In the mountains on the western fringes of Tokyo prefecture are the relics of a long-vanished civilisation, its ruins scattered and overgrown among stands of pine. The inhabitants once carved terraces into the sides of these hills, blasted roads through living rock, filled the darkness with light and the sound of machines. Not much remains of their ambitious enterprise: crumbling walls, foundations pillowed with moss, the rusted skeletons of cars. The forest floor is home to giant tumorous fungi and amphibian armies – moist thin-skinned things, gulping and blinking amongst the leaves.
Whoever built these structures left few clues about their purpose, but their erstwhile use is of no interest to the present occupants. At some unspecified time in the past, nature, or something else, surged up and ended the builders’ dominion. Now, these empty palaces among the trees are colonised by millions of small, beautifully engineered aliens with articulated legs, segmented bodies and velvet wings. Many of their number congregate in the undergrowth too, clinging to strands of grass and shattered glass, fragments of tile and concrete strewn across the damp loam. These are the 虫先輩 (mushi senpai – insect elders), and the planet has been their home for hundreds of millions of years.
The insect brain is a tiny cluster of neurons. It feels hunger, and the urge to breed, and a primitive analogue of pain. Of the vast space around it, known through multiple sensory portals (feet that taste the ground, antennae that detect minute changes in the air, eyes that experience the world as a mosaic bathed in ultraviolet light) there is limited awareness save what’s immediately nearby. Eat, mate, survive; insects feel no joy and no anguish, they have no imaginative life. Their sense of self, if we can call it that, is bound up in the constant management of a handful of limited functions.
The insect brain is a tiny cluster of neurons. It feels hunger, and the urge to breed, and a primitive analogue of pain.
And yet their design suggests heroic exploits – fearsome mandibles and rhinoceros horns unsheathed, wings trembling, pincers raised, armoured in readiness for pitched battles, defending moth empresses wrapped like miniature sovereigns in ermine robes. Each existence a fantasy and a minor miracle, life’s materiel sheathed in a carapace delicate enough to be crushed by a gust of strong wind. And at the end of life: soft interiors deliquesce, bodies are dismembered and eaten by their kin. Only the exoskeleton remains, an outline like an x-ray, left to fade on the forest floor.
Shinya Arimoto’s Tokyo Debugger is the story of a future seen through compound eyes. Twice, a human hand – outlined against the darkness by the camera’s flash – reaches into the frame to seize a specimen. It feels like an invasion, all sense of gravity and scale thrown into disorder. But its presence is fleeting – the only drop of warm blood on a planet of ectotherms. For the mushi senpai, as Arimoto writes, the human world ‘may be an ephemeral existence that suddenly appears and quietly disappears in their world.’ He photographs this world like a visitor from another time, treading lightly lest his footprints change its destiny. Neither a documenter nor an entomologist, collecting and classifying, but a kindred spirit, a link in the long chain that spans past and future, looking in on the inhabitants of this enduring world, their short, sleepless lives made huge by his lens.