Adrift in the City of Superflat

Foam #23, "City Life," Summer 2010

During the extraordinarily turbulent and dynamic post-war period, Tokyo became a great photographic city: a city with a distinctive, immediately recognizable photographic aesthetic. Just as Paris’s visual identity became intrinsically linked to the humanist photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau and the sprawl of Los Angeles typified by the large format colour cityscapes of Stephen Shore, Tokyo became characterized by an intense and gritty are, bure, boke (rough, blurry, out of focus) aesthetic which emphasized the turbulent nature of the capital’s post-war growth. This imagery is commonly associated with the short-lived but hugely influential magazine Provoke, founded by Koji Taki, Takuma Nakahira, Takahiko Okada and Yutaka Takanashi in 1968. Although he only joined Provoke for its second issue, Daido Moriyama has emerged as its most widely recognized proponent. Their images have a visceral power which flows from the deep engagement of these photographers with the world around them and their desire to convey their personal experience of the rage, rebellion and despair of these times. They sent shockwaves through the Japanese photographic community, and set the framework for photography for the years to come.

Less than twenty years later, Tokyo underwent another, radically different period of reconstruction. With the economic bubble of the 1980s, Japan experienced unparalleled growth which transformed the face of the city, not only by an explosion of ambitious hyper-modern architectural projects, but also by the massive expansion and standardized modernization of its suburbs. It is in this context that Takashi Homma has emerged as one of the most observant and astute chroniclers of contemporary Tokyo. As he noted in 1999, "No matter how many photo­ graphs I take every day, the actual landscape keeps moving faster than what is in my head." The city was no longer characterized by the dark, labyrinthine back streets of Shinjuku, but by its skyscrapers and its seemingly featureless suburban sprawl. For a new generation of photo­ graphers it was necessary to find a different photographic vocabulary to explore this new face of their city.

Boy 7, Shinurayasu, 1998

Boy 7, Shinurayasu, 1998

Homma burst onto the Japanese photographic scene with his 1998 book, Tokyo Suburbia, a phonebook­-sized tome of colour landscape photographs of Tokyo’s sprawling, anonymous suburbs with thick card pages like those of a children’s book. With Tokyo Suburbia Homma was not only shifting the focus away from the city to its periphery, but his distant, cool (even cold), deadpan style stood in stark opposition to the gritty snapshots of Moriyama, Araki or Kitajima.

Homma’s Tokyo bears virtually no traces of the old. His early work combines highly formal images of empty suburban spaces with portraits of their moody and sometimes awkward teenage inhabitants, revealing traces of his beginnings as a fashion and advertising photographer in the early 1990s. With his suburban landscapes Homma chose a subject that is both universally familiar and routinely ignored. These featureless housing complexes and parking lots epitomize the banality of the every­ day. To borrow a term coined by the curator Koichi Wada, they can be described as ‘commonscapes’. By making them his subject, Homma generates an unsettling feeling in the viewer, as our gaze searches in vain for something extra­ordinary to latch on to. Inevitably these photo­ graphs create a feeling of emptiness as they depict those supremely unremarkable spaces that we have taught ourselves to ignore.

In a cryptic, but revealing essay in Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers, Homma writes: ‘We are standing on a burned field—the earth extends far past the horizon—nothing can be seen beyond that.’ In this text Homma flicks rapidly through the pages of Japanese post-war photographic history. With the metaphor of the burned field—referencing the landscapes of the immediate post-war years—Homma seemingly acknowledges that the increasingly extreme photographic explorations of the 1960s and 1970s have run their course and that there may be no new avenues to explore. "As a generation, we have missed the boat."

And yet in this essay, Homma hints at an important influence on his photographic approach and a potential guide for navigating the landscape of this burned field: Takuma Nakahira’s 1973 book, Naze, Shokubutsu Zukanka (Why an Illustrated Botanical Dictionary?). In this work Nakahira criticized his own black-and-white work of the Provoke period, arguing instead for the use of colour photography to "treat things as things" and "look at the world as it is." As the political radicalism and rebellion of the 1960s began to wane, Nakahira saw the need to replace the lyricism and radical symbolism of black-and-white post-war photography with the dispassionate realism of colour. These ideas are evident in Homma’s subtle use of colour to capture the true nature of the everyday. His use of muted tones avoids the romanticization of his subjects and heightens their ordinary and banal qualities.

Homma’s interest in the commonscapes of Tokyo’s outskirts, his detached, almost mechanical photographic approach and his rejection of preexisting photographic forms, are also linked to two highly influential exhibitions that were held in the United States in the late 1960s and mid-1970s: Contemporary Photographers: Towards a New Social Landscape (1966) and New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (1975). Together these exhibitions represented a departure from preexisting photographic conventions in their attempt to provide a new conception of both the social and physical landscape by emphasizing neutrality, composition and a focus on the seemingly random moments of daily life. The influence of this period in Western photography on Homma’s work often imbues his images with the sense of an outsider looking in. Although he is a child of Tokyo’s suburbs, when he picks up his camera Homma does not betray his personal relationship to these spaces.

