Small Town in a Big City

The town reveals itself through gaps in the city.

Small places present the film­mak­er with a dilem­ma: Shoot­ing a film is an act of rev­e­la­tion, of uncov­er­ing secrets, yet the essence of a small place is often its shy­ness, its ambi­gu­i­ty, the fact that it refus­es to reveal itself.

The film­mak­er must attempt to pre­serve this hid­den-ness and must be sen­si­tive not to des­e­crate its embed­ded sto­ries with intel­lect and fact.


While I was study­ing Archi­tec­ture in Tokyo, I need­ed a research theme for a His­to­ry class. A cou­ple of class­mates and I dis­cov­ered an old town hid­den inside the urban­ized area of Hon­go in which the main cam­pus of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Tokyo is locat­ed. Hon­go-dori, the street around the cam­pus, is a wide boule­vard with tall mod­ern build­ings and ground-floor restau­rants, with traf­fic sig­nals and fast cars. How­ev­er, just behind this façade lie sev­er­al old hous­es, nar­row paths and stone stair­ways, all tight­ly knit to form an old com­mu­ni­ty that con­tin­ues to thrive in the bow­els of the mod­ern city.

Enter­ing this area was like step­ping into a dif­fer­ent time, where life is slow­er and more relaxed, and where peo­ple are more in tune with the mate­r­i­al sub­stance of their sur­round­ings: rough unfin­ished rock, bab­bling water, the ground, the sky.

On the main street we could walk in long, con­fi­dent strides, tak­ing as much space as we liked, talk­ing over the noise of screech­ing wheels and roar­ing car motors. On the oth­er hand, we entered this old town with small, cau­tious steps, and we could only whis­per, for fear of dis­turb­ing its tran­quil still­ness, its quietness.

There were far few­er peo­ple on these small paths than there were on Hon­go-dori, yet the walls of the hous­es echoed with life and vital­i­ty: the laugh­ter of chil­dren, the mur­murs of old women chat­ting over tele­vi­sion talk shows, the purring sound of a run­ning bath. Our sens­es, dulled by the white noise of the city out­side, were sud­den­ly awak­ened by this small sym­pho­ny of ver­nac­u­lar music, with no clash­ing cym­bals and no loud per­cus­sion – just the con­tin­u­ous hum of dai­ly life.

We did­n’t want to taint this beau­ti­ful deeply con­cealed town, so we almost turned around and left. Yet some­how we could­n’t. We want­ed to cap­ture some of its essence, to express some of the many emo­tions that flood­ed through us. We point­ed our video cam­era at the sky, then at the rooftops, at the cor­ners, in the alley­ways, through ajar doors, at the tex­tured ground. We did­n’t “direct” what we saw, we just let the nat­ur­al, unas­sum­ing poet­ry of the place be absorbed by the lens. We stayed there until it was too dark for our cam­era to see, then we left.

A line of stout build­ings sep­a­rates Hon­go town from Tokyo city.


Title card from our film asks a heart­felt question.

Back at home, we had two video tapes worth of shots, yet infi­nite­ly more images swam though our minds as we pon­dered whether or not we should go through with the project. We almost erased the tapes, but decid­ed to look through them once anyway.

While doing so, we slow­ly began to real­ize that while the video we had tak­en could­n’t hope to cap­ture the scenes we had expe­ri­enced ear­li­er that day, they still could be used to cre­ate a sub­jec­tive doc­u­ment, a piece of audio-visu­al poet­ry about that small town in Hon­go. Just as explain­ing a joke strips it of humor and reveals the banal­i­ty at the core of all com­e­dy, intel­lec­tu­al­iz­ing poet­ic images robs them of their mean­ing and reminds us once again that while we’re high­ly sen­tient beings, the only way we can expe­ri­ence the world around us is through phys­i­cal stim­uli: vision, hear­ing, touch, smell and taste.

We decid­ed that our inter­pre­ta­tion of the video, then, must be done in a piece­meal unob­tru­sive man­ner. Rather than dis­sect and cat­e­go­rize what we had seen, we chose to absorb and feel it as if for the first time. We lis­tened to CDs, chat­ted, laughed, argued, drew sketch­es, tore them up, and drew some more, we exper­i­ment­ed with dif­fer­ent com­po­si­tions of images and sound, of motion and still­ness, with dif­fer­ent ways of look­ing at the scenes, of fram­ing what we saw.

We called our short film Hon­go Sto­ry, an homage to direc­tor Yasu­jiro Ozu’s mas­ter­piece Tokyo Sto­ry about dai­ly life in post­war Japan. The final result, though even­tu­al­ly pre­sent­ed to an audi­ence of stu­dents and pro­fes­sors in the con­text of the class­room, was not an aca­d­e­m­ic study of the town, nor was it a com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis of its his­to­ry and beau­ty (as if that were pos­si­ble any­way). While the audi­ence applaud­ed and even­tu­al­ly award­ed us first prize for the project, my team­mates and I exchanged know­ing looks: we shared a secret, a mys­tery that will remain out there, beyond the walls of the class, across Hon­go-dori, deep in the heart of that small town.

This sto­ry is from Mee­do’s upcom­ing book Small Space in Tokyo and its Archi­tec­ture. Please feel free to con­tact us for more details and read relat­ed sto­ries here.

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