“One’s native land is an existence that lies beyond the reach of our selection. It is there—nebulous space, indeterminate for a reason somewhat akin to that which prevents us from touching out own image when it appears in a mirror.”

—Ikko Narahara (translated by Tatsuo Shibata), 1970

Ikko Narahara’s ‘Japanesque’ series explores his conflicting cultural identity in which both a “deep affection for and irritation at this culture” exist (Yamazaki, 1970). Upon returning to Japan after spending three years in Europe, Narahara views his heritage from a new perspective and questions his relationship with his own ethnicity.

Narahara’s work reveals the complex dichotomies that exist within cultural representations. As Japan’s traditions become overexposed by fleeting tourists, their historical value and significance are diluted. An overnight mediation retreat on Mount Koya is seen as a way to experience the Zen mediation of Buddhist monks that have existed since the 8th century.

Narahara’s photographs of Zen rituals reexamine these clichés and propose a duty to the viewer: to uphold the sanctity of such deeply rooted traditional practices. As an invisible observer he peers into an unseen world that defies the limitations of the physical or tangible and provides a transcendental glimpse of its inhabitants. The outline of a Monk’s head is illuminated behind a Shōji screen and a Zen priest floats quickly along the corridor of monastery. Light is used to create movements that surround the religious figures, while stark tonality creates an aura that elates their presence. The unabated dynamicism of Narahara lens reveals and emphasizes the unwavering strength and stillness of Japanese tradition.

It is through Narahara’s instinctual timing that an ephemeral moment can pierce though the layered nuances of cultural ambivalence. Masakazu Yanazaki (1971) describes this moment as “an existence beyond words… at that point the photographic art touched the very essence of things”. His work transcends clichéd connotations and accesses the essence of one’s being. Narahara’s images preserve the sanctity of Buddhist rituals and honour the enduring potency of Ancient Japan.