all photographs by NOBUYOSHI ARAKI
interview by OLYMPIA LE-TAN
Everyone knows the Japanese master of eroticism, NOBUYOSHI ARAKI. But not everyone may realize that he shows in underground galleries, sells Polaroid pictures for little more than change, goes out every night to his favorite bar in Tokyo. One thing is sure: he remains as passionate as he was when he shot Sentimental Journey, in 1971, and is as good if not better.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — What is this tiny place?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — My local bar. I come here almost every night. I thought we should meet here because it’s quiet. My favorite karaoke bar is upstairs. I go there all the time; it’s like my second home. I’ll take you up there later and hopefully you’ll sing me a song.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I would love to. Will you sing too?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Oh no. I never do. I only like to watch.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Could you tell me about your family? Where did you grow up?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I was born and raised in Tokyo, during the war. We were quite poor. I had eight brothers and sisters.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Were you like the ugly duckling? Or did your family understand that you were an artist?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — A genius! Of course they all knew I was a genius! My family supported me and admired me. Especially my father — he’s the one who took care of me, who brought me up. My mother respected me very much, but she decided to concentrate more on my brothers and sisters. So my father and I had a very special relationship.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Can I ask you an indiscreet question about your father? Did he have the same fetishes as you? Did you learn about fetishes from him?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Well, he never said anything about things like that. He was a very discreet man. He wore a simple and sober kimono, the classic navy-blue kind, but inside it would be covered with flamboyant embroideries of dragons. Which kind of made me think he was hiding feelings of great passion. I’m different. I’m not that shy. I expose myself.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Did you ever discuss it with him?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Well, we were very alike, almost like twins. We had a way of communicating without speaking. I never hid any of it from him, but I suppose it’s not something you discuss with your father.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Did your father introduce you to art?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — He inspired me a lot. Of course I met other artists — and I discovered Picasso and Warhol. But my first and main inspiration was always my father.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Can we talk a little more about your childhood?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Well, as I was saying earlier, my father taught me everything. My family was very poor. When I was a little boy, they had just invented roller-skates. All the other kids had them but we were too poor to buy a pair. My father worked in a little shoe shop that sold traditional Japanese shoes. One day he made me my own pair of roller-skates from a pair of old shoes, using what round objects he could find as wheels. That’s how much he loved me. I always really felt it.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Do you remember taking your first picture?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I was on a school trip in Kyoto. There was a girl in my class that I had a crush on, but I had never really dared to speak to her. Taking a picture of her was easier for me.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — A nude picture?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — No. Not then. She was on a little bridge. You see, in all these years my themes haven’t changed. I’m still taking pictures of girls and landscapes.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — What happened to this picture? Is it in a museum? Or is it in your private collection?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I think I lost it. But it’s definitely in my memory.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Could we talk about sex now? I’m curious to know if you’ve had sex with all your models.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Well, sadly, the per-centage is going down. But in the early days it was all of them, yes. But, then again, the number of girls that I take pictures of has also diminished. Back in the old days I would be making out with the girl almost as soon as I had my film loaded.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — That’s charming. How would it happen? You’d meet a sexy girl in the street and say, “Hey, I’m a photographer. I would love to take nude pictures of you.” And then they would fall into your arms?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — It was rather flexible. Sometimes I’d take a picture before and sometimes I’d take a picture after. But generally I cared more about having a good picture than having a good fuck. The photo was always my priority. The most important thing is communication. Talking to the girl is primary. Which is why I’m not that good with foreign girls. But now that I’ve met you I’m going to have to learn to speak French.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — It’s funny you should say that. I was just about to ask you why almost all your subjects are Japanese. I was starting to think that maybe you don’t find us white girls so attractive.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — No, no, no. I like white girls very much. I like all girls. It’s only because of communication difficulties that there are only Asian girls in my work. Only Japanese girls, in fact. I actually think that, from a purely sexual point of view, occidental girls are much sexier. They’re more exotic to me. But being able to talk to them is so important.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — So you care more about what a woman has to say than the way she looks?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Hmm. Well, I didn’t exactly say that. They do still have to be pretty sexy. I also think mysterious women are very erotic. And because I can’t really speak to them, occidental women are very mysterious to me.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Anyone who knows your work knows that you are obviously into Kinbaku bondage. What’s that all about? Do you like the aesthetics of it, or does it just turn you on?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — It’s my way of caressing. It’s like foreplay. Also, once she’s tied up, a girl can’t run away. But deep inside I am more of a romantic, and I would rather tie her heart up than tie her body up. Shibari [the art of tying knots] is a very aesthetic Japanese tradition.
