Book Review: Impossible Love
By Ashley Yu
“Obscenely pornographic” is the default sentiment that follows Nobuyoshi Araki. His newest collection Impossible Love is a compilation of his analogue snapshots taken from various projects, including Memoirs of Yoko (1968-70) and Flower/Doll (2018). His newer projects are softer, though no less provocative, presentations of the Araki that the world is used to. Ordinary Japanese women in Someone’s Wife (2018) either lounge casually naked or in lingerie, like Polaroids of ex-lovers, instead of the jarringly voyeuristic photos of urinating sex workers in, say, Tokyo Lucky Hole (1997). What is most striking, however, is how we receive his most recent images in light of sexual exploitation accusations from prior models that emerged in April of last year.
It was only three months ago when activist group Angry Asian Girls Association protested outside Araki’s exhibition in Berlin — they were opposing the promotion of a predatory male artist. Even Araki himself is not shy about his dubious relationships with his models. In an interview from 2011, he proclaims that he gained “[intimate] access through sex” and that sex with his subjects “would be a certainty.” Was it consensual? Seemingly so. This confession does not mitigate Araki’s reputation as an exploitative pervert, instead of a rebel against the oppressive Japanese culture of sexual shame.
However, to fixate on Araki’s scandal is to undermine not only his revelations on sexual openness and deviance, but also of emotional vulnerability in his subjects. Many critics appear to oscillate between either his obscene hypersexuality or profound sentimentality. I argue that this binary is resolved — at least, somewhat — in Sentimental Journey (1971). As the visual documentation of Araki’s honeymoon with his wife, Yoko, who died of ovarian cancer twenty years later, the photographs’ tenderness outweighs overt sexualisation. In one photo, Yoko sits topless at the end of the bed. Gaze averted and knees buckling in, her positioning is as though she just self-consciously adjusted her mini skirt, milliseconds before Araki clicked the shutter. Yoko’s nudity here no longer plays the role of outrageous sexuality. The viewer remains the voyeur but this time, it is simply to witness a moment of privacy and it’s a privilege to bear witness to such a secret vulnerability.
Yet, do the occasional resolutions between vulnerability and sexualization alleviate the borderline exploitative projects throughout his career, which his fame is based on? It seems almost impossible to transcend his controversy, particularly when criticism on his newer projects simply repeats itself from 20 years ago. Despite inter-splicing photographs of women in bondage and that of flowers as quasi forms of self-censorship in Kirishin (2018), he presents a fetishized depiction of Asian women — submissive, obedient, and alluring because of that. Considering that Araki has been found guilty of obscenity laws in Japan, it would mean that the demographic of his hypersexualised voyeurism is for Westerners. Yes, Araki arguably makes a courageous declaration against the culture of sexual shame in his native country, but only in that specific context. To the immediate, general viewer, it just feels like as a promotion of “Yellow Fever,” of exploitation in the face of vulnerability. It is a narrative that makes us wonder if we are complicit when viewing Araki’s photographs.