PRINT May 1991


But why are people so interested in ruins, unless there is a need to destroy an aesthetic order which has been dominant heretofore. Erotic energy aims at exciting cold violence. So long as this passion exists, ruins will exist all around you.
—Arata Isozaki, 1988

OF ALL THE WORDS we have to describe the thing: mob, throng, mass, horde, or swarm, each with its own inflections, the most social is the term “crowd.” After it decisively manifested itself as a revolutionary force, 200 years ago, the crowd in enlarged mercantile cities tended to be perceived as a phenomenon of spectacle. That perception, nowhere more available to a roving eye now than in economically expansionist Japan, was first borne in to many in Western Europe during the 19th century. An individual like Baudelaire could stroll the streets of Paris, entertained by the rhythms and manners of the endless passersby. Immersed within them, he nevertheless adopted an outside view, a singular viewpoint, which, since then, has been picked up by speakers in novels and by photographers beyond count. They have transformed the spectacle into an allegory of modern consciousness, equivocal and potentially frightening in its scope. Though huge urban gatherings might look benign, an urgency can suddenly well up in them as to overwhelm a stranger, or make states tremble. I well remember being swept about in a moment like that in July 1982, in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, on a sunny afternoon, unnaturally quiet at one instant, erupting into a frenzy the next.

The Italians had apparently done something cataclysmic: they had won the World Cup soccer championship. If they had landed on the moon or discovered the key to immortality, the mood would not have been more euphoric—but I did not share it. My lot was that of amazed and overwhelmed spectator with a camera. Though hardly lonely, I sensed myself as vastly outnumbered. Pictures of crowds united by one spontaneous emotion tend to have that effect, for their witness is understood to work in a separate psychological zone, necessarily detached from the crowd in order to capture its mood. One gets that feeling from Weegee’s crowds at Coney Island and from William Klein’s expressionist up-front views of clamor across the world. Whether the spectacle is panoramic or thrust open at close quarters, the photographers are there to observe, not to participate. Their awareness of their isolation can give to their work a characteristic self-consciousness. So we viewers, whom they represent, are often distanced from the energy of their photographs, as a theater audience is distanced from an onstage actor.

Klein went to Japan and was influential there in the ’60s. But his photographs of Japanese crowds differ significantly from those of native photographers. In that country, the components of mass are not implied as separately volatile, nor is the crowd an aggregate of temporary individual impulses. Rather, the Japanese crowd has a life of its own, homogeneous in its will even if bumpy in texture. The pictorial view is likely to be sweeping, decorative, or epic, and the mass of people gives the impression of being internally regulated according to laws of movement, interval, gravity, and surge that shape a given space. Individuals have very little importance in that space, with which the photographers are habituated. A viewer assumes that the image maker is either at one with what is seen, or perhaps just neutral about it, and so there is no outsider consciousness, no dialectic between active and passive roles, theatricalized by the picture as a discovery within pressurized circumstances.

With all that, such pictures can be remarkably fraught. An overhead night shot of a collision between riot police and banner-waving demonstrators, taken by a Mainichi newspaper photographer in 1960, highlights the serpentine human-wave tactics with which the two sides press against each other in a sea of bodies. The picture is about ideological containment during a moment when leftist groups united against Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi’s extension of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. Since the doings of such groups were given little coverage by the Japanese press, the image’s meaning to a general public would have been contingent on the fact that radicals are among the few groups singled out for real punishment in that consensual culture. Their destabilizing element sought leverage within a metropolitan traffic that photographers have repeatedly depicted as diffuse but heavy, and that crops up in joyless perspectives as an outright cliché of the Japanese scene. What is Haruo Tomiyama’s fish-eye view (from above) of squished passengers in a car at the Shinjuko Station (1965) if not a comment (optically distorted) on the hyperdensity of citizens within insufficient space? He calls this uncomfortable picture Tolerance, a state coerced by the overtight arrangements under which people live. Severe physical constraint obviously accounts for highly concentrated grouping, but more than that, it leads the Japanese eye to view the crowd not as an agent of history, or as an enjoyable spectacle, but as a relentless condition of existence.

