Below is a video exploring Araki’s contemporary practice as part of the video series ‘Contacts’ by Studio ARTE.
And as a bonus – below that is an interview between last month’s featured artist Nan Goldin and Nobuyoshi Araki!
Thanks to those who have submitted personal reflections, we will post these soon, and if you would like to comment, do so in comments section.
INTERVIEW: “Naked City: An Interview with Nobuyoshi Araki by Nan Goldin” (1995)
In 1992, the editors of the Japanese Magazine Deja-Vu invited me to Tokyo to meet Nobuyoshi Araki. I’d already heard about this wild man of Japanese photography and of his diaristic, intensely sexual work. Araki had procured a copy of my Ballad of Sexual Dependency, though it’s unavailable in Japan due to stringent censorship laws. I was astounded to find a man on the other side of the planet who was working the same obsessions I was.
We met for the first time at Dug, his regular jazz bar in Shinjuku, where he presented me with a bottle of I.W. Harper Bourbon (his favorite drink) with my name on it. Now it’s stored there next to Robert Frank’s. He showed me his Tokyo that night; we went to the back-alley bars on the Golden Gai, bars that used to be brothels, and that seat about six people each. It’s said that no one can really translate Araki because he speaks in puns and jokes.
Most Japanese women are too shy to translate his endless sexual allusions, so when the women in his entourage blushed furiously, I’d say “Is he talking about his penis again?”
Araki is a superstar in Japan. You realize this if you chart his wake through the streets of Shinjuku–young girls screeching, yakuza gangsters pointing, salary men stopping dead in their tracks. No photographer in the West has this kind of public visibility. The people of Tokyo love Araki–he’s one of their own, a homeboy, and he loves them back: his work has been one long poem to his city of birth and of choice.
Araki has published almost a hundred books. He once told me he’d spent years as a commercial photographer making other people famous, and now he’s an artist making himself famous. Though he’s long been celebrated in Japan, his work has only recently been exported to the West, through the word of mouth of Western artists like Robert Frank, Jim Jarmusch, and myself. In the past few years he’s had retrospectives in Graz, Austria, and in Frankfurt, and gallery shows in London, Cologne, and New York.
As Araki’s work starts to spread, I’m sure some will find it misogynist. I don’t, but perhaps that’s because I know the man: I’ve seen and known his generosity and curiosity about people and about life, his love for and appreciation of women, his naughty-boy attitude toward what is taboo or revered or overserious. Much of his recurring imagery–girls in school uniforms, girls in complicated rope tricks, girls in love hotels–is popular in Japanese pornography; but Araki crosses the line between pornography and art. His work is colored by love, and meant as homage–to women and to beauty and to his own desires. In Japan, where women’s roles are in a period of flux and the idea of female identity in the Western sense is a new one, many young women find Araki’s images liberating. To show their bodies, to flaunt their sexuality, feels to them like freedom; teenagers flock to Araki to be photographed by him.
Since I first met Araki we’ve collaborated occasionally, and recently we published a book together, Tokyo Love. I believe he has attained greatness a number of times–in Araki’s Tokyo Erotomania Diary, and in Sentimental na Tabi/Fuyu no Tabi (Sentimental journey/winter journey, 1991), which he calls his “purest” book, a deeply moving record of his honeymoon with his wife, Yoko, in 1971, and then of her death from cancer in 1990. Araki is a driven man. On the day of our interview he’d done a long shoot at a rented studio in the afternoon. As usual, he had an entourage in tow, and we all headed for a Spanish restaurant to talk over squid-ink pasta eaten with chopsticks. Then we returned to the studio, where Araki held a workshop on photographing the female nude. Some of Tokyo’s leading directors, designers, editors, and actors were in attendance, and he kept them going till midnight.
NAN GOLDIN: One of the things Westerners feel about Japan is that it’s a very conformist society–as in that Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out must get hammered down.” Are you a nail sticking out?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI: No, I’m not the nail that sticks out, probably because of my in-born vitue. I’m more like a naughty boy.
NG: In the text you wrote for our book together, Tokyo Love, you say you now only want to photograph happiness.
