea ceremony and ikebana. Japan’s unique architecture takes precedent next with a shot of the still existing Kabuki theatre in Ginza to some that no longer exist like the Osaka amusement center that looks strikingly like the inn in the Ghibli film Spirited Away.
Different forms of leisure entertainment are photographed from sumo, summertime fireworks to Noh and the now more obscure bunraku plays effectively ending the book. Throughout all of these photos, there is a continuing English text explaining them.
For all of this, noticeably absent is any discerning photographic style. The photographer (as we know from his own preface) was aware of what Europeans were doing with this freed format of 35mm photography and admired them greatly. Yet, there isn’t the early surrealistic nature of Cartier-Bresson, or compositional quirks of Kertesz. These are straightforward photos that today would borderline on amateurish in terms of style, technical skill is evident when considering the medium’s early limitations and lack of anything automated including light meters.
So why is this so revered today? Well its novelty of course with the Leica mystique, surely in addition to a rare look into the pre-war life of the Japanese. A lot of photos like this would have been destroyed in the war. But perhaps it was its novelty in terms of accessibility since it was completely written in English. The intended audience was definitely foreign but it wasn’t propaganda, because instead it just showed an everyday at a time when Japan had again become insular well into its Manchuria campaign…
So there is Japan Through a Leica. I’d advise anyone looking for stylistic inspirations to perhaps pass this up. Collectors would love this as it does dawn the Leica name and is a rare gem intended for a foreign audience at a time when Japan was to attacking its neighbors. The first editions that survived the war can mostly be found in museums or in rare instances for exuberant prices. The reprints fetch in comparison are more modest in price that still sits over 1000 USD.
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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