Keiko Nomura’s Otari — Pristine Peaks was the Charcoal Book Club selection for April 2019 (if I recall correctly) and documents the people and lifestyle of a small village in Japan. It’s not a book I would’ve likely come across on my own, and so I’m once again glad to be a Charcoal subscriber.

Looking through Otari I’m almost reminded of the Ozarks, up around where my Mom lives, out in the hills between the small towns, where people still (pretend to) live off the land. That, sort of crossed with Life Below Zero… There are many photographs of animal carcasses and men with guns, people slogging through snow, mountain homes shrouded in mist or bathed in sunlight.

The sequencing flows from winter, through spring and summer, till the leaves begin to turn. The people greet Spring with a festival of fire, and later appear with painted faces, masks, and traditional garb. The portraits are evocative, suggestive, and the landscapes are lush. Even the carcasses are photogenic. And these pretty pictures are punctuated with short statements, of purpose (“We live and work together and share the bounty of the mountains. With the inherited wisdom of our ancestors, here we pass life on to the next.”), of feeling (“Thunderous gunshots rupture the pristine silence of the platinum peaks. At that moment, my soul trembles along with the echoes, then scatters in the heavens.”), and quotes from some residents (“Why do I live here? Because the man I love and decided to raise a family with, was a villager from here. We can work and bring up our children here, live as a family, and see each others’ faces everyday. It’s wonderful to grow the food that we eat. This is how I wanted to live.”)

All together, its a tender portrait of a sort of fringe community, but one that’s largely familiar to many, if only from scripted reality television or family lore. It might mean more to people who have a more immediate relationship with Otari, there might be some meaning to the photographs and book that’s beyond me, though with my familiarity with and affinity for the country life, a sort of hypocritical and false nostalgia, I see some things in Otari that Otari residents might miss.

Unrated.

Honestly, while the photographs are near-universally excellent, and with much appreciation both for Charcoal Book Club and Nomura’s oeuvre and career, I’d probably give this one a pass. Otari —Pristine Peaks is just fine, as a book and a collection of photographs, but other books do this better, I think. Laura Wilson comes to mind. Though her work is different, there’s a similar affinity for cultures on the fringe. I could probably come up with some others, but you get the idea.

I do want more Japanese photography in my collection, but I’m at a loss to describe what makes this book particularly Japanese, beyond the location the photographs were made and the photographer. I’m missing any sort of sensibility or treatment or way of working that makes some Japanese photographers so interesting to me (I’m thinking of Rinko Kawauchi. Hiromix.).

It’s not a bad book, not by any stretch. The photography really is top notch, with landscapes, environmental and more studio-type portraits, action shots, all represented competently. But that’s kind of all I have to say about it.

It’s probably my ignorance more than anything.

Check out the work for yourself at Nomura’s website. It’s worth checking out, for sure, and if you want to order a copy of the book, go for it! Just be sure to support Nomura directly when you do so.

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