NOBUYOSHI ARAKI

Intimate photography: Tokyo, nostalgia and sex

by C.B. Liddell

Usually reviews of Nobuyoshi Araki’s work start by pointing out the contradictions “monster,” “genius,” “pornographer,” “artist,” etc. The greatest negative routinely cited is his attitude toward women, photographed smeared with paint or bound in bondage ropes, images that reflect attitudes rooted in Edo’s ancient past or Tokyo’s modern sexual underworld.

But this kind of moralistic approach doesn’t quite fit a subject like Araki, who is more a force of nature, existing, in some Nietzschean space beyond good and evil, or at least “good and evil” as defined by middle-class Western journalists like Adrian Searle in The Guardian. In a review of the show “Nobuyoshi Araki: Self, Life, Death,” at London’s Barbican last year, Searle slyly hinted that Araki’s depictions of women placed him beyond the pale of some liberal leftwing acceptability, before trying to find some level on which he could be “redeemed.’

Araki’s present book and show, “Tokyo Jinsei,” covers much of the same ground as the Barbican show with a similar 40-year-plus range, although, typically, the “pornographic” element has been watered down for a Japanese audience.

While moral concerns are always going to surface among those keen to damn his work, they are less helpful for those wishing to develop a true understanding of his frantic photographic framing and capturing of Tokyo’s unique energy. With such a variety of subject matter, formal concepts are also useless. This leaves just one device that is the key to all Araki’s art — Araki himself. Looking at the people in the photographs — and even the scenery — we see the chemistry of their reaction to the cheerful, relentless, comical ball of energy that is Araki.

Why are you calling this book and exhibition “Tokyo Jinsei”?

I was born and bred in Tokyo. Almost my whole life has been lived here. Tokyo is my mother. It is my womb. I still have a kind of lingering attachment.

This implies a kind of childishness, like you haven’t grown up yet.

Yes, just by looking at me you can understand that!

My first impression was that you looked like someone who worked in a circus. I think your appearance is very important for taking photographs — you can be very intrusive and maybe even rude with the camera, but people will forgive you because your appearance makes them smile.

But it’s not calculated. This is just my natural style. Although when I take photographs, I try to dress to fit the occasion. It is very important to suit the object or the person. For example, when I photograph in Shinjuku, I wear jeans, a T-shirt and sports shoes; but when I go to Ginza, I usually wear a suit. I change my costume depending on where I’m taking pictures. If the person I’m photographing is naked, then I, too, will be naked — a naked photographer!

How does it help to make such a picture better if you too are naked?

Why are you even asking!? When two people make love, both people have to be naked. This is exactly the same thing.

In other words, taking a picture of a naked woman is the same as making love?

Yes, “naked love,” that sounds good, doesn’t it? “Naked love” — yes, I like that.

Tokyo is not the most beautiful city in the world. Why do you focus on it?

Photographing a city that is not my own is bothersome. To be honest, I don’t have any interest in any city besides Tokyo. The most important thing for me is to take pictures of the people I love the most and the city I love the most, and that’s Tokyo. Before, I tried taking pictures in Paris and New York, but actually I’m not interested in other cities because I love Tokyo. I went to the Barbican in London last year for an exhibition, but even if I go to London or Paris, I don’t take pictures of Paris or London. I can only take a picture of something in Paris or London, I can’t take a picture of Paris or London.

By focusing on Tokyo over 44 years, your book and exhibition reflect Tokyo’s constantly changing fashions, styles, architecture, and even the body language of the people. Isn’t the effect of all this simply to create a great nostalgia trip?

In a way, I guess so. People say photography should try to avoid being nostalgic, but I simply say photographs are nostalgic. The meaning of nostalgia for me is not sad memories or something that has disappeared; not just memories. For me nostalgia is like the warmth in a mother’s belly.

That’s like staying close to the womb, both in space or time. You stay in the same place, Tokyo, and by embracing the nostalgia of photographs you attempt to stay in the same temporal space.

If you say that, it sounds too concrete. It includes that, but not so concretely. I would use the term “transmigration” or the “wheel of life” to describe it.

It’s very interesting that you have such nostalgia and attachment to place in Tokyo, because Tokyo has as much permanence as a Bedouin encampment. Every few years everything is knocked down and rebuilt, like Roppongi Hills. Your attitude is like someone clinging onto a rock during a storm at sea.

But that’s what Tokyo is. The movement and change are what makes it. If it didn’t change it wouldn’t be any good at all. It means the city is alive. Anyway, I feel it’s not changing at all. It’s simply moving! This is what makes Tokyo very attractive. This is why I can’t leave it.

Does that create problems for you as a photographer? The old Tokyo with its ramshackle appearance seems easier to take interesting photographs of than the new glass and concrete. If it becomes too modern, does it become more difficult to photograph?

There’s nothing that is difficult for me to photograph! Everything is attractive. For example women, if they are beautiful, of course that’s attractive, but, even if they are ugly, they are attractive for me.

A good example is the picture of Minori Miyata in the exhibition, the beautiful tanka poet who later died from breast cancer. She had an ugly scar where her left breast had been. That somehow made the image all the more beautiful.

When I took this picture, I wasn’t trying to make her look beautiful. It wasn’t to solve any problem. There is no conclusion. It’s completely open. It doesn’t go anywhere.

It’s very intimate in a way that a lot of sexual pictures aren’t. Why did she ask you or allow you to take the picture?

Because she loved me, because I am the greatest photographer in Japan! What’s important in my work is always the relationship between me and the object — it’s a kind of love story. I don’t concern myself with why a relationship starts or where it goes. The most important thing is just the relationship between the two of us at that moment. This world becomes our world.

In the case of this picture of Minori Miyata, if you had pushed the button one or two seconds later, would it have been a very different photograph?

Yes, because the time when a picture is taken is like an emotion, it’s like a sexual encounter. It’s like a f**k! So, timing is very important.

When you take a picture, what is it that makes you push the button?

It must be kami (god). What makes a photographer take a picture? What makes an artist paint a picture? It can’t really be explained. It’s a kind of instinct or impulse.

But you must take thousands of pictures that you simply discard.

If you consider that I have published 357 books of photos, I almost don’t throw any pictures away. Soon I will be producing a book of my best photos, but every photo is great and wonderful, so I can’t throw any away. Taking pictures is a lot like sexual foreplay. Even though sex ends in an orgasm, it is not just a f**k. A lot of my pictures are foreplay but the best ones are orgasms.