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When the sun sets on Tokyo and its neon lights flicker into a soft electric glow, photographer Liam Wong hits the streets to capture a fantastic vision of the city at night.
For years, Wong honed his artistic eye as an art director at Ubisoft, the video game developer behind titles like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry. In 2015, on a rainy night in Tokyo, Wong set out with his camera to test his skills as a photographer. What he discovered through his viewfinder was a city transformed by light, reminiscent of cyberpunk classics like Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. Three years later, a book called TO:KY:OO brings together these colorful pictures into one surreal vision of Tokyo after dark.
Here, Wong speaks with BuzzFeed about his inspiration behind the work and shares a selection of his favorite images from the book.
For TO:KY:OO, you take viewers into a neon-soaked vision of Tokyo at night. What do you want these pictures to convey?
Liam Wong: TO:KY:OO encompasses my journey into photography. Neons, alleys, silhouettes, and rain all captured during the quiet hours between midnight and the first light. I capture real moments and turn them into the surreal — making the viewer question the reality depicted in each image.
Each image feels deeply inspired by science fiction and cinema — can you speak on whether this is intentional? What were some of your influences?
Absolutely intentional! I have always had a great interest in film. Movies like Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, made me appreciate how color can be used to enhance the mood, something I was familiar with from working on visual identities for video games.
My main influence would be the work of visual artist Syd Mead, particularly on Blade Runner. Additionally, the work of cinematographers [Roger] Deakins, [Benoît] Debie, and [Christopher] Doyle with their use of framing, light, silhouettes, and color.
Do you have a personal connection to Tokyo?
I wouldn’t say I have a personal connection; however, I would say video games connected me with Tokyo. A business trip there made me fall in love with the city. The city is always changing, even in the short amount of time I have spent here. I love that the traditional spirit is valued greatly in Japanese culture and that it will always remain.
Can you speak a bit about the title of the book, TO:KY:OO? Where does its unique formatting come from, and what does it mean to you?
The inspiration for the title plays on the format of a digital clock — from six-digit LED timers with the hour, minutes, and seconds. Each image has a timestamp as a caption of when they were captured.
Who are the people depicted in the book? Are they actors? Locals?
Every image in the book, with the exception of self-portraits, are real moments captured on the streets of Tokyo.
Can you speak a bit about the production/technical aspects of these images? How much of each picture is photographed in reality, and how much is produced in post?
With photography, I had always been convinced that photographs had to be displayed “as is” and very rarely edited. As soon as I moved past this way of thinking, I began to have fun, treating them almost like bases for concept art from video games.
With some images, I shoot with a cooler white balance and add some contrast and selective highlights in post. In other images, I either edit on my phone or computer with a photo editing application, like Photoshop and Lightroom, playing with tones and colors until the result looks close to how I imagined it in my head. I usually gather many references from film and study their use of color, framing, and texture.
Is there a specific image or story behind an image that means a great deal to you?
I took a picture of a taxi driver waiting in the rain in Tokyo’s red-light district, and I would say it was the first time I captured a “moment.” It was this image that made me continue venturing out after midnight and would eventually result in a series of images. I shared it on my personal Facebook, and friends seemed to enjoy it. I never had much social presence online, and so in ways it sparked that creativity.
What was one thing you took away from this body of work that was entirely unexpected?
The journey itself. I never planned to become a photographer, it just ended up that way. Through that journey I have made many friends and acquaintances. It also connected me with two heroes of mine, Syd Mead and Hideo Kojima. I never expected any of it when I bought a camera, or even when I started just taking pictures on my phone. When I think back, it is still surreal.
What do you hope people will take away from these images?
My hope is that it will remind people of their memories of Tokyo. For those who haven’t been, I hope it will inspire them to visit one day. For those who cannot visit, I hope the images in TO:KY:OO will transport them there, offering them a glimpse of the city at night.