Life And Death With Ikumi Nakamura
"I’m always thinking about death,” Ikumi Nakamura tells me, as we ourselves are, in fact, confronted by death. It’s late at night. There are no cars, people, or sounds to distract me. I can’t avoid what I’m seeing: a host of creatures about to be murdered.
We’re standing at a slaughterhouse. But it’s a slaughterhouse in a deeply strange location, or, as Nakamura calls it, “Silicon Valley,” the technology district of Shinagawa in Tokyo, Japan. As I look at trucks packed full of cows at – whether they know it or not – the end of their lives, immense skyscrapers surround us, housing tech goliaths. Sony, Canon, and Microsoft all have offices here. The lifeblood of Japan’s tech industry, all looking down at death, turned to process.
“The city is so new and alive, but right in the same place, there’s animals being killed,” Nakamura observes.
This “gap,” as she often calls it – life and death, new and old – commands our conversations as we explore Shinagawa’s empty streets and back alleys. If anything, the two sides of Nakamura’s own life coalesced here; her old life working at Tango Gameworks leading Ghostwire: Tokyo and her new independent studio, Unseen.
After 15 years in the game industry, first working at Capcom on Ōkami, then at Platinum Games on Bayonetta and the canceled Scalebound, then Tango, Nakamura became a viral sensation with her appearance at E3 2019, joyously and nervously announcing Ghostwire. When work on the game became too stressful, Nakamura says she frequently struggled to sleep. She’d walk around Shinagawa late at night, long after the business people usually filling its streets had gone home. She’d have the city primarily to herself, just as we do now. “I discovered many things,” she tells me, “and became friends with the cockroaches.”
However, she left that project before its release, founding Unseen, which originally started in Shinagawa in a temporary space she shared with just four other people. The studio has since moved 20 minutes away to Tsukishima, but nevertheless, it’s hard to deny the thematic appropriateness of all the new, old, life, and death of Shinigawa and how it neatly fits into Nakamura’s story here.
“When I established Unseen, I felt like I had to run away from old things,” she says. “From old vibes, old atmospheres. There were some people who wanted to come with me, but I left them behind. That was because I wanted to create something new, so I didn’t want to bring too many old things with me.”
And yet, perhaps ironically, this entire journey begins with a trip back in time, as Nakamura slides into a back alley, transporting us to what feels like a different dimension.
At her request, I meet Nakamura late at night. I show up roughly between 10:30 and 11:00 p.m., and as I wait outside Shinagawa Station – one of Japan’s oldest train stations, opened in 1872 – I see the final rushes of people making their way home. Eventually, Nakamura and Unseen community manager and assistant producer Kyoko, who’s also helping with translation, show up, and we walk across the humongous train station.
“There’s so many salarymen around here shambling around like zombies,” Nakamura says as we walk past scores of men in white shirts and ties, most carrying briefcases, all looking exhausted.
On the other side of Shinagawa Station, walking past a shopping mall, we end up outside a large eating and drinking area. Honestly, it looks like many downtown areas of Tokyo these days – clean, mostly new, fairly nondescript, and indistinguishable from a million other restaurant areas in business districts. Again, it’s late at night, on a weekday, no less, but a handful of people are still milling about looking for food or drink. Not too many, though, as rows of taxis wait on the street uncalled for and young women in tight clothing trying to usher people into bars stand around looking bored. We’re not going to be much help to them, as before I know it, we duck into an alley behind all this boredom, slipping by a Yoshinoya fast food restaurant and a real estate company.
I don’t know where we’re going – though that’s somewhat by design; as part of doing these pieces, I don’t ask for specifics, letting it be a surprise – but a tight, dirty alley I can barely walk through is a bit disconcerting. Until we make our way through, and I realize there’s a hidden city behind the boring storefronts on the streets. In fact, the new buildings were built surrounding an entire neighborhood back here, trapping a dozen or so extremely tightly-packed older buildings in a frame of modernity. You’d never know it from the streets, and the best way to see this weird blender of old and new is to look from above on something like Google Maps.
Our dirty alley entrance was also a sham, as once we’re back here, it’s incredibly clean and nice – at least compared to American alleyways. Each hidden building is roughly two-to-four stories in height, all housing little eateries and bars. This is not unlike the outside world, but crucially, I don’t notice any major chains, and there’s certainly no one outside begging us to drink in their empty bars like before. Back here, what establishments are still open are mainly left to their own devices. I get the idea that if you come in, great. Have a seat. If you don’t, that’s fine. So it goes.
This here, the way we slipped back in time, is the gap Nakamura talks about – that the old and new coexist so closely together. “I just love that gap,” she says. “I like that gap, in all things, in the culture.”
That gap existing, though, means the new is encroaching on the old. Like most major cities, Japan is losing part of its history as new buildings replace old ones and gentrification makes its way through the nation. Quite literally, from where we were standing just minutes before, the new blocked the old out-of-site. If I look up towards the sky, I see the skyscrapers looming over this little time capsule we’re standing in – like the universe is sending me an obvious metaphor. For Nakamura, though, this is the natural order of things.
“In time, the new buildings here will grow old, and one day they’ll be swapped out once again for some amazing new buildings,” she says. “Long after we’re gone, of course.”
Nakamura says she believes our environments shape us; it’s why she wanted to become an environment artist earlier in her career. In fact, the first game she led, Ghostwire, was defined by its space: Tokyo. Though it’s worth pointing out that now that the game is out, Nakamura says she hasn’t played the final version.
