It is not often that a picture really speaks a thousand words. There are crucial parts missing under the surface of the picture that betray its weight, leaving it cold and factual or beautiful and trivial: always incomplete. Shomei Tomatsu’s cutting vision of the post-war debris in his homeland Japan is also incomplete, but deliberately so. His pictures speak a broken language that chronicles the grief of a fragmented nation. Born in 1930, Tomatsu – who passed away at the end of 2012 – developed an expressionistic style in picturing the ruins around him, one that teetered uneasily between reality and a barren, dream-like nation in the midst of change. One of his most famous pictures depicts a girl, her face covered by her hair, her mouth locked open in an endless, noiseless scream. Next to her sits a Coca-Cola bottle. Another image shows a melted glass bottle in Nagasaki, like a charred and disfigured hanging carcass. Violence invades the everyday, transforming it into the surreal nightmares of a country burnt by nuclear detonation.
An earlier series called Chewing Gum and Chocolate focuses on post-war American occupation, recording an ambiguous response to the Americanisation of Japan. Tomatsu wrote about this love/hate relationship: "We were starving, and they threw us chocolate and chewing gum. That was America. For better or worse, that's how I encountered America." Brash signs shouting ‘Watch! Enjoy!’ and beehive hairdos encroached on traditional Japanese culture like an infection.
Yet the punch of Japan’s youthful underworld is strong and virile in ‘Oh! Shinjuku’, a visual Haiku that sings the rebellious lament of Tokyo’s outsiders. If ever there was poetry on emulsion, this is it.