NA: Yes, but happiness always contains a mixture of something like unhappiness. When I photograph unhappiness I only capture unhappiness, but when I photograph happiness, life, death, and everything else comes through. Unhappiness seems grave and heavy; happiness is light, but happiness has its own heaviness, a looming sense of death.
NG: Why do you always say that photography itself has a smell of death?
NA: To make what is dynamic static is a kind of death. The camera itself, the photograph itself, calls up death. Also, I think about death when I photograph, which comes out in the print. Perhaps that’s an Oriental, Buddhist perception. To me, photography is an act in which my “self” is pulled out via the subject. Photography was destined to be involved with death. Reality is in color, but at its beginnings photography always discolored reality and turned it into black and white. Color is life, black and white is death. A ghost was hiding in the invention of photography.
NG: A lot of master photographers who have been working for a long time, like Robert Frank, Larry Clark, and William Klein, have become frustrated by still photography and have started making films.
NA: I resolve that feeling by working on the Arakinema show. It’s not the artistic process of shifting to another kind of expression that attracts me, it’s something more emotional–the biological impulse to bring the dead to life. I want to revive what photography has killed. Every photograph kills sound and words, reducing them to a flat print. I want to add sound and words. Films come close, but films by a photographer are usually another way of showing photographs. The photographer is just using movies to enhance the photo’s liveliness. Even if Frank, Clark, and Klein try filmmaking, I would doubt they become cineasts. They’d always remain photographers–just photographers presenting their photographs as films.
NG: What is the Arakinema–a movie? Stills shot on video?
NA: Arakinema is slides shown simultaneously on two slide projectors, so that the photographs overlap. What makes Arakinema compelling is that there’s a sort of sensuality of vision when photographs intertwine. My relationship with my subject is extremely important to me–I value that time and space of communication between myself and the subject when I’m working–so the more sensual the photograph is, the better. And if I mix old photographs with new ones in Arakinema, something I hadn’t noticed may come out. When I take photographs I collaborate with the subject; when I show photographs they collaborate with each other. And the relationship with the audience comes on top of that.
NG: Have you ever made films?
NA: Around 1963, I made a 16-mm. film with a Bolex. It was like John Cassavetes. Back then, I was looking at Italian Neorealist films by Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio de Sica; I liked their documentary touch with boys and girls on the street, and their use of ordinary people as actors. I found an old prewar apartment in my neighborhood, and I followed the life of the boy who lived there, as if I was seeing myself in him. I was shooting 16-mm. film and at the same time taking still photographs of the same subjects. I collected the photographs in the book Satchin [the name of the boy Araki photographed], which was just published. So really l started with movies–I made three altogether.
NG: You were young then–20 or something.
NA: In 1964 I was 24. Perhaps my desire to show photos in series comes from my experience making 16-mm. films. Banmei Takahashi’s recent film The New World of Love contains a number of my photographs. That link with cinema has always been there.
NG: When did you start taking photographs?
NA: I was taking photographs before I made any films, but it was around the time I was making films that I got serious about taking photographs. I took my first photo at elementary school, on a school trip in the early ’50s. My father, who was an amateur photographer, had given me a camera called a Baby Pearl, and I brought it with me on the trip. I began by taking pictures of a classmate I liked, and of the Ise Shrine.
NG: A “Baby Pearl”?
NA: The Baby Pearl was a camera with a bellows, made in Germany or Japan, I’m not sure which. I began by taking pictures not only of girls but of scenery. More recently Tokyo Nude, for instance, has both nudes and scenery. So I’ve always been doing the same thing! I’ve made no progress.
NG: Your father was a shoemaker?
NA: My father owned a geta [wooden clog] shop in Tokyo. He took photos when he wasn’t working, and he was good at it–ordinary scenic photos. Typical, stereotype-Japanese photos with a field in the front and Mount Fuji in the back.
NG: Was he still living when you got famous?
