Photographer Jun Akiyama is taking ostrich strides down a Tokyo sidewalk, snapping pictures on a flimsy-looking tourist camera. Click! A child's curious glance is frozen in grainy black-and-white. Click! Akiyama catches a moment of anxiety on an old woman's face.

When he shoots, Akiyama moves at breakneck speed -- all the better to grab those fleeting moments or, if an angry subject should take up pursuit, to gain a head start.

Today, like most days, the 34-year-old native of Okayama, in western Japan, is dressed in a black T-shirt and matching jeans and shoes. It's a low-key look which, together with the deceptively humble-looking Olympus mju:-II (it's actually packed with high-tech wizardry), allows this up-and-coming artist to get close to the action -- and to invest his photos with the stark intimacy that has become his trademark.

Self-taught Akiyama doesn't use special lighting in the style of portraitist of the stars Richard Avedon; nor is he interested in recording the zeitgeist like fine-arts photographer Robert Frank. Witty humor? Nope. Symbolism? None.

Akiyama takes snapshots. But far from a Sunday-afternoon shutterbug's pretty pictures of flowers, or a photo student's uncertain attempts at abstraction, according to Akiyama his images are involved in a bold mission: to proclaim -- through dramatic use of shadow, grain and contrast -- that the seemingly mundane in fact reflects the very mystery of existence.

With an echo of Zen's insistence that enlightenment is contained in the simple here-and-now, the photos seem to shout, "Look, and you will see!"

Akiyama, whose grandmother claimed to become possessed by powerful spirits, describes his artistic process in similar terms. "Something falls into my body," he says. "Something that isn't me."

If the spectrum of street photography has work like Robert Doisneau's romantic and universally accessible "Kiss at the Ho^tel de Ville" (that famous 1950 tableau of a couple embracing beside a Parisian cafe) at one end, then Akiyama's work can at first appear to be right at the other.

In fact, it is downright ponderous. Cases in point: An emaciated man's rib cage dominates one picture, a bloated rear end another. There are close-ups of animal organs, cigarette butts, toothless grins. Many images are nearly all black, punctuated by patches of indeterminate gray.

Yet, Akiyama, a surprisingly cheerful -- and cocky -- man of slight build, declares his preoccupation with beauty, albeit an intensely personal version in which the appeal of a photo relies not on pleasing the eye so much as presenting the subject true to form -- photo verite, you might say. Even a dead cat, after all, is part of the cosmic plan; why pretty it up or, worse still, turn the lens away?

The philosophy makes Akiyama equal parts artist and mystic. "Everything that is real," he insists, "is beautiful."

In an age when spoonfed glitz is what sells, Akiyama's arcane approach to art certainly involves risk. On the other hand, it is precisely his forceful rejection of commercialism's sleekness that has earned him accolades from some of Japan's top names in photography.

"Akiyama captures the energy of the human struggle to live, and he does so with great frankness," gushed the celebrated Eikoh Hosoe, 71, whose monochrome portraits have helped immortalize Japanese icons Yukio Mishima, the novelist, and butoh dancer Tatsumi Hijikata. "His pictures have guts," he added.

The Young Portfolio Acquisitions, a prestigious Yamanashi Prefecture-based photo competition spearheaded and run by Hosoe, that has, since 1995, annually bought photographs from around the world, has chosen Akiyama's work five times over the past decade for its permanent collection at the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts.

Another authority applauded Akiyama for struggling to peer beneath the surface of things.

"Nowadays, conceptualism is all the rage, especially among young photographers -- art for the sake of art," said Masatoshi Naito, who is famed for his bizarre images of Japanese country folk. "But Akiyama's photos charge ahead toward what is real."

Akiyama, whose confidence appears eternally intact, couldn't agree more. "My photos will be famous," he vouchsafes.

My own camera in hand, a few weeks ago I met up with Akiyama at his exhibition at the Junkudo bookstore in Ikebukuro in Tokyo's Toshima Ward to see whether he was really the colorful personality he had made himself out to be during our phone conversations. I was not disappointed.

There were few viewers that day, but Akiyama didn't seem fazed in the least. "There aren't as many people as I'd expected," he said, "but some old guys I never thought would show interest did stop and look. I definitely think what I'm saying gets through." He tacked on another self-congratulatory remark -- this time about his darkroom skill -- and we were off to begin our photographic adventure.

It was when I asked whether his little plastic camera was up to the task of serious photography that Akiyama offered me a rundown of the specs -- it's got super-accurate autofocus, color balancing for flash and so forth.

But I also learned that Akiyama actually doesn't have any other fully operational cameras.

