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Monday, August 7, 2017

Fujiwara Atsushi: "Semimaru" (2017)

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Convinced of his son's lack of devotion to the teachings of Buddha during his previous life, Emperor Engi one day banishes the blind Prince Semimaru from the royal court. Escorted by an imperial officer named Kiyotsura, the Emperor's son is taken from Kyōto to Mount Ōsaka (located in today's adjoining Shiga Prefecture) where his luxurious robes are exchanged for a coat and hat made of straw. Following the Emperor's decree Kiyotsura further proceeds to shave Semimaru's hair. The only item the young Prince is allowed to keep is a biwa (a Japanese lute). Although Semimaru understands his father's good intentions and accepts them to some degree - making his son renounce a world of pleasure in order to help him reach his next life free from sin - he also mourns the loss of his family and fears the hardship of renouncing the worldly life. In the meantime, Semimaru's older sister Princess Sakagami has gone mad. In her confusion she leaves Kyōto and wanders for days until the sound of a biwa catches her attention. Following the sound she eventually reaches the mountainous area where her younger brother now lives. The two are delighted to have found each other again and rejoice over their strong bond but soon start to cry when thinking of their misfortune. At this point Sakagami heavy-heartedly decides she must return home. And so, once again, Semimaru is alone hoping that the difficult terrain will hinder his sister from leaving him for good.
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Fujiwara Atsushi: Seminaru (2017).

It is this briefly summarized nō play entitled "Semimaru" that Fujiwara Atsushi borrowed the name for his fourth photobook from. The title - being part of the realm of classical Japanese theater - is faintly reminiscent of Nangokusho, the photographer's debut work from 2013 which he named after a collection of poems by his grandfather, who had once studied under the well-known poet Kitahara Hakushū (1885-1942). But while the earlier work was driven by what Hasegawa Akira (1949-2014) calls Fujiwara's "sentiment regarding his grandfather"*, the latter Semimaru on the other hand is powered by nostalgic feelings towards an area of Japan that Fujiwara still calls home:

Shiga Japan. It is the place I lived from primary school to my mid-twenties, where my parents, siblings and childhood friends continue to live, and is unquestionably the place I would still call home. Despite having lived elsewhere for more than half of my life now, ‘home’ remains an object of longing while retaining a troublesome, at times intractable resonance, and continues to ensnare me […] Nearing the end of cherry blossom season, the notes of Semimaru's biwa lute echoing in my thoughts, I set out on these walks and wanderings. (Taken from the preface of Semimaru, 2017)

In roughly 100 black-and-white mostly landscape format photographs, printed in Fujiwara's elegant signature style that emphasizes shadows and midtones while delicately reducing highlights, the viewer is taken to many corners of Shiga Prefecture. But instead of doing a tour of the popular sights Fujiwara's walks bring him to quiet neighborhoods, factory sites, school and apartment buildings, even mountainous roads and the shores of lake Biwa. He visits back streets, comes across railway crossings, shintō shrines and small rivers running between typical small-town houses. However mundane the scenery, everything he encounters is photographed with the same attention to detail. No photograph seems rushed but taken with respect towards the subject matter, be it piles of old roof tiles, street scenes or nō masks. With this in mind and taking Fujiwara's preface into consideration, it is safe to assume that the places and objects documented are either of personal importance to the photographer - holding both good and bad memories - or have become of interest to him because of his involvement with the storyline of "Semimaru" at the time he encountered them.


Fujiwara Atsushi: Seminaru (2017).

Regarding the first thought, editor and publisher Ōsumi Naoto notes in the photobook's afterword that Fujiwara is for the first time dealing with his very own personal past as well as "the notion of home". In doing so, the photographer reaches an unprecedented level of intimacy. Granted, all previous artistic endeavors were linked to feelings like longing, friendship or admiration but always towards other individuals. What distinguishes this photobook from Fujiwara's work up until now is a shift in focus from an objective (invisible) to a pronounced subjective (visible) point of view. He is documenting places from his childhood and adolescence as a means of self-reflection. It would go too far to categorize the work as shi-shashin (I-photography). Nonetheless, the concept of interlocking gazes (typical of that genre) is evident; meaning, whatever the viewer is shown in a photograph corresponds directly to what the photographer saw through his viewfinder at the moment he released the shutter. In other words: The viewer's awareness of the photographer's presence - Fujiwara as the individual who took the photographs -, or put yet another way, the photographer's intention of making the viewer believe that s/he is seeing through his eyes (similar to the point-of-view shot in cinema), is more obvious than before. For the last two books Fujiwara played the role of the invisible photographer in favor of creating the almost supernatural atmosphere of "Butterfly had a dream" (2014) and stressing the sense of isolation in the photographs taken for "Poet island" (2015).

