Vagrants, corvids, and lone wolves: Akira Hasegawa on Ravens

The depth of solitude in Masahisa Fukase’s photographs makes me shudder.

A raven descends. With crouching wings and sharpened black beak, it stares. This goblin of a bird, transformed from a bloody hundred-year-old scab, gloweringly watches over this land of doom. An elm tree sways in the wind. A bird is perched on a branch. Another joins it. From where it comes, I do not know. Beside a young woman is a small boy of seven years or so. They are watching the birds...
    The boy curiously looks up to the woman and says, “Crows! Crows! They look  cold. I want to give them some bread.”
    The woman quietly replies, “Those crows don’t want anything to eat.”
   “But why not?” questions the boy.
   Staring at the crows with eyes that seem to waft deep behind her long eyelashes, the woman says, “There are five of them", without answering the boy's question.

The above is a passage from Natsume Soseki’s The Tower of London – a recollection from his stay in London in the year 1900. For Soseki, the countless historical tragedies of the place were a way to construct and connect his own story. The mother and child are most likely not fictional characters but actual figures seeped in tragic pathos. There is a foreboding premonition that one day they, too, will be executed and transformed into ravens. To see people as ravens, to see ravens as people. The illusion was most likely compounded by Soseki’s own feeling of loneliness in a distant land: a lone Asian standing at the foot of a massive stone castle under a dark and foreign skyline. Soseki’s novel may be less metaphorical, but there is no denying that he saw his own reflection of solitude in the image of the raven.

The act of staring at animals is a sad one. An image of an old man on a park bench as he stares at a stray dog wandering back and forth is one that frightens me. One day, I may become that old man. “Solitude” is a form of illness. If a cat or dog is befriended for companionship, the illness may still be considered light. So long as there is a need for responsiveness in the relationship, recovery is possible.

However, as the malady intensifies, a relationship is no longer sought. One just stares. There is no value or meaning in the behavior of others. Only the act of staring remains. And he who stares has already dissipated. And, gradually, there is no differentiation between the gazer and the subject. Both man and dog descend into an abyss of emptiness. In the case of Masahisa Fukase, the subject of his gaze became the raven. For him, the “raven” was both a tangible creature and a fitting symbol of his own solitude.

There is a single photograph: an image of the back side of a homeless man. Draped in a dark, padded shroud or black covering, he ambles down the sidewalk in broad daylight. His shape bears resemblance to that of a large raven descending. But what disturbs me most is that the face of this man cannot be seen. And, because of this, I cannot help but see Masahisa Fukase himself in this homeless man.

A homeless person is “an invisible person.” No one seeks to look at him; and he makes no effort to acknowledge those around him. For him, having no relationships serves as a measure of self-preservation. Moreover, he is someone who has failed to maintain a relationship with society.

Poverty is not the root of his existence. Given a place to sleep, he chooses not to utilize it. Offered a job, he does not take it nor does he accept welfare. In effect, he has severed all ties with conventional society.

When the identity of a deceased homeless man was investigated, it was discovered that he was the landlord of a not so bad-off farm in north-eastern Japan. He had arrived in Tokyo about ten years earlier to seek temporary work and never returned to his village. Those familiar with him did not understand why he had not returned to his hometown. Instead, something in his years in Tokyo had stripped him of his spirit to continue within society. He could not exist in what we know as “everyday” life.

There are even stages of homelessness. The drunken vagrant hosting sake parties in the corner of underground shopping malls, though repugnant to passersby, is still in the early stages of social disconnection. Eventually, conversation with others ceases, as he begins to talk only to himself. As his withdrawal deepens, words are lost to him. And, at this final stage, he takes on a beatific look. Close observation of vagrants who have reached this stage confirm they have quite striking faces. During this final stage, their spirit is no longer part of the exterior world. They have returned in spirit to that of a lone animal.

Embossed linen bound hardback, housed in a silkscreened slipcase
26.3 x 26.3 cm
148 pages, 80 tritone plates, 13 colour plates

ISBN: 978-1-910164-83-9
May 2017
€85 £75 $100

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