By now, there are probably few readers who are unfamiliar with the categories of animals that Jorge Luis Borges attributes to an apocryphal Chinese encyclopedia entitled The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge [Emporio celestial de conocimientos benévolos], supposedly discovered by the German translator Franz Kuhn (1884-1961). The categories included are: belonging to the Emperor, embalmed, trained, piglets, sirens, fabulous, stray dogs, included in this classification, trembling like crazy, innumerables, drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, et cetera, just broke the vase, and from a distance look like flies. While upon reflection it is possible to imagine that animals could fit each of these classifications, it is hard to imagine a systematic taxonomy in which they harmoniously co-exist.

On the other hand, there are times when it is possible to juxtapose equally disparate categories and find them making eminently good sense. One example can be found in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue of Reinventing Tokyo: Japan’s Largest City in the Artistic Imagination. In the works that appear in Reinventing Tokyo, it is easy to create a systematic taxonomy of artistic objects that includes: belonging to the Emperor, bamboo poles, a string quartet, tents, charred corpses, mackerel in a bucket, brick buildings, burning ferociously, a near-nude woman on a rooftop, cars, a board game, made from a single piece of cloth, three chickens, and drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush. Or at least a very fine brush of some kind. On silk and paper. But more about that later. The curious thing is that while the juxtapositions in Borges’s imagined encyclopedia are jarring, the juxtapositions in Reinventing Tokyo create an astonishing harmony.

The structure of Reinventing Tokyo, both the exhibition at Amherst College and the accompanying catalogue, is chronological. The works included provide glimpses of the city as it transformed itself from the pre-modern metropolis of Edo to the modern capital of Meiji- and early-Taisho-period Tokyo. Reinvention continues at an accelerated pace after much of Meiji-period Tokyo is destroyed in the Great Kantō earthquake and conflagration of September 1923, and resumes frenetically after the city’s near obliteration by American napalm and white phosphorous bombs in 1945. Each one of these major transformations is remarkable in itself. Yet, the peacetime reinvention of late-twentieth-century Tokyo through the ongoing processes of demolition and construction has been, arguably, as radical as what occurred as a result of the two great conflagrations earlier in the century or even with the creation of Tokyo on the relatively deserted remains of Edo after 1868.

The exhibition and catalogue showcase how artists, photographers, illustrators, and designers, through the ways in which they saw and sometimes were part of the city, have themselves reinvented Tokyo over approximately the past century and a half. It would be easy to criticize the exhibition and catalogue for what they do not include but that would not only be unfair but also a useless exercise. Indeed, Reinventing Tokyo does include a broad range of disparate images and objects some of which—such as a baseball jacket with its illustrated lining—are genuinely surprising. They range from classic woodblock prints that typify the late Edo sensibility of iki いき (sometimes rendered with the kanji 粋) to photorealistic images (in that they remarkably resemble black and white photographs) painted on silk, to examples of clothing from the jacket mentioned above to pieces by designers such as Issey Miyake. Curators are often under-appreciated, so it is best noted that the curatorial efforts required in the design and creation of this exhibition and catalogue, which include works taken from numerous collections in the United States and Japan, were immense. Reinventing Tokyo started as a course with the same title co-taught at Amherst College by Samuel C. Morse, Trent Maxey, and Timothy Van Compernolle. It is hard to imagine a richer environment in which students could learn not only about Tokyo and Japan as places but also about the technological and aesthetic transformations that the included works exemplified.

The exhibition itself was designed and mounted to give viewers a sense of historical change. One entered to a display of pristine woodblock prints of Edo, many of which are famous and rarely seen. My only regret was that the images had been rotated at least once before I got there and so I did not see on display all of the works in the catalogue. Those who were fortunate enough to make multiple visits and see all of the works while they were on display certainly were well rewarded. While the exhibition was by no means on a scale one might expect in a major urban gallery, the intimacy of the space combined with the broad variety of images to give it a feeling of richness that reached well beyond its physical size.

