Nihon noir: Tom Blachford sheds light on Tokyo’s dark side

Nihon noir: Tom Blachford sheds light on Tokyo’s dark side

There’s nothing Tom Blachford won’t do to get the perfect shot: whether it be stealing onto a property in the dead of the night to unscrew an irksome lightbulb, or, in the case of his latest project, Nihon Noir, commandeering a 15-strong crew of highway repairmen to take him 20m into the air to capture the Nagakin Capsule Tower in Tokyo from an otherwise-impossible angle. The Melbourne-based photographer leaves little to chance, and even less to the editing room.

Blachford has been on our radar since Midnight Modern, his marvellous moonlit series of mid-century Palm Springs houses. The night-crawling artist has a knack for teasing out the uncanny, most recently travelling to Bolivia to capture Freddy Mamani’s fantastical buildings. Last year, Blachford was approached by Asahi Beer Australia and given an open brief to show a different side to Tokyo. ‘My goal for the series was to communicate the feeling that struck me the first time I visited Tokyo, that somehow you have been transported to this advanced and amazing parallel universe,’ says Blachford. ‘I wanted to inject some mystery into the city and have the images be as confusing and mysterious as the place feels to me every time I visit.’

The Australian photographer cites the ‘hyper-saturated palette’ of film director Nicolas Winding Refn as one inspiration for Nihon Noir – though it’s Blachford’s palpable homage to neo-noir sci-fi classic Blade Runner that ultimately shines. ‘The art direction and premise set out by the futurist Syd Mead is so dense and well thought out. We are two years away from the 2019 in which [Blade Runner] was set, and although we don’t live in off-world colonies just yet his subtle predictions about how our cities would grow are becoming true,’ Blachford told us. ‘The external augmentation of our buildings with air conditioners, pipes, ducts and cables as well as the density of the high rise buildings feel very much within what he predicted.’

Detail of colours, textures and patina in Shinjuku

Japanese architecture certainly has its quirks. Tokyo’s skyline is a buffet of modern glass towers, and offbeat vestiges of architectural styles. ‘A few names popped up [in my research] – Shigeru Ban and Tadao Ando, of course – but the one that resonated with me most was Kenzō Tange,’ Blachford muses of the Pritzker Prize-winning architect’s work, which he described as ‘jaw dropping’. ‘I started researching some of his work which took me deeper into a study of the Metabolist movement that he was such an integral part of. I also stumbled across some later postmodern work from the 1990s, which just had the perfect futuristic feel.’

For six days straight, from 9pm until sunrise, Blachford trawled Tokyo accompanied by a videographer, working through a list of 20-odd buildings he had plotted on Google Maps. Through Blachford’s lens, Kiyonori Kikutake’s vast, cantilevered Edo-Tokyo Museum looks more monumental than ever, while the battleship profile of the New Sky Building looms large in another image. Even more intriguing are the detail shots of Tokyo, a textural treat of colours and patina. ‘In the end I couldn’t resist throwing a few tighter scenes into the shots of vistas that I just thought were impossibly beautiful scenes to find in such a dense urban environment,’ he says

The result is a series that finds an almost serene sense of order in the chaos of Tokyo. ‘It was a laser-focused mission,’ adds Blachford, ‘which I feel is easier to complete in a country like Japan where it seems everyone is so endearingly single-minded and hardworking towards to pursuit of perfection.’