The ’60s were conducive to this kind of subject, but it continues on in the late-’70s/early-’80s work of Hiromi Tsuchida, in a series on crowds called “Counting Grains of Sand.” City dwellers on vacation, in a marathon, or at some public event, micro-units all, are packed in and unable to maneuver. The theme was absent from.the tepid pictorialism of the years before World War II, but is plentifully illustrated after it, if the several shows devoted to Japanese photography at Paris’ “Mois de la Photo,” in November 1990, were any evidence. In their historical account, and in other sources as well, one sees the charred rubble of cities, repatriated troops, lines at soup kitchens, and clusters of frowsy street urchins in the aftermath of 1945. Much later, the salarymen, the white-collar masses, flood the place. People work in coordinated teams, they walk down corridors in single file, they even kiss in a kind of chorus. These dye-stamped forms of public behavior are depicted without hint of satire. The sense is given that Japan proliferates even communities of monks, or classes of pregnant mothers, by means of assembly lines. For the photographers emphasize social process as a mechanical conveyance through which standardized units are multiplied. And their pictures manifest a taste for quantification, such that Tsuchida’s use of the word “counting” is symptomatic of a widespread pictorial outlook. A shortage of space alone would hardly have produced this sense of ordered repetition. Rather, the photographers want to reveal how people belong or relate to their social environments, and to disclose the interchangeable parts, in any milieu, of which the cultural whole consists: a system that can only be implemented through pronounced communal constraints. Karel van Wolferen writes, “Japanese are treated by their school system and their superiors in the way a landscape gardener treats a hedge; protruding bits of the personality are regularly snipped off.”1

On no account should this famously productive and overwhelmingly high-tech urban workplace be thought of as the setting for a modern state on the Western model. The controls that photographs make apparent have a history preceding the modern city. And when release from the binding civic order is tolerated, it has an origin that is as ritual as the control is traditional. Consider an electrifying photograph taken by Takahiro Ono, Naked Festival of Saidaiji Temple, Okayama Prefecture, 1953.

Here is a bursting crowd of men, hundreds by the look of them, naked but for their loincloths, some of whom slip or jump from a balcony in the temple’s courtyard onto a mass of their fellows, protecting themselves from the impact of the falling bodies by their outstretched arms. Some of the males, already dropped down, are literally staggering over endless hands or shoulders. The heat must be intense, the din uproarious, the footing scanty, and who could breathe in that gorged sweatbox? Such is the jam of writhing people that the scene appears deranged beyond measure, implosive. One thinks of our painted Last Judgments, or of an infernal tableau by Bosch, with its nightmare pandemonium. Their compression forces these men into hivelike congress with each other, bone and shank and elbow and buttock jutting or heaving into flesh. At the same time, none of them is physically capable of yielding an inch in the mutual shove to which they all must contribute. A light from a bare bulb shines down into the temple’s darkness from above, where dangling feet suggest still another tier of bedeviled figures about to plunge into the human chaos beneath. What is more, the perception of the photographer, the one man madly doing something else—perhaps clandestinely—is as kinetic as the scene itself, since it is caught up by the tumult in which it must have been engulfed.

As they stuffed themselves inward, none of the men respected the limited capacity of their enclosure. Originally they might have been an open and now they are a closed crowd, willfully contained in a kind of humongous locker room. Yet what looks like a disaster climaxes a deliberate program. In his book Crowds and Power, Elias Canetti writes,

There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it. . . . It is only in a crowd that man can become free of this fear. . . . so that he no longer notices who it is that presses against him. . . . Ideally, all are equal there; no distinctions count, not even that of sex. The man pressed against him is the same as himself. . . . This is . . . why a crowd seeks to close in on itself: it wants to rid each individual as completely as possible of the fear of being touched.2

If Canetti is on the right track, then the claustrophile reflex of the Japanese men acts as a bonding agent. Though it deindividuates them, the closeness of their quarters also unites them—here, in the most hypertensive way. The dread I feel as a Western observer of this incredible entanglement—which entails a loss of unique identities in a huge collective—is therefore an unwarranted projection upon its meaning for the Japanese. Canetti wrote of crowds in general; to follow his argument, this particular group would epitomize the annihilation of personal territory and of ego as a closure that protects against fear of . . . human difference. Or rather, at this particular moment of extreme intimacy, the homogeneous mass affirms its very freedom from difference.