I have my own way of doing it where I leave it unfinished. I always leave an untied bit of rope. I voluntarily don’t make it perfect, so as to let the mind wonder what’s been going on. It leaves more freedom. It’s kind of my signature.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Do you have any other fetishes? I’ve heard a lot about all these themed
sex bars or “happening bars” in Tokyo. Do you ever go to them?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — No, I’ve never been to those places. I’m not interested. I have a regular girlfriend. We’ve been together for years. Well, I do sometimes see other girls, but Kaori is my girlfriend. She’s going to meet us a bit later. I’ve been trying out a new kind of Kinbaku on her. I basically strangle her with a rope, like in this picture. I’m enjoying that a lot at the moment.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Oh, yes. I know people who’ve done that, but it sounds really scary. How old is she?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Twenty-nine. Almost thirty. She’s 38 years younger than I am!
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Wow, that’s an even bigger age difference than that between my father and his girlfriend.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — This is a picture of her.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — You are a very lucky man. She’s beautiful. Is she the girl you took on your trip
to Paris? I read in the intro of Dirty Pretty Things that she got married in Kyoto after your trip. Is that right?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Oh, no. That’s another one. We broke up.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — So, with all this sexiness during a shoot, have you ever had an inappropriate erection?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Absolutely not. And why would it be inappropriate? If it happens, I just put my camera aside and start making love.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Oh, so you take pictures while you’re “doing it”? I haven’t really noticed any pictures of you in full action.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Well, I’ll show you a few. Right there, there, there, and there.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Oh. I see it’s all from your point of view. So we can’t really see you.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — There too, and there too. Taking a picture is like an engagement with sex and life. Life is the same as sex. Taking a picture is like penetrating the origin of sex and, therefore, of life. I’m not interested in politics at all. I’m neither left nor right wing. I think photography is much more profound because it’s life and sex. It’s not politics, it’s not the society: it’s the beginning of life itself.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — I’ve noticed that death is also something that’s widely represented in your work. A lot of pictures are taken at funerals.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Yes. I think about death a lot. I think that Eros also involves death. Death is quite erotic. When you think about the fact that the subject in front of your lens will disappear someday — there’s something very erotic about that. And death is the highest point of ecstasy. You know when a Japanese woman is about to come, she cries out “Oh, I’m dying! I’m dying!”
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Are you afraid of death?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I certainly don’t want to die yet.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Are people ever offended when you take pictures of coffins at the funerals of their family members?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I’m always very careful. But generally the families don’t mind. In the case of my wife, she was mine. So it didn’t bother anyone.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Do you mind if I ask you about your wife who died, Yoko? I understand if it’s difficult, but I’ve seen all the books about her, about the both of you. These pictures are so beautiful.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — It’s a bit too painful for me. All I can say is that she was my wife, my lover, and also my mother. Every little thing about her was absolutely perfect. I worshipped her. I was nothing but a child in front of her.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Thank you! We would love you to come to Paris more often.
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — The first time I went to Paris I was really impressed. I have fantastic memories of being there with my wife. I don’t exactly remember where we were, but we were walking hand in hand and we came across a big Godard poster. It was a really beautiful moment. Everything seemed to fit perfectly into place. I’ve never been to Paris alone. I always need to be with a woman. I only like a city if a beautiful woman goes there with me or if I have the chance to meet a beautiful woman once I’m there.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Did you meet a lot of beautiful women in Paris?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Well, they were all quite old! [laughs]
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — You’re not interested in older women?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — No, they’re like witches! [laughs]
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Are you a macho Japanese man?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — No, no … I’m very respectful with the women around me.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — Let’s talk about Japan. It seems like most of your work has been done in your home country. Do you like to shoot outside of Japan?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — I don’t travel much. Actually, most of my work is done only in Tokyo. I hardly ever leave Tokyo. When I go to foreign countries, I’m just a traveler. You see, if I go to Paris and find a mistress in Saint Denis, I might stay longer… In that case, I would take more pictures. But when I’m just a tourist I can’t take pictures of the real Paris. I need to know a place inside and out to make art. I do take snap shots when I travel, but these are more like a diary. I don’t consider it to be art. In Tokyo, I can see real things, beautiful things. I can see below the surface. I know how to take great pictures here because I know this town by heart.
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — What do you like most about Japan?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — The people I meet. I don’t need to move, or do anything. I always have pretty girls asking to meet me. Tokyo is a place where people come looking for me. Lots can happen. But at the end of the day, Tokyo is just a place with a big hole in the middle of it. I call it the “Royal Palace.”
OLYMPIA LE-TAN — A hole?
NOBUYOSHI ARAKI — Yes, a hole: a big thing that we can fall into.
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