Tokyo is a photographer’s dream, a city overflowing with potent imagery. But this sensory input can also be overpowering, making it tough to find a single focus. Photographer Yoshinori Mizutani, though, knew he found a great new subject when he noticed bright, greenish-yellow birds zipping past his house, perching in a large zelkova tree just a stone’s throw away. Not long after that, he spotted a large roost of them on the campus of the Tokyo Institute of Technology—hundreds and hundreds of them banding together. The birds turned out to be rose-ringed parakeets, a nonnative type of parrot that had been imported to Japan over the years as pets, many of which had either escaped or been released and were now thriving in the dense urban environment of the city.
Eventually, Mizutani’s curiosity led him to photograph the birds—in flight and at rest on branches and power lines—and those pictures evolved into a project as eerie as a Joseph Cornell box, as striking and evanescent as only bright-plumed birds can be.
“I took most of my shots from four to eight in the evening,” Mizutani says. “They gather at night to sleep, and then go out in small groups in the morning, returning again at dusk.” Those evening photo sessions lasted just over a year—Mizutani wanted to capture the birds in all four seasons. “The color of the ginkgo tree changes throughout the year,” he says, “which makes it interesting.”
Planted in parks, campuses, and walkways all over Tokyo, the tall, stately ginkgo trees turn whole sections of the city a brilliant yellow in late November, and are nearly as popular as the city’s iconic cherry blossoms.
Most people consider Tokyo’s electric power lines a blight; here the lines look like part of the set, stark linear arrangements used as perch or pedestal, bringing into artistic close-up what is usually ignored or unnoticed by most Tokyoites. Building edges make for another framing device, and steep upward angles enrich the composition so that “the point of view is different from what we ordinarily see in daily life.”
For most of these images, Mizutani used a strong flash to bring out the details of both pigment and structural color. Without it, the parakeets were just little black outlines against the sky, indistinguishable from the many other birds that make Tokyo home. The flash brings out their mystery. “I didn’t use a flash at first,” Mizutani says, “but the parakeets are so attractive, I just had to bring the colors out more.” And he isn’t shy about the importance of editing the images afterward. “When I take a photo, I don’t really think. I only think when I edit.”
Asked if the birds are somehow a commentary on the massive city they now inhabit, Mizutani says, “I thought it strange that parakeets exist wild in Tokyo, but I don’t think these pictures look like Tokyo. They have a cute, colorful image totally unlike the city. But when I first saw the parakeets, I felt like I saw ghosts.”
— Michael Pronko