The Vitality of Tokyo, as Continuously Captured by Photographer Honjo Naoki

Honjo Naoki is known for his mysterious landscape photographs that make you feel as if you are gazing down upon a miniature diorama. Since winning the 32nd Kimura Ihei Award in 2006 for his small planet series, he has turned his attention to Tokyo. An array of his work depicting the city can now be found at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, where he has recently launched a large-scale solo exhibition. What is it about the city of Tokyo that draws him in?
"Tokyo, Japan" (from the small planet series), 2005 ©Naoki Honjo
According to Honjo, Tokyo has more green and orange lights than other cities.

—Why did you start taking photos of Tokyo?

Having been born and raised here, Tokyo has always been the city closest to my heart, and I wanted to find out more about this place I find myself in. It's a really large city, and sometimes when you're in the midst of it, it's hard to know where you stand. Sometimes I'm struck by the contrasts, like in places where Tokyo's massive central loop line, the Yamanote Line runs right by a residential area on one side, and skyscrapers on the other.

"Tokyo, Japan" (from the small planet series), 2004 ©Naoki Honjo
A child to whom Honjo showed this piece thought it looked like a model at first glance, but was shocked to realize it is a real-life landscape, as the roof of the bullet train is brown.
"Nakano-ku, Tokyo" (from the LIGHT HOUSE series), 2002 ©Naoki Honjo
In addition to bird's-eye views, Honjo continues to shoot from a street-level perspective. He says his eye is drawn to the movie-set-like look that residential areas and alleys present.

I started by taking pictures near my house and school when I was a student, and from there I gradually began to search for places where you can look out over the city. I used to go out on my moped and take pictures of places where there are rivers with bridges to cross and along Tokyo Bay.

One day, when I was on the bridge at Oi Wharf in Tokyo's Shinagawa City, I saw people relaxing on the other side of the river. One of the shots I took looked as if it was a close-up view even though it was a far-off landscape, like a diorama. The photo was so perfectly balanced that I thought I'd never be able to capture something like it again. But as I kept shooting, I realized I could capture that kind of bird's-eye view of the world with a large format camera and a tilt-shift lens.

"Tokyo, Japan" (from the small planet series), 2002 ©Naoki Honjo
The shot that unexpectedly came out like a diorama and served as a turning point for Honjo.

—So, camera movement techniques are essential to your photographs. How do they work?

With a regular camera, the lens and film plane are parallel and the distance between them is fixed. Large format film cameras, known as 4x5 cameras, have an accordion-like bellows between the lens and the film, which can be tilted (moved) to put the lens at an angle and create a partial difference in distance while still using a single sheet of film. In my case, I use these movements to create an out-of-focus area, or bokeh, that makes it seem like you're looking at a far-off landscape up close. Even though they feel like they're close by, the people and buildings are so small that it creates the illusion you're looking at miniatures.

I stick to large cameras because I want to show the gradation that bokeh can create. Anything bigger than 4x5 would cause portability issues when shooting at higher up locations, though (laughs).

Honjo explaining how he creates his effect using a 4x5 camera. By angling the bellows, different camera positions are used to correct distortions in captured images.

—Overhead shots taken from high up are another defining characteristic of your work, aren't they?

I searched for observatories and rooftops to take shots from up high. It's thanks to the city of Tokyo and all of its tall buildings that I've been able to get a bird's-eye view and pursue the type of art I've wanted to create. These perspectives really make it feel like the city is wide open.

When I take aerial shots from a helicopter, I try to aim for that moment when I think the lighting and the angle are just right. I focus on the movement of people and cars, where there might be a story to be told. I want to capture the overwhelming sense of breadth and life in the city.

"Tokyo, Japan" (from the small planet series), 2005 ©Naoki Honjo
The swimming pool that used to be at the Museum of Maritime Science photographed from the observation deck. *The pool has ceased operation and been removed. The main building that houses the observation deck is currently closed to the public as of April 2022.

— What would you say is Tokyo's defining feature?

I guess it must be the freedom of it all. The cityscape is made up of buildings and apartment complexes with private single-family homes mixed in. And even the nighttime view is full of a variety of colors like green, orange, and white. I don't think there are many other cities that are so visually stimulating. Tokyo's like a complete living organism, with the Metropolitan Expressway and train lines looking just like arteries from above. Goods get transported through them like the bloodstream and spread out from there. The city's sense of vitality is overwhelming.

"Tokyo, Japan" 2021 ©Naoki Honjo
A shot of Rainbow Bridge from above, one of Honjo's new pieces from 2021. Colder seasons when the air is clear make for better photos, so he will put on warm clothes and board a helicopter. The helicopter door is removed to set up the camera for the shot.

—How did you feel photographing Tokyo in 2021, the year of the Olympics and Paralympics?

I've been shooting Tokyo for a long time, so I went into this project wondering if I'd be able to find something fresh in the scenery. But once I actually went on shoots, I found that the city was far from standing still. It didn't seem to care about all the talk of economic stagnation and whatnot. You'd think areas like Otemachi and Nishi-Shinjuku would have remained the same, but they're actually continuing to grow.

Tokyo's a mysterious city that you can't fully grasp even if you've lived there your whole life. I named my exhibition "(un)real utopia" because I was thinking about what the world would be like in a utopian city. In my eyes, I see Tokyo to be a place of wonder, one that keeps getting better and better. I think it's that side of Tokyo that I want to capture, and that's why I keep shooting.

"Tokyo, Japan" 2021 ©Naoki Honjo
After photographing the National Stadium, Honjo says he found it to be a modestly designed piece of architecture.

Honjo Naoki

Born in Tokyo in 1978. Graduated from Tokyo Polytechnic University, Graduate School of Arts, Department of Media Arts. In 2006, he published small planet, a collection of diorama-like landscape photographs that won the Kimura Ihei Award. In addition to the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum, his works can be found housed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the United States.

"Naoki Honjo (un)real utopia" was held at the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum from March 19th to May 15th 2022.
Interview and composition by Iwasaki Kaori
Photos (portraits) by Tonomura Seiji
Translation by Amitt