(Credits: Far Out / Araki / Taschen)
Kenji Endo is slumbering in his student room, casually listening to the sound of American rock ‘n’ roll, which has now become commonplace on Japanese radio since the days of post-World War II occupation. Only this time, the half an ear he is lending it is suddenly perked up by the sound of Bob Dylan’s counterculture masterpiece, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. It rudely snaps him out of his slumber, and he wonders to himself whether this tripe can even be considered music at all. He attempts to turn off the radio.
By the time of Endo’s third listen, he is rushing off to inform his friends of Dylan’s brilliance. “This guy is creating something that has never been created before,” he proclaims to his roommate, but it could’ve just as well been a stranger in the street had his college buddy not been more conveniently placed to hear of Enzo’s good tidings. You see, for so long, Japan had been a country where doing something that had never been done before was culturally out of place. Suddenly, that was changing.
Endo would go on to form bands of his own, re-interpreting Japanese through a fresh lens in the same manner that Dylan’s shocking drawl was transmuting the folk stylings of America through the Judas defilement of charged particles. Students all over the country, still reconciling the nuclear destruction of their cities, were stirred into daring cultural action. The sound of the US military’s country-wide radio broadcast was forming the crackly backbeat of a revolution.
A few years prior to Endo’s discovery, Nobuyoshi Araki was undergoing a similar awakening while he was attending film and photography school at Chiba University in 1959. Japan was undergoing a tempestuous period of radical change at the time. 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, embracing the liberation of the West but with their own identity to uphold the same daring individualism that nearly prompted Endo to turn off the radio when he first heard Dylan.
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. It was rock ‘n’ roll photography, and at that time, that carried a profound message, as Paul McCartney said himself of the era in his own photography book 1964: Eyes of the Storm: “Although we had no perspective at the time, we were, like the world, experiencing a sexual awakening. Our parents had fears of sexual diseases and all sorts of things like that, but by the middle of the ’60s, we’d realised that we had a freedom that had never been available to their generation.”
Along that radical journey, Araki 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 displays how the culture of Japan rapidly changed in the post-war bohemian boom spurred on by the boldly different bands washing ashore.
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”. Rock ‘n’ roll had already proved that to the youth, as the US radio tactically espoused tales of musician’s daring exploits in the States.
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 report 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, and 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, placing a sense of objectification and normality alongside power and Venus-like interplay.
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.