Japan’s dark fantasies thrust back in the light

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

In 1995, the multitalented Kyoichi Tsuzuki created a gorgeous, encyclopaedic book that visually documented the messy apartments of creative friends and acquaintances. The photography was beautiful, though Tsuzuki did not at the time consider himself a photographer, or have aspirations to be called an artist.

Using the format of a typology, and thus focusing on what is photographed, rather than on the personal vision of the photographer, one of the aims of the “Tokyo Style” series was to counter the stereotype of Japanese people being fastidiously tidy and all living in Zen-inspired minimalist homes. Tsuzuki followed this rigorous study of vernacular living spaces with the publication of “Roadside Japan,” an inventory of the weird and whacky miscellany that can be found if you are on the lookout for the crass rather than the “classy.”

The material for “Erotopia Japan,” currently showing at the Atsuko Barouh venue in Shibuya, comes partly out of this gonzo road-trip project.

The gallery is plastered floor to ceiling with unframed prints showing all kinds of erotica. One wall is dedicated to the fantastical spaces of love-hotel bedrooms. Guests are invited to imagine that they are having sex in a suite at the Akasaka Palace or a Chinese opium den. By contrast, on the opposite wall are photos of hyper-mundane settings that any Japanese growing up in the Showa Era (1926-1989) will be familiar with: dreary offices, train carriages and kitchens with the ubiquitous beige cabinets. Unlike the love hotels, which are ostensibly used for intercourse, these imekura, a contraction of the katana of “image” and “club,” are not places to engage in penetrative sex, the main service on offer being “hand relief” from a sex worker.

In the center of the room, against a backdrop of photos of various sex museum dioramas — think Marquis de Sade meets 1960s sci-fi — there are a few 3-D exhibits. Rope-bound female figures posed on burning rocks scream in agony, and another female figure is strapped to a table with a suction tube attached to her nether regions. Japan’s “Masters of Sex” becomes a subgenre that is also explored, featuring the escapades of characters such as Old Man Yasuda, who retired from the adult-video business at age 90.

Tsuzuki provides two overarching narratives for his social anthropology of perversion. One is nostalgia for times of greater freedom of speech and sexual licence. The other, as with “Tokyo Style,” is to challenge what he considers to be Japan’s image abroad. It is unfortunate that Tsuzuki may think he’s defending disappearing subcultures, as advocating a man’s right to objectify women, and “othering” Japan as sexually deviant are two dominant narratives that are still very much in rude health.

“Erotopia Japan” at Atsuko Barouh, Arts Drink Talk Gallery in Shibuya Ward, runs until July 31; Wed.-Sat. 2 p.m.-9 p.m., Sun. and Mon. 11 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000 (Closed Tue.). l-amusee.com/atsukobarouh/schedule/#en