One of Moriyama Daidō’s most famous black-and-white photographs is of a stray dog, a bit wolfish, with matted hair, looking back into the camera watchfully, with a hint of aggression. He took the picture in 1971 in Misawa, home to a large US Air Force base, in the northeast of Japan. Moriyama has described this dog picture as a kind of self-portrait:
I wander around, glare at things, and bark from time to time…. Something there is close to how I look at things and to how I probably appear when I’m wandering. Having become a photographer, I always sensed that I have strayed.
Most people can come up with a decent photograph once in a while, which will look like millions of other photographs. Only the greatest photographers can be easily identified by a unique personal style. Moriyama is one of them. There are some recurring images, in different settings, in color and black-and-white, many of which appear in the three books under review: the grainy close-up of a torn pornographic film poster on a peeling wall; a woman’s legs in mesh tights picked out in a crowded street; a filth-strewn back alley crisscrossed with electric wires; a blown-up newspaper photograph; net curtains in a cheap hotel room; a dilapidated old bar with broken neon lights. Moriyama has an exact eye for the textures of urban life, often decaying, ephemeral, sadly alluring in their temporary shine. In his photographs even inanimate objects, such as pipelines or motorcycle engines, have a vaguely anthropomorphic air about them; they look sexy.
The art of the ephemeral, the melancholy of the fleeting moment, has a long history in Japanese art, but Moriyama has focused his sensibility not on such traditional clichés as the cherry blossom (although in fact he has done that too), but on the commercialized, Americanized, plastic-fantastic, sometimes violent, sometimes erotic surfaces of the modern city. Christopher Isherwood once said about Los Angeles, the city he made his own:
What was there, on this shore, a hundred years ago? Practically nothing. And which, of all these flimsy structures, will be standing a hundred years from now? Probably not a single one. Well, I like that thought. It is bracingly realistic. In such surroundings, it is easier to remember and accept the fact that you won’t be here, either.
The urban sprawl of Southern California, with its billboards, strip malls, and pastiche architecture offering dreams of other places, has been a kind of model for postwar Japanese cities, which often look like much denser versions of Los Angeles. Not only was Tokyo almost entirely destroyed twice in the twentieth century—the first time by a firestorm following the terrible earthquake of 1923 and the second time by…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.