Out of Japan: Photo portraits of a dying wife shock art world into life

Terry McCarthy
Sunday 18 September 1994 23:02 BST

TOKYO - On the surface, Nobu yoshi Araki is your standard pornographer: more than 60 of his photobooks have been published, most crammed with female nudes in bars, brothels and love hotels around Tokyo. For 25 years he has been playing legal hide-and-seek with the Tokyo police over the country's old-fashioned obscenity laws (since Lady Chatterley's Lover is still banned in Japanese translation, even the most conservative admit some updating is necessary).

In a nation where evening newspapers carry brothel reviews, teenage comics have graphic sex scenes and regular television channels appear to recognise few bounds to decency after midnight, Araki's work attracted little attention for most of his career. To those who had heard of him, he was just an eccentric old man with a camera, who for some idiosyncratic reason interspersed his nude shots with pictures of street life in run-down areas of Tokyo. Even the nudes were not made up to exude sexiness - most looked blankly at the camera, and the frames often included full ashtrays, canned drinks and the other untidy paraphernalia of a temporary liaison.

But in 1990, when Araki was 50, his wife of 20 years was diagnosed with cancer. 'My life changed,' he said last week in his studio. Eight months after an unsuccessful operation, she died. Araki then came out with an extraordinary book, Sentimental Journey, Winter Journey, which became a topic on chat shows for months, and made the mainstream art world in Japan and overseas take interest. Starting this week, Araki's work is on show in the Ice Cube gallery in Duke Street, his first London showing.

The book is an expanded version of an album of photographs he took 20 years ago of himself and his wife on their honeymoon - plain, unposed pictures of a woman dolefully gazing at a camera on a train or in a cheap hotel room. The photographs then fast- forward to the final days in the hospital. Taking only a sideways glance at the inexorable clinical drama that is playing out, there is a picture of her dying hand streched out from under the sheets, a flower vase and other objects on her bedside table, her body being wheeled away to the mortuary when it is all over.

This is followed by a series of random 'stream of consciousness' shots: the streets as seen from the taxi that took Araki home the night of her death, the balcony of his apartment, their pet cat, the sky slowly lighting up at dawn the next morning. Suddenly the tacky intimacy-for-money that Araki had been photographing with the bar girls and prostitutes for most of his career - he used to leer and say the photographer must have a 'relationship' with his models - was transformed into an unbearably immediate record of the most intimate moments of his life: the death of his wife.

'Without the camera, I would have panicked,' he said. The most controversial picture in the book is of his wife's face in the coffin, eyes closed, made up, surrounded with flowers. The book ends with a picture of the cat playing in the snow on the balcony, a bright, vigorous image against the preceding gloom. The book quickly became a bestseller, although some of his friends accused him of 'making money from tears'.

For Araki, it was a new departure. He started taking colour photographs: the obsession with nudes was still there, but at the same time he began a long series of fruits and flowers, all wilting or beginning to decay, as if in parody of the pristine lillies and grapes of another controversial photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe. 'I like the process of dying; this is an irresistible concept,' he said, pointing to a picture of apples halved and beginning to shrivel on a rusty outdoors table. 'I feel beauty when something is dying or being demolished . . . Mapple thorpe? I'm not so pure.'

Araki was brought up in Yoshiwara, the one-time red-light district of Tokyo. Opposite his house was Jokan-ji, a temple known as the 'throwing-away temple' where the bodies of dead prostitutes were tossed when no one came forward to pay for their funerals. 'That was my playground as a child, so maybe I absorbed the spirits of the prostitutes,' he said with a grin. 'Anyway the relationship of eros and death has been one of the biggest influences on my life.'

Araki's vision of Japan owes nothing to the economic miracle of hi-tech cars and electronics, nor does it reproduce the standard images of geisha, rock gardens and wooden temples against cherry blossom or autumn foliage. He makes no apology - he is at home in the seedy underworld and narrow back streets where the women of the 'water trade' ply their business, and that is what he photographs. 'Other photographers try to hide behind their pictures . . . I don't want to hide anything.'

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