top コラムRecommended photobook31 The sudden appearance of the Ushiku Daibutsu 『牛久大仏忽然の貌|世界一の阿弥陀像完成までの1765日を記録』

Recommended photobook

31 The sudden appearance of the Ushiku Daibutsu

John Sypal

A draw for both the faithful and simply curious, the Ushiku Daibutsu is a colossal, 120-meter-tall statue of Amitabha Buddha that rises from the rural landscape. Located about an hour and a half northeast of Tokyo in Ibaraki prefecture, this Daibutsu is, for one reason or another, generally less known than the much smaller, and far older (and seated) Buddha statues located in Kamakura and Nara. (Indeed, either of those is said to be able to fit in the palm of its hand.) 


The center point of a spacious and modern temple complex, an 800 yen entrance fee grants visitors access to the grounds (which include flower beds, koi ponds and a petting zoo) and the chance to go on in and up into the statue itself. After viewing a somewhat new-agey yet sincere explanation at the entrance, visitors (carrying their shoes held in plastic bags) wind their way through rooms of displays about the statue’s construction and take an elevator up to the highest accessible floor. From its the lookout windows in the Daibutsu’s chest you can look out across the Kanto plain and see Tokyo’s skyline and Mt. Fuji on the western horizon.  


Within the structure is a Buddhist temple with several thousand smaller golden Buddha statues. (A desk nearby has staff on hand to answer questions about the availability of the temple’s cemetery plots.)  Finally, like many religious sites around the world, all visitors exit through a gift shop. It was there on a recent visit (my second in twenty years) that I spotted a stack of photobooks on a shelf in the corner. The black and white cover caught my eye- and, flipping through the sample copy, its specificity caught my interest.  Seeing the marked-down price – a mere 500 yen?-  sealed the deal.  


The book’s subtitle states that it is a record of the Ushiku Daibutsu’s construction- something which, after four and a half years, ended in 1993.  Until 2008 the it held the title (and Guiness Record, something which is also on display inside), as being largest statue in the world. Currently it is in 5th largest, but remains #1 in the Bronze statue sub-category.


Back to the photobook. This B5 sized softcover is a compilation of pictures taken by three Ibaraki women: Yoshiko Arumi, Kithii Ushiku, Toshiko Ohtani. Photo-credits aren’t provided for individual pictures and as far as I can determine, this remains their only publication. Interestingly, the book was originally published in 2007- almost fifteen years after the last piece of bronze was welded down. (My copy is from the third print run in 2015.)


The book is divided into three general parts. 

The first- and longest- collects photographs of the statue under construction, with the photographer enjoying the spectacle with her telephoto lens and enviable access to the site.  Since sections of the statue were pre-assembled on the ground before being lifted into reassembled into place, she (which lady, it is never said) was able to capture photographs which at times suggest the illogical multi-views of collages. A giant hand here, some toes there- above, crane beams and cable allow sections of the statue’s serene face float up to their planned position. 


The second part of the book explores the way the completed Ushiku Daibutsu interacts with the local landscape. As the statue in its grainy silver sfumato looms on the distance over rice fields and village roofs in these pages I can’t help but feel an echo of Japanese giant-monster kaibutsu movies.  These pictures are clever- and are, in their own way, far different than the crisp, vivid color photographs of the statue which appear on the calendars and postcards offered for sale in the gift shop. There’s a sense of enjoyment in them that I find quite appealing.   


The final section is a more (literal) nuts & bolts approach: First, a field is cleared. The pedestal is built. Dutifully, the photographer then straightly recorded each major part of the statue’s assembly, feet to head.  No clever games here- just the kind of descriptive progress-reportage pictures that construction companies- in this case, Kawada Technologies Inc.- use to document their work.


Taken together, The Sudden Appearance of the Ushiku Daibutsu is half documentary, half construction-site progress report, and half amateur local photographer album- this calculation which adds up to a somewhat quirky but lovingly earnest celebration of a local landmark. 



































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