A viscous black cloak spreads across ploughed fields and rice paddies. Viewed from an aerial perspective, it’s hard to gauge its force; you have to focus on dotted trucks caught unawares on narrow roads bisecting the fields to realise the dark wave is steadily moving very fast. This footage, which was shot from a helicopter, charts the effects of the tsunami resulting from the Great Tohoku Earthquake throughout north-eastern Japan on 11 March, 2011, and documents about five square kilometres in 30 seconds. The tsunami flooded over 560 square kilometres in18 hours. Yet this brief glimpse of its energy induces a dread typical of real-time passing in slo-motion in the face of the unstoppable.
The recording and imagining of the tsunami halts time in manifold ways. Not only does it occupy space with a fast-but-slow momentum; it also appears equally in the now of televised and captured media, and in the expansive past of Japan’s depiction of natural disasters. Watching that dark wave engulf Sendai’s fields, I was reminded of the climax of Hayao Miyazaki’s strident eco-fantasy Princess Mononoke (1997). When the Night Walker is decapitated by the ruthless Lady Eboshi, a gelatinous black ooze spills forth, transforming the lush land into a morbid swamp. Miyazaki powerfully depicts the monstrous forces in his drama as culture (Lady Eboshi) and nature (the Night Walker). Typical of Japanese story-telling, the nature-culture binary moves through a series of transitional states based more on their shifting balance than their fixed positions. No sides are taken, all differences eventually collapse and blur, and culture and nature inevitably become interchangeable. As phantasmagorical as Princess Mononoke is, its panoramic obliteration is calmly evoked: in Japan, there’s something natural about the depiction of unnatural disasters.
Equally, there’s something preternatural about Japan’s acceptance of natural disasters; the populace seems attuned to disastrous rhythms. The role of vibrational shocks and after-shocks (over 8,000 in the month following 11 March) is ingrained in the Japanese psyche ‘like breathing oxygen’ as one Japanese friend told me: ‘we just don’t notice them because they’re everywhere.’ This notional merger of registering with breathing, of feeling with perceiving, has arguably shaped everyday life in Japan into a continuum of vibrations. Consequently, the role of time-shifting through space-changing as evidenced by the devastatingly slow-yet-fast tsunami’s ‘geo-morphing’ is equally ingrained in Japanese sensibilities of how time and space can cosmologically merge. Japanese visuality, then, is not solely a visual matter.
When Asako Narahashi shows land in the photographs she has been working on since 2003, she depicts it from afar – which, for a Japanese artist, means from the ocean. Her beautiful vistas of smudged land enforce the dominant aspect of Japan’s geography: it’s an island nation. Island cultures tend toward a transitional state, ensnared in a temporal domain on the cusp of becoming either ocean or land. Narahashi’s photos make the blurred ocean seem like an imposing mass while the slivers of land seem transitory and elusive. Her perception reverses the tectonic primacy of continental cultures, giving us images from a kind of ‘floating world’ endemic to Japanese flotational aesthetics and sensibilities.
Narahashi told me in conversation that many people in Japan had asked her about the prescience of her photographs, but her image-making is less eerily prophetic than saliently reflective. Her images seem to ‘sense’ vibrational surges in land and the encompassing totality of the ocean, siting her physically and symbolically in a uniquely Japanese sense of place, where time, space, energy and vibration mould landscape. Katsushika Hokusai’s depiction of a large open-ocean wave (not a tsunami as many have presumed) in his famous print The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (1830) is an obvious indicator of this sense of fluxive space. The wave – not the ocean – is an event. The surrounding boats are poised ready to ride the foaming morph of energy; Mount Fuji stoically observes the incident from afar, like a parent watching a child at play.
