Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 23, 2021
William O. Gardner The Metabolist Imagination: Visions of the City in Postwar Japanese Architecture and Science Fiction Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 232 pp.; 16 color ills.; 4 b/w ills. Paper $27.00 (9781517906245)

After a long delay, Japan hosted its second Tokyo Olympics this summer (without an audience, due to the pandemic). When the Olympics were postponed last summer, Netflix premiered a dystopian anime series directed by Yuasa Masaaki, Japan Sinks 2020, a contemporary adaptation of Komatsu Sakyō’s 1973 novel of the same title. The series begins with a massive earthquake destroying Tokyo, including the newly built Olympic stadium and young athletes within. Komatsu’s earlier novel Virus: The Day of Resurrection (Fukkatsu no hi), published in 1964—the year of the first Tokyo Olympics—has also been referenced for eerily predicting a pandemic and its devastating effects on global society. In light of the continuing COVID-19 catastrophe, Komatsu’s writings have received renewed attention for their relevance.

Komatsu is the main star of William O. Gardner’s timely book, The Metabolist Imagination: Visions of the City in Postwar Japanese Architecture and Science Fiction, which sheds light on the previously “underappreciated affinities between the disparate artistic media of architecture and literary fiction” (33). Comprising six short chapters, this book is a perfect introduction for anyone without prior knowledge of post–World War II Japanese history to the rich cultural contexts behind Japan’s High Growth development, represented by such major events as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the 1970 world’s fair in Osaka. The book reads rhythmically, with one context leading to the next as the reader builds knowledge.  

As introduced in chapter 1, the group of architects known as the Metabolists, who emerged in the 1960s, were a perfect example of creators thinking outside the box. They envisioned futuristic, innovative architecture and urban design that could easily have served as the backdrop of a science fiction novel. Metabolists drew parallels between architecture and a living organism capable of constant metamorphosis—birth, growth, decay, and renewal. The most senior of the group, architect Tange Kenzō, proposed A Plan for Tokyo, 1960, which would cover Tokyo Bay with a concrete latticework supporting buildings above the water. While some architects, like Kurokawa Kishō, built examples such as the renowned Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972) to illustrate their organic philosophies, others, like Isozaki Arata, chose to express their visions in literary form. These written works often served as imaginative aids at a time when computer simulations were unavailable. As Gardner points out, Kawazoe Noboru’s 1961 short narrative “Dai-Tokyo saigo no hi” (The last days of greater Tokyo) presents a chilling vision of humans destroying the metabolic balance on the earth, anticipating the apocalyptic themes in Komatsu’s 1964 novel Fukkatsu no hi. Gardner builds a convincing case by extending his comparative analysis to include the fictional writings of Isozaki and a younger architect, Itō Toyo.

In chapter 2, Gardner goes on to examine the concept of ruins—which became commonplace in many Japanese cities during and after the Second World War—as a shared experience and philosophical inspiration among science fiction writers and architects. Unlike the romanticized European notion of ruins, the Japanese experience has been dystopic, hinting at the possibility of entire cities being reduced to rubble in seconds. The realization of how deeply rooted the war experience was among this Japanese generation makes one wonder if their creative output could have been completely different without the devastation.

After introducing these themes, Gardner digs deeper into the science fiction of Komatsu in the third chapter, expounding on how the writer envisioned cities as existing beyond the nation-state system, thus placing them in a planetary framework. It was eye-opening to learn that Komatsu had an early environmental awareness regarding the earth being “threatened by such processes as biowarfare, climate change, and sudden shifts in the earth’s own internal dynamics” (70). His short story “Seijaku no tsūro” (Silent corridor; 1973) references Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which exposed the harmful effects of pesticides on the earth’s ecology. Although the popularity of the novel Japan Sinks has been linked to the end of Japan’s High Growth era and rising pessimism due to the oil shock of 1973 and environmental pollution, Gardner argues that Komatsu’s extensive research in the emerging sciences, including climate science, ecology, and chaos theory, informed his writing with a complexity that was not merely a reflection of the social psyche.

Komatsu also played a significant role in the realization of the Osaka Expo in 1970, according to chapter 4. As early as July 1964, the “Thinking the Expo” group was founded in Kyoto by a group of intellectuals in the Kansai region, including the anthropologist Umesao Tadao, the media theorist Kato Hidetoshi, and Komatsu, then a journalist and scriptwriter. Originally comprising volunteers researching the history of world’s fairs, the group was soon drafted as Expo ’70’s theme committee members. They came up with the optimistic theme “Progress and Harmony for Mankind,” which was in line with the government’s economic plan and emphasized the importance of the Expo as a site of communication and exchange. Komatsu, who was also a founding member of the Future Studies Research Group, was key in extrapolating the often overlapping discourses of future studies, comparative cultural studies, ethnology, media theory, information theory, architecture, and urban planning.

