Winding up in bondage

by Giovanni Fazio

Consider, for a moment, tattoos. Removable and temporary tattoos are gaining in popularity. But there goes the whole cachet of tattoos, really. The very reason they’re worth having is, in fact, the ordeal you go through to get them and the finality of the decision. Therein lies the line that separates the inked from everyone else.

Boxing, mountain climbing, weight lifting, straight teeth, ballet, zazen, piercings, rugby — the list goes on and on of things you can’t enjoy without a little risk and/or pain. And yet when it comes to sex, mention risk or pain and most people will run for the exits.

There is a not-so-small group of people, though, who consider the torment of being bound and suspended in ropes an exquisite experience. This is not surprising: cultures all over the world have long histories of body crisis rituals, whether voodoo possession in Haiti, the Apache sun dances, or the trance-state dancing of the Guedra in Morocco. In one sense, bondage has become a sexualized replacement of these lost, archaic rituals.

But fortunately for our rope-lovers, there’s another group of people equally keen on tying them up. In Japan, the people who are really, really good at this are known as bakushi (restraint masters) or nawashi (rope masters), and they are the subject of director Ryuichi Hiroki’s revealing documentary entitled simply “Bakushi.”

Shooting in a casual, intimate style, Hiroki focuses on three professional rope artists and their models, in a fascinating blend of the outre and the ordinary. For the initiated, “Bakushi” is an intriguing look at some acknowledged masters of tying technique; for those unfamiliar with the world of Japanese kinbaku (bondage), the documentary should destroy certain preconceptions.

Hiroki is a prolific director, with a career spanning three decades, but this is his first documentary. (His 2003 film “Vibrator” won a rare five stars from The Japan Times’ Mark Schilling.) His early career in the ’80s included a spell making pinku eiga (soft-porn movies) — under a pseudonym — which included some sadomasochistic fare.

Over coffee in a cramped Shinjuku office, Hiroki explained what first attracted him to kinbaku. “Basically, I was interested in (Nobuyoshi) Araki’s photos,” the 54-year-old director said. “I thought the eroticism of the person tied up, which Araki was able to capture, was incredible. That’s what got me interested in S&M.” Regarding “Bakushi,” Hiroki recalls how “on my ‘pink’ movies, the rope expert would come to the set and silently go about his work. They’d meet a girl, say ‘hajimemashite,’ and just break out the rope.

“I’d watch these guys and think, wow, they’re in a different world from me. I’d wonder what kind of people they were. Where did they come from? That’s what inspired the film.”

Hiroki looks at three top-level bakushi: Haruki Yukimura, Chimuo Nureki and Go Arisue. Nureki has been the go-to rope artist for adult videos for a generation or two. He’s still tying for a living at age 78, a self-described “shibari (bondage) robot” who claims to have bound at least 5,000 women. Yukimura turns 60 this year, wields a more elegant style, and is at about 3,000 models served. Arisue can’t be far behind, in age or numbers. The film follows all three men, discussing their passion to the camera, and engaging in one-on-one sessions with their models: Sumire, Taeko Uzuki, Kei Sugiyama and Hiromi Saotome.

Hiroki says it was a deliberate choice to shoot private bondage sessions instead of public shows. “I wanted to capture the essence of the relationship between a bakushi and his model. People may wonder, is tying up someone ‘sex’? Do they actually do it in private, bakushi and models? I’m not as interested in that, as just in examining the intimacy between them.

“I’m not attempting to ‘explain’ S&M or to orient a person who’s viewing it for the first time. I just wanted to reveal that there are people like this. I don’t have any particular aim, just that the viewer should feel something.”

“Bakushi” contains three lengthy kinbaku scenes amid the chat, and the viewer will definitely feel something here, be it shock, arousal or bemusement. Yukimura, panting in a deliberately embarrassing way (for the model), deftly winds his hemp ropes around the curvy Sumire, and as the ropes get tighter and the positions more stressful, she starts to show clear signs of losing it. And yet, she never does: That is the skill of nawashi, to take a partner to the brink of endurance — and release — but not over.

The great bakushi Akechi Denki — who passed away last year — once defined shibari (in an interview on the Web site of Tokyo Bound) as “communication between two people using the medium of rope.” Yukimura echoes this sentiment in the film, saying how “shibari is communication . . . Once I begin tying, I’m in deep concentration on the changes in expression of their faces or bodies.” Arisue says the relationship between “bakushi and model” is like that between doctor and patient, a “therapist.”

