Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan's Great Earthquake of 1923
University of California Press 2012
Gennifer Weisenfeld‘s gorgeous and thoughtful new book explores the visual culture that emerged in the wake of the Kanto earthquake of 1923. Imaging Disaster: Tokyo and the Visual Culture of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 1923 (University of California Press, 2012) charts a path through the widely-circulating visual tropes that comprised the intermedia landscape of the earthquake’s aftermath. Along the way, images of firestorms and catfish guide us though a genealogy of the belief in the moral connections between human action and disaster in Japan. Photographs, seismograms, and maps introduce us to a “visual lexicon of disaster” in which these images were simultaneously wielded as markers of authority and instruments for masking some important moments of invisibility in the aftermath of the earthquake. A decapitated building, the “ultimate modern ruin,” asks us to contemplate the relationship between the individual, the nation, and modernity in the context of a massive spectacle of destruction. Images of refugees, catfish, and naked bathers help us understand how different groups claimed the earthquake for various social and political purposes. Monuments, children’s drawings, cartoons, photographs of bodies and bones: the exceptionally wide range of materials mobilized and reproduced in Imaging Disaster provides the reader with a kind of visual archive, just as Weisenfeld offers us a model for how to write a history that is informed by a close reading of visual texts. The book also considers how disaster brings class and regional inequities into relief more generally, considering how we might frame the Kanto earthquake within this larger context that includes the March 2011 disaster in Japan while remaining sensitive to the particularities of each case. It is a wonderful and compelling book.
For “Selling Shiseido,” the unit that Weisenfeld has developed for MIT’s Visualizing Cultures program, see this website. [Users can link to Parts 2 and 3 from this site, as well.]