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Sasaoka and Takeda in Shinjuku

by Monty DiPietro

            I live in Kabukicho -- the infamous tangle of sex clubs and mahjong parlors located just north of Shinjuku station's east exit. There are a number of reasons why I live where I do: The hundreds of wonderful all-night Asian restaurants and supermarkets; the fact that I can walk from my apartment to the world's busiest train station in a matter of minutes; and, surprisingly perhaps, the relatively low rent. It's a function of supply and demand, the price of housing is, and it seems Kabikicho's seedy reputation scares the more strait-laced prospective tenants off.

            Enter the smart artists. The last several years have seen a slow but steady movement of art and artists into the area just east of Kabukicho, where real estate prices are doubly stunted by proximity to the gay enclave of Shinjuku Nichome. Stuffed in this sandwich of perceived iniquity are the flagship shop of Sekaido, Tokyo's best source for art supplies; a host of musical instrument shops; and a trio of relatively new artist-run galleries.

The Photographers' Gallery, which opened less than a year ago, is a 40 square meter space managed by its 17 members, all of whom are photographers. One of them is Keiko Sasaoka, 23, who is currently exhibiting selections from a new landscape series. These are small, vertical format color pictures, taken along the Honshu coastline last spring and summer. Sasaoka shoots the sea, fishermen, big rock formations and wide open skies. What the works may lack in imagination they make up for in their careful composition, and the handmade prints are clearly better than average.

Sasaoka, who cites Ansel Adams as an influence, also has six big (one meter square) prints from the same series up at the nearby August Art Space, a four year-old rental room closely associated with the Photographers' Gallery. In these crisp prints, shot with a 6x6 (large format) camera, one can more fully appreciate the attention to detail that Sasaoka brings to her art.

            Those who prefer their pictures with rough edge, meanwhile, can make their way a few steps down the street to Galeria Q, a cooperative run by its four artist members. Now in is Aya Takada's "Vietnam Daze," a selection of 28 pictures from a trip Takeda took from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh last year. These are gritty, in the moment shots, with the focus on urban environments and people. The ink jet prints, some poster sized, are push-pinned to the walls, unframed. Takada's point and shoot style recalls the work of the so-called "onnanoko no shashinka," that celebrated group of young female photographers whose everyday life documentary aesthetic changed the way Japan looked at photography in the 1990s.

Takada has a good eye and shows remarkable flexibility in capturing the atmosphere of her environment. Whether she is shooting a city square from the balcony of her hotel room, a street scene through the windshield of a car, or zooming in close on a detail from a movie poster, she has that rare ability to bring the viewer into the picture. When she is at her best, one can almost smell the exhaust from the battered old Da Nang buses. Due perhaps their subject matter, Tanaka's pictures have a strange, backward-in-time feeling to them.

"People say my work looks nostalgic," says Takada, "But I wasn't looking for that. All I was looking for was reality."

            Takada and Sasaoka are couple of very different photographers showing at rather similar young galleries in one of Tokyo's fledgling art areas. These fringe spaces (be prepared for a bit of stair-climbing, as all three are on 4th or 5th floors of walkups) nicely complement the established corporate photography galleries found closer to Shinjuku station (Konica Photo Plaza, Minolta Photo Space Shinjuku, Pentax Forum, Shinjuku Nikon Salon, Shinjuku Nikon Mini Gallery). They are an excellent example of what ambitious young artists can do in the right Tokyo neighborhood, and should be included on any tour of Shinjuku galleries.

Notes: Pictured is an untitled selection from Keiko Sasaoka's landscape photography, up at the Photographers" Gallery (5368-2631) and August Art Space (3226-4284) to November 17 2001. Aya Takada's "Vietnam Daze" is at Galeria Q (5269-5230) to November 9. All three spaces are about a twelve minute walk from Shinjuku Station's east exit or two minutes from Shinjuku Sanchome's C-7 exit.
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