Nude girls in complicated rope tricks, nude girls in love hotels - there are some critics who feel that Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki has blurred the line between pornography and art. As Araki tells his models, "I'm going to caress you with my lens." Stephen Tan reviews.


Trying to get a model to relax during a shoot, noted Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki tells her: "Could you hold this vase? Just think of it as a penis." To which the plucky woman replies: "So small?" While Japan's sex industry needs no introduction, not many people get the chance to witness one of Japan's top erotic photographers at work.

But it was at the Akt-Tokyo exhibitions in Europe during the first half of the '90s, featuring bondage and erotic pictures, that Araki (born May 25, 1940 in Tokyo) became a controversial figure worldwide. As Araki narrates, some female guards at the museum where his exhibition was being held even went on strike, so turned off were they by his pictures.

Perhaps there might be an unconscious need for ultimate control over women, suggested photographer Richard Kern in Arakimentari, the 2004 documentary by Travis Klose. While Araki appears animated during his shoots, he only had this to say: "Sexually and unconsciously I find myself drawn to it. I guess I just loved it."

"The origin of the visual arts lie in the vagina," Araki continues. As Nan Goldin wrote in Art Forum, Araki's work is coloured by love, and meant as homage - to women and to beauty and to his own desires. Araki's book on his honeymoon, Sentimental Journey, and Winter Journey, which focuses on the death of his wife, Yoko (due to cancer in 1990), are among his fans' favourites. Araki says: "Whether physically or mentally, women are superior to men. We learn from them somehow... There is always the element of mother. If you ask me why, it's because we all came from women."

Araki: The police once came to an exhibition of mine, but by chance I wasn't there, which was kind of lucky because I would have been arrested on the spot. The gallery people were taken away. This was the "Photomania Diary" show, in April 1992. We had set up a huge light box with about 1,500 35-mm. slides, so they were really small; eight of them showed sexual organs. The cops looked at every single one with a magnifying glass."

Nan Goldin: Are the "Obscenities" and "Bokuju-kitan" series a reaction to that?

Araki: Yes. During the inquiry they gave me this simple rule that no photograph could show a sexual organ. So I had the idea of scratching the genitalia in the photographs to hide and erase them. In part, I had to teach people that genitalia are not obscene in themselves; it's the act of hiding them that's obscene.
- Nan Goldin interviews Araki in Art Forum.

Being noted for his bondage and erotic pictures, a good part of Klose's 85-minute documentary features Araki with his nudes. In one of the shoots, he saw the project as turning housewives into pornstars - helping to give vent to some hidden desires of a middle-aged housewife who decides to pose nude for the photographer (even her husband was not aware of what his wife was up to at that moment). Then there is another woman who wants to capture in pictures her nude, sensuous beauty before everything fades away.


Unlike the stereotypical image of a nude model being nothing but a bimbo, model Komari, who has to endure not only being tied up but hung upside down during a shoot, is articulate and philosophical about Araki's art. She says: "Araki's photography embodies the classic woodblock prints of Utamoto or Hokusai. It's like updated Shunga or neo-Shunga, he is remaking this ancient artform. Japan is currently rediscovering sexuality with 'wet' emotions. Araki expresses what people fantasise about but can't actually do."

While there is enough nudity in this documentary to rival any softporn movie, the act of watching the photographer at work in a way demystifies the erotic elements. If the result is an alluring print, the process is nothing but hard work. Viewers see Araki sweating away behind one of his many cameras (he has at least five cameras, if not more, at a shoot), he is helped by a team of staff who manages the lights, and, of course, he has not only to put the model at ease but to draw her out - no easy task given that the model might be hung upside down with her genitalia on full display. And yes, Araki smoothes down or ruffles up the pubic hair to achieve a desired effect.

So does the prolific photographer, who has more than 300 books, end up in bed with his models? Araki laughs and says: "If I like her, we can go to a love hotel."

Note: The Arakimentari DVD (Geneon) is banned in $ingapore.

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June 5, 2007

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