Culture

Cut-out enthusiast fills niche face first

by Masaaki Kameda

Staff Writer

Are you the type to put your face in a goofy head-in-a-hole board for a photo at a tourist spot, or do you think such antics are child’s play and give them a miss?

Company employee Tomoyuki Shioya, 32, is obsessed to the point that he can’t pass them up, and is working to amass photos of his face in more than 2,100 such comic scenes.

He has even held photo exhibitions and appeared in magazines, newspapers and TV shows.

Shioya’s obsession began with little thought around a decade ago, when he started to have his photograph taken in funny cut-out holes “each time I came across one during travels.” The photos grew into “a serious pursuit” after a couple of intriguing encounters with people who had created or set up such panels, said Shioya, who now regularly posts his photos on Twitter and Facebook.

Shioya recalled one such panel featuring an astronaut. It was lying on the ground at what seemed like a park near the Kazo Miraikan space and science museum in Kazo, Saitama Prefecture, in 2008. As soon as he saw it, he wanted his photo taken with it. Luckily, a man selling vegetables nearby turned out to be the owner of the board, and Shioya begged him to stand it up again.

The man went along with the request and it’s still standing, said Shioya, who noted the experience made him think he could help restore and keep such comic images alive.

He also remembers spotting one such panel standing behind a firetruck inside a Tokyo fire station in 2009, and how this led to his interaction with firefighters, who were willing to bring the sign out front — an attitude that intrigued him.

“Such occasions gave me a chance to meet people, and I thoroughly enjoyed conversing with them,” Shioya said. “Then I came to feel the desire to have more such wonderful experiences, and as a result I grew more serious about” searching for humorous cut-out signs, he said.

For Shioya, another fun aspect is encountering comic head-in-the-hole scenes in places where they would be least expected, giving him the thrill of “finding hidden treasure.”

“My collection will never be complete” because comic panels are erected or removed without notice, he said. “Some are set up for a limited period. Sometimes they are gone in a day or two.”

Shioya’s passion has taken him to about 40 prefectures.

“I used to include sightseeing in my plans when I traveled in search of comic foregrounds, but these days my schedule doesn’t allow for that because the itinerary is full” just getting photographed in panels, he said.

Since 2009, Shioya has visited Hokkaido at least once a year because he serves as a judge for a local comic cut-out competition during the summer festival in the town of Higashikagura.

The post was offered to him in an amusing development. When he heard about the competition created by townspeople, he contacted the organizer to learn more about the event, which he said is possibly the only one of its kind in Japan.

“First, they advised against my plan to attend the event, saying it wasn’t worth a long journey from Tokyo,” Shioya said. “In the end, though, they said, ‘You might as well be a judge if you are coming all this way.’ ”

Besides traveling around the country on long holidays, Shioya checks out head-in-the-hole panels in and around Tokyo on weekends. To prepare for the unexpected, he always carries a digital single-lens reflex camera and a tripod.

“I can never tell where I may find one,” he said, adding he often visits commercial complexes and stores in central Tokyo after work to look for new panels.

Some may regard his pursuit as odd or downright silly, but Shioya is serious. When he has no one else to press the shutter release for him, he sets his camera on the tripod and uses the timer. But even when someone else is on hand, he sets up everything, including the tripod and camera, and only allows the helper to press the shutter.

“People think it’s just a comic foreground and hit the shutter in a carefree manner,” he said. “But I want my photos taken with care.”

Shioya also makes it a rule not to stand out in his photos, trying to keep a straight face, because he believes the nonfacial part of the funny scene should be the key focus, not him.

What keeps him going, he said, is the seemingly endless variety of panels.

“There are numerous comic foregrounds in Japan. You can find all kinds of settings and designs,” he said. “I never get tired of them.”

Their subject matter ranges from humans and animals to objects such as telephones. The location of the hole also varies, and is not always the logical spot for someone standing, he said. The boards sometimes have holes to stick hands out or expose a navel.

Shioya said comic foregrounds have changed over time as more people take photos with mobile phones and digital cameras.

Recent panels are often intended as advertisements for restaurants and bars, encouraging the public to take a photo and upload them on the Web, Shioya said. By contrast, in the past many signs didn’t have any text information, such as the name or location of a business.

Shioya believes people used to have photos taken of their faces in comic cut-out scenes to have a photographic record of their travels.

“Restaurants these days tout on their comic foregrounds that they offer free drinks or free yakitori, so people can post such information in their SNS posts,” he said.

Shioya is preparing to publish a photo book this summer featuring him with 200 to 300 comic foregrounds.

“I want people to know about the fascinating variety of comic foregrounds,” he said.