Essay: Masahisa Fukase - Ravens (MACK)

Perhaps only a man subsumed by despair could have imagined beginning such a book as this, but certainly only a great artist could have made an obsession of personal pain and survived a decade of its torture with something coherent to show others. [1]
– David Travis

Junbungaku (純文学) has been translated from the Japanese language in various related terms: pure, sincere, serious and polite. It also translates to a form of philosophical literature and is often discussed alongside its literary counterpart (or nemesis) taishubungaku – mass or popular literature. As a literary concept, it is believed that junbungaku was first introduced through Takeo Arishima’s 1922 novel The Manifesto (Sengen Hitotsu) [2] in which he proclaims that he will no longer receive funds from his wealthy family, but instead live off his own earnings from writing. He also announces that the farm where he dwells will be given back to the original farm owners, with the liquidated funds contributing to social reforms instigated by revolutionaries. In reality, he did go about making these changes, but as with so many other novelists associated with junbungaku, the following year he committed joint-suicide with journalist Akiko Hatano. [3]

Junbungaku was refined over the following 12 or so years. In its formative years, the genre was largely defined by ongoing publications of books loosely connected with the I-novel (私小説). [4] Importantly, the Japanese I-novel is a literary genre that is best described as confessional literature where – often dark – events in the story correspond and reflect situations in the author’s actual life. Works such as The Death of a Man (Otsu Junkichi) by Naoya Shiga – which infamously chronicled his affair with the family maid – are widely understood to have made the I-novel the apex of junbungaku literature in approximately 1935. [5]

Although the writings (and English translations) relating to this style of confessional literature are sparse, Kenzaburō Ōe’s 1989 essay “Japan Dual Identity: A Writer’s Dilemma” outlines the beginnings of junbungaku and is often referenced as an authority on the genre. While discussing celebrated novelist Yuko Mishima and post-WWII literature, Ōe declared, “We find that postwar literature was, in the history of modern and contemporary Japanese literature, a literature that strived to provide a total, comprehensive contemporary age and a human model that lived it. It is a literature that endeavored to grapple squarely with the needs of intellectuals.” [6]

That Ōe’s precis is one of the very few brief analyses of junbungaku writing during and after the traumatic years of WWII is somewhat unusual, especially given that the wider genre flourished during the period, greatly reflecting the fractured psyche of the Japanese people in the wake of the war and reconstruction leading to the Japanese ‘economic bubble’.

Although the narrative that so strongly pervades late Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase’s Ravens, which London imprint MACK recently republished as a facsimile edition of the famed 1986 original, is driven by black and white photographs, the overarching atmosphere and confessional narrative structure strongly align and reflect junbungaku and certainly the I-novel. Fukase experimented with artistic and journalistic styles for both commercial magazine work and his own projects, often documenting his own life through representations of others: wives, lovers and, of course, ravens.

Fukase was originally from Hokkaido, where his family ran the Fukase Photo Studio, and he recalls both fond and disturbing memories of assisting his mother in the darkroom and her passing out due to chemical inhalation. In 1952, Fukase moved to Tokyo to study photography and eventually became a successful commercial photographer, although his most known and poignant photographs are of slaughterhouses, refineries, ravens and his father. [7] While living in Tokyo, Fukase would often make the 36-hour train ride back to Hokkaido, and this no doubt established long-standing memories that influenced the production of Ravens. When his life began to fall apart this is also where he returned to seek solitude.

Fukase made Ravens over an extended period of time between 1975 and 1986, finally proclaiming that he had transformed into a raven himself – assuming the form of the dreaded bird of Japanese mythology. This, of course, adds to the mythmaking that the book has manifested since its first publication in 1986. Ravens has been revered in Japan since its first release (and subsequent two additional printings [8]) and more recently in Western photographic culture. In 2010, the British Journal of Photography went so far as to rank Ravens as the best photobook of the past 25 years. [9]

Like his junbungaku predecessors and counterparts, the I-novel-esque backstory that drove Fukase’s obsession and subsequent masterpiece goes something like this: After thirteen years of marriage to his second wife Yoko – who was also his prominent photographic subject and muse – she left him. As he often did when destitute, lonely or needing a break, he boarded a train to Hokkaido. As he travelled north, he began to notice the ravens from the train window, the abundant and portentous black birds seemingly reflecting his mood and feelings. He disembarked at several stops to photograph the ravens, as well as making images from the moving train, eventually piecing together the body of work that would become Ravens. While he would briefly marry and divorce again in the ensuing years, the later years of Fukase’s would be marked by an unabashed and profound depression. In 1992, Fukase was descending a staircase at his favourite ‘watering hole’ when he fell. This caused substantial brain damage and subsequent institutionalisation, before he eventually passed away in 2012.

