In primo piano · Interventi

Art in Between: Italian and Japanese Identity in Laura Liverani Work

In the opening pages of Iroiro. Il Giappone tra pop e sublime (2018), a book that appears to belong to the Japanese genre of zuihitsu[1] (an autobiography, a diary, a tale, a free expression of thoughts), Giorgio Amitrano asserts that in Japan, more than in other countries, artistic language is able to express the anguish and desires of the present time. In all disciplines, Japan shows a language rooted in tradition while also addressing the needs of contemporary society[2]: tradition is indeed in constant evolution and progression. On the one hand, Japanese culture can be thought of as a paradigm of diversity and opposition to the Western world. The special attention to perceptions (for instance, concerning the subtle changes in the natural world throughout the year, the different sounds made by cicadas as the Summer wears on), the strict relationship between dreams and reality (kotchi no sekai and atchi no sekai, literally this world and the afterworld); the intensification of the representation of reality that leads to unreality (the so-called “controlled hallucination” found in Haruki Murakami’s novels), and the acute sensitivity to details in order to discover or recreate beauty, are indeed some of the peculiarities of the Japanese culture. These can be observed both in daily life and in the arts. On the other hand, hybridity as well as integration and juxtaposition of cultural elements coming from other countries can be found in Japanese culture. The decontextualisation of familiar elements caused by this hybridity allows the foreigner to consider his own culture in its basic components. For all these reasons, one can agree with Giorgio Amitrano that living in Japan can help to activate our imaginative dimension[3].

According to AIRE, there are around 3000 Italians currently living in Japan. The majority of these works in foreign trade or in the food industry, although several are employed within universities and a few are writers and artists based in the country. Among the several members of small community of Italians living in Japan I would like to mention Francesca Scotti, based in Milano and in Nagoya, whose novels display the author’s slow process of being acquainted with Japan[4]; former consul in Osaka Mario Vattani, author of several novels and the volume Svelare il Giappone; Teresa Ludovico, a choreographer and member of Teatro Kismet in Bari who has been involved in theatre productions by Setagaya Public Theatre and Za-Kōenji Public Theatre in Tōkyō since 2000; contemporary dancer Alessandra Prosperi; Tiziana Alamprese, author of “Smiling project” and producer of video art projects concerning LGBTQ rights and that often involve popular Japanese artists for advertising Fiat Christler; Laura Imai Messina author of several novels placed in Japan and volumes on Japanese culture; Alessandro Mavilio a writer and film maker from Napoli who relocated in Hokkaido; renowned dancer, choreographer and musician Alessio Silvestrin; photographer Laura Liverani.

In this paper, I will examine the works “in between” by the photographer Laura Liverani, focusing on her desire to be in contact with the Japanese culture, her negotiation between the two cultures, and her internalisation of some specific aspects of Japanese culture.

Being lost in a new city is visually expressed in Laura Liverani’s short film Tokyo Untitled. Laura Liverani is a documentary photographer based in Faenza (Ravenna) and Tokyo, and she works for the photography agency Prospekt. Tokyo Untitled, her first work set in Japan, was realized with the musician Antonia Gozzi and displayed in Rome at the Gallery Interzone in 2013. Tokyo Untitled is a digital pinhole film, realized through a succession of time-lapses and shots of skyscrapers, train stations, commuting crowds, offices and pachinko parlours, from night to daylight. Through the pinhole device, Laura is able to eliminate the human sense of here and now. A liquid, empty city suspended between dream and reality unfolds. People are represented as fading shadows, while only the wake of their movements remains. Conversely, the soundscape – a pastiche made up of original recordings from the streets of Tokyo, television commercials, and a voice narrating a children’s fairytale in Japanese – brings the audience back to the human element that is visually removed. At once, Liverani stresses the opposition between the human and the urban, while also showing the same opposition between empty and full, presence and absence described for instance in Laura Imai Messina’s first novel Tokyo Orizzontale (Piemme 2014). In this novel, being amongst the crowds of either the famous Shibuya pedestrian crossings or Shibuya train station is compared to the feeling of being in an aquarium: isolation, distance, and lack of gravity are the elements at play. Additionally, a feeling of distance, estrangement and alienation is also emphasised in Alessandro Mavilio, Il recinto. Sguardi e riflessioni sul Giappone (Orientexpress 2015)[5]. Alessandro Mavilio stresses the “binary logic” of Japanese culture: the contrast between being Japanese and being an outsider through the title Il recinto (“fence”), in Japanese “kakoi”, a kanji that means “to enclose” (囲い). A sense of loosing the self balanced by a research into new reference points is also a pivotal aspect of Alessio Silvestrin’s Map (“Chizu”), a ten minute solo episode inside Ritrovare/Derivare, a work performed in Biennale di Venezia Dance, in 2005. Since Japanese culture expresses its identity with emphasis through body language and corporal codex, dance is the preferential art to show the intertwining of traditional and contemporary arts and a different culture[6]. However considering that body is made of space, makes space and is made in space, one can mention the category used by scholar Katja Centonze of “performative displacement”: in other words, body is inscribed in a performative space other than the habitual one. This is a key to understand Alessio Silvestrin’s transcultural work.[7] In Map body appears as a shadow moving in a space framed by bars. The movements of Alessio are alternated with images of ancient Japanese maps. Time passing is announced by the voice of Nō actor Reijiro Tsumura. In this limited space and time, shadows of previous movement unfold. Viewer experiences coexistence of different paths, locations and times, which reveal an intimate desire of ubiquity.

