This city [Tokyo] can be known only by an activity of an ethnographic kind: you must orient yourself in it not by book, by address, but by walking, by sight, by habit, by experience; here every discovery is intense and fragile, it can be repeated or recovered only by memory of the trace it has left in you: to visit a place for the first time is thereby to begin to write it: the address not being written, it must establish its own writing.
—Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs
Japan Drug has no opening, no introduction—not even a single blank page to ease us into the work. We turn past the front cover and are immediately confronted by the ominous, coiled shape of a sleeping snake.
Page after page continues in this dizzying vein. Endless faces look just past us, to the right and to the left, into a foreign space we cannot fully grasp. Dark holes rise from the ground, inviting us to plunge further in. Gigantic stone heads, resting on tiny feet, stare mutely into infinity. "The Door for Men's" reads one sign, inexplicably. Schoolchildren sit blithely under a giant whale. An enormous crab's protruding, deep black eyes question our presence.
Many photobooks aim to capture the universal human experience of dislocation, of feeling out of place. Those unsettling moments we all have, momentary but unavoidable, when we think, "Am I really here? Where am I?" But Japan Drug, like almost no other book, achieves this effect page after page after page, shot after shot, fully embracing that part of us which seeks moments of strangeness in our busy lives.
In the end, taking our cue from Roland Barthes, we should revel in these deliciously enigmatic photos. They are not puzzles to solve or questions to answer but irreducible moments of reality. Rather than seeking a finality, we might simply rest (in an unmoored fashion) within these photographs, allowing our minds to wander and float in forever strange places.
As Barthes writes in his chapter about haiku, that tiny but infinitely complex poetic form:
The haiku never describes; its art is counter-descriptive, to the degree that each state of the thing is immediately, stubbornly, victoriously converted into a fragile essence of appearance...
Japan Drug by António Júlio Duarte
Publisher: Pierre von Kleist
Softcover: 136 pages