50 years is not such a long time ago, but if you look at an old photograph, you may realise that everything is indeed not the same, that it looks like an entirely different world.
Since 2019, an Instagram account by the name of Shoichi Kudo has been sharing photos of Aomori in the 1950s. His works, like a quiet stone, caused strong waves on the internet. A man from Santiago, Chile, commented under his photos that the scenery he captured looked almost the same as the village where the man was in at the time.
Certainly, Aomori, situated at the northern end of Honshu, Japan, will never look exactly the same as the villages in South America. What felt familiar for the man from Chile was perhaps a distinct atmosphere. If we are to put it in words clearly, it is a feeling that brings to mind the thought of modernisation reaching the edge of the world, changing the local way of life very slowly. At the centre of modernisation, for instance, in Tokyo, everything is changing rapidly. In Shoichi Kudo’s Aomori, however, one sees remoteness, languor, ordinariness and daily living.
The photos shared by Shoichi Kudo were all taken in Aomori between 1950 and 1962. At the time, Japan had just entered its post-war state. After Japan had struck an alliance with the United States, its economy was rapidly developing by producing consumer goods. During that time, Tokyo was caught up in an inexplicable agitation and buzz about the new sight.
Aomori, as captured by Kudo, however, was a quiet world. On wide streets steeped in thick snow, people in plain clothes carried their luggage on their back as they walked along, students and workers travelled around on bicycles, and four-wheel horse-drawn carts loaded with goods moved on with difficulty. Occasionally, one sees railway tracks and cars too, but they were still murky backgrounds, yet to enter into daily life. The way people move shapes the way they experience space, and also affects the sense of proportion people feel towards their environment. To residents of Aomori back then, they were still living within the fixed spaces of concentric circles.
Kudo was keen on taking photographs of roadside scenery because he was also a figure within the scenery. Of the 366 photos included in the book, more than half were taken along the route that he took to walk to work. In 1946, he started working for the newspaper, Tō-Ō Nippō. He was in charge of printing at the start, but switched to photography later. At a time when photography was still uncommon, he was already carrying a camera everywhere to take photos, all due to his profession.
The fact is, Shoichi Kudo passed away in 2014 and had never opened an Instagram account. While the last two years saw him catching the attention of photography scenes around the world, before his death, not even his relatives knew that there was a time in his life when he was so passionate about taking photographs of people’s daily life in Aomori. The person who has been avidly sharing his photos on Instagram after his death was actually his daughter.
After Shoichi Kudo had passed away, while his daughter Kanako Kudo was tidying her father’s residence in Aomori, she discovered some of his black-and-white negatives. In 2018, when Kanako was packing her mother’s luggage to prepare for her move into a residential facility, Kanako found a few colour negatives that showed her mother and her elder brother when he was one. Her mother’s touched expression at seeing the photographs stirred Kanako’s curiosity about what kinds of photographs her father had once taken. Later, in the closet of his father’s late residence, she uncovered more negatives.
In 2019, Kanako Kudo’s mother passed away. Because of the COVID pandemic, Kanako had more spare time. With the help of her husband, she developed a large number of negatives and scanned them into digital files.
Kanako was stunned when she saw the photos. To her, her father’s only interest was fishing. Up until his death, Shoichi Kudo would go fishing alone almost every day. As for photography, he never mentioned a word.
After the photos were posted on Instagram, they drew widespread responses worldwide, and were often talked about in juxtaposition to the story of American nanny-cum-photographer Vivian Maier.
Japanese editor Kyoichi Tsuzuki described Shoichi Kudo’s photos as “unconfined by the locals’ wishes to ‘present Aomori in a certain way’”, yet also unyielding to Tokyo’s “presumptuous idea of ‘what Aomori should look like’”. He described Kudo’s photos as “beyond eras, beyond locations, showing us the kind of quiet but firm existence of ‘man’.” In short, his idea was that Kudo was not influenced by any subject matter, ideology or aesthetic style when he took photographs. He lived contentedly and took photographs occasionally.
And yet, in those plain photos, there are several moments – where a few of them captured a surreal texture. Reality and the world of symbols coalesced perfectly. A photographer can rarely pursue these moments actively. One can only wait, that is, camera in hand.
Walking on the streets, sometimes one is assailed by a sudden feeling of eeriness, as if everything before our eyes are but things from the past in a different skin, happening all over again. In the future, they will continue to put on other skins and reoccur repeatedly. As such, we feel a sense of familiarity and uncanniness at the same time.
In moments like these, I strongly feel the need to take photographs, not to retain anything, nor to express emotions, but simply in fear, the fear that things before our eyes will leave us one after another.