NA: He was still alive when I won the Taiyo Award, in 1964, and the Taiyo Award was a prize for young photographers then. But my father came from the Shitamachi, which is a traditional working-class neighborhood, and he was also very shy, so he didn’t show he was happy. After he died, though, people told me he’d boasted about me and the prize to everyone. If he were still alive, and saw me with this foreign photographer called Nan Goldin, he would have been thrilled. I wish I could have shown him myself the way I am now.
NG: In Japan, people recognize you in the street. You’re a superstar. Are any other Japanese photographers as famous?
NA: I don’t think so. But most of the famous people in Japan travel in their cars, and I still ride the subway. I like to be out on the streets among the people.
NG: Given the sexual obsession in your work, and the strict obscenity laws in Japan, have you had trouble with the authorities?
NA: Yes, but with the police only, not with the people. The police once came to an exhibition of mine, but by chance I wasn’t there, which was kind of lucky because I would have been arrested on the spot. The gallery people were taken away. This was the “Photomania Diary” show, in April 1992. We had set up a huge light box with about 1,500 35-mm. slides, so they were really small; eight of them showed sexual organs. The cops looked at every single one with a magnifying glass.
NG: Are the “Obscenities” and “Bokuju-kitan” series a reaction to that?
NA: Yes. During the inquiry they gave me this simple rule that no photograph could show a sexual organ. So I had the idea of scratching the genitalia in the photographs to hide and erase them. In part, I had to teach people that genitalia are not obscene in themselves; it’s the act of hiding them that’s obscene.
During the war, whatever didn’t pass the censors in Japan was painted over with bokuju, or Chinese ink. So in my new book, Bokuju-kitan, I hid the genitals with Chinese ink, just to show the police that was more obscene. [Bkuju, Chinese ink, kitan, strange stories; Araki in punning on the title Bokuto-kitan, "Strange stories from east of the river," a famous novel by Kafu Nagai.] But I wasn’t doing it just as resistance to censorship, or as a joke: I was creating another form of art. If obscenity laws can be used to create new art, maybe it’s ok to have a certain number of restrictions.
Since I began photographing genitalia, there’s been a trend toward allowing pubic hair to be shown in photos. When I was told I couldn’t show genitalia, I thought it might be acceptable to hide them by inserting what’s called an “adult’s toy” [a vibrator] in them, or some other foreign object. They said no. Maybe they realized that there’s essentially no eroticism in nudes; the body only becomes erotic when there’s some action or relationship. What I do with obscenity is in the tradition of the Edo period’s “spring pictures” [pornographic woodblock prints], which expose only the genitalia and the face and leave the rest of the body clothed. Maybe the future trend is not for “spring pictures” but for “spring photos”–that’s it!
NG: What about women in Japan–some people in the U.S. will want to know whether you’ve had any complaints from them.
NA: Never at all. As far as I know, all women love me.
NG: What photographers have influenced you?
NA: I like photography so I like all the photographers before me, even if they’re lousy or not my style. But among foreign photographers, Frank, Klein, Eugene Atget, Walker Evans, Ed van der Elsken, and Brassai were the ones who stood out when I was young. I was working in advertising, at Dentsu, so I had access to foreign magazines and plenty of information. I remember seeing work by Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.
NG: I’ve always had the impression you particularly admire Frank. How did you meet him?
NA: Someone from Japan gave him my book Araki’s Tokyo Erotomania Diary. Later, when he was asked what Japanese photographers interested him, he said “Araki.” We met when he came to Tokyo. I think of him as an older brother. But he’s more serious than I am.
NG: Are you interested in American artists using photography, like Cindy Sherman?
NA: I like Cindy Sherman’s work, which isn’t that far from photography.
NG: What about Japanese photographers?
NA: When I started photographing, Ihei Kimura and Ken Domon were active, but they were completely different from me. The photographers I associated with and liked included Shomei Tohmatsu, Daido Moriyama, and, among the less-known ones, Takuma Nakahira. But Japanese photography was itself influenced by Europe in the ’20s and ’30s and then by America. In the ’60s and ’70s we all looked at Frank and Klein, and at the catalogue of the U.S. exhibition “Contemporary Photographers–Towards a Social Landscape” [at the George Eastman House, Rochester, in 1966]. I might have been influenced by those photos. I don’t want to see it as “influence,” though: I am more influenced by my subjects, women and the streets, than by other photographers. People abroad are interested in my photographs now because I’ve always worked in Tokyo. My work has nothing to do with influence from the West; it’s based on my relationship with my subject.
