by Jonathan Blaustein

I suppose I have Japan envy. I’m a proud Jersey boy, yes, but sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong country. I’ve been a huge fan of Haruki Murakami for years, having read most everything he’s written. (I know, everyone else loves Murakami too.) But somehow, I relate to that inexorable mashup of techno-futurism, magical realism, Zen Buddhism, and comical absurdity. It feels like home.

I’m just about to finish “1Q84,” Murakami’s new mega-book, so if you spoil the ending for me in the comment section, I will hunt you down and end you. I’m a stone cold killer, if you didn’t know. This new story might not be as good as “The Wind Up Bird Chronicles” and “The Wild Sheep Chase,” but then again, it might well be. I haven’t decided yet, because I stopped reading towards the very end to write this column.

There’s just something so seductive about the idea that there is far more to our collective human experience than we can know. Other worlds, surreal portals, magical ears, beautiful Japanese women, I guess that’s what makes Manga so damn popular. Perhaps we all have Japan envy. And certainly, in the photography community, there’s no shortage of great work emanating from there, and no lack of foreigners who make the trek across the water.

Is there a point to these ramblings? Or better put, will I ever get to the point? Sure. Right here. “Blackdrop Island” is a new purple book I grabbed on my last visit to photo-eye. I was unfamiliar with the Swedish photographer, Klara Källström, and the publisher, B-B-B Books. I’m a sucker for an umlaut, so since she had two in her name, I thought it was worth taking home. (What, that’s not a good enough reason to do a book review?)

Ms. Källström visited Japan recently, probably Tokyo if I had to guess. She wandered around, at night, shooting photographs with a hell of a lot of flash. And somehow, she managed to capture that aforementioned Japanese Magical Realism Juju so perfectly, just so well, that now I wonder if there’s any point in going at all. Certainly not as a photographer in search of that mystery juice. She got there first.

I don’t know if you’ll all share my absolute love of these photos, but then again, I used to think I was the only one with the hots for Kate Winslet, and I was clearly wrong about that. And given that Murakami is a massive global hero, I’m guessing that there are a lot of others who secretly pine for a weird world of Two Moons and talking Sheep men.

Since I’m not now, and will never be the writer that Murakami is, it’s obviously easier to understand these pictures visually than for me to try to describe why they’re so freaking odd. But I’ll try. A gray tree bent over a small road looks like the whiskers cascading off of a witch’s chin. A policeman emerging from between two flash-blinded tree trunks looks like a guardian for the river Styx. Traffic cones look like robots, building bricks vibrate like Van Gogh brushstrokes, and a submerged fish-head looks like, well… a submerged fish-head. There’s a diptych of a man doing Tai Chi by the sea, and I swear it looks like he’s actually summoning the waves all by himself. Masterful stuff.

Normally I don’t bother writing about the essays in these photo-books, because if we wanted to read, we’d all just buy a Kindle. But this one contains some really well-written poetry by Viktor Johansson, printed in both English and Swedish. (But interestingly, not Japanese.) The poems have that same freaky vibe to them, and it’s fun to read them in Swedish, if for no other reason than to enjoy the weird sounds your mouth makes as you pronounce the words.
Bottom Line: Japanese-style Techno-Magically Awesome

To Purchase Blackdrop Island visit Photo-Eye


Full Disclosure: Books and scans were provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

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  1. Great job on the description and could totally see what you described when I arrived at the photographs.The story may not be my cup of tea but thanks for offering it.

  2. “Zen Buddhism” Nice. Every Westerner’s fantasy of Japan. Japan as Disneyland instead of a country with real people who mainly worry about providing for their family, educating their children, staying healthy, and all that other weird mysterious Oriental things. And of course Japanese women. Where would Japan be without its beautiful women. What if most of its women were just average like they are?

    I may be a bit jinxed since I live in Japan and have lived in Europe as well as American and in Asia, but from the examples of the pictures in the book I cannot see the “Japanese Magical Realism Juju” that you do. Perhaps I don’t live in the Japan of your fantasy.

    1Q84 is fiction. It is not really like Japan. Thought I had better say that in case somebody thought so.

    • I’m not really sure what you’re getting at here, Masa. First of all, as I’ve said before to others, judge the book, not the jpegs. Secondly, why so grumpy? It’s a book review about my love of a “fiction” writer, and the fact that I admired the photographer’s ability to capture that magical realism vibe. I think the term “magical realism” by it’s nature implies that I know this is not real, as does the term “fiction.” I’m certain that no one who read that book review believed that there are portals to a parallel Universe on every street corner in Japan.

  3. I saw the show for the book at Fotografiska ( in Stockholm on a recent visit. I wasn’t as blown away by the images as you. Her work was presented as a digital slide show with a voice over reading Swedish poetry which sounded really cool. The knock-out for me at Fotografiska was the Martin Bogren exhibition. If you get a chance (and haven’t really done so) I’d recommend checking out his Lowlands book.

    BTW: Murakami is great.

  4. Jonathan, The pictures you’ve posted don’t do much for me. There are a couple of images which I can find some interest, but overall they have a common vernacular style often seen today – albeit with a big flash. I also don’t perceive them in the same light as the prose you’ve used about Murakami’s fiction.

    However, the way you describe Murakami’s work is delightful. It reminds me of the first time I read about the day ‘Jose Arcadio Buendia’ first experienced ice. Murakami is very popular in the west right now. I’ve been meaning to pick up one of his books, and this will be one more straw which pushes that goal. Overall I find great literature to be more magical and revelatory than 99.999% of external visual art. Engaging and unlocking the psyche on a deeper level than most created images. Literature (for me) still uses images, but they are the vivid visceral sort of imagery found in conscious dreaming.

    • ” Overall I find great literature to be more magical and revelatory than 99.999% of external visual art. Engaging and unlocking the psyche on a deeper level than most created images. Literature (for me) still uses images, but they are the vivid visceral sort of imagery found in conscious dreaming.”

      Well put! And, for me, I don’t remember encountering such a statement before. Magical and revelatory visual are is also, for me, not common, at least with photographs. The percentage you give works out to 1 out of 100,000 items of visual art. I tend to agree with this ratio. The implication is that you have seen one or more examples of visual art that is magical and revelatory. Are these photos? Can you please identify those rare itmes of visual art? I mean my comments to be honest and sincere.

      • Thanks Steps. The percentage I suggested is not an exact number, more of a metaphor for a great number. Keep in mind everyone’s own reference point will be different. An epiphany for me, may not produce the same revelation in you or another person. These reference points may not even produce the same feelings in the same person as time moves on and or as a person develops. The revelation may not be felt about the whole image, and may not be positive either. It may just be the composition, a color or range of tones, the lighting, an expression. The emotion produced may be foreboding or anxiety, not just joy.

        • I understand and mostly agree with your replies.
          Revelation is such a strong response that I’d probably reserve it for a response to a whole image, because if part of the image doesn’t support the revelation, that’s takes a bit away from the whole.
          Anyway, I’m very interested in an example that was an epiphany for you.
          Would that be forthcoming? I don’t mind at all waiting until January 6.
          The concept of a negative revelation also piques my interest. In case you can cite an example.
          Of course, as you say, it’s all very personal. Such is art.

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