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Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Focusing the lens on an enduring enfant terrible


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Travis Klose
Running time: 70 minutes
Language: English, Japanese
Currently showing
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It's hard to choose just one picture, but fans of prolific photographer Nobuyoshi Araki invariably have their favorites.

News photo
A scene from "Arakimentari," a documentary on photographer Nobuyoshi Araki

It could be his straightforward, full-faced portraits of ordinary Japanese people. It could be his series of Tokyo cityscapes -- the way, for instance, he can draw inexplicable drama from a street-side trash can. For some, it's his depictions of food, the way he arranges a piece of cod roe to resemble male genitalia.

For me, it's a black-and-white shot of a man's hand clasping a smaller, paler hand whose wrist is hooked to an IV drip. The composition is simple and yet at the same time incredibly intense. This is a photo of Araki and his wife Yoko, shortly before her death of uterine cancer.

At the time (early 1990s) Araki's name had become synonymous with untiring self-promotion and disturbingly erotic photography. His critics accused him of abusing women in one way or another, stripping them bare and tying them up in thick ropes, or, in the case of his wife, drawing on her pain and suffering. (Later, he published a photo book titled "Winter Journey," documenting her stay in the hospital and subsequent demise.) They expressed shock at his public, seemingly brutal exposure of a purely private trauma. But "Winter Journey" became a best-selling visual book in Japan, and with each new publication after that, Araki went on to push the envelope of Japanese photography. His books now total more than 350 -- a number probably unmatched by any other photographer in the world.

Araki has become such an fixture of the Japanese art scene it's a bit jarring to learn that this documentary about him, titled "Arakimentari," was made by New York-based filmmaker Travis Klose. It's remarkable because you suddenly wonder why no Japanese filmmaker had thought of doing the same thing, say, 15 years ago.

It's a fast-paced and casually stylish 70-minute work, shot over the course of four weeks and including interviews with Bjork, Richard Kern and Takeshi Kitano. And though people are used to Araki as this timeless, unchanging icon -- the round, balding head accentuated by twin wings of moussed hair sticking out from behind his ears, the round sunglasses which he never takes off, the impish, mustachioed grin that's equal parts dirty old man and a little boy unleashed in the aisles of a Toys R Us -- it's something else to see him move and talk and sweat as he clicks away. We see him squeezing the thighs and breasts of a model as if to confirm the exact texture of her skin. "Ii neee (That's gooood)!" he says as he aims the lens between her legs. "Etchi shiyoka (Let's have sex)," he says in the kindly casual tone of someone suggesting a coffee break.

Klose and his crew are clearly in love with Araki, but they also seem a little intimidated -- indeed, wielding a camera lens in front of this man (who consumes 40 rolls of film per day) must be like taking up the mike at a karaoke parlour when you're sitting next to Beyonce. Klose's camera hovers around Araki a tad hesitantly, while Araki himself shows no restraint whatsoever as he arranges his unclothed models in an array of erotic, kinky or just plain unpublishable (at least in this paper) positions.

You can feel Klose's wonder: How can this guy be allowed to do all this? And this actually echoes the criticism that has been directed toward Araki for 15 years. For his models, that's way off the mark -- they're obviously thrilled to be in his presence and all too happy to oblige. One by one, they describe him as "very kind," or "a real gentleman," or "very, very, shy" and go on to be arranged in positions that by no stretch of the imagination have anything to do with shyness. Like groupies swarming around a rock star, women travel from all over for the privilege of being in his frames, like the one 49-year-old lady with gigantic silicone implants, who wanted the photos as a memento of her 40s.

As fellow photographer Daido Moriyama says in an interview: "Araki has this cute, nonthreatening demeanor. It works very well with women, the lucky guy." Indeed, at 63, Araki giggles compulsively and jokes and banters throughout his photo shoots and never shows a moment's irritation, or even fatigue. He's a marked contrast to filmmaker/comedian Takeshi Kitano, who appears for an interview full of exhaustion and creative angst. "Araki-san enjoys what he does, much more than I do," he remarks.

Indeed, the ever-cheery Araki seems unharassed by inner demons, creative or otherwise. When he talks about the death of his wife, he does so in the exact same way that he talks of other favored subjects, be it Tokyo, flowers, clouds or a pet cat. His love for these (and he professes to love every single thing he shoots) is vast and undiscriminating: In Araki's lens everything is equal. But as Yoko wrote in her autobiography, the camera comes first and foremost; it's as if he can't love anything unless he frames it in the lens. That certainly applies to women. He has freely admitted to how he always falls in love with, and then has sex with, women only after he has photographed them. The relationships never last long -- perhaps just as long as it takes for the photos to develop, reach the printers and wind up on his desk for proofing.

Yoko was special because she's the only one of Araki's models who stood in front of his lens, expressed herself in the most intimate of ways and then continued to share her life with him on a daily, what's-for-dinner level. This is the part of Araki (and some will say the very core of his being) that Klose fails to delve into, perhaps because he sensed Araki's unspoken reluctance to go there.

If nothing else, the documentary shows how Araki, no matter how touchy-feely-sleazy he gets, always maintains an emotional distance with his subjects. The emotional intimacy occurred with Yoko and no one else, but the documentary mostly skims over that subject.

True, Araki does hint that after her death he launched himself on a frenzied quest for renewal and reinvention, and says, while flipping through the photos of Yoko in the hospital, "Taking pictures deadens the sadness. When she died, I didn't know what else to do except take pictures."

But then the moment is gone and he's back to stomping the streets, laughing in a bar, fondling someone's breasts . . .

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