The photographs published in Ravens were shot in a reminiscent ‘bokeh’ [10] style that was popular with now celebrated contemporaries, including Daido Moriyama, Osamu Kanemura and Takuma Nakahira. The imagery was made with candid care for camera craft, as if life was too busy being lived to stop for technical formalities. This was certainly effective and the many blurry, grainy and haphazardly cropped and enlarged photographs from Ravens convey a sense of urgency and drive, but also manifest fleeting feelings of a manic and obsessed observer. The stark black motif of the raven in detail – as well as flocks, blurred and sharp, alive and dead – is punctuated by other more obscure images: a plump, decisive-looking cat, a group of wind-swept school girls, a ship at sea reflecting the sun, and a voluptuous middle-aged woman who seems to peer at the camera with her eyes closed. These are common subject matters of Japanese photographers and especially of this time, but here they add weight, disturbance and insight to the mind of Fukase, not unlike Mishima’s pyro-manic monk or Dazai’s jovial suicidal.

Certainly, this new edition of Ravens will be popular with collectors. This reviewer can only hope it will bring about a more engaged and in-depth appreciation and analysis of Japanese photography (and maybe even literature) leading to, during and amongst the aftermath of war and nuclear disaster.

By way of conclusion I will leave the last words to the Buddhist Monk and poet Kamo no Chōmei from his poem The Ten Foot Square Hut (Hojoki, 1212) that Fukase quoted in his essay Family from 1996. [11] The work depicts the Buddhist concept of impermanence (mujō) through the illustrative description of various disasters that include earthquake, famine, whirlwind and conflagration that befall the people of Kyoto during his time:

The flow of the moving river is ceaseless, yet it is not the original water that it was. The foam floating in pools now breaks up, now comes together, and in no instance does it pause for long. The people in the world and their dwellings are also thus.
– Kamo no Chōmei

Note: In 2004 the Masahisa Fukase Trust edited and published two photobooks: Hysteric Twelve and Bukubuku, and two exhibitions: From Window (as part of the Another Language: 8 Japanese Photographers exhibition) at Rencontres d’ Arles, France, and The Incurable Egoist at Diesel Art Gallery, Tokyo of works made and lesser known before his devastating fall in the famed Shinjuku Golden Gai district.

Text: Kristian Haggblom




Perimeter x Heavy is an editorial collaboration exploring contemporary photography, art, design and their various relationships to the published form. Produced in-house by the team at Melbourne-based bookstore, publisher and distribution house Perimeter and Sydney-based photography magazine and online platform The Heavy Collective, Perimeter x Heavy comprises book reviews, interviews, studio visits and features. While further expounding the published output of artists who feature across both Perimeter and Heavy's inventories, the platform aims to provide thoughtful insights into the wider here and now of contemporary publishing practice. 

[1] From the Introductory Note by David Travis to the first American edition titled Solitude of Ravens published by Bedford Arts, Publishers, San Francisco.
[2] The Manifesto (Sengen Hitotsu) has never been translated to English.
[3] From a review of Divided Self: A Biography of Arishima Takeo by Leith Morton reviewed by Stephen W. Kohl in the The Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese Vol. 25, No. 1, Special Issue: Yosano Akiko (1878-1942) (Apr., 1991). Pp. 150-154
[4] It is believed the I-novel began with writings from Shimazaki Toson and Tayama Katai. Other later authors include Fumiko Hayashi, Osamu Dazai and Shusaku Endo.
[5] See: Strecher, C. M. “Purely Mass or Massively Pure? The Division Between ‘Pure and ‘Mass’ Literature, Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 51, No 3 (Autumn, 1996). Pp. 357-374
[6] See Kenzaburō Ōe’s essay "Japan's Dual Identity: A Writer's Dilemma," in Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian's (editors) Postmodernism and Japan published by Duke University Press, 1989, pg. 194
[7] Fukase photographed his family extensively, including photographs of his dead mother, father and niece which he refers to as ‘funerary’ and ‘commemorative’ photographs (English translation) in the essay Family published in SETTING SUN: Writings by Japanese Photographers, edited by Ivan Vartanian, Akiko Hatanaka and Yutaka Kanbayashi, published by Aperture, 2005. Fukase also published some of this work in Memories of Father that was published by IPC in 1991.
[8] Ravens was first printed by Sōkyūsha, Tokyo, and was republished by Bedford Arts in the US in 1991, under the title of Solitude of Ravens, and more recently in 2008 by Rat Hole Gallery in Tokyo.
[9] The judges were Chris Killip, Ute Eskildsen, Gerry Badger, Jeffrey Ladd and Yoko Sawada.
[10] Bokeh (boke 暈け or ボケ) describes the appearance and atmosphere created by out-of-focus areas or whole compositions. In Japanese it can also refer to the words blur or haze and can thus translate to a sense of a mental or psychological confusion.
[11] This essay and another by Fukase titled Ravens is translated into English and published in SETTING SUN: Writings by Japanese Photographers, edited by Ivan Vartanian, Akiko Hatanaka and Yutaka Kanbayashi, published by Aperture in 2005.