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A Closer Look: Kemonomichi

Kemonomichi. Photographs by Kisei KobayashiTosei-Sha, 2013.
Kemonomichi is a meandering look at the Nagano region of Japan through the lens of the Onbashira festival, a 1200 year old tradition of renewing the Suwa Grand Shrine that occurs every six years. The festival centers around the felling of huge trees that are then dragged down mountainsides to reach the shrines -- some men test their fortitude by riding the massive timbers down the slopes. The book features a number of images of the festival -- large crowds, massive ropes and men straddling the logs like bull riders – as well as some vintage festival images, but also photographs of personal details and tangential moments. It's these more personal photographs that draw the viewer into the book and initially make it feel a little jumbled or perhaps ecstatically confused. Like an excited guide showing off his home, highlighting the things that are most important to him.

Kemonomichi. Photographs by Kisei KobayashiTosei-Sha, 2013.

The book opens with an image of a child ice-skating and some spectacular pictures of ice. An odd natural phenomenon occurs on Lake Suwa called The God's Crossing, jagged ice formations created when warm water from a natural hot spring in the lake disturbs the surface of the ice creating pressure ridges. These images prepare us for the quiet and ordinary beauty that is to follow, but also the strange and subtly mystical. The images are a mixture of just about everything -- black & white and color, snapshots and portraits, vintage photos from the festival, landscapes and oblique details. We see a close-up of a colorful kimono, a child with an antler held to his head, a serrated spoon suspended over a glistening bright pink chunk of watermelon. Priests make frequent appearances, undertaking ceremonies that feel well worn. Landscapes are eerie and magical. Animals, both dead and alive, seem to be active participants, speaking to another world. A black and white close up of the fur of a mounted bore looks familiarly tangled, recalling the image of the bare but dense trees of the forest. Ancient artifacts appear, remnants of a pre-historic culture that lived and practiced their own traditions on the same land. The vintage images don't all immediately identify as such; their dates in general are hard to place, which of course doesn't really matter. Even without context it becomes clear that this book is about tradition and personal experience, how one relates to a festival that is centuries old, and a cultural lineage that goes far beyond that. Personal roots barely scratch the surface; the spiritual nature of this place far predates the Onbashira festival.

Kemonomichi. Photographs by Kisei KobayashiTosei-Sha, 2013.
Kemonomichi. Photographs by Kisei KobayashiTosei-Sha, 2013.

The closing essay draws together the photographic threads and provides access into the book. Explaining the basis of the ceremony and its central themes, Kobayashi incorporates childhood memories and draws in the echoes of now vanished ancient cultures. Suddenly the images don’t seem quite so scattered, and each pass through the book draws everything closer together. The density of its layers now evident, the title, which translates to Animal Trail, becomes a throughline -- from the images, to the festival itself (the path of the logs leaving marks through the terrain), to the history of the area through to how we encounter the book as readers. Just as Kobayashi describes feeling led on an invisible pathway worn by spirits and tradition, we, too, follow the photographer through his experience.

Kemonomichi. Photographs by Kisei KobayashiTosei-Sha, 2013.
Kemonomichi. Photographs by Kisei KobayashiTosei-Sha, 2013.

What this book accomplishes is delicate enough to make it difficult to talk about. It is something intangible that may be best communicated in book form, where the photographs are contained and able to layer onto each other, referencing both the personal and the legacy of tradition, communicating subtly in concert in ways that elicit palpable but ineffable meaning. It’s my favorite kind of photobook – one that leaves me a little bit speechless. -- Sarah Bradley

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