For reasons of space and money I try to strictly limit my photo book purchases, but Noriko Takasugi’s Fukushima Samurai was one that I knew I had to own as soon as I saw it (which was very early on, as I should admit straight away that Takasugi is a former course mate of mine). Fukushima Samurai documents the annual Soma Nomai samurai festival, which has taken place in Fukushima prefecture, Japan for over a thousand years. The book examines the way tradition shapes the identities and lives of the people who take part in the festival, and how these things have been threatened by the 2011 tsunami and the nuclear plant accident which followed.
The book is broken down into thematic chapters. The aftermath of disaster, clean up operations, the daily lives of Fukushima’s people, their preparation for the festival, and the event itself all figure. Interspersed amongst these are environmental portraits of the Fukushima Samurai themselves, dressed in their traditional outfits, standing variously against a mixture of houses, pristine nature, and occasionally scenes of profound destruction. One photograph of Takakatsu Mottate shows the sea in the background and the tiled remains of a floor, perhaps from a building that no longer exists. Slight reminders of the force of the tsunami which swept through the area.
The design of the book is beautiful, wonderfully bound in black paper decorated with gold chrysanthemums, selected by Takasugi for their symbolism in mourning, with end papers that appropriately resemble the look of calm water. The page layouts are simple, rather than have text and images compete for space, captions and additional text are included in a small booklet which can be read in tandem with the main book, or independently (a neat device which would also make it easy to switch the text from English to Japanese or any other language). The booklet combines a mixture of short interviews with people Takasugi met, her own thoughts and research about the disaster and its aftermath, along with quotes from Japanese literary figures and a map of the region.
Although subtitled ‘the story of identity’, for me the really interesting theme in the book is the co-existence and occasional clashes between polar opposites. Between the ancient samurai culture and modern Japan, between a beautiful natural landscape and the unnatural radiation scattered across it, radiation which threatens to outlast even the ancient samurai. Many of my favourite images in the book are ones that show off these incongruities. One for example shows a group of samurai enjoying a meal, one wears a (typically English) Norton Motorbikes t-shirt. In another image a Samurai sits on his horse in full armour in the middle of a busy car park.
Takasugi’s eye is clearly on the people of Fukushima, and for me this is the book’s real strength because in doing so she manages to avoid many of the clichés of documenting a nuclear disaster, like the fetishism of abandoned spaces that has so typified, and I think blighted, most documentation of the Chernobyl disaster, often overlooking the human impact as a result. Or the opposite problem, the over-focus on the most shocking, freakish effects of radiation, birth defects and the like, which can easily turns the lives of those effected into little more than a gallery of horrors. In terms of Takasugi’s commitment to people affected by the disaster, and in reading some of her interviews with them in the booklet, I was positively reminded of Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history Voices from Chernobyl, for me the go-to book on the subject.
If I had any suggestions for ways to improve the book it would be longer interviews, although there is already a lot of information included I just find I want to know so much about the people, the traditions, the history. Perhaps this just reflects my European background and I’m asking for things that would seem completely prosaic to a Japanese audience. Perhaps I am just too curious for my own good. In either case, Fukushima Samurai is utterly absorbing in both form and content. Beautifully designed and made, compassionately and intelligently photographed. Check out more of it here.