3/17/20

&: Aesthetic revulsion

Araki Nobuyoshi 荒木経惟 was born not too far from where I’m writing this, and he lived closer still to my last Tokyo hometown of Ryusen. This is just trivia. I’m not going to make the case that his upbringing in East Tokyo was a formative experience. Maybe it was. I don’t know.

His father made geta. He lived, supposedly, near Joyful Minowa shotengai, across from Jokan-ji 浄閑寺, a temple that's home to the remains of thousands of dead from the slums of Tokyo, women and girls from Yoshiwara, and victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake. If you’ve never visited, you might expect something spookier than what it is: a fairly dull temple that looks a lot like every other temple in Tokyo. (It’s not close to as spooky as the nearby Enmei-ji 延命寺, with its Kubikiri Jizo, watching over what used to be Kozukahara 小塚原, an execution ground and mass grave.) The house and the shop—Ninbenya にんべんや—his father owned was long ago demolished. It was turned into a parking lot, but if I’m looking at the right address, the lot was swallowed up for the fresh development that’s gone up on the block. The last corrugated tin buildings have been taken down. (Araki fans used to be able to make a pilgrimage to Araki’s former residence in Setagaya, which was a fairly nondescript apartment block that was featured in several photo books, but even that has been taken down.)

Higuchi Ichiyo has a shrine nearby, and I used to see her ghostly bust every night, lit up by the spotlights in the temple yard. She has a museum on the border of Ryusen and Senzoku, too. There are currently no memorials to Araki having lived and worked in the area.

Araki paid tribute to the author, too, and maybe to the area, in a 1982 photobook called Midori 美登利, named after a character in Higuchi Ichiyo’s Takekurabe たけくらべ (translated by Edward Seidensticker as Growing Up) (and also the name of a kissaten in Yoshiwara, although that’s probably coincidence), set on the edge of Yoshiwara at the turn of the last century. Takekurabe is the story of a local girl that goes to work in the pleasure quarter.

The soaplands of the akasen 赤線 that replaced the streets of courtesans in cages look positively decrepit now, but they looked seedy even in Araki’s pictures, taken in the High Showa. He shoots his model—Midori—clothed, but the city is naked. He captures not only the rows of bath house brothels, but the dilapidated concrete tower blocks and rundown playgrounds that make up the cityscape of that part of East Tokyo.

Most of Araki’s photography, though, and the material he built his name on, involves nude women, often bound. With those pictures, he was more willing than photographers doing similar work to approach pure pornography. And by “pure pornography,” I don’t mean anything but that he was willing to ditch fashion and art photography conventions, making pictures that could and did actually get printed in men’s magazines.

Katrin Burtschell has another opinion—it wasn't pornography at all:
What makes Araki a pornographer? The fact that he published his photos in relevant pornographic magazines and as such seemingly pursues his goal to excite and satisfy the consumer through his pictures? Araki does not care about the insinuation, since he does not understand what would be bad about the fact that his pictures excite the viewer. He would feel it were completely normal if that were not the case. Araki may occasionally be accused of violating laws again obscenity, but he is only accused of being a pornographer in the West. Araki explains the phenomenon through the circumstance that there is no tradition of pornography in Japan (This is from Nobuyoshi Araki und Henry Miller - eine japanisch-amerikanische Analogie. Translation by Pietro Stäheli.)
Was macht Araki zum Pornographen? Die Tatsache, dass er in Japan seine Fotos in einschlägigen pornographischen Heften veröffentlicht und er somit anscheinend das Ziel verfolgt, den Konsumenten durch seine Bilder zu erregen und zu befriedigen? Araki ist eine solche Unterstellung völlig gleichgültig, denn er weiß nicht, was das Schlimme daran sein sollte, dass seine Bilder den Betrachter erregen. Er wurde es als normal empfinden, wenn dem nicht so ware. Zwar wird Araki in Japan gelegentlich beschuldigt, gegen die Obszönität Gesetze zu verstoßen, der Vorwurf der Pornographie wird gegen ihn aber nicht erhoben, dieser trifft ihn bezeichnenderweise nur im Western. Araki erklärt dieses Phänomen selber mit der Tatsache, dass es in Japan keine Tradition der Pornographie gibt.
Well, now, how true is that? There was shunga 春画, of course, and then erotic photography, as soon as anyone had a camera. So, there's a dissenting opinion, but let's not get bogged down.

Araki was so celebrated within the adult industry that he was invited in 1981 to produce his own pink film for Nikkatsu. That was High School Girl Fake Diary 女高生偽日記



Pink films ピンク映画 are pretty much like any softcore porn, but with slightly more plot and slightly less sex. As the studio system collapsed, pink films were an easy way to drive profit. Pink films are pretty much dead now. VCRs and then DVD players helped kill them off. The pink films needed pink theaters. There are still a few in Tokyo, but it’s clear the age of the pink has ended. The Okura, not too far away in Ueno, renovated a couple years back, trying to attract a different crowd, but it doesn’t seem to have worked. Cross-dressing men in short skirts queing outside get looks from the Chinese tourists on their way to photograph the lotus in Shinobazu Pond. Pink theaters were always a place to cruise, and the Okura sits right beside the section of the park that has long been a hot bed for public sex (might be a chicken and egg situation, there—did the theater come first or the cruising?). It won’t be long before someone replaces the Okura with an APA Hotel.