The photograph depicts an esoteric Buddhist festival of the Shingon sect conducted annually in a village harvest celebration. If it resembles an orgy it also manifests a discipline, close in spirit to rites of initiation. At the same time as such things went on in the country, in the city, by contrast, corporate recruits were taught how to bow 15, 20, or 25 degrees, according to the rank of those they met. From such rigid social boundaries, fixed hierarchies, and formalized behavior there issue outlets into the netherworld of carnival, theater, love hotels, strip joints, hostess bars, porn flicks, and other institutions catering to male eros. Japanese photography has had a field day depicting these pursuits, whose coquettish or violent routines reflect ongoing themes of popular culture.

Ian Buruma speaks of how hard it is to be atone in Japan, of “a general horror of loneliness. . . . The answer seems to be the anonymity of the crowd. People are soothed by being with others without having actually to communicate with them: hence the thousands of expressionless faces. . . . Hence, also, the fantasy of the anonymous rapist.”3 Occasional photographs—Shoji Ueda’s small boy jumping on a dune, of 1948, or a beetlelike man in a swimming pool by Kikuji Kawada, from 1978—characterize unwanted openness of space around a figure as a kind of limbo. But there is another, more frequent loner, a woman loner in a male crowd. She appears before us as the object of the men’s gaze, often as a nude modeling for their cameras, or as a stripper. The photographers of these pictures delight in the contrast between the one and the many, and clearly their interest in the woman’s exhibition or plight is added to that of their subjects. Often the vantage is near the woman but not associated with her, so as to make the group’s behavior and the odd one out a joint spectacle for the viewer. As if to sum up the whole period, the photograph chosen for the cover of the mammoth history of modern Japanese photography from 1945–1970 produced by the Japanese photographers’ association, the Nichon Shashinka Kyokai, and published by Heibonsha in 1977, is a street scene by Haruo Tomiyama that belongs to this type. One can easily cite other, raunchy examples of it by well-known photographers such as Shomei Tomatsu, Masatoshi Naito, and Moriyama Daido. In their work, indisputably, the men subjects are in the presence of difference, which fascinates them and which they deride.

Outside Japan, comparable vignettes have been made of the single female amidst leering males. But what those pictures and their Japanese counterparts say of their respective cultural milieux is different. For one thing, in Rome—I’m thinking of Ruth Orkin’s famous 1955 picture of the American girl there—the passage of the woman created a ripple of macho, unself-conscious interest. A Japanese photographer like Naito makes something far more sordid of the theme, where the woman—or, more likely in this case, the female impersonator—is certainly on show for the drunken men who have gathered around, in a nervous, laughing twitter illumined by the camera’s flash. The American girl was estranged from the male culture into which she had wandered. The smiling Japanese would more likely have been estranged—if at all —as an actor from an audience. So we reckon with transient qualities of solitude, one imposed, one invited—one that invokes sympathy and the other that the photographer seems to disdain. Naito’s picture is lively enough, and cold. It belongs in a context where women are popularly typecast into two roles: whore or mother. In neither guise is there ever demonstrated any concern for the possibility of their sadness or vulnerability. The whore is a cast-off personage. As for the mother, Buruma reports on a remarkable husband-and-wife show on television in which runaway wives are publicly “bullied into resuming [their] miserable existence in the home.”4