Specific places in the city constitute the central themes of Reinventing Tokyo. If there is one place that mixes the history of Edo and Tokyo that appears more than any other it is Nihonbashi. It appears in three woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige that date from 1833, 1856, and 1857, in one by Bannai Kôkan from 1930, and in a photograph by Miyoshi Kôzô from 2001. As the center point from which all distances from Edo were measured, Nihonbashi reflected the city’s symbiosis of the mercantile and the political, a quality it continues to carry to this day. In that even today almost all Japanese know of Nihonbashi, it still marks a cultural center of Japan. Miyoshi’s photograph, however reveals how that cultural centrality is almost buried below the concrete and steel of modern technology. While Miyoshi’s image is more river than bridge, it is above all a tribute to contemporary Japan’s automobile culture. While probably unintentional, it also raises a question that only the most accomplished connoisseurs of Tokyo (Edotsû 江戸通) can answer: what is the name of the river that Nihonbashi crosses?

The titles to the exhibition constitute a poetry of place names familiar to any who have spent time in the city: Asakusa, Atago, Hongo, Ginza, Koiwa, Roppongi, Senju, Shiba, Shibuya, Shinagawa, Shinjuku, Shinobazu, Ueno, Yurakucho. Images of many places appear more than once, making the viewer familiar with specific places and how they were transformed in the past and through the imaginations of two contemporary artists, Yamaguchi Akira and Motoda Hisaharu, and how they might be transformed in the future.

An understated theme of change with regard to place is the transformation of the Emperor’s Palace, as the shogun’s castle was called in English during the Edo period, into the Imperial Palace, as the residence of the emperor (tennô 天皇) came to be called after the shogun’s eviction in 1868. We catch glimpses of the Emperor Meiji early in the show, once on a veranda in Ueno, once watching horse races, and once in his carriage—all in woodblock prints created before casual images of the emperor became taboo. There is another woodblock print of the Imperial Palace’s Nijubashi, the bridge on which the Showa Emperor sometimes appeared in the years before 1945 astride his white horse, and one of the Asakusa Palace, both dating from 1929. However, the general absence of the emperor throughout the exhibition makes the immensity of his presence in Tokyo before 1945 somewhat hard to imagine. Politics make an explicit appearance only in photographs of the student protests to the renewal of the ANPO Treaty (the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan) in 1960—perhaps a reflection of how most artistic depictions of Tokyo as a place have remained generally apolitical although the works of many of its artists, from Miyatake Gaikotsu to Akasegawa Genpei, have been highly political.

The five rooms that contained the exhibition were arranged according to seminal events: a room that ended with images of the fires of the late-Edo and early-Meiji period, depicted in woodblock prints and painting, opened into a room that presented the first photographs along with numerous woodblock prints mostly from the period before the 1923 earthquake. Photographic prints, postcards made of photomontages, and architectural renderings, provided a sense of promise that the modern growth of the early-twentieth-century Tokyo must have had for many who lived in or visited the city at the time. A small room contained two striking copies of the Pavilion above the Cloud (Ryôunkaku 凌雲閣)—the brick tower in Asakusa destroyed in the 1923 earthquake—in the form of woodblock prints designed as a sugoroku 双六 board game. The prints were designed to open up a view of the interior of the building, providing a glimpse into a space now hard to imagine. The same room also included woodblock prints and photographs made in the aftermath of that calamity showing horrific vistas of rubble and burned bodies. Viewers then entered into the “Modern City”: dance halls and cabarets, airports and baseball, weather stations and subway cars. Woodblock prints gave way to striking black-and-white photographs. Indeed, it is striking how the last woodblock prints date from 1945 and almost all of these reproduced images dated from the 1930s.

All of the woodblock prints were of pristine quality and would have provided a mini-course in themselves regarding the transformation of the medium from its classic form of the Edo period, in which artists designed images that were then carved and printed by specialists in those crafts, to images influenced by European modernism, designed, carved, and printed by a single artist. The woodblock artists whose works were in the exhibition, including Utagawa Hiroshige, Kobayashi Kiyochika, Hiratsuka Un’ichi, Koizumi Kishio, and Onchi Koshiro—to name just a few—would not be overlooked in any history of the Japanese woodblock print from the 1830s to the 1930s.

