A Criminal Investigation by Yukichi Watabe

Some photobooks are – when you look at how they are conceived and realised- coming close to a kind of perfection. They are simultaneously defining the genre at a given point of time and lifting it to the next level. And many aficionado’s will agree that A Criminal Investigation is a book that is coming VERY close to this kind of perfection, that it is one of the milestones in the recent history of the art of the photobook!

© Yukichi Watabe

We are in January 1958. Japan. Photographer Yukichi Watabe (1924-1993) is allowed to shoot a feature  of a special police investigation unit at work in the outskirts of Tokyo. More specifically, he is allowed to follow the detectives of the “Special Office of the Dismembered-Corpse Case“. They are investigating a murder case whereby the corpse was found in an oil vat from a tannery. It was burned with acid and chopped into pieces as to make identification totally impossible.

© Yukichi Watabe

A Criminal Investigation famously shows 70 stunning b&w images from this feature. The photobook was published by Xavier Barral in 2011 and it became an instant classic. Indeed, it’s a pity that Yukichi never saw it.

© Yukichi Watabe

Apparently, the raw material from which the selection for the book was made, consisted of 1.000 prints that were accidentally found by a rare book dealer from London. Interestingly, as Mr. Marc Feustel describes in a beautiful article on the making of, these prints were not numbered. So, the editing team behind this edition (there are other ones meanwhile) had to come up with their own reading of the 1958 police investigation. They had to re-invent how it had actually progressed; they were free to come with a new, alternative narrative of past facts.

© Yukichi Watabe

And they didn’t go for a typical whodunit story! The narrative is built in such a way that there is not really an opening or closing point in the book. The first image could be the last one and vice versa. It makes that we get the feeling that the investigators are never getting any closer to the truth. The whole situation seems to be an impasse. The chief detective is operating a bakelite telephone; sipping from his tea; fumbling through the case files but it seems that he can not do much more than just being a witness of some weird sh*t.

© Yukichi Watabe

It also makes that we very soon forget about our natural interest in an unambiguous story line leading to some kind of dénouement of the case. Instead, our primary interest is directed to what is presumably happening somewhere in between the images. And isn’t that the highest success a photobook can bring about?

When I come to think of it, it is in such a handling of the narrative that great photobooks are similar to great works of literature. Take the narratives in Georges Simenon‘s detective novels that are set in the very same period. As soon as I have turned the first page of one of those (one of my guilty pleasures), I could not care less about who committed a given murder. Actually, the dénouement mostly comes as a sobering interruption of something better, something that I care more about: everything that is presumably happening in between the events, in between the lines. In Simenon’s books that would be the development of Maigret’s bizarre moods (“he does not try to reach a conclusion, he even does not think, he just lets his thoughts wandering off“), the ambience of Paris during the 1950’ies, the hidden lives of the characters from a France’s withering old bourgeoisie, the survival tactics of little men and women in the country’s underbelly.

© Yukichi Watabe

Of course, as much as the open narrative structure of the book, it is Yukichi’s brilliant cinematic film noir style that attributes to the unique reading experience. Like a detective himself, he looked at the investigators from all possible perspectives (bird, frog, even hidden from behind a lamp post). Our attention and imagination is drawn to the detective’s loden coat, his stylish ties, the dip pen that he uses to make some furtive notes, his cap and the phantastic faces that he is pulling at his younger colleagues. or at the folks that he is interrogating. When he shows up in for example a food stall not far away from the scene of the crime, this man both convinces as a representative from the authorities and as a man from the people.  A blink from this man’s eye is enough to make someone tell right away what – not even one minute before – he had solemnly pledged to take with him into the grave! Clearly, he is the right man for this nasty job!

© Yukichi Watabe

Since the images don’t give us much information about the actual steps in the investigation, I am thinking of what could be happening in between the images. Japan was still recovering from its dramatic defeat of the war, from the two atomic bombs. The country was one big Ground Zero. I am thinking of  Shohei Imamura‘s curious documentary about an ordinary man in Japan who – in the very same days – managed to completely vanish from public life, even from his own fiancee and parents. It is said that 90.000 persons annually disappeared in the meanders of Japanese post-war turmoil. They managed to adopt a new life somewhere else in the country. Nobody’s identity was taken for granted.

 

© Yukichi Watabe

Back to the book. We are following our favourite cop as he is roaming all day long through the back alleys of downtown Tokyo. The setting is bleak, grey, sad. There are not many cars yet. Clearly, Japan was at the verge of the irreversible transformation between a traditional society and its merciless Coca-Colonization. The US victors were pushing the total reset button in the country of the rising sun which would be documented by many other Japanese photographers and which– if you ask me – was some weird sh*t as well.

Some very well written captions by Mr. Titus Broeder, whom I suspect being the rare book dealer from London, finally give us some information about the outcome of the case. We conclude once again that there is nothing weirder than the human species. Really nothing!

© Yukichi Watabe

Thank you very much Mr. Watabe!

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