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Book Review: The Last Cosmology


Book Review The Last Cosmology By Kikuji Kawada Reviewed by Colin Pantall Kikuji Kawada is best known for Chizu (The Map), his classic contemplation on post-war Japan. Chizu glories in its brooding blacks and radioactive greys. Published in 1965 on the 20th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Kawada shows a Japan that is shamed and defeated, struggling to rebuild itself in an American nuclear shadow.
By the end of that volume, the question is answered.

The Last Cosmology.
Photographs by Kikuji Kawada.
MACK, 2015.
 
The Last Cosmology
Reviewed by Colin Pantall

The Last Cosmology
By Kikuji Kawada
MACK, 2015. 86 pp., 67 tritone illustrations, 11½x15¼x½".

Kikuji Kawada is best known for Chizu (The Map), his classic contemplation on post-war Japan. Chizu glories in its brooding blacks and radioactive greys. Published in 1965 on the 20th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, Kawada shows a Japan that is shamed and defeated, struggling to rebuild itself in an American nuclear shadow. It’s a dark flash of a book where the literal and the symbolic are folded together beneath a gatefold sleeve.

Push ahead fifty years and we’re in 2015. Kawada’s book is The Last Cosmology, and the pictures are from between 1980 and 2000. There is another transition in progress. In the eighties, Japan was floating in a bubble economy where the imperial palace in Tokyo was supposedly worth more than all the real estate in California. Asset-rich, the country was lavishing itself in imaginary wealth mortgaged against easy credit. In 1989 the bubble burst, the stock market crashed and property prices collapsed. We should all be familiar with what happened next because we’re living through it after the bursting of our own bubbles; there was a lost decade of stagnation and what, for Japan (but not the rest of the world), counted as unacceptably high unemployment. Japan was stagnating.

The Last CosmologyPhotographs by Kikuji Kawada. MACK, 2015.

The other thing that happened in 1989 was the death of Hirohito, the Japanese Emperor. In most of Asia, his death was welcomed as the demise of a war criminal who should have met his end back in 1945. For others, including Kawada, there was a different perspective, the sense of an ending of an epoch in which victory, atrocity, humiliation and rebirth were all combined.

And that is what the book is about, that time between the death of Hirohito and the beginning of the new millennium. It’s a book of portents, of symbols of life and death, of meteorological patterns and eclipses.

We had an eclipse here in the UK five days ago. For a few hours, British social media was agog with everyone’s pictures of eclipses. The pictures were, give or take, all the same but they revealed a mindset; despite the disappointment, we are obsessed with infrequent natural phenomena and the fragility they reveal of the world that we live in. Twigs, crows, wisps of clouds and the occasional rooftop all got a visual mention as the moon snuck in front of the sun last week.

The Last CosmologyPhotographs by Kikuji Kawada. MACK, 2015.

And it’s not too different with Kawada. Only he does it so much better. And it’s not on Twitter but in a beautiful photobook with a moon (or is it a sun?) on the cover. Then you open the page and the eclipse begins. It’s the full eclipse from 1999; part of a cosmology that Kawada says “…is an illusion of the firmament which encompasses an era. It is also the cosmology of a changing heart.”

The sky made personal, the sky as a portent of what is to come; for himself, for Japan, for the world. The book begins with 1999, glossy pages brimful of the rim of the sun, the clipped sun, and the silhouette of a Tokyo apartment block.

The Last CosmologyPhotographs by Kikuji Kawada. MACK, 2015.

Then we’re into the cloudscapes, a homage both to Stieglitz’s Equivalents and the paintings of Emil Nolde, and from there we segue into the manmade world. It’s feeble in comparison. Time is frozen in a swirl of mechanical parts; vents, fans and underwater pipes hint at our attempts to control the elements of the world around us, but in Kawada’s eyes the light, the wind, the rain will never be stopped. They’ll just carry on regardless.

Trees grow beneath the clouded sky, jellyfish swim in the God-given seas, there is life and Kawada makes sure we know where it comes from. In the mountains, valleys are carved by rivers and ice, heavily filtered views bring the slate-grey of the sky together with the blacks of the mountains. In this harsh world, we are bit players in the firmament, minor details deluding ourselves. With the mass of earth beneath our feet and the weight of the sky above our head, we can be engulfed at any moment.

The Last CosmologyPhotographs by Kikuji Kawada. MACK, 2015.

A frog squashed into tarmac points to the cycle of creation and destruction (and our part in hastening the destructive segment of that cycle). This world is an ever-moving ball of confusion and to emphasise the point we see Kawada’s astronomical pictures of a long-exposed spinning starscape and the multiple phases of an eclipsing moon.

Life in the air, life in the sea, life on earth, the northern lights, and forked lighting mix with more clouds and foliage growing over an abandoned building and hay wrapped in harvest cladding. The skyscapes are matched with swirls of erupting mud, a close-up of the moon with one of the sun, sunspots clear to see.


The Last CosmologyPhotographs by Kikuji Kawada. MACK, 2015.

Our insignificance is noted again and again, the fragile nature of our existence and that of the world on which we depend is felt through the vein like tendrils of a tree reaching into the sun-scorched sky. And the tenuousness of our life on the very surface, and only the very surface comes through pictures that show the immensity of the night sky rising above the peaks of buildings, the portent of Haley’s Comet streaking overhead.

And it’s a bad portent, one of death, destruction and crows (or ravens?) on rooftops with an aerial in the sky. But not to worry because life will start again and maybe this time it will be better, a real Eden, a world where we understand the sun and the sea and the stars and the life around us and we learn to live with it and enjoy it.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer and photographer. He is a contributing writer for the British Journal of Photography and a Senior Lecturer in Photography at the University of Wales, Newport. http://colinpantall.blogspot.com

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