“I would say my sex drive is weaker than most. However, my lens has a permanent erection.” – Nobuyoshi Araki.
When Nobuyoshi Araki attended film and photography school at Chiba University in 1959, Japan was undergoing a tempestuous period of radical change. Stationed between the old ways and the new, students began to partake in the historical Anpo Protests, as the left tried to sway a more neutral path for Japan in the ensuing Cold War.
During this time of upheaval, the youth sought to bring forth a new identity for Japan. Nobuyoshi Araki’s photography was borne from this period of the old violently clashing with the new as his crisp expressive style blended fine art, eroticism and bondage in something that was unmistakably Japanese and yet not like anything Japan had seen before.
Along that radical journey, he captured the transition of his country. “Photography is about a single point of a moment,” he said. “It’s like stopping time. As everything gets condensed in that forced instant. But if you keep creating these points, they form a line which reflects your life.” The radicalism that Araki depicts in his collected moments, display how the culture of Japan rapidly changed in the post-war bohemian boom.
Finding creative impetus in the changing society surrounding him, Araki became one of Japan’s most prolific artists and while volume doesn’t always equal quality, Araki went about his splurge in such a daring way that it always proved progressive. His most prominent works relate to erotic portraits of modern Japanese women in a very voyeuristic yet performative gaze. A gaze that is best summed up by his philosophy: “Art is all about doing what you shouldn’t.”
This daring bent to his art somewhat naturally resulted in eroticism. This came from the liberation that Japan was experiencing on this front, as the Taschen publication Araki: Tokyo Lucky Hole, explains: “It started in 1978 with an ordinary coffee shop near Kyoto. Word spread that the waitresses wore no panties under their miniskirts. Similar establishments popped up across the country. Men waited in line outside to pay three times the usual coffee price just to be served by a panty-free young woman.”
Thereafter, an erotic craze swept over Japan as society became increasingly brazen and found new ways to push the boundaries of previously accepted civility. “Within a few years, a new craze took hold: the no-panties ‘massage’ parlour. Increasingly bizarre services followed, from fondling clients through holes in coffins to commuter-train fetishists. One particularly popular destination was a Tokyo club called ‘Lucky Hole’ where clients stood on one side of a plywood partition, a hostess on the other. In between them was a hole big enough for a certain part of the male anatomy.” No prizes for guessing which part.
While this revolution is now the subject of endless sociological study, there can be no finer expression of it than Araki’s dazzling work. As a recent ISA Sociological study opined: “In Japan, sexual liberation occurred which means the strict norm bonding marriage and sex became loosened, and the sex media and sexual service industry improved broadly, but sexual revolution didn’t occur.”
In other words, people wanted something new, but that wasn’t broadly provided by the mainstream realm. Thus, as the study puts it, “People subjectively project and act to change the situation of sexuality.” A revolution may not have occurred to a wholesale degree, but mindsets had changed and the Glory Hole establishments almost became the subversive manifestation of this newfound desire.
This subversive force was largely driven by a wave of feminism in Japan. As Setsu Shigematsu opines: “In 1970, a new women’s liberation movement emerged, marking a watershed in the history of feminism in modern Japan… Unlike liberal feminism, which stresses the achievement of equality with men, radical feminism takes a broader view, emphasising women’s oppression under patriarchy as a fundamental form of human oppression that can only be relieved through comprehensive societal and cultural transformation.”
In this regard, Araki’s bold work is an empowering expose of women defying objectification. “Women? They are Gods,” he once said, ask as such he rendered them with a fine art brush even in the gaudy world of gritty urban life. This juxtaposition is a fascinating feat within his work.
Now, Taschen have brought this to stunning life with two separate books on his works. The deluxe edition Akari is a stunning collection of 1000 images that Araki defines as “an epitaph for my first 60 years”. Araki: Tokyo Lucky Hole, also featuring over 800 of his finest works. You can explore a selection of the images contained below.