Around the corner a handful of photographs depicted the Pacific War’s effects on Tokyo and its immediate aftermath. Despite its impact, the dearth of works on the war is arguably justified by the understandable difficulty that visual artists had in depicting it. Materials were scarce and the trauma profound. One of the most pointed images is Hayashi Tadahiko’s Family in a Wasteland: Burned Out by the War. The “family” is a young mother carrying an infant on her back next to a concrete structure painted with “hatsukoi to wa nanzo ya 初恋とはナンゾヤ,” roughly, “what the hell is first love?” This is juxtaposed with another photograph by Hayashi of a nearly-nude woman reclining above the city in A Dancer Prone (Rooftop of the Nichigeki Theater, Yûrakuchô). An eroticized longing mingles with lost innocence and the unrelenting demands of everyday life.

In ways, longing also is the theme of the images of a Tokyo that emerges and continues its reinvention after 1945. Militarism, barely glimpsed in the artistic renderings of Tokyo on display, fully disappears into a headlong striving for economic growth. A string quartet plays in the background of Nagano Shigeichi’s Salarymen at a Securities Company, at the Completion of Management Training (Ikebukuro, Tokyo), which dates from 1960. The men in the image have traded khakis and spats for suits and neckties, gunka 軍歌 (military songs) for strings. But the determination in their expressions is the flip side of Nagano’s photograph High-Density Housing: The First Postwar Municipal Apartment Blocks (Ôkubo, Tokyo), which portrays the dense but modern near-poverty in which many Tokyoites found themselves in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The farthest room in the back was a showcase mostly for images depicting Tokyo since its boom years of the 1960s and others showing two imagined futures—one by Yamaguchi Akira full of both existing and invented buildings in Roppongi and Hiroo, and another by Motoda Hisaharu of Asakusa, Shibuya, and Ginza as they might look if all humans died suddenly of a plague and were left to disintegrate. Photographs dominated this section and all were first-rate images while avoiding what have become clichés. Two of the most striking images are by Yamaguchi Hidenori. At first glance, they appear to be photographs and even with the closest of inspection it is hard to imagine that they have been painted with a very fine brush and ink on silk and paper. Right Atrium; Left Ventricle looks like mirror images of a scene photographed at different times of day but consist of ink-on-silk paintings in a single frame. Yamaguchi’s Industrial District has the appearance of being a photograph shot with a large-format camera at an extremely shallow depth of field but in fact is painted with ink on paper. As monochromatic images with an astonishing level of detail, they open a new dimension on the idea of photorealism.

The individual essays, by Timothy Van Compernolle, Trent Maxey, Samuel C. Morse, John Dower, and Yamashita Yûji are informative and deserve a close reading. They range from broad discussions of various works and artists by Van Compernolle and Maxey to Morse’s focused essay on the photographer Kageyama Kôyô and Yamashita’s on Yamaguchi Hidenori and Yamaguchi Akira. Dower’s essay aptly contextualizes the images from the wartime and Occupation periods. The introductions by Samuel C. Morse to the ten sections of the catalogue provide an intellectual map to the images that follow.

It is a pity that the exhibition Reinventing Tokyo: Japan’s Largest City in the Artistic Imagination could not be on permanent display or even have traveled to other venues. It deserves repeated visits and would have been greatly appreciated in other communities. However, we are lucky to have a well-designed and -printed catalogue that will continue to be useful to anybody with an interest in modern Japanese art, as well as to those who want to glimpse the ongoing modern transformation of one of the world’s great cities in some of its many disparate dimensions.

William Johnston is Professor of History, East Asian Studies, and Science in Society at Wesleyan University, where he is also a Faculty Fellow at the College of the Environment, for the 2012-13 academic year. He has written The Modern Epidemic: A History of Tuberculosis in Japan (Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1995) and Geisha, Harlot, Strangler, Star: A Woman, Sex, and Morality in Modern Japan(Columbia University Press, 2005).