Hokusai’s elegant depiction records a moment of energy ascribed to natural force. Kano Kazunobu’s The 500 Arhats (1863) (arhats being Buddhist deities) similarly depicts a moment of energy, but one ascribed to divine power. In one of the scrolls from the Six Realms of Hell section of Kazunobu’s 100-scroll set, a huge calligraphic brush stroke – singular and awesome in its scope – sweeps across the painted image. Its materiality is beyond the scale of the hanging scrolls: it bears down like a brute defacing cursive from beyond the mortal world it depicts. It symbolises the gods’ employment of wind as an instrument of divine retribution.
The complete set of 100 tsuifuku (dual vertical scrolls) that comprise The 500 Arhats was exhibited for the first time in its entirety at the Tokyo Edo Museum a month after 11 March. This synchronicity, though, was absorbed by Japan’s appreciation of pictorial disasters in its traditional arts. Record figures poured through the museum and studied that singular brush stroke in a silent, knowing way. The scrolls of The Seven Misfortunes section are especially chilling. In one, titled Earthquake, an arhat distractedly holds a rope for desperate souls to climb up to the heavens from their hellish internment. I couldn’t help but see the televised image of townspeople throwing lines to people clinging to rooftops as the tsunami engulfed their houses (footage not released to television in Japan until a few months after the tragedy first struck).
The worst synchronicity between fatalistic unnatural disaster and fateful natural disaster was voiced by the newly re-appointed mayor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, who declared 11 March an act of tembatsu – divine retribution. This sounds like what one might expect from a conservative Japanese official, but if anything Ishihara was amplifying the resonances the day activated in the Japanese disaster-ready psyche. If a large part of the country’s thought is based on cyclical and reincarnative perception of events, inter-connections certainly do arise like oxygen. Yet far from being a lackadaisical acceptance of how things unfold, this perception allows for aligning the unnatural with the natural.
Manabu Ikeda’s paintings of cultural flotsam playfully portray Japan as a Hokusaian wave of abundance, with consumerables unleashed in an expulsive projectile. In Foretoken (2008) he diagrammatically blends natural energy (the oceanic wave) with unnatural manifestation (the noticeable absence of water). It’s the kind of unnatural disaster that has symbolically figured in a near quarter century of anime’s gorgeous detailing of natural dynamics. Yet when local TV cameras captured an actual tsunami surge spilling into small town streets, they evidenced the reality of anime’s imagined dynamics: flotsam rode the waves, as roofs, boats, poles, cars and their amassed contents merged with swathes of wood, Styrofoam, paper, plastic, rope, wire and tin.
Similar transmogrified waves appear throughout the anime Summer Wars (2009). It depicts the online world of Oz as concentric rings of cute consumer avatars, like a Murakami landscape unleashed in Ikea. When hacked by an AI, these absorbed avatars become a nightmarish tidal force of virally transformed consumers, like the sudden materialization of an unordered demographic spread that in turn brings Japan to a halt. Following the shutdown of all power systems at the Fukushima Dainichi NPR, Tokyo was brought to a near-standstill on 11 March, leaving around 3 million people stranded. The Nihombashi Takashima department store alone housed 14,000 people overnight, cramped and compressed into lines of bodies threaded throughout the store like fleshy striae from Summer Wars’ collapsing online world.
The sudden materialization of excess people in an unplanned space on 11 March highlighted the precarious spatio-temporal balance of everyday life in a metropolis as compressed as Tokyo. In Japan, everything proceeds through integrated flux, from its swaying skyscrapers to its ‘just-in-time’ market distribution to its adaptive train scheduling. Continual change is the norm; instantaneous response is the method. Earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, mud slides and the like devastate by halting the fluid channels of self-modulating change. Despite nature causing these blockages, the consequences are ‘unnatural’ when compared to the ‘natural’ pulsations of everyday life coursing through Japan’s networks. Japanese visuality – the broad spectrum of how fantastic scenarios are imaged and imagined – is intonated with the worldly experience of upheavals, decimations, and ground zeros. All the examples briefly discussed here visualise natural things in unnatural states – but always through acceding that nature’s manifestation often appears unnatural. Through its phantasmagorical evocations, Japan illustrates that no disaster can ever be unnatural.