Looking back at Tokyo 1970 in Japanese photography

A ghost has appeared in Ginza. It’s not a scary ghost — in fact, it’s quite often comic and delightful. But it is, nonetheless, a ghost, the ghost of Tokyo past.

The setting is slightly incongruous, housed inside a very stylish foreign brand’s flagship Tokyo store, but on the ninth floor of Armani Ginza Tower you can find a goldmine of Japanese post-war photography. The ‘Tokyo 1970′ exhibition features the work of nine key photographers and purports to show a portrait of the city at this juncture between the post-war years and the period of high economic growth and consumerism.

Don’t go if you want to see records of the titular year — there is not an image of the World Exposition to be found — and in fact the exhibits stretch from 1965 through to around 1975. There is also perhaps a surprising absence of photography that features the cityscape itself. Instead, “Tokyo” is recreated here almost entirely through portraits, raising the question — is a city fundamentally defined by its people?

tokyo 1970 daiji aritaDaiji Arita, ‘First Born’

The years covered by the exhibition saw massive upheavals in Japan: the student movement and Zenkyoto campus strikes; the height of the resistance against the building of Narita airport at Sanrizuka; protests against the renewal of the Anpo security treat; protests and riots against Okinawa’s role in the Vietnam War; Yukio Mishima’s suicide; the Asama-sanso siege; the Yodogo hijacking… et cetera. This could be an almost endless list. But none of this is present in the exhibition, which raises another question — do such social happenings have to have a direct influence on art or the lives of ordinary citizens?

The nine photographers are Yoshihiro Tatsuki, Daiji Arita, Eikoh Hosoe, Daido Moriyama, Masatoshi Naito, Hajime Sawatari, Issei Suda, Katsumi Watanabe and Shuji Terayama. We’ve seen a lot of Shuji Terayama recently, partly because his reputation has been hallowed year-by-year and also due to this year marking three decades since he died. However, in spite of all the Terayama revivals, exhibitions, books and events, it is very rare to see him placed alongside other “regular” photographers. He was a multi-hyphenate of a man, someone who reveled in having lots of professions from, inter alia, poet, film director, playwright, provocateur and horse racing critic, but this might have been the first time I have ever seen him labelled as a “Japanese photographer”. Not that this is wrong — he creates arresting images and perhaps the ones included with this show are the standout in terms of vibrancy and pure bizarreness. And yet they are also a little too different, perhaps, being clearly grotesque and also, in color. (The other exhibits, with the exception of Sawatari’s, are all black and white.)

tokyo 1970 terayama shujiShuji Teramaya, ‘Makafushijina kyakujin’ (The Mysterious Visitors)

A connection to the late Terayama, though, was one of the common threads linking the photographers, who in many ways are incredibly disparate in terms of style and subject. Sawatari was the cinematographer for Terayama’s early film, ‘Emperor Tomato Ketchup’ (1971). “At the time I didn’t think Terayama was such an important guy,” recalled Sawatari at the press preview for the exhibition. Yoshihiro Tatsuki remembered a story of Terayama asking him to take a photo to celebrate his marriage. Moriyama once worked with Terayama on a series of photographs to accompany some essays on old working-class itinerant theatre. “I knew Terayama best during the time before he founded Tenjo Sajiki… At any rate, he was cool, a star.”

“The city itself was like a giant theatre,” said Masatoshi Naito. This theatricality is most obvious in Terayama’s exhibits, though also in Hosoe’s series ‘Simmon a Private Landscape’, where his camera follows the antics of a waif-like clown Simmon (Simon Yotsuya) around Asakusa and elsewhere in Tokyo’s shitamachi. On this journey, Simmon is a forlorn but comic figure — as jesters always are — part transvestite, part Ankoku Butoh dancer, part Everyman.

tokyo 1970 hosoe eikoh katsumi watanabeEikoh Hose, ‘Simmon a Private Landscape’ (left) and Katsumi Watanabe, ‘Shinjukuguntoden’ (right)

The walls of the Armani Gallery, usually white or black, are here starkly coated in blue, offset by the minimal arrangement of the blocks of each photographer’s contributions. Altogether they form a mammoth anthology of Tokyo images, some 300 photographs documenting the folk who then walked the streets of the world’s largest metropolis. The social tribes are clearly drawn, even if some of the individual figures are ambiguous. For example, Watanabe’s images of Shinjuku people are especially enthralling for their posed glorification of Nichome subculture or Kabukicho gangsterdom. Occasional details muddle you — is this one a drag queen or not? — but the effect is as ethnographical as much as artistic. Also no stranger to folk studies, Masatoshi Naito, on the other hand, trains his lens on a gallery of homeless and down-and-outs, though not all of them are necessarily poor. These significantly darker images, especially in the way they are juxtaposed in the exhibition, suggest that the drunk salaryman is as much a member of an underclass as the economically impoverished.

tokyo 1970 masatoshi naitoMasatoshi Naito, ‘Tokyo’

Sure, some “iconic” images are here, but an awful lot may surprise you if you go looking for photographs that might overtly define the city. This is very far from being photojournalism and some of the scenes in the photographs at first glance do not even resemble Japan, let alone Tokyo. Sawatari’s famous ‘Kinky’ series shows an alluring girl (Sawatari’s wife) in a red hat swanning around what appears to be a beach far out in the sticks (in fact, it’s Haneda).

tokyo 1970 sawatari hajimeHajime Sawatari, ‘Kinky’

As a similar exhibition on, say, London might conjure up expectations of a parade of Swinging Sixties images, there is some of that atmosphere here — and an easy response is to give in to a sense of emancipation in the photographs. Our response, though, was to think less about the period itself. The androgyny and apparent mixed race of a few of the characters lends many of the images a timeless and universal look. Bar a few details, some could have been shot now or in another country, and this also particularly links into the representation of fashion, which is not so very different from today. The influence some of these nine had on contemporary fashion photography is evident, not least Sawatari, who worked a lot on anan when it was first founded. Yoshihiro Tatsuki was also known primarily as a fashion photographer and built a reputation for playful images of female models.

tokyo 1970 yoshihiro tatsukiYoshihiro Tatsuki, ‘Shitadashi tenshi’ (Angels with Tongues Sticking Out)

tokyo 1970 daido moriyamaDaido Moriyama, ‘Farewell Photography’

There is then a contrast with someone like Daido Moriyama, whose work is instead very much about the medium. Tucked behind a corner and presented as one set of black-framed images almost like a two-page spread in an open book, Moriyama’s are, bure, boke (“grainy, blurry, out of focus”) aesthetic is given full vent. For Moriyama and his Provoke magazine cohorts, the materiality of photography was paramount, manifest in his photographs of photographs of accidents. An image is fragmented documentation; it cannot be controlled. Suda’s everyday scenes or Arita’s softness couldn’t be any more different to Moriyama’s harsh lens, though arguably his paradigm is the one that has lingered more in the collective visual memory of “1970″. In that sense, the variety presented by the exhibition is a welcome chance to redress the imbalance.

tokyo 1970 issei sudaIssei Suda, ‘Waga Tokyo 100′

“People look back on ’1970′ and think it must have been amazing. But at the time it was just normal,” says Tatsuki. “There were lots of people heading in lots of different directions and this was certainly an interesting thing. No one was aligned… The values up till then suddenly all changed.”

‘Tokyo 1970′ Exhibition
October 5th to 29th
Venue: Armani / Ginza Tower