Even the Olympus was on loan; his own point-and-shoot broke down long ago from overuse, as did one of his pro-quality Nikons. "Financial challenges" (read: paying for film in bulk) compelled him to sell another Nikon and a Canon, and to leave his Ricoh with a pawnbroker. He does have a Minolta, but there's mold growing inside and the frame counter is jammed.

Living in a tiny apartment outside Tokyo, which he converts to a darkroom by "pulling the bedroom curtains shut," Akiyama explained that he supports his photography through part-time work as a manual laborer. And he hopes to buy another camera soon.

After walking for a while, Akiyama paused at a corner to stare at pedestrians. Suddenly a bulb seemed to go off in his head, the first of many epiphanies that day. "This place is like a stage -- all these lives moving around!" -- and, pointing at a drab facade across the street -- "That building, it's a backdrop!"

We soon found ourselves in Ikebukuro's dismal Romance Dori shopping strip, where Akiyama slipped into a game arcade called Capriccio One. A pile of stuffed Donald Ducks filled a window display and a march blared from a speaker. Akiyama stopped to study a man in a suit who was feeding tokens into some giant metal contraption, as if in a trance. But Akiyama's photographic muse remained dormant.

Outside again, the photographer saw another man and exclaimed, "He looks just like a statue of Buddha!" Then, when a teenage boy gestured nearby, he became puzzled and said, "They're interesting, but it's a big question. It's all a big question." Apparently too big: again no pictures.

Akiyama got more into the groove at the frenzied plaza in Shibuya. Squatting inside the tidal wave of pedestrians at the intersection, he peered into the crowd. Children, couples, muscular young blades in shiny suits and young women in the prime of their femininity -- everybody fell under his scrutiny and many were photographed.

I thought he might snap more glamorous women, but cuteness was obviously of no interest to Akiyama. What then, was he after? He paused before answering. "I'm feeling around for that crack inside time," he said finally. "The 'something' I'm looking for is in there."

Of course, many people don't appreciate having a camera unexpectedly rammed in their face, especially at night when Akiyama uses his flash. ("The difference between shooting in the day and at night is I need more courage at night.")

So there have been the inevitable run-ins. A high-school girl at an Osaka McDonald's once threw an empty coffee cup at him after he took her picture. In a back street of Shibuya during our foray together, a restaurant worker cursed him under his breath. And on an early shoot not long after the Aum Shinrikyo gas attacks of 1995, he said that a plainclothes cop grew suspicious and pulled him over for questioning.

"There is a moral question about street photography," he acknowledged as we took a break at a coffee shop. "It's not something I'd want done to me. But when I'm holding a camera, taking pictures, that issue disappears."

Oh, yes? And what about the subjects' feelings?

"Well," he said, "some people may think that they don't want to be photographed. But on a higher plane, a part of them -- that 'something' appearing inside the moment -- is reaching out." In the Akiyama world view, the same is true of dogs and even rubber gloves. And as far as he is concerned, his camera is a talisman permitting him to make contact.

Legendary photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, whose street photos and explicit nudes have earned him international renown -- and notoriety -- once said that photography is all about "looking at everything passionately."

The younger Akiyama -- whose work resembles Araki's in its juxtaposition of life and death, the personal and the public -- is consumed by the same spirit of devouring the visual environment. As he puts it: "I want to possess everything."

During a checkered stint as a biotechnology student at Osaka University -- during which he repeated the third year and missed tuition payments -- Akiyama became engrossed in the esoteric art of butoh dance, and decided to find a way of saying the same thing in visual form. He chose photography, and dropped out.

It wasn't long before he was noticed: The YPA -- which demands the highest standards from its competitors -- bought work from Akiyama only four months after he took his first serious photo.

If he has so far gained little attention outside a closed circle of professionals, it is partly due to his reluctance to enter other competitions. But it may also be because he requires so much from the viewer. His first book, published in March by Tatsumi Press, is one example. While titled "Shashin, Shashin, Shashin," Akiyama opted to use hiragana, then two sets of kanji that are all pronounced "shashin" -- but translate as "Photo, Discarding the Body, Photo." Leaping from idea to idea, the contents, too, make scant effort to guide anyone by the hand, offering neither an introduction, a theme or even page numbers.

The result of Akiyama's shotgun, non-contextualized approach is that many images make sense only to the author -- unless, perhaps, they are meditated on much as a Buddhist monk might a koan riddle. "Confronting Akiyama's photos is heavy and hard," was how one critic put it.

This mode of thought could lead to pure self-gratification on the part of the artist. But fine art can, and surely should, demand some mental exertion from the beholder, who might otherwise lose the ability to find those "somethings" in the cracks inside time.

It remains to be seen whether the public or posterity will make Akiyama famous, as he vows they will -- or whether he too, like many before him, will be swallowed by a crack in perception and disappear from view.