In the mid-1960s, a young Mike Nogami picked up a camera and started taking pictures of things around him — dogs, his neighborhood, friends playing guitar. Some of those friends were in a band called Happy End, the group that Haruomi Hosono played bass in before starting Yellow Magic Orchestra.
Fans who know their rock lore, however, will know that Happy End wasn’t just a stopping point on Hosono’s way to international recognition as part of YMO — the band was a milestone in the course of Japanese pop music history.
In the early 1970s, Happy End was a particularly unusual group. The band leaned heavily on overseas artists such as Buffalo Springfield and Moby Grape for its psychedelic sound, but its content was specifically focused on the members’ own lives in Tokyo. The lyrics of the 1971 album “Kazemachi Roman” are detached, yet nostalgic for a city that was being blown away by the winds of change.
There are name-checks of long-gone neighborhoods where the band members used to play marbles and black clouds roll through the sky like tanks. Rain falls out of the sky in a “city where sometimes fighter planes fall,” while high-society, wannabe Americans drink Coca-Cola.
Nogami’s Snapshot Diary, a collection consisting mainly of photos of Happy End from the early 1970s, ends up being a nostalgic (visual) album of an already nostalgic (audio) album.
But, here’s the thing: The collection isn’t being released as a physical book — it’s an iPad application. The collection is actually a bit staggering: more than 4,000 images, hours of audio and 20 or so articles, the latter complete with full English translations. At over ¥5,000, it’s more expensive than most apps, but on par with the price of a good photo book.
The application itself is something of a meditation on the limitations of digital and analog formats. On one hand, Nogami admits that there is magic in print. For him, that is the only true way to understand a photograph, whether at a gallery or in the home. That’s why, he says, he chose the tablet format instead of a phone, or a computer screen — being able to touch and move the images on a screen was an important part of making the compromise work. On the other hand, though, watching him gleefully flip through dozens of pictures he took of pretty girls while on a trip to Hawaii as a teenager, or zooming in on the subway graffiti in New York that he photographed in the 1980s, or browsing through all photos tagged “Tokyo,” it’s obvious that Nogami doesn’t have too many reservations about the new format.
This is unavoidable with a collection this size, but among the brilliant photos of Hosono and friends are pictures that might turn off anyone hoping for a laser focus on Japanese rock history. There are photos of favorite teachers, people’s homes and the occasional blurry shot of someone eating. But if you can enjoy the rawness, you are rewarded with a kind of intimacy that can only come from the one photographer that Happy End’s four members trusted enough to click a shutter around them. (Even today, Hosono is notoriously camera-shy, and during a launch event, seemed embarrassed that there were so many images of him in the collection.)
Though the collection is called a “diary,” it’s probably more accurate to think of it as a database. It’s a bit like being given passwords to the social media accounts of a group of friends that shaped Japanese pop culture as we know it — that is, if Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter were around in the 1970s.
Overall, “Snapshot Diary” is a pleasure to “read,” if that’s the right word for it. It’s a fascinating coming-of-age album about a coming-of-age album.
Mike Nogami is hosting a showing of select images from the collection at Le Deco in Shibuya Ward through Dec. 7. Entrance costs ¥1,000. For more information, call 03-5485-5188 or visit ledeco.net.