Daido Moriyama’s Haunting Photos of Stray Cats in Tokyo

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Stray Cats by Daido Moriyama
Stray Cats©︎ Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation. Courtesy of Akio Nagasawa Publishing

Captured in hyper-contrast chiaroscuro, Daido Moriyama’s new photo book documents stray cats on the streets of the Japanese capital

A full-time street hunter, roaming Tokyo’s dank back alleys and derelict haunts, Daido Moriyama has encountered his fair share of feline friends and foes. And so, the time has finally come for us to appreciate all of his cat pics in one single book, Stray Cats. Moriyama might not have initially intended for them to end up in a dedicated volume, but publisher Akio Nagasawa’s archival rummaging nevertheless testifies to a thematic continuity in the lensman’s work. That is, tailing targets in flux.

“For Moriyama, there is no distinction between old and new photographs,” explains Nagasawa. “It is only about good or bad ones. A photograph can be reborn by pulling it out of the before-and-after context in which it was taken and placing it into a new one. I edited this book with Moriyama’s philosophy in my mind. It was arranged through a combination of photographs which have cats in them and those which seem to.”

Moriyama’s are not the cute and cuddly cats that reign over our social media zoo. Captured in hyper-contrast chiaroscuro, they are more like the haunted bakeneko spirits of Japanese catlore who have great shapeshifting powers. Sometimes, you have to look long and hard to find the scruffy strays. Are they playing hide-and-seek behind those bins, or sulking in the photographer’s shadow? Undeniably, the best shots here are taken up close and low to the ground, hinting at the photographer’s feline affinities. While Moriyama has previously described his famous 1971 image of a stray dog as more of a self-portrait, can the same be said of his cats? “I think so,” says Nagasawa. “He has always decided where to go by the smell of things, much like a dog or a cat.” 

What’s indisputable is that Moriyama is no stranger to the stray life. Inspired by the restless writings of Jack Kerouac right from the get-go, he has committed himself to a near-nomadic lifestyle where meaning is released thanks to an existence on the prowl. “Most of what I want simply flows away like water slipping through a net,” Moriyama has said. “What remains are only vague, elusive fragments of images that sink into countless strata in my mind.” It is clear that the mad and quenchless fantasy of possessing whatever Moriyama perceives still haunts him. If he is a hunter, then he is one engaged in a perpetual cat-and-mouse game, ensnaring his prey for only a fraction of a second before it scurries away. And what could be more photographic than that? 

Stray Cats by Daido Moriyama is published by Akio Nagasawa Publishing, and is out now.