Wow Asakusa Portraits

Asakusa Portraits by Hiroh Kikai. International Center of Photography, 2008. 9783865216014.


Sarah: This is Asakusa Portraits by Hiroh Kikai. He’s a photographer who hung out near Asakusa Temple.
Gene: Where’s that?
S: In Tokyo.
G: Is that the big famous temple?
S: It’s the big famous temple in the middle of a lot of entertainment neighborhoods, and he took photos of people there. As far as I can tell he just chose people who weren’t wearing super-stylish clothes because he wanted his photos to be more timeless.
G: OK.
S: But you could definitely place some of these people in their time.
G: When was this one taken?
S: They were taken over decades. Each photo has a date. He interviewed everyone, and each photo has one sentence about its subject. He doesn’t give their names and sometimes the sentences will be something really odd about them.
G: (laughs) I like the couple with the vintage camera! She has giant hair, it’s 1974 (of course), he’s wearing some weird version of a three-piece-suit that’s also a jogging suit. And on the opposite page are are  people in super-heavy coats who look really rough.
S: Yes.
G: This person is covered with pigeons.
S: There are a lot of people in here who look like they’ve been drinking for days.
G: “A farming couple feeding the pigeons, 1973.” (laughs)
S: Isn’t this great? It’s a kid in a homemade wrestling mask.
G: What is that, a rice sack or something?
S: It looks like a fabric bag he drew on.
G: Oh man. “Old man wearing woolen long johns.” And the best thing is his fly is completely open.
S: The descriptions in this book are full of euphemisms that make me think there’s some information here that I’m not getting ’cause I’m not from there. Like, I think some of these people are obviously (if you’re Japanese) mobsters and prostitutes but Kikai never says that.
G: You mean that there’s something visual about them?
S: There’s some visual euphemism or clue in how he describes them.
G: “Man wearing four watches” (laughs)
S: Yeah, look at that guy, he’s gonna mess you up!
G: Oh, and one of his watches is a ring. And one of his shirts is a net. He looks pretty clean, though, and he’s got a boom box.
S: Is he just a local weirdo or is he a street tough? Look, only one boot on this guy.
G: “A man who said he’d just had a drunken quarrel” 1985. Oh, that’s a motorcycle helmet. I thought he was a soldier for a second.
S: Yeah.  But this guy, he looks like one of The Village People.
G: “Man who used to ride a Harley Davidson.” He does, he looks like my English teacher when I was a freshman in high school. Dave Lewis. He was Mr. Leather Seattle at one point.
S: Exactly.
G: This guy would be Mr. Denim Seattle. Although his pants are incredibly high.
S: Yeah, well, 1995.
G: The fact that he’s torn the sleeves off his jeans jacket, along with maybe the bottom quarter of the body? This next guy looks like Quentin Tarantino
S: Yeah.
G: “Young man who came to Tokyo on a company jaunt, 1992” (laughs) Oh my god! “19 year old punk,” that guy has high hair! Is he Sid Vicious or does he really admire Kid ‘n Play?
S: I’ve got a couple people I want to show you. All of these people are ones that you could flip to and say, “I challenge you to make them characters in a story.”
G: “A man who asked me if I knew Humphrey Bogart” (both laugh) He’s dressed like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.
S: Sometimes Kikai will run into people twenty or thirty years after he first meets them and there are portraits on facing pages of the same person at different ages. I believe I marked this page because this guy is going to be in your library at some point, if he isn’t there already.
G: “A man wearing shoes over his bare feet who said he was doing academic research by himself, 1987.”
S: Yes, he’s wearing clashing plaids and a striped tie and no socks.
G: But nice shoes and a nice white shirt.
S: Severe comb-over
G: He looks like my chemistry teacher in high school who had no eyebrows. We thought because he had been in some kind of explosion. Show me the next one.
“I’ve always wanted to be different since I was a kid and I’ve always been knocked around for it. 2002.”
S: This is sad, there’s 8 years difference between these photos of him. He looks like he’s been knocked around for being different, and that made me really sad because he looks like a cool weirdo and I think he would completely fit in in Seattle, but in Tokyo he’s had his ass kicked.
G: Isn’t Tokyo is full of weird… well, I guess we don’t know what’s weird there. But like, this guy, it looks like he’s too self-conscious a weirdo. In the old photo he’s got a kimono on and a boom box in his hand and some weird thing going on with his hair, and in the next one, 8 years later, he’s wearing a t-shirt, a pirate hat, three coats. He does not look like life has been kind to him. He looks beaten down.  That’a sad and interesting.
S: The caption on this, this means something and I don’t know what: “told me with a fixed expression he worked in a ‘treatment salon'” He doesn’t put quote marks around almost anything else.
G: He’s got a cat on his shoulder and he’s got a sweater that is Santa Claus playing golf. Ok!
S: What does that mean? I don’t know. And this guy just because he’s Japanese Wolverine.
G: “Body building beautician,” all right. Yeah. He’s grown the lambchop sideburns.
S: He’s got very fluffy hair.
G: Well-coiffed, well-coiffed. There were guys in Korea in the early 1990s who looked like that, in a land were most men past a certain age don’t put product in their hair, or if they do they just slick it back. But there were guys who had a little bouffant, a little perm to it.
S: And you know in that context I feel like it must mean something different than it does here.
G: I suspect it means nothing.
S: This guy, “This man asked me if I’d like to buy his half-used rail card.” Would you buy a used rail card from this man?
G: Oh man, he’s got bandages on his face. He looks like that guy in Breaking Bad, Mike the tough guy who was the ex-cop. Did you watch that show?
S: No. We’ll have another segment called TV Confessions.
G: “A reader of the great literary works of the past.” (laughs)
S: Yes. And you know, he’s back in the library stacks, he’s wearing a germ-mask, a scarf wrapped around his head, white gloves, white jacket, white shorts, and long johns.
G: I like books like this, but I find what I want to do is leave them open to a few pages, on a dictionary table for a while. You need to be able to look at something from the book without sitting down to open it up. You need to walk past it. You need to have it as a contemplation piece. But there’s no real way to do that without ruining the binding. I’ve thought that if I could I would take hi-res pictures of things like from books like this and have on a big screen in my house, maybe that’s a solution.  I like these people.
S: Yeah, I do too!
G: There’s something very interesting about looking into their faces.
S: (laughs) This guy!
G: A muscular old man in boxing shorts. That’s what I want to look like in ten years.
S: Life goals. The funny thing is I grabbed this book because someone had posted a picture from it on Tumblr, but it was the only picture in the entire book that wasn’t of a person.
G: Where’s that?
S: It’s a picture of somebody’s pet rabbit wearing an outfit. And I’m like, Tumblr, you weird.

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