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775: The M-List
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769: íTwas the Night Before Christmas in Japan
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752: Sex and This City
751: Letís Shogi
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By Rick Seireeni

Araki in Focus

Beyond his erotic images, the photographer has helped Japan see itself

Rick Seireeni is a former art director of Rolling Stone and a partner in The Brand Architect Group, a leading provider of brand strategy and retail design

In a review of the Nobuyoshi
Araki documentary Arakimentari (‘‘Eiga,’’
March 11), Metropolis was understandably critical of the perceived sexual exploitation of the artist’s female subjects. Abuse of women is a serious problem throughout the world, and several coworkers in my office share that opinion about Araki—specifically, that he glamorizes a sex industry that takes advantage of women. However, there is considerably more to the story than a single, obsessive subject in many of his photographs. As a follower of Araki’s career and having met him on several occasions, I think his gift has been to open doors in a traditionally reserved and circumspect society.

Araki is, in many respects, the Andy Warhol of Japan. Just as Warhol explored taboo subjects like homosexuality and drug use in the ’70s, Araki’s prolific outpouring of books and monographs has shed light on a number of off-limit subjects here.
For instance, when I started coming to Japan for business in the early ’80s, I was introduced to an extremely talented graphic designer who worked for Comme des Garcons, among other clients. A few years later, I heard that he had quietly passed away. It took persistent questioning to find out that the cause of his death was lung cancer. As in the case of the emperor’s death, cancer had been a taboo subject here—something like dying of syphilis in the early 1900s. But after Araki published photos documenting the decline and death of his spouse from cancer, the subject began to be spoken of openly.

Araki has also produced thousands of photos depicting Tokyo’s urban landscape. The light quality, the formal upright cropping, and the utter stillness of his compositions force the viewer—whether gaijin or edoko—to acknowledge a certain beauty in the complex and often clashing textures of this city. His style has both influenced and been influenced by the world’s leading landscape photographers. In this respect, he is part of a larger international community of artists who record the stark realities of modern urban environments. In a country where architectural heritage evaporates overnight into yet another Pachinko Palace, Araki’s wordless commentary gives pause for thought. “Where is this country’s urban experience heading? Will it all become one big Roppongi Hills, or will the life-rich warrens of little homes and shops somehow survive?”

Araki has turned his still-life camera on traditional subjects as well. Floral arrangement, food and everyday objects have been his frequent subjects. In one inventive exploration, Araki photographed the aftermath of a meal. Instead of recording the meticulously prepared and presented dish, which is the Japanese norm, he showed just the remains. It’s a study in creation and destruction. Devi, the Hindu goddess of birth and death, would approve.

So, that leaves his favorite subject, and there’s no getting around the fact that Araki loves to shoot women—the more naked and erotic, the better.

However, the subject that Araki lays bare in these photographs is that people—women included—are sexual beings. He documents that aspect of our nature, prurient or otherwise. I think this is why he feels that his female subjects don’t need to be perfect pin-ups—despite the Barbie Doll idealism of the Western press. His models are naked in more ways than one. You tend to see them as individuals, with flaws, with a personality. And sure, like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus and Helmut Newton, Araki loves the underworld of the brothel and the peep show.

The officially unacknowledged industry of hostess bars employs thousands of women, and Araki seems to know all of them. They’re his friends. He’s considered an insider. He’s safe. He’s one of them. Despite the personal circumstances that brought them to this life, some of the women take a pragmatic professional pride in what they do and are eager to have Araki document the fact. This explains why he has no end of willing subjects for his books—books that wind up in the best bookstores in the world, to the utter frustration of those who would prefer the subject to remain off-limits and out of sight.

Personally, I would like to see a frank discussion of the global sex industry, because it’s not just a Japanese phenomenon. It exists in every country. How is unrestrained materialism among under-educated, easily impressionable youth fueling the market for “entertainers,” and how are men contributing to demand?

Whether it’s denial of Japan’s prolific sex world or embarrassment at discussing cancer or the vanishing architectural record in Japanese cities, Araki has broken down doors and in the process, generated an enormous following. He has inspired artists around the world, including Japanese ex-model Hiromix and American realist Nan Goldin, to name just two. As for his obsession with naked females, well, either you’re prudish about such things or you’re not. The fact is that Araki didn’t create this world. He reveals it. And, yes, maybe he glorifies it, which is the unfortunate side effect of having an open society.

And this is the point really. Nobuyoshi Araki is persistent at opening a dialogue on unwanted subjects.

Would you like to comment on this article? Send a letter to the editor at letters@metropolis.co.jp.