She even claims to be able to picture her surroundings from a bird’s eye view, visualizing how streets and buildings all connect. “Even when I’m walking around myself, it’s like I’ve got a camera above me,” she says, laughing. Considering her work and definitely evident in our conversations, it’s clear Nakamura is obsessed with cities. However, she’s obsessed with them in her own unique way – namely, when they’re empty.
Her upcoming book, Project UrbEx, is a photo book chronicling her years exploring abandoned buildings around the world. Similarly, in one of her first major interviews, with the YouTube channel Archipel, she made the team follow her around various abandoned buildings in Japan. She’s spent a lot of time walking around the city alone at night in her day-to-day life. “When I was working at Tango, I’d go out three or four times a week,” she tells me. To that point, Ghostwire begins with all the citizens of Tokyo vanishing into thin air. Finally, when I emailed her asking if she would like to be interviewed, one of her first notes was that she wanted to meet up late at night – even floating the idea of waiting until as late as one in the morning – all so we could see one of the biggest cities in the world empty of its millions of inhabitants.
[Full disclosure: The author of this piece is working with Project UrbEx publisher Read-Only Memory on a separate book. However, he is not tied to or associated with Nakamura’s work with the company in any capacity.]
And to her credit, it’s a fascinating way to see an urban space – especially one as large as Tokyo. Coincidentally, I’m staying in Shinagawa for the week I’m here, but only see it during the day, when it’s full of who knows how many people living, commuting, and working. This is the first time I’ve come out this late at night, realizing that after 10:00 p.m. or so, this place is empty. And yet, the city functions – the lights are still on; traffic stops cycle between red, yellow, and a blue shade of green; crosswalk speakers play chimes to indicate when you can cross the road. All signaling things no one is around to see or hear. At night, it feels like the city doesn’t need us anymore; it’s a clock we’ve simply wound up, and from there, it keeps itself in motion. And yet, its only functions are to serve us. She may have left Ghostwire before it came out, leaving a different director to see it through, but this is unavoidably exactly the same as the Tokyo in Ghostwire – devoid of people and yet still functioning all the same.
“You’ve got this city full of people; it’s always moving,” Nakamura says. “But at night when no one is around, when everyone is in bed asleep [...] it’s like the city is alive. It gives me a strange, almost spooky feeling.”
“When there’s less people around, you can see and perceive the actual environment, the real city,” she says.
As we walk past the alley deeper into Shinagawa, away from the handful of bars and restaurants still open, the few people surrounding us disappear. We’re truly alone in this mammoth city like someone left an entire concrete jungle to us.
Well, us and a host of cows.
Life And Death
You hear the cows before you see them. When there are no cars, trains, people, or noise pollution to drown it out, all you’re left with is the sound of animals on their way to death.
The slaughterhouse takes up an entire city block. Mostly, high walls and windowless buildings block passersby from seeing and ostensibly thinking about what happens here – except for the far south side, where the walls break away to let trucks enter the facility. We’re standing here, staring at trailers full of cows in the middle of the city’s tech district. Maybe I’m projecting, but they look scared. It’s sad.
Embarrassingly, I admit to Nakamura how scared I am of death. It’s something I think about constantly. She tells me she’s also always thinking about death, but with a crucial difference. “I’ve never been scared of dying,” she says. “Even when my child was born, my feelings haven’t changed.” She doesn’t see it as an end – the root cause of all my fear; that there’s nothing beyond this. She chooses to see it as moving on.
“Maybe it’s simply that there are different planes, different dimensions of existence,” Nakamura says. “We’re all in the same space, but we can’t cross over. So for me, when I think of death, it’s not dying but moving. When my father died, I didn’t feel that sad because he just went somewhere else.”
In her own life, Nakamura is moving on. After leaving Tango, she founded Unseen. In her previous work, she was taking direct inspiration from her home. Now that she leads a studio full of employees from around the world, she says she pulls inspiration from the various backgrounds and perspectives they bring to the table. “They’re from many different countries, so I feel like I’m seeing a glimpse of their culture through their work, and that’s been inspiring to me,” she says. However, despite leading the company, Nakamura says she doesn’t see herself as in charge of Unseen’s future; she wants the company to decide together. Unseen hasn’t even announced its first project, though. Time will tell what that future might be.
For now, we’re taking one last look at the past. Just across the street from the slaughterhouse is about 1,300 feet of park area cut between two rows of massive office buildings, high-rises, and skyscrapers. Trees hang overhead, barely blocking out views of the buildings around us. If I were to come here in the morning, Nakamura tells me it’d look completely different. “It’s zombies everywhere,” she tells me. “Zombie businessmen” will be walking these same streets. In that case, it seems best to appreciate the night and the time it gives you alone with the city. “The night is all I have,” Nakamura says, laughing. “A mother is only free at night.”
A year back, she was in one of these buildings, starting Unseen. It wasn’t long ago, but she says she feels nostalgic. That said, in life, Nakamura says she’s always looking forward – which might explain why she’s always thinking about death. “I don’t like 'looking back’ at my life,” she tells me.
And while our night may have oscillated wildly between looking at the past and present, life and death, at the end of the night, the only choice left is to move forward, continuing until we, too, “move on.”
We walk through Shinagawa Station, back the way we came, part ways, and go forward into the night.
Post-interview re-translation: Alex Highsmith