Oct 19 2012

Film Blog: Daido Moriyama – Stray Dog of Tokyo

by Wei-Ling Woo

Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog of Tokyo, 2001, 84-minute video documentary. Directed by Kenjiro Fujii. Courtesy Singapore International Photography Festival.

Screened for one night at the Substation Theatre as part of the 2012 Singapore International Photography Festival (5 October–17 November), the 2001 documentary Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog of Tokyo (84 min, Japanese with English subtitles) was chosen by this year’s SIPF film curator, Tan Ngiap Heng, to balance the festival’s roster of films, which include many documentaries about American and European photographers, including Bernh and Hilla Becher, Erwin Olaf, Susan Meiselas and JR. The film features intimate interviews with the reclusive and media-shy Moriyama in his home, as well as interviews with photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, critics and curators, about Moriyama’s work. The majority of the film’s scenes were either shot in the celebrated Japanese photographer’s studio or follow him on his night walks in the rabbit warren of Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighborhood, which he is famous for capturing in several volumes of photo-books, the first of which was published a year after the film’s release.

Although appearing to have no destination in mind, Moriyama is not a flaneur—he walks with purpose, resembling a wandering stray dog on the scent of something even it does not recognize. The photographer sets off from home with nothing but a point-and-shoot Ricoh camera and a black fanny pack stuffed with dozens of film rolls, down alleys and past pachinko parlors, into seedy dives and through arcades and movie theaters, shooting photos at a frenetic, almost manic pace. When shooting, he rarely looks into the viewfinder. Instead, he holds his camera at arm’s length, or angles his body and lets his arm dangle casually, surreptitiously getting his shot of a row of schoolgirls standing outside a brightly lit store.

After a night roving the streets and drinking, Moriyama is followed by the camera into the darkroom set up in his Tokyo flat. While his shooting appears haphazard, driven by intuition rather than careful framing, in the darkroom Moriyama is like a doctor performing a post-mortem examination as he meticulously uncovers what he’s been looking at. The images, hidden at the point of capture, are released from liminality in the darkroom. For the viewer as well, the developed photographs are revelations: evocative, highly contrasting black-and-white images which are often shaky and out of focus (Moriyama’s characteristic bure-boke, or “shaky-blurry,” aesthetic), capturing a sense of disorientation. The snapshots taken with his arm dangling give viewers a dog’s perspective—low to the ground, looking up at its human subjects but virtually ignored by them. Moriyama uses compact cameras for just this reason—they are unobtrusive and their shutters quiet; people don’t react, and allow themselves to be photographed naturally.

Moriyama himself granted director Kenjiro Fujii unprecedented access to trail him for several months with a camera, and the project’s intimate nature lends the documentary the feel of a video diary. Like Moriyama, Fujii picks an “amateur’s tool,” shooting the entire film in color on a single camcorder. The camerawork is jerky, and the film is raw and minimally edited, cutting from one scene to another with little or no transition.

While Fujii mimics Moriyama’s familiar, impromptu style, the director’s camcorder is in constant opposition to Moriyama’s still camera throughout the film. One shoots in color; the other, black and white; one is moving and the other still; one provides an all-encompassing view of the world and the other, a small, framed one. While the camcorder captures real-time events, it is Moriyama’s camera that strives to stop time. His photographs and contact sheets, which flash onscreen, are literal freeze frames that arrest the video camera’s constant movement. Even the documentary’s soundtrack reminds us of this fact. As the video camera follows Moriyama through Shinjuku, the ambient sounds of Tokyo’s nightlife are constantly being punctuated with the magnified “click” of a camera’s shutter going off.

For Moriyama, the process of photographing seems to be less about getting the perfect shot or mastering the camera, than about the act of wandering itself. Deeply influenced by Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel, On the Road, Moriyama saw travelling and being on the road as a “continuous process of discovering the fragments of the world and splinters of reality.”

When Fujii gives Moriyama a digital camcorder at the end of the film, the photographer seems equally fascinated by this new and unfamiliar frontier. Walking through the streets of daytime Tokyo, Moriyama is engrossed by the washed-out colors and graininess of digital color photography. As if seeing the world anew, even his dog’s perspective seems to change. He holds the camcorder upright immediately, training it upwards. “This is fun!” he exclaims. Back in his studio, looking over the day’s images on the camera’s LCD screen, he laughs over the number of photos he has zealously taken of drying laundry. The film ends, not on the note of departure or nostalgia, but towards a future of restless, continual discovery.