Katsumi Watanabe - Gangs of Kabukicho
Dans le magnifique recueil consacré au travail de Katsumi Watanabe à Kabukicho (PPP Editions, 2006), on trouve cette très belle préface de lizawa Kotaro qui éclaire sur l'étrange profession de "photographe de rue" mais aussi sur l'histoire de Shinjuku et de son quartier des plaisirs.
Shinjuku's Photographer - Watanabe Katsumi by lizawa Kotaro
Watanabe Katsumi's workplace during the 1960s and 70s was the living streets of Kabukicho in Shinjuku. Each night he went out into the neighborhood, working as a photographer, taking portraits and selling them, "three pictures for 200 yen." These pictures, in staggering volume, cast an overwhelming spell on the viewer; they embody miraculous power.
Watanabe Katsumi was born in 1941, in Morioka City of Iwate Prefecture, some 600 kilometers north of Tokyo. His family was poor, and after graduating middie school, he helped support them by working as an assistant at the Morioka City bureau of the Mainichi Shimbun, a national newspaper. The duties of such assistants, dubbed children were varied; sometimes Watanabe developed and printed photographs. Gradually, he became fascinated with the medium.
Watanabe moved to Tokyo in 1962 and joined Tojo Kaikan, the legendary portrait photography studio near the Imperial Palace. At the time, vestiges of the apprenticeship System persisted at photo studios and Watanabe had to survive a grueling training regimen, which began with rinsing photo paper, before they allowed him to actually make prints himself. Once he mastered the technique, he began to feel restless with the mechanical part of the production process.
Around that time, he became attracted by the work of Mr. S., an acquaintance who worked as a street photographer in Kabukicho. Visiting S.'s room, Watanabe saw rows of photographic prints from the previous day's work lined up on tatami mats: "They looked like money to me." Besides S., there were three or four other street photographers who were regulars in Shinjuku, they had worked there since World War II, when it was hosting black markets in its ruins.
Watanabe learned the basics of the trade from S., and, borrowing a camera and strobe light, he began working as a street photographer in the entertainment districts of Shibuya, Shinbashi and Ueno. Soliciting bar hostesses and cabaret busboys before working hours, he would photograph them and sell them the prints. As his customers increased, he could no longer keep his position at Tojo Kaikan, and in 1967, he quit his job and began working exclusively as a street photographer.
With S.'s permission, Watanabe began to photograph in lucrative Shinjuku. Through 1968, he commuted to Kabukicho nearly every night. Watanabe said his peak years of success, when he produced some of his best portraits, were between 1968 and 1970. In those days, cameras with strobe lights were still rare and Watanabe's beautiful photographs were popular. Some subjects wanted to send them to their families back home, others wanted to mount them on wooden panels and hang them in their establishments. His customers were picky about how they posed, but Watanabe was accommodating and formed warm ties with them, as if they were family.
In the 1970s, the atmosphere of the Shinjuku streets changed; the predominantly one or two story buildings were demolished and replaced with taller buildings. The rich human connections that occurred in easily accessible ground floor establishments became strained when they moved to the upper floors. Compact cameras with built-in strobes became increasingly popular and street photographers' customers dwindled. Watanabe's work entered a transitional period.
Shoji, the editor of Camera Mainichi, and applied to Album 73, a Camera Mainichi, project that solicited photographs from the general public. His acceptance leads to a significant shift in his status as a photographer. Watanabe's seven-page spread Shinjuku Kabukicho," in the June, 1973 issue, received the Album Prize, awarded for the best photographs of the year, and his name became widely known.
1973 was also the year that Watanabe's first photographic book, Shinjuku Guntoden 66/73, [Shinjuku; The Story of a Band of thieves 66/73] published by Camera Mainichi (in association with Barakei Gahosha) and edited by Nishii Kazuo, was realized. In January 1974 his solo show, "Hatsunozoki Yoru no Daifukumaden" [First Peek at the Nocturnal Demon’s Lair] dazzled visitors to the Shimizu Gallery, where innumerable photos were pasted on every surface, including the floor and ceiling.
