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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Aihara Eiji: "Tonari kinjo" (1977)

Aihara Eiji (b. 1940, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan) started working as a freelance photographer at the age of 20, but as of 1963 decided to play it safe by pursuing a more dependable career in the textile manufacturing business alongside his artistic effort. This proved to be a wise decision since it took another twelve years for a selection of his photographs to make a first appearance in the photo-magazine Asahi Camera (in the December issue of 1975 as part of a section called twelve up-and-coming photographers). The periodical continued to serve as a platform for his photographs. But it can be argued that the first contribution, entitled tonari kinjo (neighborhood), would always be the most important one because it laid the foundation for Aihara's only ever published photobook of the same name.

Eiji Aihara: Tonari kinjo (1977).

Tonari kinjo - a slipcased softcover of square medium size - was brought out by the publishing house Nora-Sha in 1977, under the supervision of Kitai Kazuo and the help of editor Ōsaki Norio (b. 1940, Saitama Prefecture). By then this duo had already co-produced other noteworthy photobooks, including Kitai Kazuo's sanrizuka (1971), Kimura Ihei's pari (1974), and Hashimoto Shōkō's goze (1974). The new project's layout resembles that of the earlier ones mostly because of the repeated use of full bleed printing. New, on the other hand, is that the image sequence is not interrupted by inserted blank pages or text as utilized for instance in Hashimoto's book, in which the photographer captured the austere lifestyle of blind female musicians (the so-called goze) in accordance with the four seasons.

Eiji Aihara: Tonari kinjo (1977).

The most intriguing feature is paradoxically hidden in plain sight. Only when inspecting the photographs near the gutter it becomes apparent that the book is in fact compiled of roughly 109 juxtaposed black-and-white photographs rather than a smaller number of double-page spreads, as presumed at first sight. Ōsaki apparently chose to pair two images not solely according to their subject matter but rather made efforts to align their unique marginal grain patterns. As a result, two separate shots of the same or even different rural landscapes, street scenes, or interiors often appear to be belonging together, when in fact they are not. This editorial strategy works so convincingly because the majority of photographs depict grasses, flowers, trees or bushes either growing or withering at the margins of the image. Often seemingly untouched by man, these naturally grown structures create a dramatic photographic effect that on the printed page manifests itself in random patterns of stark black and white. It is this richness of detail on two juxtaposed photographs inside that camouflages the missing connection and ends up mimicking a complete landscape shot.

Eiji Aihara: Tonari kinjo (1977).

On the surface, tonari kinjo seems like a simple photographic portrait of life in a typical countryside during the last decade of Japan's Shōwa era (1926-1989). And indeed, for several years Aihara had aimed his camera - in line with the book's title - on the immediate neighborhood of his native Sagara-chō (known today as Makinohara-shi after merging with the neighboring town of Haibara-chō in 2005). The rusticity of this once small town with its dirt roads, untended gardens, often decrepit architecture, and surrounding rice fields is emphasized in every photograph but without the slightest hint of criticism. On the contrary, these images of children (either dressed in shorts and t-shirts but also in yukatas) eating ice cream or playing at a riverbank, of local workers going about their own business, of a shop's refrigerator filled with lemonade bottles, or tomatoes in a vine all posses a strong sense of affection towards their subject. It is safe to say that Aihara portrayed the inhabitants of Sakara-chō as people at peace with life in the countryside and their local traditions. The photographs of children, in particular, evoke a notion of innocence - that precious and short-lived state of mind.

Eiji Aihara: Tonari kinjo (1977).

However, those feelings of affection are promptly followed by an equal amount of nostalgia. It would be going to far to interpret the abundance of withered plants as a reminder of every living thing's mortality, but a certain presentiment of loss can certainly be sensed in Aihara's way of photographing his hometown. In a similar fashion to Araki's self-published Sentimental Journey (1971), the atmosphere created by these images is located somewhere between life and death. Sure, when looking at photographs in retrospect one's view of the things depicted unavoidably becomes biased. No one is able to ignore the apparent temporal difference. Everything that happened yesterday will never be present again. It will therefore inevitably be subjected to human nature's sentimentality which is fostered by the knowledge of the ever-growing gap between now and the past. Interestingly enough, one of the interior shots shows a wall with a calendar from 1977 pinned to it. The words kyōdo no mukashi-banashi (old local folk tales) are small but legibly printed. Why would Aihara include such an image in this particular book? Could Aihara be hinting at the fact that the innocent rural life as presented in the photographs was then already part of the past, thus, nothing more than a tale told by means of his camera? Considering Japan's rapid political, economical, urban, and cultural transformation after World War II - changes that were felt throughout the country -, this theory appears not too far-fetched. Whatever answers there may be, fact is, it is nothing but impossible to look at Aihara's book as the result of a thoughtless photographic habit.

Eiji Aihara: Tonari kinjo (1977).

In times of emotional distress the mind tends to wander to places in the past. In retrospect, these moments often present themselves as a simpler, less hectic and overall more innocent way of life. In the late 1960s and early '70s, a period notorious for its social and political turmoil, more than a few photographers looked back instead of ahead in order to find a link to the old Japan - one that was untouched by the horrors of war and the burden of survivors's guilt. This notion of the past, many thought, could only be still found in the countryside.