Focus on Japanese Photography

Japan Theater

By Sandra S. Phillips, October 2017
1. Daido Moriyama, Japan Theater, 1966; gelatin silver print, 10 9/16 in. x 6 15/16 in. (26.83 cm x 17.62 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein; © Daido Moriyama

The actor has the face of an old man but the lithe body of a boy. His mysterious air is accentuated by the high-contrast printing that characterizes this period of Moriyama’s work; light seems to emanate from the white panel behind him, making his black leather jacket gleam. The light also isolates his face, made more remote by the tight-fitting skullcap stretched over his head and his sideways glance out of the picture frame. We can assume that he is a member of some underground theater troupe, rather than one of the more traditional players from the small, neighborhood stages of Kita-Senju in northern Tokyo. Moriyama photographed both types of actors around this time and included pictures of them in his first book, Nippon gekijo shashincho (Japan, A Photo Theater; 1968).

Like many of Moriyama’s subjects, this actor is at once a real person and a metaphorical figure. He belongs to both traditional, prewar, isolated Japan and the very ambiguous modernity of the 1960s, when the picture was made. The uncertainty of the era was an international phenomenon: the United States had erupted in violence—from the assassination of John F. Kennedy and conflicts stemming from the civil rights movement, to the Vietnam War and the student riots. Japanese citizens, in turn, experienced a lack of moral direction that was wrapped up in their country’s fraught political relationship with the United States. Japan had survived the furious ravaging of its cities and the tremendous loss of human life in World War II by retaining a close alliance with the Americans who had defeated them. By the 1960s the United States was trading heavily on this relationship, using Japanese bases to pursue the Vietnam War even though the Americans had forced Japan to revoke the right to wage wars of its own. Meanwhile, the Japanese were prospering through military contracts with the Americans and were rebuilding Japan with concrete housing and modern highways. The existential crisis articulated by the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, which resonated in the work of Yukio Mishima and other Japanese contemporaries, also informs the strangely entrapped figure in Moriyama’s picture. The photographer’s closest friend at the time, Takuma Nakahira, was deeply engaged in French leftist politics and existentialist ideas, and in 1968 started the famous though short-lived magazine Provoke, in which Moriyama’s work appeared. Both Nakahira and Moriyama were committed to exploring the special language of photography, and for them the medium also expressed the disquiet, uncertainty, and darkness of this period in Japan.

Cite as: Sandra S. Phillips, “Japan Theater,” Focus on Japanese Photography, October 2017.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,

Create Citation

Select part or all of the text to copy. Once copied you can paste it into another document.

Cite as: Sandra S. Phillips, “Japan Theater,” Focus on Japanese Photography, October 2017.

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art,

Copy to Clipboard

Sandra S. Phillips

Sandra S. Phillips

Sandra S. Phillips is curator emerita of photography at SFMOMA.
Read more

Subscribe to the SFMOMA Newsletter

Our monthly dose of videos, essays, art stories and more. Straight to your inbox.