Here is Abé Mark Nornes account of a visit to the Okura:
On my visit a boyish, young man entered next to the screen, pausing for his eyes to adjust while the entire theater checked him out. He sat to my left and one row forward, leaving the end seat open. An oldster with an enormous beard sat down in no time and the young man shifted one more seat in. Rejected, the beard got up and returned to the back wall. After a few minutes another man made an attempt, and this time there was no rebuff. Before long, his head dropped to the young man’s lap. The fellow two seats down from me sat forward and peered over the seat backs for a better view. On this afternoon I was surrounded by no less than five simultaneous blowjobs, two hand jobs, a couple masturbators, and one particularly loud snorer.
It gives you a feeling for how most people would have experienced Araki's film.

High School Girl Fake Diary opens with Araki himself, looking as if he's appeared between the viewer's legs with a Minolta rangefinder, cooing, "That's right... Beautiful..."



Pink films have become a popular topic for academics in Japan and the West, and maybe it's because it's more respectable than writing about actual pornography, but it's also because so many brainy perverts and future avant stars took part in making them. That means there's lots of writing on, like, left filmmakers dabbling in erotica, Wakamatsu Koji 若松孝二 and Violated Angels 犯された白衣, feminist themes in sukeban films, and oddities like softcore porn parodies of Ozu films. Almost none of it is worth reading, and not because these are beat-off films, but because they tend to miss that point (Andrew Grossman's essay is one of the few exceptions, and the rest are in the same collection, Pink Book [as I juggled the order of things here, I put the details about that book further along]). Most writing starts with peeling the film in question off from the pack, laying out how the director was affiliated with such-and-such radical leftist group or went on to make such-and-such film that won the Golden Bear in 1980something. Nobuyoshi Araki's attempt at a pink film is fairly unspectacular, and don't believe anybody that tries to tell you otherwise.



Maybe there's something to say about the repeating images of the white rabbit (seen above crossing the street and then posed on the concrete stairs) and the little girl, who is seen later in the film stepping over a hose, lighting fireworks, and going into a funeral home. I don't know. Maybe there is. I'm not going to say anything about that.



The film is the story of a girl named Rika (Arai Rika 荒井理花), scouted on the street by a photographer that uses her as a model for progressively more debased shoots. The plot is thin and the sex scenes tenuously connected to it are not very interesting, with the exception of one involving two of Rika's friends, told in the form of a flashback. It's the least Araki-ish scene in the film, looking more like a lost clip from one of the girl boss sukeban movies, with the girls hooking up with their juvenile delinquent boyfriends in a Jeep, lighting cigarettes, riding faces, and projecting teenaged insouciance. Some of the scenes, though, look like they were outtakes from an Araki shoot (and he produced a book to go along with it), like the one of Rika on a love hotel bed, slowly rotating to face the camera, opening her legs wide as she reclines...



The Araki scenes seem slightly strange when you've seen the film through once and you know the conceit is that this is all taking place in Rika's mind. It’s not that it’s inconceivable for a young woman to fantasize about being photographed, but the groping in the jazz bar just seems too adult, and the black American serviceman ravishing a Japanese woman is straight out of postwar middle-aged male neuroses.

Pink films always leave me cold. In the dozen or so 1970s sukeban films I’ve seen, which have four or five sex scenes each, the only one that ever had an effect on me was a girl-on-girl scene involving Kano Yuko 叶優子 seducing Saburi Seiko 佐分利聖子; it’s not an exaggeration to say that most 1970s sukeban and general exploitation film sex scenes involve rape and sadism. That’s also my problem with some of the scenes in Araki’s pink film, although it’s relies far less on male sadism (and even features a man having a pair of spiked heels up his ass in a shoe torture scene). Andrew Grossman describes the “aesthetic revulsion” to sadism (but it could be other aspects inspiring that revulsion—I'm not going to name them) “othering” “Japanese tastes” and adding a “secondary aura or layer of avant-gardism” ("All Jargon and No Authenticity?—A Phenomenological Inquiry into Pink Film," which is from the Pink Book: The Japanese Eroduction and its Contents, edited by Abé Mark Nornes, whose introduction to pink films and pink theaters is quoted above).



I’m not convinced I have any aesthetic revulsion to sadism. You can find my odes to Sugimoto Miki 杉本美樹 (that's her in the still above) in the sukeban movies, like Girl Boss Revenge 女番長, or her Noriko of the Cross act in the electric shock scene in Terrifying Girls' High School: Lynch Law Classroom 恐怖女子高校 暴行リンチ教室. Nobody suffers like Sugimoto Miki, and it’s always filmed beautifully, but, I take only aesthetic pleasure in it, and there are diminishing returns after watching the same scene restaged countless times.

