Small Town in a Big City

1 commentArchitecture,Film,Tokyo

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.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Riko November 20, 2015 at 6:13 pm

Thanks for inrundtciog a little rationality into this debate.


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