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  • The Metabolist Imagination: Visions of the City in Postwar Japanese Architecture and Science Fiction by William O. Gardner
  • Michael P. Cronin
The Metabolist Imagination: Visions of the City in Postwar Japanese Architecture and Science Fiction. By William O. Gardner. University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 232 pages. Hardcover, $108.00; softcover, $27.00.

As early as the thirteenth century, when, from the distance of his ten-foot-square hut, Kamo no Chōmei compared the capital and its society to “the foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming,” the Japanese city was characterized as a phenomenon of flux and change.1 After the devastation of World War II and recovery, amid wholesale remaking in the era of high-speed growth, a group of visionary young Japanese architects and urban planners explored this phenomenon under the conceptual rubric “metabolism.” William O. Gardner’s The Metabolist Imagination explores the city as envisioned in the theory, design, and production of this group as well as in sympathetic fiction, anime, and performance by others both of the time and later—with a particular focus on one contemporary and collaborator, the foundational science fiction author Komatsu Sakyō. It joins two other published monographs, Franz Prichard’s Residual Futures and Jordan Sand’s Tokyo Vernacular, to deepen our understanding of the enormous changes to urban spaces and lives in Japan during this period.2

Among the architects who affiliated themselves with Metabolism were Kurokawa Kishō, who later designed the National Art Center, Tokyo; Maki Fumihiko, recipient of the 1993 Pritzker Prize; Kikutake Kiyonori, who designed the Edo-Tokyo Museum; and their mentors Asada Takashi, a professor of architecture at the University of Tokyo, and Tange Kenzō. The movement, which was most active through the 1960s and early 1970s, announced itself with the manifesto Metabolism 1960: The Proposals for a New Urbanism and gained prominence with the 1970 Japan World Exposition in Osaka, for which members contributed the master plan of the grounds, designed several pavilions and a plaza, and helped develop the overall theme. Among Metabolism’s most influential concepts, Gardner explains, was the structural model of the protective, self-sufficient capsule docked to a framework, as realized in [End Page 231] the Nakagin Capsule Tower in Tokyo—on which see also Noritaka Minami’s photo collection 1972.3 The architects are remembered, too, for unrealized designs of megastructures to be built on the water and in the air, including visionary plans for the reclamation of Tokyo Bay. As this study makes clear, they also explored ideas of urban apocalypse as cyclical and generative, the promise and the threat of the information society, and the new social relations allowed or imposed by a new architecture.

The remarkable assemblage of people, movements, and ideas that constituted the Osaka Expo has garnered attention in various disciplines over the past ten or fifteen years, prompted in part by the work of Alexandra Munroe, Ming Tiampo, and others on Gutai, an art movement based in Osaka that contributed programming for it. Gardner has been investigating the Expo and related topics over the past decade in several articles, and the book under review—his second monograph—collects and extends those investigations: in clear and compelling prose, over an introduction and six chapters supplemented by thirteen pages of color plates and several full- and half-page black-and-white images, it delineates links across media and disciplines, demonstrating the full significance of the Metabolists’ ideas to our understanding of the Japanese city and urban existence from the 1960s on.4

The first two chapters persuasively establish an “affinity” between the architects’ writings and those of Komatsu, who was born and died in Osaka and who worked with the Metabolists on production of the Expo. Gardner considers both Komatsu’s fiction and the Metabolists’ hybrid works of essay and fiction as methods of modeling urban futures and apocalypse. In chapter 1 the analysis moves among Komatsu’s Kūchū toshi 008 (City in the Air 008; 1969) and its animated adaptation; architect Kawazoe Noboru’s apocalyptic “Dai-Tōkyō saigo no hi” (The Last Days of Greater Tokyo; 1961), which its author described as “a history of the future...


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pp. 231-234
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