Fujiwara Atsushi: Seminaru (2017).

As a result of this subjective shooting style a number of images entail clues to or actually record the photographer's physical presence. At the beginning of the book one of the few portrait format shots shows the shadow of a male upper body, head, and raised right arm - presumably holding the camera - that is cast onto a white guardrail on the side of a road next to a train track. Another photograph depicts a young boy waiting at a cross-walk with his mother. The child - who is looking directly at the camera - is grinning broadly, thereby not only acknowledging the photographer but also acting out the social convention of smiling when being photographed. Even a genuine self-portrait can be found towards the end of the book. Standing on the side of a snowy and hilly road Fujiwara aimed his camera upwards to record his own reflection in a round convex traffic mirror typically found all across Japan.


Fujiwara Atsushi: Seminaru (2017).

In a number of photographs children are shown in playful situations: A boy with his bike in front of a restaurant that sells soft ice, a small girl ringing a bell at the pier, or a boy and a girl trying to catch bugs or other type of small animals with a hand net in a shallow river. It is likely that these children, seen in those familiar places at play, brought back memories to Fujiwara about his own childhood. If that is the case, these children function as a sort of mirror image of himself - vehicles for thought projection. They also help the viewer imagine the photographer when he was still simply Atsushi, a young boy who once might have stopped his bike in front of that same restaurant in order to count his pocket money while contemplating if now is the best time to buy a scoop of that delicious ice cream. Another indication that Fujiwara is indeed contemplating his life and thereby also inevitably thinking about time (its relentless passage) are various broken, rundown or weathered objects such as a crumbling facade, a broken off pillar from a wooden fence, or a heavily weathered white door shut and secured with the help of a latch and padlock.


Fujiwara Atsushi: Seminaru (2017).

This seemingly insignificant wooden door is also of interest regarding Fujiwara's involvement with the storyline of "Semimaru" and its influence on the making of his eponymous photobook. The amount of chipped paint and the rambling weeds in front of it create the impression of abandonment. It is not hard to imagine that the door is no longer used or not supposed to be used. But why take a photograph and what lies behind it? Unlike other objects that can easily be connected to the plot of the classical theater play, e.g. nō masks or streets signs reading "ōsaka ichōme" (signifying an area located at Mount Ōsaka), the door's arguable link to "Semimaru" is intricate but equally intriguing. After some research it turns out that the door is the entrance to one of altogether three tunnels originally dug through Mount Ōsaka to connect Kyōto and Shiga Prefecture. The tunnel behind the photographed door is one of two tunnels that have been shut down permanently. Looking at this door - the closed off passage way through a mountain that is said to have separated Prince Semimaru from his home - Fujiwara may have recalled one of the play's famous lines:


So is this the great divide of Mount Osaka, where strangers and acquaintances, people coming and people going, met and part ways. (Taken from the preface of Semimaru, 2017)

Fujiwara Atsushi: Seminaru (2017).

It would be false to make sense of this photobook by somehow trying to connect Fujiwara Atsushi with Prince Semimaru on an emotional level. Although nostalgia also resonates within the lines of the play, it is the theme of bidding farewell that is key to "Semimaru". The plot's location, on the contrary, is of vital importance to a more coherent interpretation. What may have struck Fujiwara as interesting and therefore worth exploring, is the irony that what one calls home can become someone else's place of exile. This idea - echoing in his mind as the sound of Semimaru's lute - could have served as the catalyst for his wanderings in Shiga. What initially might have begun as a photographic project in line with previous efforts ultimately turned into a sentimental journey that led Fujiwara Atsushi back to himself.

Fujiwara Atsushi: Seminaru (2017).


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* See Akira Hasegawa, "Journey to a phantasm", in Atsushi Fujiwara, Nagokusho (Tokyo: Sokyusha, 2013), np.