Returning to the work of Laura Liverani, after Tokyo Untitled, Laura shows a different interest in Japan, which is more concerned with the alternative identities of groups and minorities in the country. This choice sheds more light on her personal relationship with Japan. Being “gaikokujin” (外国人), literally “external of Japan”, she pays attention to diverse identities in contemporary Japanese culture. This is the case in her project The Pom Pom Girls (a group of women in their seventies and eighties dance as pom pom girls), or her project on people wearing a body stocking, Zenshen taitsu or Zentai[8]. Both these projects concern small group identities within Japanese society.

© Laura Liverani, still pics from "Tokyo Untitled"
© Laura Liverani, still pics from “Tokyo Untitled”

However Laura’s most ambitious project concerns Ainu, indigenous people of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. Ainu were officially declared Indigenous People of Japan in 2008. The tongue-twister expression Ainu neno an ainu, which means in the Ainu language “human-like human”, is the title of a photographical project began in 2013. Ainu neno an ainu was exhibited in G/P Gallery in Tokyo in 2018. The project is the result of a collaboration with video artists Neo Sora and Valy Thorsteindottir, members of the group Lunch Bee House. Laura, Neo and Valy have spent several months in the small Ainu village of Nibutani, in Hokkaido. In Nibutani seventy percent of inhabitants are Ainu descent and Ainu culture is pervasive. Nibutani is described by Fosco Maraini in his studies on Ainu and it is the place where in 1971 he attended to a yamande, a ritual kill of a bear, as it is described in the first chapter of his book Gli ultimi pagani (Rizzoli 2001).

Ainu neno an ainu is also the title of a film which was released on the internet in June 2021 based on Laura’s photographs, and also a photo book, or better to say, an “art book” published in 2017 and curated by Japanese new wave photographer Yumi Goto. I would like to spend some words to illustrate Laura’s work which is very poetic and delicate. First of all, during the months spent in Nibutani, Laura became acquainted with Ainu people: she collected their stories and took part in the ritual dimensions of their lives. The ritual dimension is pervasive in Ainu’s society: rites are present in every aspect of Ainu’s day life, including the harvest of spontaneous herbs in the mountains, the hunting and the fishing of trouts. Moreover, the act of being photographed represents a rite itself: portraits can be intended as a celebration and a ceremonial presentation of the self which have a salutary and social cohesive function that sustains sentimental ties in a group of people. By using Allan Sekula categories, Laura portraits of Ainu have an honorific function. Additionally, the making of Laura’s art book helped the Ainu to look back at the relationship they have with their own stories and life.

The stories previously told by Ainu members resonate in Laura’s photographs. The narrative aspect is also evident in the mixture of words (short excerpts of interviews), small drawings and photographs, and in the structure of the photo book. Despite Ainu neno an ainu is not divided in chapters, it is evident that photographs are shown through their thematic affinities. Photographs are structured in groups such as landscape, people wearing either traditional clothes or western clothes, costumes, pictures taken of the archival photographs of Kaizawa family’s album, bears and animals. The photo book opens and ends with questioning about Ainu’s identity in relation to the Japanese one.

Laura investigates Ainu’s identity in the process of preserving and reinventing their culture in Japan though the mean of the collaborative portrait. In the practice of collaborative photographs, subjects would have a say in how they want to be represented. For instance they can choose either the background or the garments. Laura’s photographs show Ainu as they want to be seen: the story they tell and they want to be told by Laura’s photographs. By engaging the people in the portrait, Laura aims to subvert the language of the anthropological portrait which merely documents Ainus’s existence. It should be not ignored that Ainu also tried to pleased the photographer in their choices according to what they believed Laura wanted to represent. Aspirations, desires, expectations of both the photographer and the subjects are intertwined to create a not neutral mixture that also enlighten the social process behind the ethnical and cultural recognition of Ainu. From a period of oppression and expropriation of their land, the Ainu first gained the interest of the anthropologists and in a second moment they became a tourist attraction. As reminded by one of the person photographed by Laura, Hibiki, tourism contains also a positive side since it is a way to survive and to pass on dancing and ceremonies.