For the Metabolists, the Expo became a perfect site to manifest their dreams into reality. Tange executed its central architectural feature, the Great Roof over the Festival Plaza. The Expo was also filled with their signature capsule forms, serving as a metaphor of cellular growth, decay, and replacement. Gardner offers an insightful observation regarding the legacy of Metabolism:

In retrospect, the expo’s juxtaposition of ubiquitous form of “capsule” with a highly secularized and carefully managed space of “festival” seems to presage the dominant form of urban lifestyle of the post–High Growth Era, which was divided between highly atomized living spaces and the secular “festival” spaces of shopping centers and amusement parks. (103)

What was presented in the Expo as the “City of the Future” became the reality of the present in the subsequent urban planning of contemporary Japan.  

As Gardner suggests, technology made a strong impression on the foreign press and presaged a focal shift from physical environment to media environment. This sets the reader up for a perfect transition toward his idea of “liquid cities” in the fifth chapter, which discusses the actualization of the Expo as a cybercity, a prototype of the information society discussed by Isozaki and Kurokawa. While introducing an astute criticism of this optimistic vision by critics such as Haryū Ichiro, Gardner furthers his observation of 1980s-era government projects like the “Tokyo Teleport Town,” built on a landfill over the Tokyo Bay, which was not completed but rather turned into a commercial district through private capital by the late 1990s. This historical overview of Tokyo’s development as a technopolis is helpful in understanding present-day Tokyo and how these transformations spurred the imaginations of the visual artists and animators discussed in the book’s final section.

For readers without an architectural background, Gardner’s chapter “Metabolist Echoes” is particularly engaging. Gardner illuminates the Metabolist ideas of cyclical growth and decay as an underlying theme in Ōtomo Katruhiro’s manga and animated film Akira (1988). While some scholars such as Isolde Standish characterize Akira as postmodern and ahistorical, Gardner argues that Akira conveys a “definite historical consciousness: a cyclical view of time that is both dystopian and utopian”(147). Akira’s “Neo-Tokyo” stretches over the Tokyo Bay, clearly referencing Tange’s A Plan for Tokyo, 1960, while the former’s Olympic stadium, built over a crater, echoes that of the 1964 Olympics. Gardner considers Oshii Mamoru’s animated Patlabor films as critiquing the massive developments over Tokyo Bay, depicted as being constructed by human-piloted giant robot “labor.” The indiscriminatory way these robots destroy old neighborhoods to make space for skyscrapers strongly recalls the “scrap and build” approach of the real estate boom during Japan’s bubble economy in the 1980s. By citing a Japanese anime critic and a Dutch media theorist, Gardner posits that the mecha or “media suit” becoming the “invisible city” is analogous to the capsule functioning as part of a network (155). Seeing the capsule as a space of safety and socioeconomic privilege, “shielding the occupant from hidden long-range violence,” offers another perspective on the Metabolist legacy as possibly enabling the widening economic gap between rich and poor in late capitalist society.     

The concluding section on contemporary visual artist Yanobe Kenji and his Atom Suit Project demonstrates the interdisciplinary nature and broad scope of Gardner’s study. Like in any good novel, the many narrative threads laid out previously converge into a cohesive whole. In his Expo chapter, Gardner mentions that Mihama Nuclear Power Plant was built just in time to supply the electric power needed for the fair, and that its theme, “Progress and Harmony for Mankind,” implicitly embraced the promise of nuclear energy (93). Growing up in northern Osaka, Yanobe had a memory of playing in a half-demolished Expo ground, “virtual time travel to a world where the City of the Future had been destroyed and mankind had perished” (157). As if to re-create this vision, Yanobe revisited the Expo site in his Atom Suit in 1998, following his visit to the Chernobyl site in 1997. Photographs of these visits recall architect Isozaki Arata’s prophetic words in his poem “Incubation Process” (1962)— “future cities are themselves ruins” (58)—emphasizing the continued threat of nuclear apocalypse and repeating the unheeded warnings of Chernobyl and Fukushima. This unsettling conclusion helps us recognize the often-cyclical nature of history and the need to learn from our past mistakes if we do not wish to see our own cities lying in ruin.

Midori Yoshimoto
New Jersey City University