Hiroki includes all this in the film without commentary, but when interviewed, he admits to thinking that his subjects are being a bit coy. “OK, so he ties the girl up, he learns a few things about her, he’s a therapist. But it’s not just that! What about the ero (sex)? They’re just making it seem too clean. Sure there’s part of him that’s a therapist, but there’s also part that’s not.”

Listening to the bakushi talk, it’s clear that the kinbaku sessions, while on one level clearly domination and submission, are also a mutual fulfillment of needs. The bakushi need to tie; all three men describe being turned on from an early age by pictures of women bound in rope, a primal reaction before they were even old enough to understand it. It’s also clearly an erotic impulse. Arisue muses, “I think it’s not f**king, but it is sex.” Nureki’s model Sugiyama describes the feeling of having her breasts constricted by rope as “like I don’t need to f**k for a week.”

Overall, though, the women’s feelings are much more obscure than those of the men. What does the model get from submitting to the rope? The women in the film can barely describe it: “Hard to explain,” is the mantra. Saotome describes it as “all blank, in my head. It’s like being in a dream.” Sumire explains how “being unable to move is scary. But I want to become even more unable to move.” A friend who worked in an S&M club, Jyuri (her club name), once described it better by saying “you find yourself wanting it, but then it’s frightening when you get it. But it’s the fear, the surrendering to your partner, that’s a turn-on. You need to be able to trust your partner to enjoy that fear, though.”

It’s clear from the film that darker psychological urges are being serviced. Uzuki, while laughing and crying simultaneously after her session of suspension and candle wax torment, mentions how she grew up abused.

Sumire, when asked why she cries after the kinbaku session, turns pensive. Asked if she could be remembering something, she says “yeah, maybe” and turns away, with the saddest look in the world on her face.

Hiroki admits that even after making the film, he’s not sure what drives these women. But, he adds, “when they’re all tied up, unable to move, that feeling they get of release, that I can really understand. Even if it’s not kinbaku, everybody gets that feeling sometimes.”

As a director, though, I suspect he’s an S (sadist). “Yes,” he admits, “I am an S-type. People are always saying I’m really nasty on set. But that’s because I’m not thinking of anything except the movie. If people say afterward I’m a jerk, well, what can you do?”

Surprisingly — perhaps because it is taken for granted — “Bakushi” never addresses the question of why Japan has such a refined, developed culture of rope. The positions the models are bound in, the precision and intricacy of the ties, the way the rope is wound around their breasts, the fetishization of such elements as tatami rooms, kimono undergarments, hemp rope — this is all Japanese.

A tart-tongued viewer would no doubt say this is because Japan, like so many Asian nations, remains a male-dominant/female-repressive society, though this ignores the equally large number of female mistresses plying their trade on male submissives. A more nuanced view would note the Japanese tendency — from flower arrangement and tea ceremony to cosplay (dressing up) and manga — to ritualize and refine aesthetic behavior. Hiroki blames it on Japan’s himo-bunka (rope culture) of always binding and tying things, right down to the elaborate kimono obi and hakama strings.

Other commentators have noted how the nawashi are like the puppet-masters in bunraku, attempting to recede into the background and focus the attention on their art. Technique-wise, there are about 30 basic ties, and endless variations, with obscure origins, although the Edo-era police treatment of prisoners and the hojojutsu (the use of rope to take prisoners on a battlefield) are often cited as sources. Of course all nawashi will note that the well-being of a prisoner was not a high concern, whereas their techniques are all quite carefully constructed to avoid causing real injury.

Which brings us to one final concern that many people have, that kinbaku and S&M are too close to abuse or ijime (bullying) to be viewed aesthetically. “S&M has an image of being quite violent,” says Hiroki. “But the fact that it’s not comes from the relationships formed by S&M.” He goes on to describe his documentary as a “fantasy movie” because people in it are living out taboo desires in a controlled way. And how should the viewer perceive it?

“At one film festival in Europe, a writer asked me if ‘Bakushi’ was an art film or an erotic film,” said Hiroki. “I said, that’s for you to judge. Did it turn you on?”

“Bakushi” opens May 31 as the late show at Eurospace playing from 21:10 daily.