Speaking of other media, Jared Taylor writes, “Whether or not Japan is a primarily visual culture, as some Japanese argue, sex comic plots and other pornography often suggest seeing rather than doing. Even more explicit are voyeurs’ handbooks that describe the best techniques for spying on women and photographing them unawares.”5 These remarks imply that Japanese society, unlike ours, is in the end more self-repressive than licentious, despite the gruesomeness and cruelty of much of its popular media. The more those media pander to a visual appetite for the erotically sensational, on a pervasive scale, impossible to ignore, the more they imply that the crowd is well stocked with men for whom seeing compensates for doing. In nude photography sessions, their voyeurism operates in concert . . . and just as the Japanese habit of touring foreign countries in close-knit groups, the better to carry their ethos with them in unfamiliar territory, is often noted, so here they conduct conspicuous group tours of the female body. The act of seeing is institutionalized, so that the private thoroughly penetrates the public sphere—and the boundaries between the two become confused. An emphasis on seeing can’t help but stress a consciousness of the distance between the object and the subject. This distance can be traversed only by a gaze, even as it stimulates the appetite of touch. Certainly the more expressive Japanese photographers have been involved with this appetite, and have inevitably gravitated toward scenes of sanctioned or hired touching, i.e., debauchery—where the pictures are.

But the unspontaneous debauchery they give us has something forced about it. When it was not outright staged, this effect may be due to lurid graphic contrasts, compositional imbalances, and caricatured faces—in other words, stylistic choices. To these must be added printing techniques that deepen a nocturnal atmosphere. When combined with a taste for obscurity and blur, the images project a sleazy life apparently caught on the fly by one of its denizens. Memories of some Western photography—possibly William Klein, as I mentioned before—mingle with the pressure-cooker scenarios of Kabuki drama and grotesque effects exploited by Japanese film. We are not far removed from an impression of hysteria—but it is a kind of polemical hysteria. For example, Shomei Tomatsu’s passionate subjectivity—in scenes of litter and anomie—calls attention to itself as a forceful protest against everything that is impassively seen or politely uncentered in the image world around it. Whatever his project, this man, who insists on madly doing something else, is not involved in documentary.

Tomatsu’s acknowledgment of his own stakes in the act of seeing, which marked him off in the professional environment as early as the ’50s, exerts an undeniable moral power, the more so as he has long been concerned with the national trauma of the war, the way it had of scarring flesh and ruining cities. Their rebirth would have been a thing to celebrate, but it had not taken a form that he could pictorially accept. A Japanese writer, Shunji Ito, thinks it too easy to say that Tomatsu’s gesture represents a kind of “revolt against the modernization, the rationalization and the excessive mechanization of the urban space.”6 Rather, Tomatsu’s memorial and therefore conservative role has been to keep alive the reality of a troubled past. That reality is perceived introspectively, in the recovery of a disoriented space within a vertigo of shadows.

The misused or abandoned sites that Tomatsu photographs appear struck down not by poverty—as if he were making some political statement—but by despair, a mental state that brands his work with the hard loneliness of one who works outside a group. The desolate environment that reflects his alienation in society, and his query into his own psyche, have literary precedents in Japan. I think, for instance, of the heroes of Shusaku Endo’s Scandal (1988) and Kobo Abe’s The Ruined Map (1967), two novels whose portrayals of the city resemble Tomatsu’s. The protagonists restlessly cruise the streets, inveigled into these labyrinths by the mysteries of alter egos who outwit and humiliate them. Endo’s distinguished novelist, a faithful married man, has a double who ostentatiously frequents the Tokyo porn shows. Abe’s detective descends into the gang world in search of a missing. husband whose personality he gradually absorbs into his own. This type of plot is concerned not just with a fancied loss of status, serious as that would be in Japanese culture. Rather, the men justly fear they are in the process of losing something more vital than class: a sense of their own identity. Abe’s character approves the statement “No good hunter pursues his quarry too far. Rather he puts himself in his quarry’s place as he looks for the path of flight; by pursuing himself he corners his quarry.”7

A sense is given of these characters as hollowed out, their consciousness increasingly baffled and troubled by its lack of self-awareness. Narrative momentum hitches on the possibility of their achieving a view of the actual content of their lives. By no means is this theme exclusive to Japanese art, but it achieves a specific poignance there. Since the culture loudly announces the priority of loyalty (giri) over compassion (ninjo), anarchetypal conflict is set up, favorable to dramatic presentation. In the popular media, the conflict tends to be treated sentimentally (tearjerker plays or movies being rated from one to three handkerchiefs), and in the serious arts it turns into an existential puzzle.

