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28 February 2016

A city that casts a thousand shadows

Verity McIntosh, Producer at Pervasive Media Studio and Playable City, reports from her first visit to Japan and the experience of viewing 'Shadowing' on Tokyo's streets

Manami Yuasa

Shadowing in the Toranomon Hills area of Tokyo...cho-Kawaii!

Last week I was in Tokyo with designers Chomko & Rosier installing ‘Shadowing’ (Playable City Award winner 2014) as part of Watershed’s Playable City Tokyo programme with British Council Japan. From now until 21 March you can visit it after dark as part of the Media Ambition Tokyo festival.

This has been my first trip to Tokyo, and I have found it to be a city of extraordinary parallel realities. In some districts, neon signs and upbeat jingles emanate from every building. Street-level loud hailers attached to lamp posts designed to give earthquake alerts share the latest J-pop tracks with shoppers and kawaii (cute) imagery calls your attention to everything from the gaming arcade to the terrorism protocols for a building.

The frenetic energy and verve of this Tokyo somehow sits in perfect balance with another daily reality of Tokyo, in which people are modest, polite and respectful, and another in which novelty photo booths and sushi bars butt up alongside Buddhist temples, steeped in their own history, offering an oasis of calm that can quickly strip away the sensory bombardment of everyday life.

This intuitive layering of realities is what, for me, makes Tokyo such as exciting place to be exploring the notion of a ‘Playable City’. To my mind, a Playable City is one where citizens can view their cities as malleable, varied and unresolved. Places that can shift and are redrawn by the actions that you choose to take. Shadowing offers a window to this. As you pass under these ordinary looking street lights, the shadow that accompanies you is not your own, but that of someone else who happened to pass this way moments before. Circle back and you can accompany your own shadow from moments before.

Shadowing can now be experienced in three locations in Toranomon Hills, a new tower block in the ‘tiger-gate’ district, housing some 10,000 office workers and residents. Here, the shadow that you see may well be that of a colleague, a friend, or someone that you have never met, but who walks the same path as you every day on their way home. Shadowing enables their experience and yours to be artificially coupled together for a just a moment, layering time and space in a manner that can be simultaneously surprising, delighting and profound.

It is also really fun to play with. 

The evening of the press preview, we were joined by 3 year old Tatsuya who took one look at Shadowing, knitted his brow in concentration for a millisecond, and then charged headlong with a giggle into the light in hot pursuit of the shadow of his mum. From then on he was hooked; spinning, jumping, walking backwards, trying to catch the shadows in his hands. A simple, subtle invitation to play was all he needed to give license to his extraordinary imagination.

Experience tells us that adults tend to be more hesitant than Tatsuya, at least at first, concerned perhaps about what others will think if they act in such an uninhibited way. Sitting back and observing for a little while in a nearby café however, we started to observe little flashes of the inner child bubbling up. Here a double take, there a quick twirl with arms wide, once or twice a jumping heel click and on one occasion a seriously impressive sequence of dance moves, laid down for the next unsuspecting passer-by to discover.

Shadowing does not require you to perform. It is designed to be just as rewarding if you walk past without breaking step and spend the rest of your commute thinking about presence, isolation and surveillance culture in your city, as if you were to high kick your way through the lamp light. Playable City projects give us to permission to play, but more importantly give us the opportunity to look again, and look differently at our everyday environment. To become tourists in our own cities.


Shadowing by Chomko & Rosier is part of Media Ambition Tokyo which takes place between 26 February to 21 March 2016 across the city. Three Shadowing lamp posts are installed in Toranomon Hills, hosted by British Council and supported by RhizomatiksToranomon Hills and ADK.

Verity McIntosh 2016, @veritymcintosh

Verity is Pervasive Media Studio Producer at Watershed, a cross-artform venue and producer in Bristol, UK. has been developed by Watershed with the British Council's Creative Economy team, and is simultaneously underway in Lagos.