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Sunday, May 16, 2010

A splendid tour through the 'real' Tokyo


TOKYO MEGACITY, by Donald Richie. Photography by Ben Simmons. Tuttle, 2010, 176 pp., ¥3,300 (hardcover)

It is likely that as many people will appreciate Donald Richie's "Tokyo Megacity" as a tasteful addition to their living room decor as will open it, and that most who do open it will assiduously avoid Richie's text in favor of Ben Simmons' photographs.

It is, after all, a coffee-table book. As such, it exists primarily to make a statement about the person who has placed it on that low table, just so, between coasters and potted plant. Those who are familiar with Richie's writing about film, about Japan and about Tokyo will know, however, that standard coffee-table book procedure does not apply, that it would be a mistake to dismiss this book with a cursory glance at the pictures.

"Tokyo Megacity" is a tour, in Richie's words and Simmons' photographs, through the city that has been Richie's home for more than 50 years. It is not, of course, his first engagement with the Japanese capital. Because Tokyo has not ossified into a changeless museum-city like some world capitals, but continues, constantly, to evolve, Richie has needed to return to it again and again over his long career, most recently in "Tokyo" (1999), a book that stands among the best yet written about Tokyo, and, indeed, among those written about any metropolis.

What has set Richie's writing about Japan apart is his ability to actually see the place. So powerful are the prevalent stereotypes and preconceptions about Japan that most observers are unable to credit anything that doesn't conform to them. Dissonant information is simply filtered out. In his ability to see and write about his home with the filters off, Richie is almost unique among those who have taken Japan as their subject.

Richie is able to see, for example, past the crowded trains and long commutes, past the rigid social codes and rules of etiquette, past the lack of green and overabundance of concrete, to the fact that Tokyo remains the most livable of cities, and that it is, of course, the Japanese who make it so.

In thinking about the Japanese, Richie notices that "there are . . . two Japans. There is the 'official version' (tea ceremony, subservient kimono-clad women)," which is not only "the exported version and the one shown to visitors" but also "the way Japanese society likes to view itself." More central to Tokyo's charm, however, is "the other Japan, one which might be called the 'real' one."

Those who populate this Japan "don't behave like 'Japanese' because none of the rules of order and decorum insisted upon by the official version apply."

"Bright, noisy, common, vulgar, beautiful, and very much alive" are the words Richie uses to describe the entertainment district of Kabukicho, but he could just as well be telling us about the "real" Japanese who have, in spite of "the government, the warlords, the captains of industry [and] the developers," made Tokyo the vibrant and livable place that it is.

Tokyo is also a more interesting place visually than many more superficially charming cities. Simmons captures some of this in the pictures that accompany Richie's text, but his images, in the end, leave one dissatisfied. The captions tell the story: "A Buddhist Monk seeks alms from busy shoppers in Ginza"; "Tuna is arranged for auction just after sunrise at the Tsukiji fish market"; " 'Gothic Lolitas' hang out before an indoor concert at Shibuya Hall."

Simmons' photographs are bright, colorful and neatly composed but, in their adherence to cliche, almost never surprise or startle, either with beauty or with information. In fairness, however, it must be said: They're just right for a coffee-table book.



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