Daido Moriyama may be Japan’s most high-profile photographer. The Osaka native has been snapping iconic photos — usually high-contrast, grainy, black-and-white street scenes — for over 50 years. He has won countless awards, had his work displayed in galleries worldwide, and been called the “godfather of Japanese street photography.”

But if “The Past is Always New, The Future is Always Nostalgic” is anything to go by, the person who cares least about that half-century legacy is Moriyama himself.

Shot in 2018, the year of Moriyama’s 80th birthday, the documentary centers around an effort to reproduce the photographer’s “Japan, A Photo Theater,” a legendary, long out-of-print book from 1968, in time for that year’s Paris Photo art fair.

The Past is Always New, The Future is Always Nostalgic. Photographer Daido Moriyama (Kako wa Itsumo Atarashiku, Mirai wa Tsune ni Natsukashii. Shashinka Daido Moriyama)
Run Time 112 mins.
Language Japanese
Opens April 30

Spearheading the challenge to reproduce the book are designer Satoshi Machiguchi and editor Yutaka Kambayashi, who enlist Moriyama to help identify where and how each of the iconic photos were taken. At these meetings, the blank-faced photographer shows the same level of enthusiasm with which he signs books and responds to adoration from fans: close to zero.

The octogenarian has somewhere else he’d rather be: the street. Wielding a tiny consumer-grade digital camera, Moriyama prowls neighborhoods throughout Tokyo, snapping whatever draws his attention. Snaking his way through the crowds, sometimes bursting into a surprisingly speedy trot, these are clearly the moments when he feels alive. “I just never get bored,” he says, explaining his decades-long obsession with photographing the city.

Moriyama may be spry for his age, but he can’t seem to outrun the weight of his legacy. He’s regularly called to book signings and exhibitions where many come to see classic shots now synonymous with Japanese photography itself: the closeup of a woman’s fishnet stockings, or a stray dog looking back at the lens. At one of these exhibitions, a young man tells the photographer he feels Moriyama’s older photos, shot on film, have more “weight” to them, and asks the photographer if would ever consider going back to shooting on film.

“Not interested,” comes the deadpan reply.

At another event, a moderator asks how the process of revisiting “Japan, A Photo Theater” is going. “They keep asking where I took this or that photo,” replies Moriyama. “It’s hell.”

For a filmmaker interested in telling a chronological life story, a subject this disinterested in looking back might present a challenge. But director Gen Iwama embraces the contradiction — a photographer pushing forward versus the group of editors, designers and fans obsessed with his past glories — and makes it the film’s central conflict. Mercifully, Iwama dispenses with the crutch of a narration track, using fly-on-the-wall footage and intertitles instead. And while Moriyama might seem ambiguous about the reprint of “Japan, A Photo Theater,” the actual process by which it comes together — from the felling of trees for paper to the discovery of the perfect dye to replicate the color of the 1968 cover — is fascinating.

Iwama even manages to get the tight-lipped master to reminisce a bit — not about his own work, but about his friend Takuma Nakahira, a fellow photographer and co-creator of the influential photo magazine “Provoke.” Nakahira, who died in 2015, proposed many of the ideas that drove Moriyama and his peers during their formative years. For his part, Moriyama seems to have decided that the best way to honor his friend is to keep shooting, and leave the rest to everyone else.

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