Another world

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There’s something fascinating about how similar Japan and Germany are. In the late 19th century, both countries emerged out of a suspended state to try to catch up with the countries they perceived as their peers. This process involved trying to reconcile modernity with their own cherished and in part deeply flawed national and cultural identities. In the end, both countries failed miserably, inflicting enormous pain on their neighbours through wars and genocide.

Completely crushed in World War 2, both countries were given another chance (an unearned gift), only to emerge as economic power houses that, alas, have never quite figured out what it means to be a normal sovereign country. Starting in the 1980s, their paths started to diverge. Germany embraced neoliberal capitalism to the fullest, transforming itself into the mini-US it is now. Japan instead went through an extreme really-good-boom-and-really-bad-bust cycle, after which its ruling class doubled down on investing money to fuel the economy even as the country’s birth rate imploded.

But there remains a deeply fascinating similarity between the two countries. Deeply insecure about their own national merit, both are engaged in a fight between outside cultural values and their own, native ones. The latter contain so much fiction that it’s hard to see real differences between Amaterasu, Japan’s sun goddess, and a Disney character, or Richard Wagner’s Ring opera cycle and any one of the various Marvel franchises produced in Hollywood (except that the music is a lot more tedious and the acting is a lot worse in the operas). But to Japanese and German people, the differences feel very important.

Much like in any other country, the fight over Japanese or German national identities involves symbols (or signs if you’re into semiotics). For me, as someone who grew up in West Germany, I can see this struggle much more clearly in Japan than in Germany. In a rather basic sense, many elements of Japan’s visual culture make me look at least twice because they and their context are unfamiliar to me.

The huge pitfall for a Westerner of course is to immediately fall into the traps of orientalism and/or othering. If you look at things in a realistic fashion, though, a country like Japan that seems “strange” to a Westerner in fact is a lot less strange than many Western countries. As an aside, I just listened to a podcast in which two linguists, both fluent in Japanese and with years of experience living there, discuss “weird” experiences they had in Japan. At some stage, one of them says that it’s actually a lot more likely to meet a weird person in the US than in Japan.

As someone not from Japan, you don’t want to make any assumptions about what you encounter. You want to try to take things at face value. In fact, you wan to do that in any foreign country. If you do that, you will be able to see beyond what a tourist might see. Furthermore, you will start picking up on that struggle over national identity and symbols. It is that struggle that plays out in Kenta Nakamura‘s exuberant and brilliant Ginga ni umeru (Release into the Galaxy).

The book combines staged/set up photographs (mostly portraits) with snapshots in a wild mix that might ruffle some feathers both in Japan and in the West, albeit probably often for different reasons. The opening sequence alone makes it clear what will be unfolding in the book’s pages. The first spread pairs a photograph of a elderly woman dressed in a Cinderella costume enjoying some food with a photograph of a young child whose mostly blue possessions have been arranged around him.

The second spread shows two women who both wear one of those red-blue glasses used for 3D movies or pictures (see picture above; these glasses recur throughout the book). On the left, a young mother is holding her child. On the right, the woman is wearing a very formal looking white kimono while sitting on a couch (as far as I know, it’s a bridal garment).

The third spread has a brightly lit photograph of a cow’s udder against a pair of metal poles in water at what looks like sunset. This then is followed by a photograph of a dried and flattened squid against a portrait of an older Japanese man wearing a double-breasted suit.

Obviously, you would have to see the book to understand how it works. But maybe you can sense from the descriptions above that some of its meaning is created from using the contrasts between two opposing photographs, often done in a way that’s very much on the nose. In fact, a lot of the pictures are in the on-the-nose category with their bright colours, lit by flash. A lot of what you see has been visually exaggerated. But it works because many of the people posing do so in the most deadpan fashion, implying that what you perceive as weird — that’s you, the viewer, putting it on them.

There are a number of photographs from a funeral in the book, including what looks like a selfie of the photographer with the same dead relative who is later seen in her casket (following Japanese tradition, there are flowers arranged around her). The selfie itself comes with a huge emoji over the deceased person’s face (remember, the word emoji is Japanese). This might not be the most tasteful picture (then again, Masahisa Fukase took a funeral selfie, too). Yet in the context of the book, it doesn’t stick out too much. Nakamura treats everything as being worthy of satire, to poke holes into conventions, traditions, new ways of living, and the importance people place on themselves.

Even as the edit of the book is slightly uneven — there are some pictures that don’t contribute much to it, Ginga ni umeru is the most surprising and fun photobook I’ve seen in a while. The world of photography is so serious about so much. When it’s not serious it’s often too obvious and punching down (usually employing classism to do so). In contrast, this particular book does all the right things. It doesn’t distinguish between high and low culture or traditional and pop culture.

As a viewer one can’t help but connect with many of those who happen to find themselves in front of Kenta Nakamura’s camera. I don’t know why that older woman is wearing a Cinderella costume. I don’t know why the woman on the cover (who is seen again later) owns a pet turtle (that might or might not be alive). But it seems like everything is trying to make do in a society that’s filled with a a strange mix of customs.

If you manage to pull yourself back from the society you’re embedded in, you might find some of the same strangeness in the customs of your own culture. That is, I think, what you will want to keep in mind after you’ve looked at this book. You will have to avoid the easy conclusion that “Japan is a weird country”. It is not. It might look weird (and Nakamura dials this up 11) because as outsiders, we’re not familiar with what a Japanese person would take for granted. But in some fashion, every country looks weird to outsiders. You simply can’t focus on the weirdness — because it’s mostly your projection.

Seen that way, once you’ve enjoyed Ginga ni umeru you might want to start looking into how all of the same contradictions play out wherever you might be located.

Highly recommended.

Ginga ni umeru; photographs by Kenta Nakamura; 136 pages; GAP4 Publishing; 2022

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