NG: Does success in Europe or America interest you?
NA: Not much. I don’t travel abroad. I don’t have much of a desire to have everyone around the world see my stuff. My new book, Bokuju-kitan, has only a thousand copies, but that’s all right.
NG: You wouldn’t just travel for pleasure, or to visit me?
NA: If it’s going to be just the two of us, Nan, I’ll start English classes tomorrow.
NG: But you wouldn’t travel to take photographs?
NA: I did photograph in New York once, in 1979, and it was really exciting. But I use words in the process of photographing, so its difficult taking pictures overseas. I usually talk to the model as I’m shooting–it’s a “word event.” Words wouldn’t be necessary if I were looking at the subject as a “thing,” an object, but I want to capture my relationship with the subject, the action between us, the flow of time and mood. If I were photographing foreigners I’d really have to study the language.
NG: What about the lexicon [Arakeywords: The Araki Lexicon]?
NA: The book is in progress, with a Japanese writer. It will be like a dictionary of me. The writer has already put together nearly 500 words I invented–my keywords.
NG: How many books have you published?
NA: About a hundred.
NG: In Europe and America, if you have more than five or six books, they start to think you’re getting too popular–that you’re overexposed. Do other Japanese photographers publish so much?
NA: No, but I’m a kind of photo-play-aholic. People say I’ve published a lot, but essentially I think photographs should be taken and published fast. The nature of the medium doesn’t require you to consider everything and work it out thoroughly.
NG: How long does it take you to plan a book?
NA: There’s no specific rule–sometimes a month, sometimes a year. It depends on how I feel.
NG: Have you ever collaborated with any other photographer on a book, as you did with me?
NA: Collaboration is a kind of love affair. No, I’ve never collaborated with any other photographer.
NG: Do you have any favorite among your books?
NA: Sentimental na Tabi/Fuyu no Tabi (Sentimental journey/winter journey). I have to pick that book, because it marked the start of a new phase of my work. What I said earlier about my desire to shoot happiness and the joy of living has to do with the fact that I showed death in that book. I’ve taken a variety of photographs since then, but eventually they boil down to the idea of photography being simply a diary, a record of what happens day to day.
NG: What’s your latest obsession, your latest body of work?
NA: I have an obsessional subject: “From death toward life.” And I’m working on a diaristic work–a book of photos all taken with a compact camera, to be published in the spring.
NG: For me, the fact you’ve done so many books is one of the things that’s inspiring about your work. Another is that you’re the only photographer I know who uses whatever format you want.
NA: Photography is a collaboration with the camera, and every camera is unique; our time can’t be captured by a single camera. Using one camera is like being confined to a fixed idea. If I photograph a woman with a six-by-seven, medium-sized camera and then fast with a compact camera, the photo will be different. If you take the camera as “man,” it’s as if I throw four or five men at a woman. Obviously her response differs depending on who he is. There’s also a difference depending on whether it’s a camera I have a lot of experience with, one I’m using for the first time, or one that’s hard to use.
NG: An old lover and a new lover.
NA: Love too depends on the kind of person you’re dealing with.
NG: Do you ever photograph men or boys?
NA: Only a few, but I’d like to photograph more. I photograph because of my relationship with the subject. I’m a late bloomer, and am immature when it comes to relationships with men. Perhaps I should start.
NG: Aren’t you going to Osaka to photograph a boxer?
NA: Yes, his name is Tatsuyoshi Joichiro. Someone asked me to a fight; I’m very interested to go. What I want to photograph, though, is not the match itself but the training, in the small space that is his world. He’s on the brink of his career, he’s insecure, he’s not sure he’ll win. I’m interested in men’s weakness.
NG: Do you ever have sex with your models?
NA: Almost always. A photo shoot is very erotic; it’s part of the atmosphere.