And yet, although his photographs were critically acclaimed, his commercial prospects in Shinjuku did not recover. As a consequence Watanabe temporarily stopped working as a street photographer and sold roasted sweet potatoes in the streets. In 1976, he picked up where he had left off and opened a small studio in Higashi Nakano, two stations away from Shinjuku. He managed his studio for five years but continued to visit Kabukicho at night.
After folding his studio in the early 80s, Watanabe made ends meet with magazine assignments and successfully published tree books: Discology, a selection of photographs he made in discotheques along with text he wrote about h's experiences, and a revised edition of his first book Shinjuku: The Story of a Band of Thieves, also accompanied by his own recollections and series. They were both published in 1982 as part of a series by Bansei-sha. And later on, in 1997, Shinchosha published a hefty, 500-page retrospective monograph titled simply: Shinjuku 1965-97.
Anyone who sees Watanabe's photographs of Shinjuku - especially those taken between the late 60s and throughout the 70s - will feel powerfully drawn into that world. To help understand the energy they radiate, the source of their charm, we cannot overlook the history of Shinjuku.
In 1698 a new station was established along the Koshukaido Road, one of five major arteries leading from Edo (now Tokyo) to the provinces. This is how Shinjuku was born; it flourished as a way station for travelers, where inns jostled or space and eating and drinking establishments. During the Meiji Era [1868-1912], railroad stations (on what are now the Yamanote and Chuo lines) were built in Shinjuku. Later, as the private rail lines of Odakyu, Keio and Seibu linked the city center with Tokyo suburbs, Shinjuku developed into a leading entertainment hub. Department stores, movie theatres, cafes, and bookstores all thrived there ; during the 1920s, Shinjuku became the center of modernist culture in Japan.
But there was another face to Shinjuku. Before World War II, in contrast to the celebrated world of glamorous consumer culture the reclaimed swampland on the north side of the station had given rise to specialty eating and drinking establishments that also provided sexual services. Shinjuku was devastated by the war but its resurrection from the ruins was swift. Off the main boulevards in a warren of bars, illegal prostitutes entertained their clients on second floors, and the area came to be known as the Blue Light district (in contrast to a Red Light district where prostitution was legal). So, the two faces of Shinjuku, the front and the back, the light and the dark, the commercial district and the sexual entertainment district co-existed.
Immediately after the war, there was talk of creating a Kabuki Theater in Shinjuku, like the original in Ginza. Although the project never materialized the area was then dubbed Kabukicho. The idea of situating Kabuki, already solidly established as Japanese classical entertainment near the Blue Light district, was preposterous. Nevertheless, Kabukicho continued to develop as a gigantic nightlife district centered on the sex trade. Along the way, Kabukicho began to be known as Nihon no kahanshin [Japan from the waist-down].
The Kabukicho area of Shinjuku was Watanabe's stomping ground. He felt an affection for the hard-bitten survivors that inhabited its streets, surviving on violence and Eros; with the sympathies of an insider Watanabe went about his business with ease.
The subjects of Watanabe's photographs are always clearly aware they're being photographed; their poses present their innate body language. Watanabe was fond of saying "All Shinjuku is a stage." His strobe managed to illuminate the essential vulnerability that lurked beneath his subjects' blustery performance.
In the mid-1970s, as Watanabe's Shinjuku clients began to dwindle, one of his resident models exhorted him, "Nabe-chan (his nickname) take our pictures, save them as mementos!" Kabukicho today is hardly recognizable as the area where Watanabe once worked as a street photographer. Since the 1990s, as Chinese and Koreans have made their way into the neighborhood, its population has grown increasingly heterogeneous: in some areas forests of signs are posted in languages other than Japanese. The young people's carefree looks, as they chatter on their cell phones and walk down the streets, betray no trace of the past.
But step into the back alleys and there is a distinct sense that marginal characters are still lurking about. Although significantly reduced in scale, nightlife areas such as Golden Gai still retain vestiges of the postwar black markets and Blue Light districts. No doubt Shinjuku will continue to transform itself like a giant creature perpetually in flux, a fate shared by many cultural centers of great cities.
Watanabe Katsumi died on January 29, 2006 at the age of 64.
This essay is based on the last interview he made in his office in Roppongi, Tokyo, on December 13, 2005.
Parmi les gangs de Kabukicho, on croise l'un des rois de Shinjuku : Terayama Shuji !