Noir Urbanisms: Dystopic Images of the Modern City

By Gyan Prakash | Go to book overview

Chapter 8
Topographies of Distress:
Tokyo, c. 1930

DAVID R. AMBARAS

In March 1930, nearly seven years after a massive earthquake destroyed threefourths of the city’s buildings and killed roughly one hundred thousand people, Tokyo officially celebrated its reconstruction as, in the words of Mayor Horikiri Zenjirō, “the seat of our empire, the axis of our nation’s political and economic life, … and the fountainhead of our national culture.”1 In the same month, perhaps not coincidentally, the satire and comic art magazine Tōkyō pakku (Tokyo Puck) featured on its back cover a painting by Miura Shun titled Tokai (Metropolis), which depicted a far more disconcerting version of urban modernity. Whereas the reconstruction celebrations and commemorative publications foregrounded the imperial family, the imperial palace, and symbols of Japanese success such as the Marunouchi business district, Miura filled the center of his vista with two very different figures: a light-skinned “modern girl” sporting a Western-style bobbed haircut and a transparent dress that reveals her genitalia, with lips, cheeks, and breasts highlighted in red; and a contrastingly dark, corpulent man with animal-like features who looms over her, his walking stick handle approaching her genitals like a snake. This metropolis is, first and foremost, a hypersexualized space of women, as well as a threat to women. It is also a place of human sacrifice. Behind the couple, on the right, workers crush against each other as they proceed toward the entrance to a factory that glows red like the mouth of an oven into which they are being fed. Above the factories, cranes tower like hulking gallows. In the center, a crowd of men in Western suits and hats, no doubt office workers, also pushes forward toward a less distinct destination. Behind this crowd, one male figure lies on the ground (whether he has collapsed or is sleeping is not clear), and a black dog approaches him. Other black, four-legged figures emerge from the fringes of the cityscape, beneath its high-rise buildings. The sky, in red and black, appears to be on fire.

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