The problem of the Japanese photographer is to uncover improbabilities in an environment where visible behavior and response seem determined by a uniform network of external rules to people’s actual organisms. As we’re endlessly told, social signs and stimuli can proliferate in Japan quite happily without calling for any unprogrammed personal display. Somehow the idea of an interior self, more consequential than the decorous player, sounds vaguely quixotic in that country. If the“Mois de la photo” were our guide, we would think that the typical photographic genre that deals with “selves,” portraiture, was absent from the postwar record. It was as if there were no portraits that the Japanese curators could take seriously, or even as if portraiture had not been entertained as a possibility for art. We were presented, instead, with a number of categorical sets—the crowd and the loner, containment and openness, ritual and release—that all involve parallel oppositions. Yet they are not seen dialectically, that is, as subjects that are changed by the view of a photographer, an integral self, who is in turn affected by what is seen. Their styles may alter as fashionably as any others’, but what I miss too often in Japanese photographers is another sort of change: the workings of an interactive principle between photographer and environment that breaks open the mold of received impressions.

This may explain why the broken mold itself, the ruin, has fascinated some of the more adventurous among them. Here, after all, quite literally, is an opportunity to get past the social facade. A ruin is a sad thing, perforated and undone. It lays open the distinction between surface and interior, and allows us to consider these two essential physical aspects of the structure simultaneously. It is also a spectacle showing how they have come to a grief that cannot fail to have its emotional repercussions. How often that spectacle must conflict with the presence in Tokyo, over so many years, of things being constructed. When so pictured in a photographic campaign, it must look as if history is being run backward.

Tomatsu has found the ruin a fertile zone for his mental cruising, and Ryuji Miyamoto has seconded him resoundingly. The younger man establishes himself within the dark skeletons of racecourses, movie houses, municipal swimming pools, prisons—places where there were once crowds—such that one fancies one still hears their roar: For him, the wrecker’s ball sounds a funeral knell, and the city is a graveyard of once active structures. It is all seen very calmly, the dust settled in. Though the place is still evidently being pulled down, we look into it during an intermission of the violence. Cracked windows sprout everywhere, toilets have been uprooted from the plumbing, tie-rods dangle from the armpits of concrete joists. As for the floors, one can hardly step over their hairy mounds of rubble, filth, and junk.

The intimacy of such prospects that reveal the bodily functions of the building, sent all askew, borders almost on the indecent. We trace them into their furrows, as none of their inhabitants or visitors could have followed them. And yet Miyamoto’s outlook is elegiac. We are inside; the blinding light coming in halates the few remaining upright supports. For that reason, the fate of the building weighs in more heavily upon us. It is ceasing to be recognizable before our eyes. It assumes fantastic shapes in its agony. The process of disassembly, with all its accidents and anomalous turns, is beautiful. Miyamoto titles the 1988 book in which he has collected this lovely imagery Architectural Apocalypse. He goes out to other cities besides the Japanese, to London, Berlin, Hong Kong, carrying that same vision with him. Everywhere he finds solid victims of obscure demolitions. We can easily imagine him in Baghdad or Basra. Here is a self-knowing art and a fin-de-siècle mind, demonically attuned to our historical moment.

Max Kozloff writes frequently for Artforum. His most recent book, a monograph on Duane Michals, has just been published by Twelvetrees Press.



1. Karel van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power, New York: Vintage Books, 1990, p. 23.

2. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, New York: The Seabury Press, 1978, pp. 15–16.

3. Ian Buruma, Behind the Mask, New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, p. 67.

4. Ibid., p. 42.

5. Jared Taylor, Shadows of the Rising Sun: A Critical View of the “Japanese Miracle”, New York: Quill, 1983, p. 192.

6. Shunji Ito, “Dans les ruines: Essai sur Shomei Tomatsu,” La Recherche Photographique: Japon no. 9, Paris, October 1990, p. 45.

7. Kobo Abe, The Ruined Map, New York: Perigee Books, 1980, p. 176.