Watabe Yūkichi and the sea

Some months ago there was a flurry of interest in French- and English-language websites over the photographer Watabe Yūkichi 渡部雄吉 (1924–1993), or anyway in the 2011 book of his work A Criminal Investigation. He was described as obscure, which surprised me until I realized how little there was on him in English on the web. So I started to put together a little piece about two of his other books. While doing this I looked for some recent material on him in Japanese — and two days ago discovered that there was an exhibition of his work going on here in Tokyo. And so of course I went along the next day.

The exhibition is Umi e no michi (海への道) — which means “(the) road(s) to (the) sea(s)” — and it’s showing at the JCII Photo Salon until 27 November. Here’s the JCII building:

JCII building, Tokyo

The JCII is a camera quality association. Worthy though it is, neither it nor its building is remotely fashionable. Fine with me. Anyway, it’s a minute’s walk from exit no. 4 of Hanzōmon station on the Hanzōmon line — which puts it in very central Tokyo, right next to the curiously opulent British embassy.

The gallery is not so big, not so small. Exhibitions here often maximize quantity as well as quality. Again, fine with me. If I ever want elegant expanses of blank wall between photographs I can see them in DLK Collection; more often I want to see photographs. This exhibition doesn’t disappoint:

Watabe, Umi e no michi

Most of the “Umi e no michi” exhibition consists of the series “Umi e no michi”, which first appeared in Asahi Camera month by month from January until July of 1963. Both on the walls and in the printed catalogue (¥800), the photographs are considerately identified by month and place — but, not quite so considerately, only in Japanese. So here you go; the locations (most with a link to the relevant article, whether good or bad, in Wikipedia):

  • January: Cape Shiretoko (Shiretoko-misaki, 知床岬)
  • February: Cape Sada (Sada-misaki, 佐田岬)
  • March: Cape Tappi (Tappi-saki or Tappi-zaki, 竜飛崎; at the far north of the Tsugaru Peninsula)
  • April: Cape Inubō (Inubō-saki, 犬吠埼)
  • May: Cape Tsunegami (Tsunegami-misaki, 常神岬; here at Itouchmap)
  • June: Cape Seki (Seki-zaki, 関岬; or Sado Seki-zaki, 佐渡関岬; here at Google Map)
  • July: Cape Todo (Todo-ga-saki, written in a dizzying variety of ways including 魹ガ岬 and とどヶ崎; within Miyako)

In short, Watabe made a journey to a stunning collection of some of Japan’s most remote and wildest places, and no doubt got drenched in sea-water and froze and felt sick — it’s sometimes clear that he’s on a small boat — as he observed fishermen and fisherwives and other fisherpeople at work, without goretex or velcro or many of other conveniences we take for granted. There no doubt was some tourism in Sado (even now not quite, as Wikipedia bizarrely puts it, “a city located on Sado Island”) — Kondō Tomio showed tourism well before Watabe reached Cape Seki — but there’s no sign of it here. Just people battling the elements as they deal with fish.

A description — grizzled faces, backs bent under the weight of baskets, etc — might make it all sound terribly earnest and passé, a throwback to the times of Domon Ken perhaps crossed with the 小説のふるさと of Hayashi Tadahiko. But so? Hayashi’s work is virtually free of the sentimentality that his title suggests, and this kind of Domon is fine with me (whereas I’ll forgo his photos of Buddhist statuary). If Watabe’s work had rather more grain, contrast or burning in, people would compare it that by his coeval Kojima Ichirō and it might get the “Hysteric” treatment.

Decades later, Ishikawa Naoki would make a comparable effort with Archipelago with a very different result; it’s OK, I suppose, but to me somehow tepid. Watabe can do people as well as places, and his work is far more exciting.

And as a bonus, the gallery adds works from other series by Watabe. Among these is the “Criminal Investigation” series. At the right in my photo above are three prints from the “Yama no otoko-tachi” series, of miners in Hokkaidō.

Miscellaneous notes for anyone who sees the show and might be . . . “Japanese-challenged”: Yes, that’s a selection of Watabe’s books in the perspex case. It’s far from an exhaustive collection: it strangely omits his big and award-winning book Kagura (which at least is mentioned in his potted bio) and of course the new Parisian production A Criminal Investigation (which isn’t mentioned anywhere). If two of his cameras, also displayed there, look improbably pristine, this is because they’re not his but instead examples of Leica (with 25mm Canon lens and finder) and Pentax from JCII’s large collection, a generous selection of which is on display in the basement of the same or next building (different entrance, and admission costs ¥300).

Here’s the exhibition notice (with a stylized map at the foot). And here’s a page about the exhibition catalogue (and here’s a description of it in English). So far it’s all in Japanese, but here’s a stylized map in English. And this is Google’s map for it.

Remember, this exhibition closes soon: 27 November. While it’s still showing, it closes every day at the old-fashioned and inconveniently early time of 5 p.m. But it’s free (and far more rewarding than several exhibitions elsewhere that cost me money).


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