Masatoshi Naito: ‘The other face’ of Japan

by Martin Laflamme

Contributing Writer

The first thing you notice are the rats — skinny, hungry — munching greedily on the night’s leftovers. You can almost hear them squeak as they fight for morsels.

Not far is a drunken hobo. He lies on the pavement, unconscious, his buttocks exposed. His shoes are gone. His feet are pointed at you, dark and dirty. He probably has not washed for days. There is a third man nearby, smiling and oblivious to the surrounding chaos. He holds a cigarette in his left hand, a bottle of alcohol in the other. He is all mirth, taking it all in as if it were just another burlesque evening performance. This is Tokyo, but not the one you know.

“When the last trains are gone, along with the businessmen and women, students, and the workers of restaurants and bars,” photographer Masatoshi Naito once wrote, “the other face” of the city emerges. From 1970, Naito spent 15 years documenting this other side of Tokyo, the underbelly of what is, by day, the spiffy Japanese capital. This large body of work, which was published in book form in the mid-1980s, constitutes the centerpiece of “Naito Masatoshi: Another World Unveiled,” a large-scale retrospective of his oeuvre, and the first in a Tokyo museum, which can be seen until July 16 at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (TOP).

Naito was born in 1938, on the outskirts of Tokyo, in what is now Tamagawa. He learned the basics of photography as a boy, a toy camera in hand, but by the time he began his undergraduate studies, he was already submitting material to Sankei Camera and Camera Geijutsu, two specialized magazines. In postwar Japan, such publications were highly influential and largely set artistic trends. They were where any ambitious young photographer strove to be noticed.

While Naito loved snatching images, it was working in the dark room that he found most engrossing. In an essay from 1987, specially translated for the TOP exhibition, he reminisced about developing film as a youth, crammed in a tight closet with nothing but “a 10-watt bulb wrapped in red cellophane,” where light and chemistry combined to reveal an alternate reality. Every time, he wrote, he “bubbled with excitement over the whole thing.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Naito chose to major in chemical engineering at Waseda University. But soon after graduating, he realized the routine and predictable life of the salaryman was not for him. In 1962, after working for only a year or so, he had already had enough. He quit to become a freelance photographer.

In his early works, Naito had experimented with polymer molecules on glass to create stylized and vaguely anthropomorphic images. This eventually led to “Coacervation,” arguably his first important series, which consisted of highly abstract images of chemical reactions. On the side, he also designed book covers for science fiction novels, including the Japanese edition of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.” Good work, all of it, but not yet spectacular.

The year 1963 was a turning point. Naito visited Mount Yudono, one of the three sacred peaks of the Dewa mountains in Yamagata Prefecture, where he discovered an extreme form of Buddhist practice in which monks sought spiritual enlightenment through gradual starvation. They eschewed most foods, particularly cereals, to live on a diet of seeds, nuts and tree bark that prepared their bodies for self-mummification upon death. An excruciating process, only a very small number of monks ever attempted it. Perhaps less than a dozen succeeded in the Dewa area. Those who did were called sokushinbutsu. Facing these mummies for the first time was an overwhelming experience. “The resulting sense of awe and terror transformed Naito’s artistic path,” wrote Tetsuro Ishida, the curator of “Another World Unveiled.”

Naito began traveling extensively across Tohoku, photographing the parched bodies of dead ascetics, but also those of the living, particularly the region’s female shamans and blind priestesses. The latter images became “Old Hags Burst Out!,” one of Naito’s best-known series, which is well-represented in the exhibition. In parallel, he also began a long-term research project to document the traditions of northern Japan. He wrote about his field work and joined a study group on religious folklore. These efforts culminated with his appointment in 2000 as a faculty member of the Tohoku Culture Research Center, at Tohoku University of Art and Design, where he taught for several years.

When Naito first began researching Tohoku folklore, he had expected to find places “haunted with a macabre atmosphere.” Instead, he stumbled into a vivacious traditional society “filled with elderly women who throw boisterous bashes all night long.” Using a strobe — a tool previously rarely used in art photography, but one on which Naito would rely throughout the ’60s and ’70s — he captured images of a world that has since largely vanished: a devotee in trance, a one-eyed shaman in worship, smiling beldams with gold-capped teeth on a temple stay. Many of these images were shot at night, with little concern for composition, leaving much to chance. The results are often haunting.

In his later years, Naito continued to travel, but except for a trip to India, he confined himself to Japan. He focused on mountains and areas which, according to tradition, were endowed with particular spiritual significance. The resulting photographs, all in color, exude a serenity that is utterly lacking from Naito’s earlier production. In fact, the contrast is jarring. But like all of Naito’s work, they open a window to a different reality, where an “intangible truth” is unveiled.

“Naito Masatoshi: Another World Unveiled” at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum runs until July 16. ¥700. For more information, visit topmuseum.jp/e/contents/index.html