Crash-landing in Tokyo: Osamu Kanemura’s Photographic Love Song

Parts of Tokyo feel as if they are in permanent stasis. Shinjuku, for example, is like an Eden Project left to run wild, extremely content with just ‘being’. That day-to-day existence is what makes somewhere like Shinjuku or even downtown Tokyo so appealing. There’s no urgency, they simply exist. But as gentrification spreads that contentment is threatened.

Born in Tokyo in 1964, photographer Osamu Kanemura has been documenting the city for over 20 years. His book Spider’s Strategy (2000) collates street scenes shot around the time of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake. He doesn’t document the destruction directly but instead shows a different kind of disaster somewhere else. Tokyo is seen here in stark contrasts. The slow collapse of distinctive postwar remnants from Japan’s ‘Showa’ period are replaced with the same convenience stores and the same banal graphic language that exist everywhere. The city’s appearance is not the only thing to suffer: its psyche does too, conveying a sense that things are becoming flatter and strangely claustrophobic.

The photographs hold the same mystery for Kanemura as they do for his audience. He struggles to remember where some were taken; some are of places that no longer exist. Tokyo has no real centre,no beginning or end.It adopts the character of his photographic images: disposable, forgettable, wasted. Kanemura describes wandering through streets filled with a presence like that of the Boston Strangler. An extreme example perhaps, but suggestive of the sense of strangulation felt presently in Tokyo, the breathlessness and claustrophobia. For Kanemura, the digital image is partly responsible for this, creating a’mountainous debris of data’ through the humourlessness of camera phones. They dehumanize the city.

Z-Trash Diary (2013–) is his response,a series of digital snapshots of random windows, outlined figures,inset screens and monitors, vinyl moire patterns, food menus and found objects. The series began when Kanemura was given a Ricoh digital camera to experiment with. Now these images have been cut together with moving image taken with the same camera. He’s returned to his filmmaking roots to make of a short film (available on DVD) that embodies the spirit of its making: Elvis the Positive Thinking Pelvis (Osiris) is a filmic song of love and death. The kind of song that’s bittersweet, recalling a relationship that ends badly. ‘Trash like photograph’ or ‘Trash like city’, as the trailer states. If images could sing, his would scream.

“An extreme example perhaps, but suggestive of the sense of strangulation felt presently in Tokyo, the breathlessness and claustrophobia”

Kanemura’s work has evolved. Both Z-Trash Diary and Elvis the Positive Thinking Pelvis have him holding the camera differently. His work is more instinctive than before, less controlled, prone to banality, offering images of nothing and extraordinary images of… something. In a way this new work embodies Tokyo more than ever before. He still works with monochrome film.His recent darkroom series, Ansel Adams Stardust, reimagines the city with little nostalgia.  Only when you look back on his work do you realize the rate at which change has happened.

After Commodore Perry’s Black Ships entered Yokohama Port in 1868, the Meiji Restoration began 150 years of modernization in Japan. In its rawest form, Kanemura’s photography depicts this process – but turning it on its head as the city slowly devours itself.

He has come to realise Tokyo is a place he no longer enjoys. ‘It’s a hard city to live in. A dark place,’ he says. Tokyo in all its unplanned and organic grandeur is at risk of becoming flatter and less interesting. He now reimagines Tokyo by way of visual protest; a process that’s easier to discard yet much harder to forget.


An edited version of this piece features in Elephant Magazine #20. Out now.