I said Araki’s film is less egregious, and probably a bit sexier than most of what I’ve seen from the genre, so why doesn’t it work? I couldn’t tell you. It might be fair to take some Dworkin material here, since she published Pornography in the same year this film was released, and there’s not many better places to apply theories about unchecked male power and fragile masculinity than in Showa Japan, but I want to use it only to say that the firmly gendered Araki gaze overpowers. And Grossman says: “we become beholden to other people’s fantasies”:
...and whatever “liberation” ensues is contingent upon alien, manufactured images coinciding with our own secret pleasures from time to time. In these neurotic, magical coincidences, we believe our orgasms have achieved some universal significance—after all, how remarkable it is that a filmmaker and a dispersed audience have harbored the same sexual fantasy! Obviously, this “universalism” is illusory... Our neuroses swallow us, as our erections unwittingly respond to and concur with economies and ideologies we know are pathological, prearranged, and coerced.

Araki getting in the head of a high school girls reminds me of his comments when selecting Hiromix’s collection—"Seventeen Girl Days—for the Canon New Cosmos of Photography contest:
Girls tend to hold nothing back, and don’t think too much. Without thinking too much, they let their feelings rule their actions. Her feelings that she wants to create and try anything, as well as her flexibility are apparent. Guys think too much. I think teens are going to be interesting. (Translation from Canon's New Cosmos of Photography official website. It serves my purposes, and this particular translation of the line is frequently cited, but it seems to differ somewhat from what he actually said.)
Araki’s pictures are probably more interesting to look at now than Hiromix’s early work. It's impossible to look at them in the present without thinking of Instagram selfies two decades early—like Instagram-ish in their banality and lightheartedness (and also these look like they use an Instagram X-Pro1 filter, mimicking a camera that offers settings to mimic the high ISO film that HIROMIX shot on) (and what were purikura and tradeable photo books but proto-Instagram?)

If you want to go back to talking about gaze, Gabriella Lukács talks about Hiromix attempting to "...carve out autonomous spaces where young women like her felt they could belong to themselves" (this is from: Invisibility by Design: Women and Labor in Japan's Digital Economy). I don't know how true that was, at least after a certain point, when she turned to more clearly commercial photography.

In the decades that have gone by since Araki’s pink film, pornography has come to more closely resemble his critically-celebrated art photography and his Polaroids than his attempt at an erotic film (so mediated and aestheticized that it feels silly now). And if it doesn’t, it looks a lot like the portfolio Hiromix submitted for the Canon prize. (Or like the picture Araki took of Hiromix, nude on Polaroid? Not really. The picture was taken shortly after her Canon prize win. She looks very unlike an Araki girl, far less self-assured, not much going on behind those eyes except clear discomfort! The prints from her bra are still under her tits. She looks glum. Maybe this is the right place to note that Araki was by some accounts a piece of shit.) VCRs killed pink films, but it was cellphones that killed porn (and also art photography). Post-gonzo porn, self-shot images, cam girls, Instagram girls, and e-girls are dominant. As Araki said: "teens are going to be interesting." Everyone is now beating off to subReddits devoted to young men and women documenting their private fantasies, and they spend the rest of their time fantasizing about e-girls' Only Fans being leaked.



And against my claim that cellphones killed art photography, I come around to Anrakuji Emi’s 安楽寺えみ, who I only know because I stumbled across a show of her work at a gallery in Shinjuku a year or so ago. (The writing here is weaker because I have no idea what I'm saying, but I feel like folding in her work.) And maybe it’s interesting how far you have to go to still sorta be doing what Araki and Hiromix are doing (which is what? Vary degrees of erotic narcissism? Hiromix and Araki are very different, of course...), but also not be mistaken for a pornographer or a written off as a mere onnanoko shashinka 女の子写真家.

The title of Anrakuji Emi’s 安楽寺えみ 1800 millimètre series is a reference to Masaoka Shiki 正岡子規, who wrote Byosho Rokushaku 病牀六尺 (six 尺 is about 1800 millimeters or just under six feet) shortly before dying of tuberculosis, confined to bed. Anrakuji Emi was herself confined to bed through most of her twenties, suffering from a brain tumor that left her blind in one eye. These are “conceptual self-portraits,” just like Araki and Hiromix’s pictures, but feel like the outside world has been blown up. While Hiromix and Araki are depicting the world, and seem to be swimming connected to the fleshy, Anrakuji Emi feels sealed up inside, like a roll of film clicked into a camera, unspooled to soak up any light that comes for an instant through the aperture. The tyranny of erotic drives means it's impossible to not admire the curve of her hips, but there's also something of the mad ascetic about her, in one picture chopping off her pubic hair with giant scissors not for a lover but because it has grown so long it's become inconvenient, preserving her long hair not out of vanity but because there's no point in cutting it.



Anrakuji Emi feels in some ways like an attempt to reclaim Araki's midcentury postporn bondage Polaroids, and the IPY series does this the most explicitly. It's interesting to me that she never works with other models—always herself! Locked away, still, years after going back out into the world. This is a joke in poor taste, but it's half-serious: I wonder what the result would be if Caribbeancom カリビアンコム gave Anrakuji Emi the budget to make a modern AV film in the tradition of Araki's pink film. I'm picturing her cooing to herself in the mirror, "That's right... Beautiful... Try to look more withered..."