Another key word of Ainu neno an ainu is the concept of non-ending family portrait. The idea of non-ending is given by the fact that adoption of an alien into the community is a main aspect of Ainu culture. The concept of “non-ending family portraits” is also visible at the point of technical and formal choices such as the use of the same camera, or of a medium format film for all the photographs of the book. However the expression “family portrait” evokes Japanese traditional family’s portrait. Regarding the Japanese family’s portrait, one should remind either the formal set-up and the frontal perspective of the photographs, or the strictness of the Japanese familiar ties. This resemblance brings back both viewer and subject to question about traces as well as cultural influences of Japan in the Ainu identity and legacy. Looking back at Ainu neno an ainu, it should be emphasised the choice of using several western garments which made the Ainu not distinguishable from the Japanese. Finally, the closed form of Japanese portrait is in contrast with the openness of the idea of non-ending family and the collaboration between photographer and Ainu people. In a project concerning native identity in contemporary Japan, the formal choice of something that can be easily identified as peculiar of Japanese life and culture also tells about Laura’s own investigation of belonging to a minority in Japan.

© Laura Liverani, Ainu neno an ainu
© Laura Liverani, Ainu neno an ainu

In conclusion, Laura Liverani’s visual works express the idea of in-between identities and contribute to investigate the cultural and social aspects of the country where the artist decided to live.


Laura Liverani

Laura Imai Messina

Alessandro Mavilio

Francesca Scotti

Alessio Silvestrin

Mario Vattani


[1] See GIORGIO AMITRANO, Iroiro. Il Giappone tra pop e sublime, Milano, De Agostini, 2018, p. 13.

[2] See ivi, p. 25.

[3] See ivi, p. 49.

[4] L’origine della distanza (Terre di Mezzo, 2013), her first novel on a girl accidentally arrived in Japan to her new work Ellissi (Bompiani, 2017), a book that tells the willing of two friends to become slim and evanescent like dragonflies, see FRANCESCO EUGENIO BARBIERI, Il Giappone e la nuova generazione di scrittore italiani: da L’origine della distanza a L’ellissi, in Natura società letteratura, Atti del XXII congresso dell’ADI (Bologna 15-18 settembre 2018), a cura di A. Campana e F. Giunta, Roma, ADI editore, 2020,

[5] One should also briefly recall the feeling of confusion and disorientation that emerge through the physical situation of not knowing where you are described by Antonietta Pastore in the first chapter of Leggero il passo sul tatami (Einaudi, 2010).

[6] I should also mention that dance is a basic element in Japanese tradition.

[7] Alessio Silvestrin has collaborated with various Japanese dancers, traditional theatre actors and performers; has worked for Noism, one of the most important Japanese ballet company; has collaborated with photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto and musician Ryoji Ikeda in making the play At the Hawks Well which took place at the Opera de Paris in September 2019; and at the moment he is working at Hyakunin Isshu no tame no Chushaku (Comments on 100 Poems by 100 Poets), a  composition which recollects within a single work the acclaimed Japanese anthology of classic poetry Hyakunin Isshu. Generally, in his works Alessio uses a mixture of scenic language coming from ballet and Japanese traditional arts; for instance, in Kakekotoba (2009) he uses Nō theatre.

[8] Zenshen taitsu was introduced in the eighties by the japanese photographer Marcy Anarchy, and over 3000 zentai can be counted in Tokyo. Zentai can be explained as either a symbol of acquiring anonymity, or of a return in the maternal uterus.


Daniela Shalom Vagata
Daniela Shalom Vagata è docente di letteratura italiana alla Masaryk University. Ha in precedenza insegnato lingua, cultura e letteratura italiana all’Università di Bologna, alla Kyoto University per quasi dieci anni, in alcune università americane in Italia e a Indiana University, Bloomington. I suoi interessi di ricerca si concentrano sull’opera di Ugo Foscolo, in particolare sugli Inni alle Grazie e il loro rapporto con le arti figurative (in uscita nel 2023, per i tipi di Leo S. Olschki, il commento all’Inno alle Grazie di Ugo Foscolo), sulla narrativa di Eugenio Montale e di Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, sull’opera giovanile di Dante, e sul cinema di Luchino Visconti e Federico Fellini.