In a radical departure from the generation before him, the presence of the photographer is almost entirely absent from Homma’s early im- ages. Whereas Moriyama or Araki dragged the viewer into the intensity of their personal experiences, Homma’s highly formalistic landscapes reveal nothing of himself. His style is architectural, scientific even, as he turns the camera into an instrument for recording reality. This formalism creates a sense of detachment and distance in the viewer, tingeing these images with a delicate sadness, a slightly despondent feeling at the flatness and emptiness of these spaces. As the Japanese economic bubble burst to give way to the ‘lost decade’, the younger generation found itself adrift with a deeply uncertain future, and their listlessness is echoed in Homma’s empty spaces.

Tokyo and My Daughter , 2006

Tokyo and My Daughter, 2006

Over time, however, Homma has allowed traces of the personal to appear in his work. With Tokyo and my Daughter, Homma interweaves pictures of his studio, his dog and of himself with fragments of a young girl’s life in the city. With this series Homma has also shifted his attention somewhat from the emptiness of suburban landscapes to the closeness of interior space. This intimate, although fictional (the girl in the series is not Homma’s daughter but a friend’s) portrait of a father and daughter’s life in the city retains the sense of distance and melancholy of his earlier work, while suffusing it with a delicate warmth and affection. To understand this ambivalent relationship with the city, it is useful to consider Homma’s work within the context of the superflat art movement.

Homma belongs to a group of artists, including Takashi Murakami, Yoshimoto Nara and Chiho Aoshima, associated with "superflat," a term coined by Murakami to refer to the post-modern merging of high and low art as well as to a distinct set of stylistic characteristics. The superflat style involves certain two-dimensional forms that appear in Japanese graphic art, anime and manga, and which ignore Western perspective techniques. Beyond these formal properties, however, the term also refers to the "shallow emptiness of Japanese consumer culture." This culture emerged through the phenomenal economic growth of the 1980s which led to an expansion in personal wealth in both urban and rural areas, a flattening of class distinctions and a great surge in mass consumerism.

Superflat is not designed to be a simple critique of the shallow nature of Japan’s consumerist culture; on the contrary it celebrates the creativity that this consumption has generated. This phenomenon is mirrored in the shift in tone that has taken place in Homma’s Tokyo work over the past decade. Although his style remains highly formal, in Tokyo and my Daughter the coldness and distance of his earlier work gives way to a certain warmth and affection in the portraits of his "daughter." This warmth can also be sensed in the evolution of Homma’s cityscapes and architectural photographs. The series collapses the distinction between the city and its suburbs by juxtaposing Homma’s trademark suburban commonscapes with glowing images of cutting edge architecture. His emphasis has shifted from the cold, impersonal face of modern landscapes to highlighting the beauty of their individual architectural details.

Interestingly this evolution in the tone of Homma’s work has given it a more childlike quality. Indeed, his Tokyo is populated almost entirely by children. In the portraits in this series, the girl stares directly into the camera, her gaze suggesting that she is aware that we are trespassing into her world. In one image she appears wearing the same t-shirt as Homma, who is relegated to the background, his presence seemingly peripheral. However, this isn’t a world of joyful insouciance. Homma’s "daughter" seems concerned, puzzled, perhaps bored but never playful or bounding with energy. In one diptych of the girl taking a picture with her disposable camera, her expression seems to reflect the photographer’s struggle to find the best way of capturing an image.

House in a Plum Grove (Kazuyo Sejima & Associates), 2004

House in a Plum Grove (Kazuyo Sejima & Associates), 2004

Even without the children themselves Homma’s images retain this childlike quality remains. His photographs of contemporary houses built by superstar architects SANAA or Atelier Bow Wow, bring out the cute, dollhouse quality of these constructions and his use of flattened cityscapes shrinks them to the size of scale modes. A photograph of Homma’s studio reveals a bright room littered with CDs, DVDs and art-toys including a Yoshimoto Nara dog. This could be the room of a teenager. In case there was any doubt as to whose world this is, in one nighttime exposure of a Tokyo street, the backlit words "Kiddy Land" are pictured glowing through the trees.

This childishness is an important feature of modern life in Japan as people increasingly seek refuge from reality in the fantasy worlds of manga, anime or the online world. Homma’s ‘daughter’ could be considered to be a symbol of the young Japanese generation’s experience of life in Tokyo. Her expression conveys a concerned but determined acceptance of the confusion of modern life. While the future may be uncertain, there are some bright and beautiful moments to illuminate it along the way. 

By Marc Feustel

(Photographs by Takashi Homma)