Mika Ninagawa‘s Tokyo is a nice-enough foil to, and last round of, my silly back and forth between Daido Moriyama’s super-saturated, high contrast, gritty black & white photography (made fairly continuously from the mid 1960s to the present*) and Hiromix’s color work made between ~1995 and 2000. Why Ninagawa and not another Hiromix book? Well, sadly, I’m fresh out of Hiromix books,** and given that the last Moriyama book in my collection is Tokyo, a catalog from an exhibition of his and Somei Tomatsu’s work from the titular city, Ninagawa’s view of that same city roughly a half-century later seemed appropriate.
Ninagawa’s Tokyo is one of fiends and parties, nighttime careening around in taxis and living the life of a famous and beloved artist in her prime. It’s a far cry from her earlier work with flowers, which I deeply admire and tried, and failed, to imitate, and sorta sits neatly between Moriyama—who Simon Baker name-checks a couple times in his outro—and Tomatsu, and really, it’s Ninagawa’s own.
Honestly, I hoped for something more like Hiromix, despite knowing already that Ninagawa’s work was very very different from Hiromix’s. Granted, it’s more like Hiromix than it’s like Moriyama, but Ninagawa’s aesthetic and color tends toward a sort of cool slickness—which I associate with digital photography—rather than the warm softness of Hiromix’s color and feel, and given that Ninagawa is of Hiromix’s (and my) generation, and that the work was made late in the second decade of the 21st century, it’s much more like Hiromix than Moriyama. And this comparison and discussion is meaningless.
If I was looking for a late twenty-teens version of, say, Girls Blue, Tokyo isn’t it and I guess maybe I was initially a bit disappointed. What I see in the 1990s Hiromix work that so tickles my memory has something to do with the time period: it sorta looks something like my late teens and early twenties, and if not, I can imagine it. Late twenty-teens Ninagawa work looks nothing like my late thirties and early forties, and with its sorta fancy-looking parties and society things doesn’t feel aspirational in the ways that so much of Hiromix does, so there’s not much to tickle in it.
As usual with my photobook reviews, this is, so far, heavy on content-commentary—that is, I’ve focused on what the pictures show, rather than what the pictures do or how they’re arranged. Regular readers of my reviews may or may not appreciate this approach. I myself feel an ambivalence that tends towards the negative. A photograph is not the thing it depicts, and the fact that I rarely get past the subject in either my writing or my thought is frustrating to me, especially in cases like Ninagawa’s Tokyo where there simply must be something more interesting to write about.
Take the layout, for example. In Tokyo, pictures appear in various sizes and formats, some full bleed and printed across the gutter, others smaller and on single pages or overlapping and run across the gutter. You can get a sense of this—and it works much better—on Ninagawa’s page for the project, where she shows what I think is the whole sequence, in order, on a side-scrolling page. Parties and events and family time tumble one after another, bumping against one another, and punctuated by cab and limo and maybe train rides from here to there. This layout gives maybe a sense of the pace of life in the titular city, and I appreciate it.
Overall, I rate Tokyo a solid 4 stars. If you’re looking for a nice view of Tokyo (minor?) celebrity nightlife in the late twenty teens, you probably couldn’t do better. It has the diaristic feel of a 1990s Hiromix with the grown up eye and hand of a well known artist and film director.
Of the three (in my mind) giants of 1990s-2000s so-called Japanese “Girl Photography”—those being the elder Yurie Nagashima, the fan favorite Hiromix, and the rather younger and not-quite in the same camp Ninagawa—I feel the most personal affinity for—and look up to as sort of elder sisters who I will never live up to—Nagashima and, of course, Hiromix. But my own photographic practice more easily falls into the Ninagawa camp somehow. Try as I might, I can’t make pictures that have the same feel as Hiromix’s work. And while I fail when I try to channel Ninagawa too, my diaristic-type work has a similar sort of character somehow, at least more similar to Ninagawa than to the others.
You can view the entire sequence of photographs from Tokyo, and her other books, on Ninagawa’s website, and it’s totally worth a visit. There are links to purchase her books, all pointing to Japanese Amazon, as well, if you’re into that sort of thing. I find myself tempted by a couple of recent once, but I’m largely out of impulse photobook buying mode these days, and so I resisted.
*At time of writing, mid-May 2023, Moriyama remains active and continues pumping out his “Record” zines and various photobooks, and may Allah preserve and guide him, if he needs guidance. I know I do.
**lol. Nope. In my review of what was my last Hiromix book, I discovered—and immediately bought—2, or 1 1/2 more, of her books, so look forward to more Hiromix!